My First (Real) Day in Istanbul

So for those that missed my announcement, I am currently in Istanbul studying Greek and Roman civilizations. I realize posting about this trip does not really fit with the theme of this blog, nor does it fit under one of my categories. However, I want to write about it because it’s fun, and interesting, and the pictures are pretty! So I will write posts about this trip whenever my wifi is good enough, in addition to my regular scheduled posts.

My day today began at 7 am after a very unrestful night. We were all so jet lagged it was like we were too tired to sleep. We didn’t have to meet the group until nine, but I have two roommates, so I wanted to shower early and get out of the room to leave them time to get ready. I dressed conservatively in a full length white dress and a blue shawl, and packed a blue scarf in my bag, since today was a day of visiting religious places. Breakfast took place on the fifth floor of my building. It had a breathtaking view of the Sea of Marmara (or maybe the Bosphorus…..it’s hard to place exactly what I was looking at on Google Maps). The breakfast itself was delicious. There was a lot of choice of what to have. I tried to be healthy and stick to yogurt and fruit…but I caved and also had some bread and cheese. There was also olives, feta, an entire table of pastries, different kinds of jam (rosepetal jam!), eggs, and many dishes I didn’t recognize. It was a treat.

The view from breakfast

The view from breakfast

When breakfast was over we all got our stuff together then met in the lobby of the hotel before heading out. Our first stop was the hippodrome, which is located right outside the Blue Mosque. The hippodrome was the ancient center for chariot racing when this city was owned by the Romans. Chariot racing was huge, and everyone had their own team that they supported…the Whites, Greens, Blues, and Reds. Overtime, these differences became socio-political, and only the Greens and Blues existed. The emperor belonged to the Blues. The Greens hated the emperor. One day, there was a riot, and the people went and destroyed much property. So the emperor sent out the army, and 30 000 – 40 000 people were massacred in the hippodrome. Chariot racing lost much of its popularity after that, and the gates to the hippodrome were renamed the Gates of Death. The emperor was fine as his box in the hippodrome was connected to the palace by a tunnel.

Nowadays, the hippodrome is only half of its original size and has four distinctive figures in it. The first is a stone Oblysk. This Oblysk is not egyptian, but was a replica of one (the Romans also owned Egypt, so there is some ancient Egyptian influence in Istanbul), and was used to mark the centerpoint of the original hippodrome. The second structure of note is the broken column that used to be of three-headed snakes. This column was originally erected by a Spartan general, then hundreds of years later Rome acquired it and sent it to Istanbul. It remained there intact until a Greek ambassador got drunk and smashed the three heads.The next structure of note in the hippodrome is the fountain. This fountain was a gift from Germany in the 1800s, as they were trying to get Ottoman (the current owners of Istanbul) alliance to offset the power of England, but is made to resemble Roman architecture. This is because Germany was subtly reminding the Ottomans that Germany is a product of the Roman empire, and that the Romans were the ancient owners of Istanbul, so the Germans the the Ottomans shared a sort of kinship. Finally, the last structure of note is a real Egyptian oblysk that was originally made for a Pharaoh, but when the Romans took over Egypt, they sent it to Istanbul. Interestingly enough, only the top two thirds of it made the journey.

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The German Fountain

The German Fountain

After the hippodrome we went to the Blue Mosque. This mosque was the last marvel of the Ottoman classical age of architecture, and was made by the Sultan to appease the elite after a huge loss to Rome. Visiting this was fascinating, as I had never been to a mosque in my life. I had to cover my head with my scarf, as well as remove my shoes when I entered. Things about mosques you may not know (or at least I didn’t):

  • There is no set “church” time….people pray as they need to
  • They are plain compared to churches…obviously the ceiling and windows of the Blue Mosque were amazing, but there are no icons or mosaics like in churches. The Muslim religion bans recreations of religious figures
  • Originally, mosques included a lot of buildings connected to them. These buildings could have various purposes, including schools, centers for stray dogs, hospitals, orphanages, etc. This practice does not exist in the modern world, but there is a movement in Turkey to bring that back.

Once done touring the Mosque, we went to Hagia Sophia, which is a huge church. Originally it was a catholic church, but it was converted to a mosque with the Ottoman reign, thus the minarets. If you didn’t know, minarets are towers built around mosques. There can be anywhere from 1-7 minarets on most mosques, and some modern ones have up to 14. Originally, Hagia Sophia only had one minaret, but more were added through the years, which is why they all look different. Now Hagia Sophia has 4 minarets, while the Blue Mosque has 6. Hagia Sophia was incredible. Huge arches, brilliant colours, tons of marble…it was great. Interestingly enough, there was a men’s and a women’s section, and the women’s section was upstairs. There were no stairs to get upstairs, only a long ramp. This was so no woman would inadvertently show her ankles while climbing steps in a dress. There was also a big circle decorated in the floor to commemorate where one of the great emperors of Istanbul got crowned. There was also lots of items everywhere that showed the conversion of the church into a mosque…..icons covered up, prayer carpets, and huge letters that have significance in the Muslim religion (sorry for my lack of knowledge of that religion…this trip has been my first taste of it). Unfortunately there was also a lot of scaffolding, which is to be left there until the government decides whether they are going to leave the church as a museum, or convert it into a mosque once again. This debate has been raging for years and could continue for many more years.

A view of Hagia Sophia

A view of Hagia Sophia

I’m going to skip through the rest of my day, as nothing much happened. We broke for lunch, then met up again to go to the museum of archaeology. It was a great museum, but I won’t describe it or post pictures because they are fairly meaningless without reading the plaques, and really I can’t describe just one thing without describing everything. We then were done with official stuff for the day. I got to go back to the hotel for one hour of rest, then I headed out for dinner with a group of friends. Interesting note, here you don’t get to just passively read menus and decide on a place. The head waiter of every restaurant is there on the street telling you about the restaurant, stopping you, and begging you to come in. We skipped by most of the restaurants though and stopped at a smaller one at the end of an alleyway. Amazing food, great service, and they gave us free apple tea after! We then wandered around a bit, browsed some stores (I found a travel hair straightener!), and got ice cream. Getting ice cream here is expensive, but it’s a whole experience. Search Turkish ice cream venders on YouTube. You won’t be disappointed.

So the last thing I want to mention is the stray dogs here. I’ve been to a lot of countries, and I have never seen stray dogs so happy or treated so well. They are all tagged, vaccinated, and neutered. They all love humans and lie down within touching distance whenever they can. Twice today we ended up having a stray dog happily walking with our group for a distance. They spend the days sleeping, eating (they are fed!), and playing with each other or with the humans. They are allowed everywhere and the people who live here are friendly and respectful to them.  There are also a lot of stray cats. I don’t believe they are given the same treatment, but they seem non-aggressive and most of them were positively fat, so I think they are happy enough too. For any dog lover though, this city is a breath of fresh air.

A stray dog that decided to lay by my feet when my prof was giving us a lecture by the hippodrome

A stray dog that decided to lay by my feet when my prof was giving us a lecture by the hippodrome

So that’s been my first full day! Sorry about the lack of photos….I had 14 to share, but it is past midnight, I have to be up in 6 hours, and my internet has almost quit. If you enjoyed this post, give it a like and subscribe! If you want to see more of me, check out my Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter! xoxo ❤

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