Istanbul – Sultanahmet

We stayed just behind the Blue Mosque on a quiet side street, at the Kaftan Hotel. The location was great, an easy walk to the main sites, in a neighborhood with lots of restaurants and shops, yet on a quiet side street, so we didn’t get a lot of the racket we would have had we stayed in one of the many other nearby hotels.

We were in Istanbul for 5 days and didn’t see everything we wanted to. We spent most of our time within walking distance of our hotel – there is a LOT to see all packed into a small area. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are the big architectural centerpieces. While Hagia Sofia is a museum, the Blue Mosque is a working religious building, with a few restrictions. You need to dress respectfully, but they hand you scarves if you need to cover up bare legs and arms. We went on a Friday, just before afternoon prayers so there weren’t too many people and they shooed us out. No problem, the outside of the building is more impressive than the inside. Near one of the gates to the mosque grounds, we ran into two orthodox Jews, all in black, hats, beards, payes, talit, holding a sign that said “Free Palestine”. They were surrounded by a curious crowd.

The Hippodrome, the site of a Roman circus from around 400AD that is now a long plaza, was under construction, getting repaved. Piles of paving stones, heavy equipment, orange plastic mesh barriers everywhere. Too bad for us, but it’ll be really nice once they are done. The Hippodrome sports a small Egyptian obelisk that was brought from Egypt by some Roman emperor.

One day, we were walking looking for the Sultanahmet tram stop, just to locate it for future reference, when we discovered a folk dancing show of people from Tartaristan. We had heard of Tartars, but didn’t think Tartaristan was an independent country (it isn’t, it’s part of Russia). Lots of folk dancing, an accordian-playing guy who at one point played these frantic solos, set his accordian down, and took a small one out of his pocket and continued on that, then took out an even smaller one (probably the size of two packs of cards) to finish. The mayor of Istanbul was there, he gave a little speech, then the Russian ambassador got up and launched into a really long speech that his poor interpreter couldn’t keep up with (but she had to paraphrase him and drone on as long as he did so he’d think she was doing a good job).

Across the tram tracks from Hagia Sofia is the Basilica Cistern. This was/is an underground cistern to store water and dates from around the 6th century. The place is huge, a great underground room supported by hundreds of columns, built by the Romans.

North of Hagia Sofia is the Topkapki Palace, from where the Ottoman sultans ruled their part of the world beginning in the mid-1400s. Today it is a large museum with several courtyards and lots of stuff to see, some of it actually interesting! One section has Moses’ staff, Mohammed’s robe and sword, Joseph’s turban (neatly tied) among other ancient and priceless treasures. It’s amazing that Moses’ staff, which parted the Red Sea is in such great condition! No wear to speak of, it looks like it was growing last week. I’m surprised that Moses’ followers went up to Mount Moab and retrieved the staff but not Moses’ body…

Some real stuff at Topkapki palace includes some gigantic jewels with settings that exhibit incredibly bad taste; a collection of thrones; and other stuff that the inbred royals used to glorify themselves. Royalty = Racism. Privilege based on birth.