“Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish Delight on a moonlit night…” (Full lyrics here)
I never thought much about this song until we planned our trip to Istanbul. Mostly because when we mentioned it to anyone we were serenaded with a lot of sung, hummed, and written renditions of Istanbul (not Constantinople). I’m humming it right now, you probably are too.
I wasn’t sure what to anticipate from Istanbul and where to place my expectations. Most of our fellow traveling friends gushed about the sights, food, and culture. A few warned us of aggressive salespeople, told us not to drink the water, but said it was worthwhile and gave shopping tips. However, when we stood at the edge of the Hippodrome on our first misty February night with the rest of Europe at our backs, jaws dropped staring at impossibly old floodlit monuments and listening as the late call to prayer echoed from minarets, I felt like I had actually traveled for the first time in a very long time. A feeling I had forgotten existed and hadn’t experienced since over a decade ago when I sat backwards in the seat of a water taxi watching as Venice grew larger in the distance; my first trip overseas. It’s a giddy feeling, and my weary expectations were upgraded to ecstatic.
We arrived after dark on Valentine’s Day at Ibrahim Pasha, our little hotel that was all together stylish, affordable, and steps from the Sultanahmet Square, we highly recommend it. We weren’t hungry since our Turkish Airlines flight unexpectedly gave a full meal, and our hotel greeted us with Turkish delight and a sweet cinnamon drink that cured any additional peckishness. (Tip: Always fly Turkish airlines when given the chance, tasty free meal, free alcohol, and free on-demand movies on a two and half hour flight…and it only costs a few euros more than the competitors.)
So we decided to start our trip off on the right foot, and went to the only non-food establishment that’s open after 7pm – the Turkish Baths or their actual name: Hamami.
A trip to a Turkish Hamam is both one of the most traditional and touristy things you can do in Turkey, but don’t miss out. I was skittish when it came to the Hamam experience, wavering between a seize-the-day attitude and a desire to keep all of my bits covered. In case you are not familiar with the Turkish Bath experience, let me explain the steps:
- Enter dressing room and strip completely or down to your optional skivvies/bathing suit bottoms. Take a deep breath and abandon your top. Wrap up in the assigned fringed Turkish towel and step into the wooden sandals.
- Follow the attendant to a large steamy room and sit on a heated marble bench next to a basin that is streaming very hot water. Use a metal bowl to ladle the water over your head and all over your body. This opens up your pores and gives you a pre-rinse. Continue for at least fifteen minutes. The towel may stay on during this portion.
- Follow the attendant to the center of the room where there is a bus length marble raised heated platform. Your towel is removed and placed on the platform like a beach towel for you to lie on. The attendant will now scrub you with a rough mitt (kese), thus removing an embarrassing amount of dead skin you didn’t realize was there and will feel the need to apologize for.
- Return to your basin and rinse off the dead skin, gross.
- Lie back down on the platform, and close your eyes while you vanish beneath a dense cloud of soapy bubbles. Restrain yourself from humming the carwash song, while you’re being lathered.
- Rinse off.
- Circle back to the platform and endure what will probably be the most harrowing massage of your life.
- Find your muscles and rinse off again.
- You may cover yourself at this time if you have any modesty left.
- Return to your bench and veg, this is not a time for deep thinking.
- Follow the attendant to be dried. This felt like a little much, I can operate a towel, but I think its purpose is to make sure you don’t bust anything on the wet marble.
- Return to the dressing area, lounge, drink some water/tea, marvel at your baby soft skin, get dressed, and don’t forget to tip.
I wish I had more pictures to explain the experience we had at Cingaloglu Hamam, but I really didn’t want to look like a perv and start snapping pictures in a place where people weren’t dressed, and if that didn’t stop me, the steam probably would have destroyed my camera anyway. However, there’s a really great video of Michael Palin from Monty Python at the Turkish baths, you can find it here. The film is roughly thirty years old, but the experience is very much the same, except during my personal occurrence, my attendant was a woman, and she never stood on me.
I did snap this view of the dressing area from inside my dressing room. For a description of the other areas you’ll have to rely on my glowing commentary.
We chose Cingaloglu, because it was one of the oldest (opened in the mid-1700s), near our hotel, and had the best reviews. From the moment you step inside you’re enveloped in a pleasant soapy herbal steam and greeted by a cashier in a worn but clean men’s lounge/dressing area, that looks very similar to the woman’s area. The options range from self-service to full hour long treatments. We chose somewhere in between. From here, men and women separate. When I entered the ladies lounge/dressing area I was shown to my cubicle and waited with the other ladies who were sitting around a fountain drinking tea and quietly chatting in their Turkish towels.
I won’t re-hash the steps I’ve already listed, but I want to add that this was one of the most relaxing and therapeutic experiences of my life, and everyone should partake if given the opportunity. If for no other reason, go to check out the bath itself, it looks like a temple to hygiene. The room is an expansive domed octagonal chamber, entirely clad in marble. Small channels inlaid into the marble floor route the running water so it doesn’t puddle beneath the overflowing basins and creates a soft and relaxing tinkling sound that most spas put in their sound systems, but this one gets for free. The only other sound was the occasional tune my attendant sang in a warbling eastern style, the effect was beautiful and a little haunting echoing off the antique walls. (I decided to have faith she wasn’t singing about how I should do more sit-ups.) The combined heated marble and thick steamy air loosen your muscles and numb your brain enough so you are only able to contemplate the marble columns, mosaics, and the little star and crescent shaped cut-outs in the dome. And of course there were the other ladies in attendance…in the nude. Our later hour meant that there were less than ten other women in there at the same time, all of various shapes/sizes/ages, a few kept their towel around them, some draped the towel in front of them, and the rest were just in the buff. And maybe it was the steam, but I found myself not caring and it was probably because they obviously didn’t care either. I would like to point out though that it may be awkward to go here with a friend or travel companion, unless you really want to know everything about them.
We left feeling completely relaxed, and slept dreamlessly until the pre-dawn call to prayer.
Rain greeted us the next day and didn’t stop until after dark. We were disappointed since this was the day we had hoped to go cruise the Bosphorus (huge waterway/river between Europe and Asia), but we consoled ourselves with a little retail therapy at the covered Grand Bazaar.
At first the Bazaar can be intimidating. Even in the off-season, the crowd is thick, and shopkeepers aggressively vie for your attention. A few tips though: get a map because the place is a maze, and don’t let it scare you off – there are some amazing deals in this place. And that was our problem. We had a day to kill and a sudden desire to go rug shopping, pottery shopping, leather shopping, jewelry shopping, even Turkish towel shopping. When really our only pre-planned intent was to go rug shopping at a stall a friend had recommended (I recommend them too, message me if you want their info). We left with a new rug for our dining room, a lot of pottery, a hat, and an evil eye.
I didn’t take a lot of pictures here, even though it was a photographers dream. It felt wrong to snap pictures of displays I wasn’t purchasing from, and in the places I did buy from I forgot to take pictures.
We took a break, exited on the north side of the bazaar and followed our noses to a locally popular sandwich stand a few blocks over called Kokorecciler Krali Zulfu Usta. If you find this place too, try it. The sandwich is a mix of chicken, spices, and hot peppers on a fresh roll, grilled in front of you, filling, very inexpensive, and of course it was delicious.
The next day was sunny and gorgeous and perfect for touring the main sights. It’s as if Istanbul was designed for tourism, all the main areas are within 5-10 minutes walking distance. We started with the largest and furthest one, Topkapi Palace and then made our way to the Hagia Sophia, Underground Cistern, the Blue Mosque, and finished with a stroll down the Hippodrome. We started around 10am and finished sometime after 4pm. It isn’t a schedule for sissies, but it can be done without feeling too rushed.
Lately I’ve been researching our destinations less because I like having a few pleasant surprises on our trips versus thinking “okay, this looks exactly like the pictures.” So, I didn’t know much about Topaki Palace beyond that it was where the Sultan’s presided during the Ottoman Empire until the early 1900s. However, the extremely loud call-to-prayer, which during our stay started sometime around 5am, left me wide awake before dawn, with little else to do besides browse the little basket of books in our hotel room. One book that caught my eye, and I ended up reading for the next few mornings was called Harem: The World Behind the Veil. (Definitely read this book if interested.) As a woman I find this kind of stuff interesting, and after reading it, I’m happier more than ever that I’m a free woman of the 21st century. Seriously. But the book also armed me with a perspective, names, and stories for exploring the expansive grounds of the palace and harem.
After entering the Palace walls, we passed through the Imperial Gate that opened onto a large courtyard with elaborate stand alone buildings in the center with an outer ring of buildings that are now used as museums. Don’t miss these galleries! The buildings in the center are unfurnished rooms of historical value, however the galleries along the perimeter house the Imperial Treasury, if sparkly things make you smile then these rooms will leave you hysterically happy. Weapons, thrones, medallions, cradles, spoons, toothpicks – the jewelers and smiths of the Ottoman Empire were kept busy bedazzling both everyday and ceremonial objects for the Sultan’s pleasure. And don’t misunderstand me, these weren’t pretty little garnet inlays, we’re talking about diamonds the size of a baby’s fist, and emeralds the size of saucers, and entire surfaces covered in pearls. Pictures were forbidden, so you’ll have to use your imagination or google it.
Look to the left side of the courtyard, and you’ll find another gallery, but this one has both Judeo-Christian and Islamic religious relics. Abraham’s Pot, Joseph’s Turban, Mose’s Staff, David’s Sword, and lots of Muhammad’s relics including his footprints, pieces of his beard, and many other items that I don’t know enough about Islam to elaborate on. No matter what your religious views are, you will not regret visiting this part of the museum.
Behind the main courtyard, are gardens and slightly more modern buildings, look behind the buildings and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the Bosphorus and the rest of Istanbul. There are also a few cafés on the grounds in this area that I will forever regret not sitting down at to enjoy the view. We thought we didn’t have time, but in hindsight we did.
We made a u-turn back up to the palace and up another staircase to more views of the city and water, but this time combined with gracefully elaborate buildings worthy of a Sultan.
Around the plaza were smaller buildings that seemed to function as stand alone lounges, each housing built-in wrap around sofas, rainbows of hand painted tiles, stained glass, and pointed metal fire places. I could have easily spent the afternoon here taking in all the details and lounging in the rare February sun, but we had to keep moving. I would have taken pictures inside, but there were attendants in each room making sure it didn’t happen, so you’ll have to use your imagination.
We exited the Imperial Gate and walked towards the cushiest justice building I’ve ever seen.
Just behind this building is the much more fascinating Harem, closed off to the public until the 1970s for hundreds of years. And it’s probably because I had been reading that book about Harem life and history for the past few mornings, but it felt like all the space and color that were present in other parts of the palace, now felt encased and dim.
Without re-hashing the entire book, let me explain why I found this area so sad. Women in the Harem were slaves. They were either taken during war, confiscated from seized ships, or volunteered/sold by their families in hopes of a better life at the palace. They were always of non-muslim descent because it went against their laws to enslave people of Islam, but were converted after they were sent to the Harem. The most beautiful were presented or gifted to the Sultan. The women were guarded by eunuchs who were also slaves, but had a lot more freedom. Usually these men were mutilated as boys, since men didn’t usually survive the operation. Only women, eunuchs, children of the sultan, and the Sultan himself were allowed inside the Harem. When the Sultan died, his Harem was shipped off to an old palace nicknamed the “Palace of Tears,” for many reasons.
Life inside the Harem was both dull and ruthless. Depending on who was ruling, some women never left the harem for the rest of their lives, other generations were allowed to go to the markets or gardens under heavy escort and thick veils on occasion, but for the most part the only contact they had from the outside world was through their female dress maker or textile merchant. The rest of their time, was spent bathing and practicing talents that might catch the sultan’s attention. Having the Sultan’s attention made life a little better and quite a bit more dangerous. The average age was seventeen, and most didn’t live past their early twenties. Poisonings and mutilations were common. If a woman had a son with the Sultan than that child’s life was in constant danger from the other ladies with sons, especially younger sons. But having the oldest son didn’t necessarily make him the next Sultan. The Ottoman Empire had an odd tradition of succeeding the throne, not from father to son, but to the oldest male descendent. So if the Sultan had a younger brother that was still alive, that would obviously make him older than the Sultan’s son, and therefore the next Sultan. This law was messy, and in the earlier years of the empire it resulted in new Sultans ordering their brothers to be slaughtered as soon as they took the throne so that their own sons could inherit. Later they got around the law by simply sealing up their brothers in compartments with a few slave women, having contact with no one for the rest of their older brother’s lives. This resulted in a few understandably insane Sultans. (Although, some Sultans were insane by nature, one of which had his entire Harem, a few hundred women, drowned in the Bosphorus on a whim.) I’m not really sure why the all powerful Sultan wasn’t able to just change the law.
So that’s how I saw this place, an actual gilded cage, complete with barred latticed windows. Pictures were allowed here.
We reluctantly left the palace knowing we hadn’t seen everything – this place could easier take up an entire day. We did make a pit-stop to buy more Turkish towels though, I’m obsessed.
A five minute walk brings you face to face with Hagia Sophia.
This is a building I have wanted to visit since Ms. Rawlins’ highschool art history class. Built during Emperor Justinian’s reign around 537 AD during the Byzantine Empire, it’s a architectural icon, a symbol to more than one religion, and witness to nearly fifteen hundred years of history, that include the Great Schism and the fall of the Byzantine Empire. So while I knew I would be impressed by the fact that this building still stands at all, I wasn’t expecting to be so awed by its size and craftsmanship.
Christian symbols were covered during the Ottoman Empire when it was converted in a mosque. When the building was turned into a museum, in the 1930s, the mosaics were uncovered. Now the building uniquely displays both Christian and Muslim symbols side by side.
When exiting, don’t forget to turn around, there is a beautiful fifteen hundred year old mosaic of Mary and Jesus, one of the few you can see fairly closely.
Across the street from the Hagia Sophia near the fountains is the entrance to the Underground Cistern, also referred to as the “Sunken Palace.”
Also built during the reign of Justinian, this was never a palace. The intent of this underground chamber was to house the water brought by the aqueduct from the Belgrade Forest 20 kilometers away. Right now it only has a few feet of water at the bottom, but when filled to the top, the cistern could hold 100,000 tons of water. People nicknamed it the ‘palace’ because of the decorative appearance from the column capitals and vaulted ceiling. In reality though, the vaulted ceiling was for strength, not looks, and if you take a second look at the columns, you’ll see that they are all different. The columns were simply scrap from deconstructed and ruined Roman buildings, which at the time were considered little more than land fill.
It was probably the same attitude that led two different stone Medusa heads to be used as pedestals for shorter columns in the back. One is upside down, and the other is sideways. The theory is the builders may have believed it held less power if it wasn’t upright.
There really isn’t much to do here except walk along the platforms and take it in the dramatic space. Photo opportunities abound. During high season they often have performances on a small platform near the exit, but this wasn’t high season, I can only imagine the acoustics are fantastic.
A five minute walk further brought us to the Blue Mosque, nicknamed after the blue tiles that are used in the interior.
Our hotel was extremely close to the Blue Mosque (one of the reasons I couldn’t sleep through the call to prayer), so we were very familiar with the façade. Built in the mid 1600s over the foundations of the old Byzantine Palace, the Sultan at the time commissioned it after losing a long fought war to “calm god.” The layout is heavily influenced by the Hagia Sophia next door, but with the more modern touches of the time and none of the renovated and re-fashioned feel.
I had never been in a mosque before, so this was an entirely new experience. Visitors that are there only to see the Mosque enter through a special entrance on the side. Be sure to take a look at the digital display at the front of the Mosque that shows the prayer times. No visitors are allowed during that period out of respect for the worshippers. At the side entrance everyone must remove their shoes, plastic bags are provided for those that do not already have a bag, and the ladies are asked to wear a headscarf which they bring themselves. After that you are free to enter.
The effect of the afternoon sunlight shining through the stained glass, the delicate floral tilework, and the red carpet reflecting a rosy glow in the afternoon sunlight is truly beautiful. This level of decoration should be too much in theory, but in reality it’s light and organic, with blank areas only reserved for the multiple domes so your eye rests upward from one to the other. No trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit here.
In front of the Blue Mosque what appears to be a long promenade called Sultanahmet Square is actually the site of the Hippodrome that dates back to ancient Roman times when the city was called Byzantium. This is where the chariot and horse races were held. When Constantine made the city the new capital of the Roman Empire and named it Constantinople the track was expanded to seat 100,000 and obelisks and sculptures from around the world were to the center. In the era of the Byzantine Empire, the track was used for political races, where each party in the Senate backed a horse/chariot – this later resulted in riots that nearly destroyed the city. During the reign of the Ottomans it fell into disrepair and was used as a staging area during construction of the Blue Mosque and other nearby buildings. Now it’s a park, but several of the obelisks and statues are still standing. An excellent place to end your Sultanahmet super tour by doing your own victory lap.
Besides a few small street snacks we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. It was early but we didn’t care, we were starving. There are no shortages of restaurants in the tourist areas, most seem to be open all day, and have very similar menus. Some people gave us recommendations but we were sorry navigators and never could seem to find the right place. Every time we gave up and sat down at the nearest friendly place and we were never disappointed.
A few food recs: Try the Turkish pizza, its thin and tasty, don’t leave without baklava it’s a specialty here too, fresh juice stands are everywhere, and try the ‘puffy bread’ that’s not its name but you’ll know what I’m talking about. I was too slow to take pictures of all these things but I did remember on the last night.
This night we went with the Lamb Testi Kebab for two, which comes with a little pyro display at your table. It was spicy and delicious.
Afterwards we walked across the street and bought too much Turkish Delight to take home. I was blinded by how pretty they were, never considering we could never eat that much until we got home. We still have half this box, it’s probably time to throw it out. My favorite was the rosewater/honey/pistachio flavor and the chocolate/roasted sesame seed.
We just had three nights here and this was our last. One of the reasons we chose our hotel was for the roof deck which we hadn’t visited until this night. It was so cold, but the sky was clear as we listened to the last call to prayer of the day, and watched the moon slowly stretch above the Blue Mosque with Asia lit just barely in the distance.
Our flight didn’t leave until later in the afternoon the next day, so we took it easy and strolled our neighborhood until it was time to leave. We came across things like the Mile Marker Stone (the real ancient one is the rounded stone in the background), and the Arasta Bazaar behind the Blue Mosque which is beautiful on a sunny day.
But our last moments were spent people watching at the fountain between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
The textbooks tell us that Istanbul is the crossroads for the world, but it’s hard to really understand that phrase until you see cross-section of the world pass directly in front of you. Ladies in burkas, groups of tourists from the far east, gay couples, Gypsy children, backpacked Americans, Africans strolling with their families, men wearing keffiyahs, well bundled Europeans, we were all in the same place and here to see the same things, because the city offers something for all of us to relate to. Together we all stopped to listen to our last call-to-prayer as it volleyed back and forth between the minarets of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, with distant echoes of other mosques in the background. Though I would categorize Istanbul as equally European as it is Eastern, this is the first place I’ve gotten a glimpse of the East and my first visit to a Muslim country, and I left with a few insights that I didn’t have before, and I would gladly return. Infact, I think it’s time for my next exfoliation.
“Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’”