Four Countries in 2 Weeks: Turkey, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and India
Exploring Istanbul in a day to see the main sights including the Byzantine Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkitpa Palace, the Basilica Cistern and a Bosphorous Cruise. Checking off Turkey, country 54, on the tour!
There is a reason why Istanbul is the second largest city by population and the fifth most visited in the world. The Turkish city is strategically location on the Silk Road with the Bosphorus separating Europe and Asia making it a prize location throughout history.
Once known as the Greek Byzantium, under Roman Emperor Constantine the Great it was renamed and known as Constantinople for almost a millennium. Then the Ottoman Empire took over in the 15th century and held it until WWI.
Finally after the War of Independence in 1923, Istanbul is a part of the Republic of Turkey.
Arriving in Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport (IST) at 5:30 am on a Sunday was a gift and a curse. I would be one of the first to visit the sights of the day meaning I could take some scenic photos, but this also meant the sights weren’t open yet.
After purchasing a visa on arrival, I went through immigration and got the entry stamp.
Country 54, check!
The tourism office was closed, but luckily one of the rental companies had a city map. Jumping onto the metro I realized that it would still be dark by the time I arrived. I had to make one transfer at Aksaray station which was a bit shady, but i moved with the crowd and caught the tram to Sultanahmet station. This is where most of the tourist sites are located.
I just caught the sunrise light for some nice pictures. As nothing was open, I wandered around and found a place for a Turkish breakfast. I also took the opportunity to gear up in tourist garb before the touring really started, sporting a red flag of Turkey shirt and matching fez.
With the light of dawn, I explored the grounds where the ancient racehorses pulling chariots race around the track.
Two obelisks dominate the park, the Obelisk of Thutmose III from Luxor Egypt and the Walled Obelisk erected by Constantine the VII.
Blue Mosque, Sultan Ahmet III Mosque
Built in 1609-1616 by the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I, the mosque is still used today for prayer.
I entered from the visitor’s entrance. Everyone must remove their shoes and carry them in provided plastic bags. There is also a dress code of long pants and the addition of head and shoulders covered for women.
Inside the dome the Iznik produced tile work was really impressive and mesmerizing.
Entrance is free though you can donate to the mosque as you exit.
Hagia Sophia, Ayasofya
Constructed in 537, the structure has served many purposes. Originally it was a Eastern Orthodox Cathedral under Constantinople, then temporarily a Roman Catholic Cathedral under the Roman Empire, then converted into a mosque under the Ottoman Turks, and finally turned into a museum. Phew.
Going through security, I purchased the ticket (25 lira) and explored the property.
Unfortunately as they were in the middle of a restoration, there was scaffolding outside and inside the building.
The central room is really majestic with low hanging chandeliers and fully decorated ceilings. The ancient circular ramp up to the second floor made me wonder how much each thick stone section weighed and how structurally sound it was.
On the 2nd floor you can view the famous mosaics.
Soldiers with MP5s stand on both sides of the entrance and line the walkways toward the palace museum.
The grounds were very green and well manicured. I walked to the gate where I purchased the entrance ticket (25 lira) and went through the large gates.
There were several courtyards lined with ancient edifices that now house the museum and most notably in the Treasury Room, a giant 86 karat diamond and the three hairs of Prophet Mohammed.
They were very strict on the “no picture” policy and I saw several people get yelled at for it.
Leaving the museum I walked through Sogukçesme Sokagi, the cobblestoned alley with some interesting architecture from the Ottoman Empire.
I then arrived at the ancient Roman ruins of cisterns dating back to the 6th century. After paying entrance (10 lira), you walk down the steps into an eerily lit cavern. There is a path around the columns that wind to the showpiece Medusa heads.
I then took a stroll to the riverside stopping for a lunch consisting of Doner Kebab and fresh orange juice.
The riverside is busy with commuters from the ferry terminals and the occasional tourist snapping pictures. I eventually agreed to join the tour up the river ($7).
A van picked up our group and drove us down to the tourist ferries. Boarding, we were soon on our way.
The tour took about an hour and a half going up in view of the 2nd bridge to the north and then returning to the dock. The view was quite picturesque of both the European and Asian sides, especially from the top deck.
Returning to shore, I headed back to the airport. I was extremely jet lagged by this point and kept falling asleep on the train. This was probably not the best idea.
At the airport I relaxed in the Primeclass CIP Lounge with a beer to celebrate my Turkish tour.
Next stop: Bangladesh!