Cruising the Aegean – Day 6: Istanbul

Another highlight on this trip has to be Istanbul (or Constantinople or Byzantium).

Not only the crossroads of the world and a piece of land fought over for thousands of years, but it’s been the capital of both the Eastern Roman Empire and, after the conquest of 1453, the Ottoman Empire of Sultan Mehmed II. Modern Turkey moved the capital to Ankara, but nothing can diminish the historical importance of Istanbul.

IMG_2884At arrival, security was high. There had been a terrorist bomb explosion in the city a couple of days ago, but the target was the police, not tourists. Syrian refugees are also a major issue here in the most prosperous of Muslim countries. Several cruise lines currently avoid Istanbul, but the Princess folks are on top of things and felt it safe to proceed.

IMG_2886We landed right on the Golden Horn, where the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque (left) and the Hagia Sophia  (right) are all located.

IMG_4567Esme was our tour guide. Again, he was excellent.

IMG_2888 IMG_4568Like I said, security was obviously elevated.

IMG_2893We entered the enormous Topkapi Palace complex through this Disney-like gate. This was the home to the Sultan, an absolute ruler in every sense.

IMG_2891Tourists were pretty thin on the ground as we were told we were the only cruise ship in town.

IMG_4572 I had to get up close to everything to read it, so I am probably featured in the photos of many fellow tourists.

IMG_2901 The living quarters of the Queen Mother, who essentially ran the palace.

IMG_2934 A living room of sorts. Picture dancers and musicians entertaining the Sultan.

IMG_2937The Queen Mother’s divan.

IMG_4578Everything was ridiculously ornate. Images of people are forbidden in Islam, so the walls are covered with religious prayers and edicts.

IMG_2919 Betty found the rec room.

IMG_2920The tradition was that all eunuchs working in the harem were captured African slaves. That way, should the “fix” not be permanent and the slave mess around with one of the girls, any resulting progeny would obviously not be the Sultan’s. I imagine such a scenario would end badly for both parties.

IMG_2922Esme didn’t read Arabic, but learned from his studies that the “W” shaped word refers to Allah.

IMG_2923 Everything was exquisite.

IMG_2926The best that unlimited money could buy.

IMG_2951 Outside was a Summer Pavilion the Sultan used for breaking Muslim holy day fasts.

IMG_2954 IMG_2958

IMG_2955I had mine done when I was an infant. I couldn’t walk for a year!

IMG_2962 The view from the Pavilion.

IMG_2963

IMG_2964IMG_2973Beautiful gardens everywhere.

IMG_2967On our way to the treasury. They do not allow any photography inside the Treasury. What was on display was a lot of gold and jewels, of course, but also many religious relics. Displays were labeled “The saucepan of Abraham” and “The walking stick of Moses”. Sure, if you want.

IMG_4610Local dressed as the Sultan for tourist photos.

IMG_2977IMG_2976 Some pretty classy souvenirs.

IMG_2981 We are told that this is a boy dressed ceremonially for his Circumcision Day.

IMG_4617Here is another unsuspecting youth being feted on his Circumcision Day. Evidently, not all of the details of the procedure are explained to the boys, only that they are leaving boyhood and becoming men. Typical age, we were told, was about seven. Ouchee.

IMG_2982 The entrance to the Blue Mosque.

IMG_2984 Performing the recommended ablutions before entering for prayer.

IMG_2986A sign outlining the dress code.

IMG_2990The dress code in action.

IMG_2992IMG_4621Inside the Blue Mosque. The “blue” part references the exquisite blue tiles that cover everything. There were about five men praying.

IMG_4626Soon Betty had to give back her “modesty suit” as we headed off to…

IMG_2995Hagia Sophia. A former Orthodox cathedral back in the day, it was taken over and used as a mosque by the conquerors. When modern Turkey was founded after WWI, it was decided by the secular government to make the magnificent building into a museum.

IMG_4647 It’s a really hard language.

IMG_3014 The Entrance way.

IMG_3019 The museum has slowly been transformed and preserved to highlight both the Christian and Muslim eras. To that end, it was controversially decided to remove the paint and plaster that covers some of the old Christian icons. Major rehab is underway.

IMG_3021 Whatever the Muslim analog for pulpit is.

IMG_3023 Again, major restorations are underway.

IMG_3026Over one of the exits we see Emperors Justinian and Constantine presenting the Virgin Mother with models of Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia. This had been painted over.

We then left for a quick stop at a rug merchant (of course) before we had lunch.

IMG_3034 Interesting building on our way to the rug shop.

IMG_4635 Making more rugs.

IMG_4636 Drinking more apple tea.

IMG_3003But, like so much of Istanbul, the rug merchant’s building had a basement dating back to Roman times. We escaped and explored it a bit.

IMG_4646 Then it was back to the Blue 2 bus for the trip to lunch.

IMG_4644Lunch was in, of all places, The Best Western!  America’s icon of third rate motelery! But it was in a really cool old building.

IMG_4642 The food was terrific. I have to admit that I’ve eaten and enjoyed many dishes on this cruise that I would never consider trying at home.

IMG_4639 The appetizer plate.

IMG_4640I am literally bursting out of my shirt here. But now lunch is over and we are off to the Grand Bazaar.

From Wikipedia: “The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. In 2014, it was listed No.1 among world’s most-visited tourist attractions with 91,250,000 annual visitors. The Grand Bazaar at Istanbul is often regarded as one of the first shopping malls of the world.”

IMG_3044 DO NOT FORGET TO EXIT FROM GATE ONE! We were told that the Bazaar is designed so that you can get easily lost and must then speak to a vendor to get directions. Once you make eye contact, of course, you’re a goner. Remember how you got in!

IMG_3035 Seemingly endless halls meander along through the thousands of shops. None of the streets run parallel. Everything that you might want, as a tourist or a resident, is available here somewhere. I guess.

IMG_3036 Colorful, comfortable, a bit noisey. A fascinating experience.

IMG_3040 We just walked and walked. I gave up trying to guess which way was out. Even Betty’s sharply honed sense of direction was baffled.

IMG_3042 IMG_4660 IMG_4661 But we started to recognise things after a while and we worked our way back.

IMG_4662 IMG_4663 IMG_4664 IMG_4665We weren’t really harassed or badgered. It was more like everyone was always letting us know they were prepared to do business and show us their wares.

We managed to find our way back to Gate 1 in plenty of time and headed for the bus pickup.

IMG_4669 We passed another mosque on the way to the bus. The faithful perform their ablutions here before entering to pray.

IMG_4672 We sat at a cafe across from the meeting point and got in some people watching.

We were approached there by the only Syrian refugees we saw. It was a young bearded man holding a sign reading “We are from Syria and need help”. With his young wife, complete with headscarf and infant in arms, it struck me as a tableau of the Holy Family. I gave him $5. Several of my fellow tourists donated as well. It was hard not to.

Feeling privileged and a little bit guilty, we then got on the bus and returned to the ship for dinner.

IMG_4673 Royal, our assistant waiter greeted us. He is from India and hopes to be promoted to waiter soon.

IMG_4679It was a formal night, so I wore a sport coat. It wasn’t so bad, considering.

IMG_4682 The food was magnificent, as usual.

IMG_4683 A meringue dessert.

IMG_4686Here I’m posing with Sebastian, our waiter. He has a wife and four children he supports back home in Mumbai.

IMG_3045After dinner, the Turkish Coast Guard returned to escort us out to the Sea of Marmara. We then headed through the Dardanelles to arrive in Mykonos tomorrow morning.

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