Dateline: June 30, 2016 – Istanbul
Our last stop was Istanbul, Turkey. This was the original final stop of the cruise, so when it was changed, for security threats, we already had our airline reservations from Istanbul, not Rome. We arrived at the Istanbul SAW airport around 2:30 and were met by our driver to take us to our hotel, Blue Istanbul. The city has many narrow streets, and we finally arrived at the small neighborhood hotel where they met us and helped us to our room. The hotel is in the historic peninsula, the center of ancient Istanbul. The receptionist told us we only had about 45 minutes before the Grand Bazaar would close, and it would not be open the next day (Sunday).
We dropped our stuff and ran off to the market. With only about 20 minutes before closing, we ran through several aisles; it was huge! Closing began, so we started walking out of the market to head back to the hotel.
On the way, we passed the Constantine Column. The column was erected in honor of Constantine in 330 AD when Istanbul was dedicated as the capital of the Roman Empire. It stood in the center of a large oval-shaped square on top of the second hill of Istanbul. This square, surrounded by colonnades, was called the Forum of Constantine. It is also known as the Burnt Column, It was originally taller than it is today and was topped by a statue of Constantine dressed as the sun god. Restoration of the column started in 1955 and restoration was completed in 1975.
We headed back to our hotel to get ready for dinner, our hotel told us about a good local restaurant just up the street, so we headed out at about 8 pm. It was Ramadan for the Muslims, so they fast until sunset, about 8:30. We got to the restaurant in time to miss the crowds. The food was great, Janice had lamb kebabs, and John tried the Istanbul kebabs. No alcohol, so we were served water, apple tea, and at the end of the meal. Turkish black tea. It was a lovely dinner.
Some facts about Turkey we did not know before going there. Turkey has almost 80 million inhabitants, there are only around 120,000 Christians. Christians are certainly seen as second-class citizens. A real citizen is Muslim, and those who aren’t Muslim are seen as suspicious.
While people sometimes looked at us in disdain, maybe because we were dressed differently in shorts or because we were eating during the day (everyone was fasting for Ramadan) but in general, people were always very nice. The locals that did wear burkas were mostly very young, which was surprising. Most of the women wear long dresses or pants always with a scarf, men wore long pants, no shorts.
This was our first experience in a Muslim country, and found the “call to prayer” that was strange to us, but interesting 5 times a day. There are around 500 mosques in Istanbul, each blaring the “call to prayer” over loudspeakers all over the city. We were awakened at 11 pm, and 3:30 am for two of the calls that lasted about 10 minutes; we have no idea what they were saying. Imagine being born and all you hear 5 times a day is a religious message your entire life; it is almost like being brainwashed.
The next morning when we woke, the view from our windows was out to the port. As many as 50 to 100 ships are always waiting to enter the port. We asked why so many ships and were told they are all waiting for clearance. Apparently, the process is very long. We headed downstairs for a lovely breakfast, mostly meat and chees with an egg-based pie.
The Blue Mosque – Sultan Ahmed Mosque
We walked to the Blue Mosque. Inside it is quite a site; the prayer area faces toward “Mecca.”
This is called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles inside on the ceiling. When the mosque was opened to non-Muslims, the tourists started calling it the Blue Mosque. The mosque’s real name is Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Since it was easier to say Blue Mosque, it is generally called that.
The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. Just like many other mosques, it also comprises a tomb of the founder, a madrasa, and a hospice. This mosque has been open to the public since the mid-20th century. They were allowing us to enter for a short period just before the next prayer. We had proper attire, John wore long pants, and Janice brought a scarf. For those that did not come dressed properly, they provided skirts for both men and women that wore shorts and a scarf for women for free. We were required to take off our shoes before entering. This was really a privilege because the mosques in Jerusalem were closed to non-believers, as are many mosques around the world. Another factor is that month was Ramadan.
We were in the Turkish Rug Market and spent some time looking at beautiful handmade rugs. We purchased two, and they were to be shipped back to Florida. It was a pleasant experience. The owners took us to a studio room and bought rugs for our review based on our answers to their many questions. The quality was excellent.
We then walked the short distance to Topkapi Palace.
Palace construction, ordered by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror began in 1459, six years after the conquest of Constantinople. Topkapı was originally called the “New Palace” to distinguish it from the “Old Palace” in Beyazit Square. It was given the name Topkapı, meaning “Cannon Gate”, in the 19th century.[5
From the 1460s to the completion of Dolmabahce Palace in 1856, it served as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire and was the main residence of its sultans until the 17th century.
Outside the main palace are a number of buildings around the many courtyards. The buildings housed tombs of many of the sultans and their families. After the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, a government decree dated April 3, 1924, transformed Topkapı into a museum.
We walked down to the waterfront and found a nice outdoor restaurant for lunch near the “spice market.” It was lively with many people having animated conversations. One of the waiters was engaged in a discussion with several English-speaking patrons about the various terrorist attacks in the Instanbul area over the last few months. He told them that it is very unstable and they expected something “big” to happen shortly. We really didn’t give it a lot of thought.
After lunch, it was getting late and we wanted to visit the spice market a few blocks away. There were hundreds of shops, and it was so interesting to look at all the spices and dried fruits. We found a spice-only shop and bought several spices for meat and rice, some Turkish black tea, lemon salt, and apple tea.
We completed our walk through the spice market and headed back up the hill past many other stores to the hotel. Istanbul was built on seven hills, so walking back in the heat was very difficult; we were soaked with sweat by the time we arrived at our hotel.
After resting, we headed back to the same restaurant for the second night and sat up on the third floor that overlooked the sea. It was a lovely evening and being outside was wonderful with all the sounds in the neighborhood. Dinner was excellent, and we made an early evening of it and headed back down the hill to the Blue Istanbul Hotel.
We had a car picking us up at the hotel at 3:00 in the morning to get to the Ataturk Airport for our 6:00 flight to Amsterdam and then on to Atlant.since we were being picked up at 3am for our 6am flight from Turkey back to home with changes in Amsterdam and Atlanta.
June 28, 2016 – Ataturk Airport Terror Attack
Here’s the part of the story that gives us chills. As we are writing this post, everyone knows about the bombing at the Ataturk Istanbul International Airport. The international building at the airport is separate from the others and has security right at the doors where you enter the building. We were standing right there at the checkpoint only about 30 hours earlier on June 27 at about 4:00 AM. We literally “dodged the bullet.” It was not our time. It made us think about the conversation we overheard at the restaurant! Would we ever go back to Istanbul? Probably not right away, because of the current situation, but it is a fantastic city and worth seeing it if you have the chance.
What a trip
It is hard to describe the past ten weeks of travel, and we have learned much. We covered thousands of miles by cruise ships, trains, and planes. We visited 17 countries from Bermuda to the North of Norway to the depths of the middle east. We saw sites that one could only imagine, and they will forever be in our memory. We were blessed to visit this world over the last 17 years of marriage (that is, July 3rd). We hope everyone enjoyed our blog!