When I first stepped off an air-conditioned bus onto the crowded streets of Istanbul, I felt instantly overwhelmed by the harsh sunlight and bustle of people going about their days. Vince and I had just been on a ten hour plane ride from Chicago, and while I was extremely happy to be out of the airport, I was also extremely travel weary and groggy.
“What do you want to do first?” Vince asked me, sounding about as dazed as I felt.
I had a long list of sites of cultural and historical significance that I wanted to see, and it was unlikely we’d get to all of them on our nineteen hour layover, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do first.
I responded without hesitation, “The Grand Bazaar.”
Shopping isn’t normally the first thing I want to do when traveling, but the Grand Bazaar is enticing because it’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the entire world. It has been around for over 500 years, and I was eager to explore its rows of stalls and hopefully find some souvenirs to bring home.
Immediately upon entering the market, my attention was drawn to a shop full the brim with beautiful, handcrafted lanterns. I knew we wouldn’t be buying one because Vince ordered me a Turkish lantern for my last birthday (before we had any idea we’d be in Türkiye within six months), but they are just so beautiful that it’s impossible to pass by without stopping to admire them.
What we were interested in buying however, was candy and spices. Every spice shop we passed offered samples of Turkish Delights and amazing loose leaf teas. We ended up leaving the bazaar with three different teas, Turkish coffee, and some chocolates that fizzed as they melted in our mouths. We also picked up a cezve (a long handled pot specifically for making Turkish coffee), and a large evil eye.
After emerging from the bazaar, we stopped at a nearby cafe so we could have refreshing, cold juices while crafting a game plan for the rest of the day. We agreed that our stop should be to find the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, so we started walking towards Sultan Ahmet Park, which sits between the two famous mosques. Along the way we came upon the Column of Constantine, a tall column that once stood at the center of the Forum of Constantine when Istanbul was part of the Byzantine empire (back when it was called Constantinople). The forum no longer exists, but the column still stands tall, although it’s covered in pigeons.
We also met several cats, another thing I’d had my eye out for all day. I was aware that Istanbul is somewhat famous for its stray cats because I watched a documentary called Kedi on a long flight a few years ago. The film followed the stories of a handful of cats as they lived in a sort of gray area between being pets and strays. About 125,000 cats live on the streets of Istanbul and the city is known for treating them as communal pets. There are plenty of places for them to get food, and people know the cats that live in their own neighborhoods. As a cat lover, I find the whole system incredibly heart-warming.
It was a short walk to the park despite several detours to look at cats, and when we arrived we went to a central fountain where we had a good view of both mosques.
I wanted to go inside both if we ended up having time, but we chose to start with the Hagia Sophia because we’d read that the Blue Mosque’s interior was under construction. The call to prayer was echoing from the minarets as we approached the entrance, where we hired a guide who gave us a lot of insights about the mosque’s history.
The Hagia Sophia actually started out with a 900 year stint as a Byzantine Christian Cathedral. When the Ottoman Empire conquered the city, it was converted into a mosque, and it remained as such for about 500 years. It had a relatively brief 85 year run as a museum until 2020 when it was redesignated as a mosque. Our guide showed us several interesting quirks that the mosque carries because of its Christian origins. For instance, the building doesn’t perfectly point towards Mecca, so the carpeting has been installed with lines that are askew from its actual center so that people know what direction to face when they pray.
There are also several mosaics that have been uncovered from the Hagia Sophia’s Christian era that depict angels, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary, along with several crosses and fish on the ceilings that are also Christian symbols. It is not at all normal to see depictions like this because Islam is a generally iconoclastic religion, and images of humans and animals are not allowed inside of mosques. They were allowed to remain after the museum shut down because of their historical significance, but a depiction of the Virgin Mary in the center of the apse has been covered with curtains.
By the time our tour was over, Vince and I were both exhausted. Our guide thought he was boring us, but we assured him that we were very interested in everything he had to say, we were just tired from our overnight flight. He recommended skipping the Blue Mosque because of the construction inside and going straight to nearby Topkapı Palace, a museum that was once home to Ottoman Sultans.
We walked up to the palace and bought admission tickets with an add-on entrance to the Imperial Harem. The main courtyards of the museum had rooms full of Ottoman artifacts, including a large exhibit dedicated to Sacred Islamic Relics.
I was enamored with the palace’s elaborate tile work. Every wall and ceiling was covered in beautiful patterned tiles. Every inch of space was decorated lavishly, and we found even more gorgeously adorned chambers when we went into the Harem. Traditionally, the Harem would have been a place where only women and their children and servants were allowed to enter. It is a maze-like collection of over 400 rooms, and my jaw dropped with every one we entered.
We only left when we both realized we were very hungry. In fact we’d eaten nothing but samples of Turkish Delights so far that day, so we exited the museum onto a quiet street where we found a restaurant and sat down for a much-appreciated meal.
After dinner we returned to the airport where we checked into the IGA lounge to wait for our next flight. By the next day we would be on another continent! It was crazy to think that we’d already done so much before we even reached our actual destination, and we still had a couple more days of travel to go before then!