Crossroads Tour – Ayasofya and the Sea of Marmara…

My first stop this morning is Ayasofya, the lines have not yet formed so I walk right in. Even though this is no longer a mosque, I cover my head and remove my shoes within a few feet of the entrance because it feels wrong not to do so. 

  • This church-converted-to-mosque is among the oldest religious sites in the world, dating to 537 AD. It is also among the most important examples of Byzantine architecture still standing. It is the third church built on this site after the first two were destroyed by fire during riots in the 5th and 6th centuries. Emperor Justinian I assigned two Anatolian architects (Söke/Balat and Aydin) to build a basilica that surpassed Solomon’s Temple. Materials were recycled from various buildings in Anatolia, including the Temple of Artemesis in Ephesus and a pagan temple in Tarsus. Restoration work started almost immediately after the domes suffered damage from earthquakes in 553 and 557.
  • There are runes carved into one of the marble railings from the Viking raids of the 9th-10th centuries. The church was looted during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. During this famous sacking of Constantinople, many pieces from the Ayasofya were redistributed to churches in the West (I saw some of these pieces in the Doges Palace in Venice) Historians at the time recorded that “compared to the Crusaders, Arabians are more compassionate…” 

When Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Ayasofya was converted to a mosque. Great care was taken to preserve the integrity of the structure as well as the sacredness of the space. Four minarets were added between the 15th-16th centuries, two of them built by Mimar Sinan. This stunning minbar (the imam’s pulpit) dates to the late 16th century and is one of the most beautiful I saw in any mosque. 

  • The most famous restoration occurred in 1847-49, when the 8th century mosaics were uncovered and documented. They were plastered over again as Islamic law bans images, but were restored again in 1932 when the Ayasofya was converted to a museum. 

One of the domes in this building inspired this silk and brocade hat…

I board a train and head across the Galata Bridge to the Kabatas ferry terminal and the Princes Islands.

  • Travel tip:  Istanbul can be an intense city and the crush of people can be relentless, especially at peak tourist season.  When you need a break, go to a hamami or take a ferry somewhere.  It doesn’t matter where, just pick a direction and go.

I am among the first to embark, and find the perfect seat on the starboard bow with an unobstructed view, a place to hang my purse, and a rail to prop my feet up on. I replay the pleasant conversations from last night as I gaze down into a jade colored sea filled with jellyfish, and watch as three dolphins break the surface of the Marmara. The Golden Horn and Bosphorus sails are nice, but this is the ferry trip that gives you a true feel for the immensity of this place. Twenty million people live here, in a city whose skyline along both sides of the coast is unbroken. 

There are about 5 stops on this run, the final of which is Buyukada, where we debark into a town filled with Victorian era houses covered with varying degrees of gingerbread, some with Indonesian peaks, slopes and other design influences that do not strike me as Turkish. The architecture and flora here are dramatically different from the mainland and it feels very tropical. I can see why this is such a popular mini-vacation place for the city-dwellers. 

I take a short walk before allowing myself to be talked into taking a tour of the island by horse drawn surrey. I opt for the shorter of the two tours, which winds its way to the top of the hill, through residences and parks and twisty windy roads. We stop at the top to water the horse, and trot back to the city center, past vendors selling silk flower hair wreaths, and the most expensive gelato I have had so far this trip. It’s a very short wait for the ferry back to the mainland.

I return home after a very pleasant day, topped by very well timed transit schedules. I’ve got two days of photos to upload and have given up trying to transcribe my journal due to wanting to pay attention to more immediate things. After dinner I settle my tab and ask to have my boarding pass printed. But there’s a problem with printing it. Baha calls Lufthansa to get it sorted out. And then, a remarkable thing occurs…

“Your flight does not leave until the 19th…”

An extra day!  Baha suggests that we celebrate, and we join Erhan and his lady friend for drinks at Cagaloglu Hamami, one the oldest and finest in the city, where we sit with a small group of local hotelliers. Baha instructs me in Turkish etiquette — to stand and shake hands with people as they enter and leave the room, and how to properly clink glasses during toasts. I am asked to relate the story about my lost taxi driver, which elicits much laughter from the group.  

Afterwards, Baha takes me across the street to the Kybele, the hotel which adjoins his. “Like museum,” he says; It is similar in structure to the Han but larger, and filled floor to ceiling with glass lanterns, yurta bands and other antiques. We take the very slow glass lift to the roof that the Kybele shares with the Han. The view is spectacular, made only slightly less perfect by the absence of stars…

For additional photos from this day, please visit Daveno Travels.

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