Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Day 13 - Istanbul by day and night

Today is the day to visit the Aya Sofia, also known as the Hagia Sophia. One tip we got from friends back home was to get there super early as the place fills up fast with tourists. So again, we had a fast breakfast and walked the few blocks up the hill to get first in line. We got excited about this until we saw that there were actually two lines. One for the tourist and one for the "locals" (which is a loose terms that covers all Turks).

As soon as the 9am bell rang, we ran to the ticket booth, got our tickets and made a mad dash to get into the church/mosque/museum. It was worth the dash once we got inside. It was truly breathtaking once you stand under the dome in the middle of the grand hall alone, save for a couple of guards. We were only there for a few minutes when movement close to the Minbar caught our attention. When we got closer, we noticed it was a gray catwith a bird in its mouth. The guards were at a loss at what to do. In mere moments, the museums would be full of tourist, but on the other hand, this cat was enjoying its breakfast. There were several discussions, in Turkish, about the cat, and the final decision was to leave it alone until the bird was consumed. After the bird was eaten, a guard showed up with a dust pan to quickly clean up what was left of the feathers, while the cat found a sun spot to clear it’s paws.

From the Minbar, we moved on to the two huge marble lustration urns and them made our way around the great halls before heading upstairs to get better views of the gigantic circular-framed disks hung on columns with the names of Allah, Muhammad (pbuh), Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, Hassan and Hussain. It's not until you get upstairs that you really get the true size of these massive medallions. We walked around the famous Marble Door and enjoyed all the mosaics that covered various parts of the walls. It was fascinating to see all the crosses in the banisters that had been removed with the building when the church was converted to a mosque in 1453. Having come from a country where hieroglyphics were covered with crosses, it as ironic to come to a location where crosses were removed. My favorite part of the museum was all the patterns in the marble, ceilings, columns, banisters, windows and every where one looked. It's very hard to resist touching everything.

After a couple of hours, we finally felt we had seen everything and headed back downstairs to leave. We had taken a photo in one location as soon as we had walked in the door, so before we left, we made sure to take another photo in the exact same location. Except the second time, there were hundreds of people standing behind us. Before we left, we also made sure to look for the "weeping column" near the imperial door. Legend has it that you place your thumb in the central hole and make your hand go a full 360 without moving your thumb. If you go all the way around, your wish will come true, your aliments will go away and you will live forever. Or something along those lines. Once outside, we peeked through a door that someone had accidentally left open and observed the excavations going on for the churches under the Sofia that were still being excavated.

After the museum, we wandered over to Topkapı Palace, another location that had been highly recommended to visit. But the lines were outrageous and we wanted to keep the Aya Sofia memories fresh in our minds. So we meandered through the archeological museum and leisurely strolled back to our hotel where I got recommendations for a true Turkish Hammam location. The Cagaloglu Hamami got the local nod, so we moseyed down there so I could cross another thing off my bucket list. I must say that afterwards my body felt so fresh and clean, I believe I experienced a rebirth. I was a bit intimidated a bit going in, knowing that I was going to be naked in front of other women, but once I entered the domed hall, I didn't even notice anyone else. They made me wear these super uncomfortable wood shoes that looked better on the wall then my feet. The only thing I was wondering is if my attendant was the same one that had also scrubbed down Cameron Diez? or maybe Kat Moss? While I was in the hamam, DH managed to find the Valens Aqueduct and take some photos of it.

Feeling fresh and renewed, we headed to the Küçük Ayasofya neighborhood, but first stopped to get a Simit from a street vendor while walking trough the Hippodrome of Constantinople. We admired the Serpent Column, the Walled Obelisk and the Obelisk of Theodosius. Once we reached our true destination, the Doy-Doy Restaurant, we stayed put for a couple of hours enjoying the laughter and Turkish conversations of our neighboring tables while watching the women across the alley hang her wet laundry on a clothesline. We didn't know what to order, so had the waiter surprise us with endless plates of appetizers, meat, veggies and desserts. With full happy stomachs we staggered back to our hotel and immediately feel asleep.

We had yet to visit the Beyoğlu neighborhood so we put on our walking shoes and took a short hike to the tram station. Nearly an hour, one dog bite and metro ride later, we finally arrived at our destination where we were in for the shock of our lives. It truly was like walking around Manhattan. There were thousands and thousands of people strolling through the open shops, restaurants and cafes, where live gypsy music blended with djed hip hop while street musicians with open guitar cases trying to compete stood on the corners. Overhead the street was illuminated with lights that were alternating between snowman holding Christmas trees or crystal chandeliers. And the cherry on top was the sweet smells of Doner, wafering the air like a GPS straight to our stomachs that were impossible to resist, so we didn't.

We walked the length of İstiklâl Caddesi, past the various embassies and the Galata Kulesi before we found ourselves in dark alleys with very unusual graffiti painted on the doors. It was blocks and blocks of yellow arms held up in resistance painted alongside eyes. We weren't sure if it had anything to do with the graffiti we had seen earlier that stated "Free Palestina" but it was beautiful and sinister simultaneously. Knowing that a short while ago, the Israelis had attacked a Turkish ship with medical supplies headed to Gaza, we thought it might have been the local resistance to the apartheid that was happening to the Palestinians.

We finally meandered back to our hotel, through the eerie silence that surrounded the Blue Mosque. The only inhabitants at 2am were the garbage men, picking up all evidence that the day before had actually existed.

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