Exploring Sultanahmet: Haghia Sophia, The Basilica Cistern & The Blue Mosque

Milion Stone
All roads start at Constantinople

We start the day slowly, though we are awake unusually early. Although the weariness of our travels makes us sluggish, the time difference means our body clocks are two and a half hours ahead, which means 8:30 am makes for a pretty leisurely start.

After we shower and get ready, we grab a pumpkin spice latte at the Starbucks around the corner. Yes, before you all judge, it’s not very Turkish, but a treat for us nonetheless as you don’t get this in Starbucks in Delhi.

Following our caffeine fix, we return to Taksim Square metro station. However, we are faced with that multitude of confusing ticket machines again and no idea which one does what. After experimenting with 10 Lira in one machine I get a small red plastic token, which seems good enough for the moment. Aditi does the same and we take something called the “funicular” one stop to Kabatas station.

We have a moment of confusion when we get out and miss our transfer. On the plus side, we find a store where we could purchase the coveted Istanbulkart for 7 Turkish Lira, and discovered that it is basically a prepaid metro card that can be topped up.

Armed with this, we board the tram at Kabatas and rode all the way across the river to Sultanahmet, the old part of the city. We basically stumble on three of the four major sights within minutes of our arrival – the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Hippodrome. The Blue Mosque seems closed to visitors till after prayers so we wander around the Hippodrome remnants, which basically are three columns – one hieroglyphic, one serpentine and one plain stone one.

Hagia Sophia
The breathtaking Hagia Sophia

After we try to get photos from as many angles as possible, non of them (at least for me) particularly impactful or effective, we head to Hagia Sophia, meaning Holy Widsom, or as they call it here, the Ayasofya. The Ayasofya was rebuilt several times between 360 AD and 537, due to a variety of circumstances including burning and riots. It was converted into a mosque in 1453, and finally into a museum in 1935.

Aditi and I opt for the audio tour, which we later regret. It gives you an excessively long list of things to see, some of which are noticeably absent, such as a mosaic that either featured or was commissioned by Emporor Leo IV (I can’t tell because it wasn’t there) and an icon of Hodegetria, which is apparently huge and very heavy. All that was there in those spaces is empty wall. I listen to the audio bytes three or four times whilst wandering around looking for them, but eventually give up.

Hagia Sophia
More of the Hagia Sophia

The museum is beautiful though – the mosaics and stained glass windows, the lighting and the decoration on the walls exceed the opulence of almost every place of worship I’ve ever visited. I learn that the color purple was rare during the Roman time – and very expensive to make. It makes sense that it was a color associated with royalty.

Now what the relationship was between this fact and the Porphyry pillar I was looking at escapes me at this moment, because I was busy searching for the missing statue/icon that was supposed to be right next to it. This will have to wait for my next visit.

Mosaics of the Hagia Sophia
Mosaics of the Hagia Sophia

We climb an uneven ramp made of stone to the upper gallery of the Ayasofia, and learn that this was meant for the Emperor’s wife and other wives of high-ranking officials. There is a circle drawn looking down at the centre, which is where the Empress would have stood to watch the proceedings. We walk through the whole upper level, but somehow we feel our feet starting to grow heavier, and our bellies starting to rumble. It is time for lunch.

On our way to lunch we discover the Milion stone, built in the 4th century AD, which marks Constantinople as the starting point for all roads in the Byzantine empire. There is a sign post, and some engravings along the wood floor surrounding what’s left of the stone.

I wish I could tell you what we had for lunch but I have no idea. All I know is that it involved a lot of meat, and Istanbul is not turning out to be such a vegetarian-friendly city. For Aditi and I it doesn’t matter as much, but all the same we do find ourselves craving vegetables as the day goes on.

IMG_1811
Our mystery lunch!

Istanbul also appears to be the capital city of stray cats. Unlike our scrappy skinny dander-infested Delhi strays, these ones appear clean, well-groomed and extremely relaxed with large groups of people, often looking almost bored by Istanbul’s large foot traffic. They hang out in monuments – there is one at the Hagia Sophia, and another outside the Blue Mosque, and several walk by us as we eat our meals, or walk down the street.

I read later that there is an Islamic legend in which the prophet Muhammad was saved from a poisonous snake by a cat, and therefore if you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque so God can forgive you.

After lunch we try the Blue Mosque again. It is closed for prayer. So we visit the Basilica Cistern instead. This was built by Justinian in 532 to support the Great Palace. The more humorous trivia (according to the Eyewitness Travel Guide) is that it took the Ottomans a year after the conquest to learn of it’s existence, as they discovered that people seemed to be lower buckets through holes in their basements to collect water and sometimes fish.

Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern

Either way it looks just like a dwarf city straight out of Lord of the Rings. The water is calm, and filled with fish of different kinds. You can toss a coin and make a wish, which Aditi and I both do. There are pillars coming out of the water at even intervals, illuminated by spotlights that give the whole place a very eerie effect.  Water occasionally drips from the ceiling and the walkways can be slippery, especially close to the statues.

Basilica Cistern
One of two Medusa Head Bases

There are also two Medusa head bases of unknown origins, but probably plundered from prior conquests. Medusa was a beautiful woman who evoked the jealousy of a pretty vengeful Goddess, who turned her previously gorgeous hair into snakes and cursed her so that anyone she looked at turned to stone. Then the man she was in love with cut off her head. Anytime any of you are having a bad day, just remember it could be worse…

We leave the Cistern behind, and make our way back to the Blue Mosque for our third visit attempt. I would recommend checking prayer times in advance (because it is closed to visitors at this time), particularly if you are planning on visiting on a Friday.

You have to cover your head and take off your shoes. Just like in Laos, they have a whole wardrobe of items to help visitors cover themselves appropriately – such as scarves, skirts and things that resemble hospital shifts that reach your ankles.
We carry our shoes around in a plastic bag as we pad barefoot on soft red floral carpeting. My feet are blistered and in pain from all the walking, so it’s a bit of a relief, and I try not to think about what diseases I could contract from anonymous carpet germs.

The blue tiling is lovely, though it is difficult to take pictures because of the tourist crowds. There are only a few people actually using the facilities to pray. A man delivers a sermon in the background in English, and I listen absently as I wander around taking photos.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque

By this point we are a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information we’ve taken in, and we’re beginning to fade, so we grab a coffee at the nearby Dervish Café. Yes, the name is definitely part of the reason we go, and who wouldn’t. We sip Turkish coffee and try to plan the rest of our evening. There is still so much left to see.

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