Seeing Maria's recent photos from Morocco on her blog My Place In the Sun http://www.slowtrav.com/blog/mariai/reminded me of a wonderful visit I made to Istanbul and central Turkey. I traveled there in 2004, before I had a digital camera, so the top photo of the spectacular Blue Mosque is by Steve McCurry for National Geographic magazine, which has named Istanbul as one of its Places Of a Lifetime. It's definitely worthy of that designation.
I also traveled to central Turkey, to Cappadocia (shown in the second photo, wikipedia) a ruggedly beautiful region.
Istanbul has, at various times in its long history, been known Byzantium and later, as Constantinople (after the Roman emperor Constantine I.) It's filled with historic and cultural treasures including the stunning Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, and featuring six minarets instead of the typical four. Alas, this mosque also features a spectacular sound system, and so every morning I was awoken around 5:30 a.m. by the call to prayer from the minarets.
My very inexpensive hotel had been chosen for its proximity to the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya (aka Hagia Sofia, in Greek) the Hippodrome and other landmark sites in the oldest part of Istanbul, the Sultanahmet. Staff at this hotel were extremely friendly and the location was fantastic -- there was even a tiny rooftop terrace with excellent views of the Blue Mosque -- but the one-time mansion wasn't especially sound-proofed.
But no matter. I loved wandering around the rolling historic centre, visiting the Grand Bazaar (below, photo from tourism website istanbul.com) and the spice market, the Topkapi Palace, and other really exotic sites. I traveled with a former friend, who didn't enjoy the trip so well and left well before me. This marked the last time I traveled with anyone!
I had a fabulous day "cruising" up the Bosporus on a rather weathered old ferry that stopped at every small settlement on the Asian side of the waterway on the ride up, and the European side coming back. Istanbul itself stretches along the Bosporus strait for 30 kilometers between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and is still crucial for trade routes in all directions. (Photo below from istanbul.com)
Istanbul may be the only city in the world to span 2 continents, a fitting metaphor for the way it bridges cultures, philosophies and religions from Europe, Asia and almost everywhere else!
The people in Istanbul were so friendly and lively. I watched whirling dervishes; endured a rough Turkish bath at the Çemberlitas Hamamii, a beautiful communal bathhouse with shapes of stars and crescent moons cut into the round, stone roof; ate a fair amount of milk puddings; and frequently got lost.
The Topkapi Palace, and its harem, were fascinating to tour. The palace was built by Mehmet the Conqueror over the ruins of Constantine's Imperial Palace and occupies one of the seven hills of Istanbul, right at the tip of the historic peninsula overlooking the sea. Topkapi was a residence of the sultans, administrative seat of the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years, and the source of legend on life in the harem.
Cappadocia was also fascinating, an ancient region that fought hard against Alexander the Great, is mentioned in the Bible, and contains several underground cities largely used by early Christians as hiding places before their faith became an accepted religion.