At the beginning of the summer, I read Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno, particularly because the book was set in two of the places that I’m going to this year—Florence and Istanbul. While it may not have been the most historically accurate novel, I was definitely excited to see the various locations that make up the setting for its climax.
On the drive to the old part of the city, one of our professors gave us some background on what she called the “three places of serenity” that we’d be seeing today: the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque. On our visits, she encouraged us to take a moment to appreciate each space—and my, what beautiful pieces of serenity they were.
However, we first met our tour guide, Claire, at the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome was once a huge kind of sporting arena, where they used to hold chariot races and gladiator fights in Constantinople. Today, it’s a square named Sultanahmet Meydani, and you can see remnants of the original structure, such as the incredible Egyptian obelisk (originally brought to Constantinople in 390!), a Byzantine obelisk, and a Roman serpent column.
We then headed into the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish.
The Hagia Sophia was originally built as an Orthodox Church by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537. It then served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral until 1453—except for a period between 1204 and 1261 when it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral. Then in 1453, the building was converted into a mosque under the Ottoman Empire. Finally, Atatürk converted the mosque into a museum in 1931.
The scale of the building is incredible. The dome is huge—only slightly smaller than the Pantheon, yet much higher off the ground. The restored Christian mosaics along with the Arabic calligraphy create a fitting juxtaposition for the powerful history of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.
Then we visited the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground chamber that was used to collect water. The cistern was built in the 6th century, but today it’s been turned into this kind of “New Age” experience—spotlights illuminate the columns in the dark space and acoustic music softly plays from a speaker.
We also stopped at the Mosaic Museum, which houses mosaics from the Byzantine period from the original site of the Great Palace of Constantinople.
We stopped for lunch, and then it was time to visit the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque by tourists due to the blue tiles from Iznik that adorn its walls.
The mosque was built from 1609 to 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I (hence its name). While it is now a popular tourist attraction, it is still used as a space of worship. Accordingly, we came prepared wearing long skirts and carrying scarves to cover out heads. However, many of these mosques also offer various loaner scarves and skirts if you’ve forgotten to come prepared.
The arches and geometric designs were beautiful!
After the mosque, we then stopped for a snack at a lovely café nearby. I ordered a frozen Turkish coffee. It even came with a chocolate spoon!
Then it was time to explore the Grand Bazaar. I didn’t know quite what to expect from the bazaar, but it was certainly grand. The covered market is comprised by over 3,000 shops and employs some 31,000 individuals.
While you can get your pick of Istanbul souvenirs, the Grand Bazaar also has quite the selection of fake brand-name sunglasses, bags, purses, and watches. I was incredibly excited to find a Tintin in Istanbul shirt for my brother, and I also bought a pair of cheap sunglasses knockoffs since I accidentally left mine at home.
As you wind through the maze of streets in the bazaar, countless salesmen pull out all kinds of tricks to get you to enter their shop. Often, they ask if you’re from somewhere like England or Germany—even when you might be obviously American—because they can get you into a conversation and then into their shop. Other times, they’ll call you out individually—our favorite line from one of the salesman was “Hey blond lady!” to Amanda.
On top of the aggressive salesmen, it quickly became fun to undermine each other’s attempts to get away from them. For example, after we brushed off a particularly aggressive salesman, Alex stopped and asked loudly, “Amanda, didn’t you just say you wanted a scarf like this?” Then as Amanda was being convinced to try on a scarf, she told the salesman, “Oh no, Shannon is the one who really wants the scarf.” Soon enough, we were trying on multiple scarves before we were finally able to get away.