Category Archives: Travel

Tintin in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar


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.

Three cups of tea


Each night, right after we come back from dinner, the evening call to prayer filters in through the street noise from our open window. It’s one of those stereotypical sounds you’d expect when you think of the Middle East, but I can’t put words to how special it is to hear it echo throughout the city. Yesterday, we were passing by a mosque on the ferry just as it sounded the call to prayer:

Call to Prayer in the Bosphorus Strait

Oh Istanbul, you enchant me more and more!

While so far we’ve been very much tourists, today we had the opportunity to truly appreciate the benefits of traveling through Turkey as a study abroad—using the city and its people as an educational platform.

After another wonderful breakfast at the hotel’s extensive buffet, we drove from the hotel to the Saliya district to visit Koç University. Koç University is a private, English-instruction university that was founded by the Koç Foundation in 1996. Since its founding, the school has had a long education with Georgetown, namely through exchange programs and its emphasis on modeling the Western liberal arts-style of higher education.


The campus itself was beautiful, located high atop the hills overlooking the Black Sea. At the university, we had the chance to meet with both the university president and their director of international programs. We were able to learn about the history of the school, as well as the innovative programs they’ve launched to enrich Turkish higher education.

For example, Koç University offers very strong financial aid to each class of 900 undergraduates. About 40% of the students receive full tuition scholarships, and around 70% get some sort of scholarship. The university recruits from the top 2% of Turkish students, and partners with corporations to help sponsor the tuition of students from otherwise underrepresented districts in Turkey.

Another thing we discussed was how to promote innovation within universities. Traditionally, Turkish universities were not allowed to have their own patents, making them often unable to benefit from their contributions to their respective fields. However, more private universities, including Koç, have created ways to benefit from their intellectual property through foundations that put the profits back to the school. Due to this success, there is currently a law pending to allow public Turkish universities to own patents as well.

Turkish hospitality is the best—we were served some lovely tea during the meeting, and then they gave us some rosewater-covered Turkish delights as a farewell!

After the meeting, we had some time to explore the campus. The buildings—let alone the views—were beautiful.

We had lunch in their cafeteria, and then took the bus to meet with representatives at the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce. When we got to their building, we were taken up to the top floor of the building and into this absolutely amazing conference room. Look at this view:

During the presentation, one of the economists at the Chamber of Commerce gave us a basic summary of the role of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce—which is the 5th largest chamber in the world with some 350,000 members—then gave us an excellent presentation about characteristics of Turkey’s economy, namely how Turkey got out of the financial crisis so quickly and strongly. For example, Turkey’s GDP Growth Rate (% – Annual) went from -4.8 in 2009 to 9.2 in 2010, 8.5 in 2011, and 2.2 in 2012.

For an explanation of this trend, he pointed to five aspects of Turkey’s economy: a strong financial sector, private sector investment, the condition of Turkish public finance, diversification of exports, and a successful monetary policy.

Of course, the sliding Turkish lira, where the exchange rate has reached a new low of $0.50, might threaten this economic prosperity. While the Turkish central bank has said it does not intend to hike interest rates to defend this depreciation of the lira because they believe it is a temporary condition, this could be too optimistic.

Overall, the discussion was a great precursor to the two economics courses that I’m taking this fall. (And at last, those lectures of International Trade and International Finance came in handy!)

Yet again, we were served some pastries and more glasses of tea (this time two rounds!). I even got to take with me a stack of books with statistics on the Turkish economy—I guess for some ambitious free reading?


We then took the bus to Mor Çati, an NGO for women’s rights near Taksim Square. It was one of the first organizations founded in Turkey to fight against violence towards women, and today runs a shelter for women along with promoting women’s rights through political activism.

The woman we met with was more comfortable speaking German than English, so one of our professors, Katrin, translated the discussion for us. We learned about recent developments in Turkish law regarding women’s rights then had the opportunity to ask all sorts of questions about the current situation in Turkey. One of the most interesting comments she made was how the Turkish state is quick in enacting laws to protect women, but slow in enforcing them. As a result, many changes end up being fairly superficial. Of course, this is a struggle for many feminists—the greater structural issues caused by patriarchy that infiltrate both politics and society.

After the meeting, it was back to hotel for dinner. I plugged in my new Turkish cell phone to charge, but about 5 minutes into charging there was a loud popping noise and the outlets stopped working. Luckily, the phone is fine, but the charger they had provided me doesn’t work anymore.

My flashback-to-middle-school cell phone.

My flashback-to-middle-school cell phone.

Amanda and I went down to the front desk, and after about 15 minutes of very confusing pantomiming and trying to explain the problem, the manager told us he would get someone tomorrow to fix it. But until then, only our bathroom outlets work, so I’m currently sitting on the floor in the hallway so I can charge my laptop.

Tomorrow we’re in for the “greatest hits” of Istanbul: the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Underground Cistern, and, of course, the Haghia Sophia!

It’s tiring to make up these fortunes!

When I followed the protests in Istanbul in the early summer, I wasn’t sure what kind of country I would encounter when I stepped foot in Istanbul this fall. Yet today, we got a taste of what those weeks were like.


But before that, I’ll start from the beginning! Our first stop on the itinerary today was the Dolmabahçe Palace, a beautiful and extravagant building that honestly rivals Versailles in terms of scale and ornamentation. We took the metro down to Beşiktaş, a district along the European coastline of the Bosphorus strait that bustles with all sorts of ferries traveling across to the Asian side. The palace itself sits right on the water, with breathtaking views of the water and over 45,000 square meters of palace rooms.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the palace, but its interiors were even grander than the outside. We were able to tour the main entrance hall, the secretariat’s rooms, the sultan’s apartment, Atatürk’s room, and the grand ceremonial hall.

We had to wear these plastic booties while in the palace so we wouldn't track in dirt.

We had to wear these plastic booties while in the palace so we wouldn’t track in dirt.

After the tour, we took a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul.

Once we got off the ferry, we ate lunch at the most amazing  restaurant near Kadıköy Square. The restaurant prides itself on offering specialty dishes from all across Turkey, and we were able to sample a wide variety of dishes. Out of all the delicious cuisine we’ve had so far, this one was by far the best meal.

We then had some free time to explore the nearby bazaar after lunch.

When we were walking to the restaurant, we first came across a concert and a couple groups of protestors marching down the street in honor of World Peace Day. But by the time we were leaving the area, the crowd was huge. There was a large crowd near the stage, and both the streets and ferries had been shut down to accommodate the protest. So, our only option was to walk about a mile and a half down the road to the nearest bus stop so we could get out of the area.

This walk had us walk right down the parade of protestors, which was slightly unsettling even though the protest was well-organized and it appeared to be cooperating with the police.


There was a huge variety of groups at the protest, each with their own demands, although they all appeared to come out in support of World Peace Day. Our guides for Istanbul, Nese and Mehmet, tried to lead us as quickly as they could out of the area, particularly because many were protesting the U.S.’s proposed strike against Syria.


After about 40 minutes of walking, we finally reached the end of the parade, and were able to cram onto a “domus,” a small bus by which you pay with cash. The domus operates on a kind of honor system: when you get on the bus, you pass up the bus fare to the front person by person, even if you’re crammed in the back.

We then spent the afternoon in Üsküdar, lounging on some cushions looking out at the water and the Maiden’s Tower, a small tower about 200 meters from the shore. We had time to rest and have some tea—or, in my case, a Coca-Cola since it was so hot.

PC: Lindsay

PC: Lindsay

Amanda and Alex also had their fortunes read by Nese. According to custom, once you’re finished drinking your Turkish coffee, you are supposed to read your fortune from the coffee grounds left over.

PC: Lindsay

PC: Lindsay

About halfway through Alex’s fortune-telling, Amanda asked if she could have her fortune taken afterwards. Nese responded, “Yes, but it’s tiring to make up these fortunes!”

Afterwards, we walked to another ferry stop, and took the ferry and metro back to our hotel. At the hotel, I checked the news to find out what the protests were about earlier today, and found out that there were more protests occurring in Taksim Square, where the police had blocked entrance to Gezi Park.

We were told to stay away from the area for the evening, but it will be interesting to follow any developments that come. According to the agreement we signed before study abroad, we’re not supposed to seek out ways to participate or observe protests. However, while safety is always a priority, it was exhilarating to experience a protest first-hand.


PC: Lindsay

But to all my worried family members––don’t worry, I’m okay!

Eat your food… or it will chase you in your dreams!

With our first full day in Istanbul, it was time to learn a bit of survival Turkish. Turkish is a difficult language, where each sentence seems like a never-ending word with its endless suffixes attached to each word and a tendency to elide vowels. Nevertheless, we began to practice the basics: merhaba for “hello” and teşekkür ederim for “thank you.”

Georgetown takes on Istanbul

Georgetown takes on Istanbul

After breakfast, our group headed out into the city for our first full day of sightseeing. First, we took the underground metro to Pera, which is the part of Istanbul where most of the Jews and Christians lived in the city. The streets in Pera where lined with beautiful apartments and rooftop gardens.

We visited the Pera Müzesi (Pera Museum), a contemporary, privately-owned museum that opened in 2005 and offered a fascinating comparison between modern and traditional Turkish art. One of my favorite parts of the museum was an exhibit called “Direniyorsan senin olsun” (It’s yours if you resist), which followed the recent protests in Taksim Square. Lines of photographs taken from the protests where mounted on wire, and you had to duck around the photographs to walk through the exhibit.


Exhibit for "Direniyorsan senin olsun"

Exhibit for “Direniyorsan senin olsun”

The museum also had an extensive exhibit about the relationship between ambassadors and Ottoman art. It was a two-way exchange––Ottoman painters like Osman Hamdi studied in Europe and brought back Western-influenced techniques, while foreign ambassadors commissioned artists to help bring the Ottoman Empire to Europeans back home.

Osman Hamdi's famous painting "The Turtle Trainer"

Osman Hamdi’s famous painting “The Turtle Trainer”

After the museum, we walked along Istiklal Avenue, one of the major pedestrian walkways in Istanbul. The street is excellent for people-watching and completely lined with all types of stores.

I was surprised at how many brands I recognized from back home: McDonald’s, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Gap, Nike, Zara, and even a Shake Shack! We had lunch at a restaurant along the street, and we were able to pick from the buffet what we’d like to eat.

The food was delicious, but most of us were unable to finish our plates, probably due to lingering jet lag. Our residence director, Nese, told us what Turkish mothers tell them when they don’t finish their food: “Eat your food or it will cry and chase you in your dreams!” Hopefully the nightmares stay away!

After lunch, we walked over to Galata, a neighborhood in Istanbul that traditionally was settled by the Genoese. We were able to climb to the top of Galata Tower, which was built in 1358 as part of the neighborhood’s walls. The tower stands over 70 meters tall, and there’s a precarious ledge you can go on to see a complete 360-degree view of Istanbul.

After the tower, we ended up back on Istiklal Avenue, where we then visited St. Anthony’s Church, a Catholic Church that is run by Italian priests.

We were also able to try Turkish ice cream for the first time. Turkish ice cream is stored in these metal cylinders which keep it extremely cold—the consistency is more of ice than of soft serve. It’s then served with this huge metal stick that the man uses to chip off pieces of ice cream for a cone.


The ice cream vendor we visited kept messing with us––he kept moving the stick around so Alex couldn’t get the ice cream!


Lastly, we visited Taksim Square and Gezi Park, the site of the recent protests that were in the news in May through July. Taksim Square itself is really just a plot of pavement near a busy intersection, and Gezi Park is a medium-sized park with trees and grass where lots of young people were hanging out.

In Taksim Square, the police presence was visible but quiet; at the time we were there, there weren’t any protests going on. In fact, it was hard to put the scenes from the photographs we saw at the museum to the bustling, unremarkable intersection that we saw.

After sitting and resting for a bit in Gezi Park, we took the metro back to textile district and headed back to the hotel.

Overall, I love my first impressions of Istanbul. It’s a fascinating city—the call to prayer echoes over women in hijabs and minidresses alike, just as they do over ornate old European-style apartment buildings and shiny skyscrapers. It’s an interesting cities of juxtapositions—of the east and the west, of old and new—and it’s exciting to see it all in action.

Greetings from Istanbul!

With two flights, one crazy sprint through the Frankfurt International Airport, and 15 hours of travel, I finally made it to Istanbul. But first, my journey began with a long haul flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt on one of the gigantic new Airbus 380s.


View from the window seat.

After 10 hours, two slightly peculiar meals of German food, and a couple of movies, my Lufthansa flight arrived in Frankfurt slightly ahead of schedule. However, I had to run from one end of a terminal to another and through security again in order to make it to my connecting gate within an hour. Luckily, my connection went off without a hitch and I was able to make my next flight.

For my flight to Istanbul, I soon discovered why it’s wonderful to fly foreign airlines: they still give you food! First, Turkish Airlines passes out Turkish Delights before you even take off. Then, even though the flight was just over three hours long, they served us an entire meal for lunch, with a choice of chicken medallions or beef kebab along with a small salad and dessert.

Once I arrived in Istanbul, however, the arrival terminal was pure chaos. I first bought my visa, then I snuck into the gigantic line that snaked way down the hallway. (I sincerely apologize to those whom I cut in line, but sometimes, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.) The line was ridiculously long—I waited 45 minutes before I got through passport control and headed over to baggage claim. With my tight connection and the huge wait at immigration, I was worried that my bag would be lost, but once I saw my purple behemoth suitcase circling around the conveyor belt, I wanted to dance and sing in honor of the lost luggage gods.

I exited the terminal, and after some searching, I was finally able to locate the other people in my pick-up group for a ride to the hotel, where we had dinner and finally got to meet everyone in the program this semester. Overall, there are nine students and three professors—hello, small class sizes!

We’re staying at the Fatih Hotel, which is located near Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul’s textile district. The hotel itself is surrounded by numerous showrooms, ready to sell elaborate ballroom gowns, suits, and wholesale clothing to retailers. After dinner, we wandered around the streets near our hotel, stepping over the trash that was left for pick-up—huge bags of fabric scraps, cigarette buds, and discarded thread.

As we explored near the hotel, the streets were empty, save for the occasional trash pick-up or fast food delivery motorbike from Pizza Hut. It the kind of surreal quality that quite fits when you suddenly find yourself in a foreign country for four months. And so it begins.

A somewhat blurry look at an alleyway in Istanbul's textile district at night

A look at an alleyway in Istanbul’s textile district at night.