Searching for my inner concubine in Istanbul

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Maybe it was because it was grey and raining. Maybe it was because I couldn’t help but compare it to my beloved cities in Morocco. Or maybe it was because nothing could possibly top our recent adventures in Cappadocia. Whatever it was, one thing is for certain. I didn’t loose my heart in Istanbul.

I’m probably going to get a lot of hate mail about this, but I have to be honest, otherwise what’s the point? I came away from our 3 days in Turkey’s capital feeling like I still didn’t have a clue who she was. Straddling two very different continents, for me Istanbul felt as if it had a bit of an identity issue. If it’s not Asian, and not European, what is it? I’m used to things being a bit more clear cut, like the elegant and proud western cities of Rome and Paris, or the exotic and vibrant eastern delights such as Marrakech and Sousse. You just know where you are with them! Istanbul on the other hand, well I’m still not really sure what it’s all about. Grey seemed to be the dominant colour, and driving along the sea front amongst decaying buildings, unsightly industry and hundreds of rusty fishing trawlers looming out of the murk, I hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come. To be fair, it did improve a bit further into Sultanahmet where we were staying, but not by the margins I would have liked.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Whilst on the surface the city fails, for me, as a whole, the individual historical sights more or less make up for it, with some of the most stunning architecture and colour imaginable.

Basilica Cistern

Rather childishly this was the one place I didn’t want to miss, because James Bond woz ‘ere, way back when he was chasing bad guys in From Russia With Love. I always thought it looked cool when they escaped through the underground watery passages, and when I found out it was an actual place, well… here I was at last.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

On paper it’s not particularly exciting. Built in the 6th Century, it’s the largest of Istanbul’s ancient water storage chambers and once supplied the Topkapi Palace amongst others. In reality however it’s rather mesmerising, and difficult to tear your eyes away. Big enough to fit a cathedral inside, with all the floodlit columns it’s heaven for a photographer with steady hands or a tripod.

The ceiling is supported by an army of carved stone columns, which were recycled from the ruins of older buildings rather than being part of the original structure. They stand in a couple of feet of water that is home to carp that live out a strange existence in the murky depths.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

You can hire an audio guide (where can’t you get one these days!) but really, it’s just an atmospherically illuminated underground chamber and reading your guidebook will more than suffice. There are a few history boards although these weren’t in English, and tucked away at the back was a corny dressing up area where the sort of suckers who make ‘V’ signs in all their photos can have their picture taken whilst looking nothing like a sultan or a concubine.

Cost: TL10

Opening hours: 9am – 6.30pm

Good to know: the place continually drips water, so the wooden walkways do get wet and slippery. Probably an idea not to wear your best heels down there.

Blue Mosque

Also called the Sultanahmet Mosque, this fine example of architecture was built in the early 17th Century by you guessed it, Sultan Ahmed I.

The Blue Mosque exterior gives no hints of the colour explosion inside.

The Blue Mosque exterior gives no hints of the colour explosion inside.

Hands down the best mosque EVER! And unusually, non-Muslims are allowed in at certain times of day. Worrying that I wouldn’t be admitted since I’d forgotten my headscarf, I tried to convince hubbie I needed to buy a new one from the numerous vendors dotted about the city. He wasn’t having any of it however – apparently my owning one for every day of the month already is considered to be more than enough! Fortunately the attendants at the side door (tourists can’t use the main entrance) have strips of old bedsheets which are handed out to cover heads and legs. I escaped the washer-woman skirt look as I had on a long coat, but there were many who didn’t, quite rightly suffering the consequences of short skirts and skinny leggings. To complete the outfit, everyone is given a plastic bag to carry their shoes around in (it was wet outside), and finally we were inside.

Have you ever seen anything quite like it?

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

There was a constant low murmur of voices as people tried to be respectful to the few locals who were at prayer, and there wasn’t much to do other than stand and stare. At the building!

With it’s blue tiled domes, the mosque is named for it’s colour inside rather than out, although perhaps it would have been better named ‘technicolour dream mosque’ instead. It’s a lot to take in, and you feel you can’t stand far enough back to really appreciate all it’s splendour, but it’s an honour just to be there. Definitely my favourite sight in Istanbul.

The coloured domes and hundreds of hanging lights kind of reminded me of jellyfish…

Amazing architectural tentacles in the Blue Mosque

Amazing architectural tentacles in the Blue Mosque

Cost: Free but donations appreciated

Opening hours: Closed during prayer times, which happen 5 times a day (including at 3pm contrary to most guide books and signage).

Etiquette: No skirts, shorts, bare legs, shoulders, heads etc.

Hagia Sophia

The ‘Divine Wisdom’ had humble beginnings as a small church back in 390AD, with a wooden roof and a lifetime of just 14 years before being burned down and reduced to rubble.

After being rebuilt the Hagia Sophia showed it’s stubbornness by surviving numerous revolts and crusades, albeit taking a grand old battering in the process, before being turned into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet who won Constantinople in 1453.

Also known as the Aya Sophia, with it’s enormous dome the building the museum is considered a master-class of Byzantine design, and is even said to have changed the history of architecture. I’ve certainly not seen anything similar that is quite so spectacular.

From the outside it looks very similar to the Blue Mosque and can be really confusing when you’re trying to get your bearings. Just remember the Hagia Sohpia is slightly pink on the outside.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

And gold on the inside…

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Today the Hagia Sophia calls itself a ‘museum’ but is totally devoid of all the usual paraphernalia that usually attracts such a label.

Instead, come here for bold architecture and a dazzling black and gold colour scheme, and to ponder why it is shaped like all other Islamic mosques when in fact it was built as a church by the Christians!

When the church was converted to a mosque most of the Christian paintings and frescoes were plastered over, but a few managed to escape.

The gold theme continues upstairs…

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

I was quite excited to visit the tombs of five of the Ottoman Sultans and their families around the side of the building, but after realising they were all a bit sterile and hidden by plain green covers there’s only so many times one can be bothered to remove ones shoes in order to see the same thing yet again.

Sultans tombs, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Sultans tombs, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Cost: TL25

Opening hours: Daily except Monday, 9am – 7pm (summer), 9am – 5pm (winter)

Good to  know: An hour is plenty. The Sultan’s tombs are free to visit, even if you don’t have a ticket for the Hagia Sophia. Make sure you head upstairs where the views are even better, and if you’re tall enough (unlike me) you can see the Blue Mosque from the windows.

Topkapi Palace

When I grow up I want to be a cowboy. And if I can’t be a cowboy, I’ll be a concubine. No wonder my school careers adviser soon washed her hands of me (after once daring to suggest I become a bricklayer). I’d read all the books and knew that a concubine’s life was charmed. Full of sensuous clothing that floated behind them as they ran bare-foot through jasmine scented gardens; exotic perfumes that would entice men from miles around only to be scorned at the final hurdle; delicious feasts, a bit of court intrigue to keep them on their toes, and the attentions of the richest (and of course most handsome) man in the kingdom. What more could a girl want?

Harem, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Harem, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

So it was with some excitement that I announced to hubbie we were going to visit the home of the Sultans. Having never had a life-long ambition to be a Eunuch, and been subjected to far too many renditions of Sultans of Swing over the years, he managed to contain his euphoria and tagged along acceptingly.

We’d waltzed in seconds after opening, thus avoiding the enormous queue that formed behind us, and made a beeline for the Harem and the heart of the action. Moments later all my illusions were shattered. One half of the complex was boarded up for renovation work, and the other half was cold and damp with water dripping into strategically placed buckets (hence the need for renovation I suppose). Although the tilework was vibrant and stunning, my imagination was working overtime to conjure up even a glimpse of concubine life all those years ago. I certainly couldn’t picture the dark corridors and icy chambers filled with colour and chatter and life. I was going to have to stick with the cowboy idea after all.

Harem, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Harem, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Perhaps February wasn’t the best time to visit. The marble walkways were incredibly slippery in the pouring rain, which did nothing for the composure of my by now well and truly buried inner concubine. However every cloud and all that…there’s no way we would have taken these empty room photos at any other time of year.

The rest of the palace was only ok in my book, although there were interesting tit-bits like the whopping great big diamond in the Treasury and surely people weren’t that wide pants in the museum. There’s also the staff of Moses and an arm cast of Prophet John if you’re to believe in such things.

Harem, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Harem, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Cost: TL40 (including Harem)

Opening Hours: 9am – 5pm.Closed Tuesdays.

Good to Know: Be there at opening time and head straight to the Harem. It’s the most beautiful and interesting part of the palace, and most people don’t get to it until later. This is the only hope you have of not sharing it with everyone else. Tour groups pour in at 10am. You can get a good idea of the palace in about 3 hours, and although it’s suggested you could easily spend a day here, I couldn’t see it myself. In the rain it’s incredibly slippery underfoot on all the polished marble walkways. It will be busier on Mondays when many of the other sights are closed.

Archaeological Museum

Having been an archaeology student once upon a time I understand that it’s pretty much all about pottery, but was pleasantly surprised that Istanbul’s efforts in the field are so impressive they nearly give the British Museum a run for it’s money. Almost.

Archaeological Museum, Istanbul

Archaeological Museum, Istanbul

The Istanbul Archaeology Museum is actually 3 separate museums. The Tiled Pavilion has, you guessed it, tiles, pots and ceramics. Pretty but not exactly mind-blowing. The Museum of the Ancient Orient had more exciting exhibits like Egyptian tombs and mummies (a dead body always catches attention!). However me the Archaeology Museum was the most impressive, especially the colossal marble Sarcophagus collection from the Royal Necropolis of Sidon.

Sarcophagus, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul

Sarcophagus, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul

They really were remarkable and I rather fancy one of my own when the time comes! I wonder what the stone mason would carve to depict my life? Not tales of heroic battles and epic sea voyages that’s for certain.

Cost: TL10

Opening Hours: 9am – 5pm. Closed Mondays

Grand Bazaar

This was definitely the biggest disappointment of all. We expected riots of spice, colour and haggling, as well as piles of fabrics, herbs, and James Bond. Well ok, maybe not the latter. Instead we found streets lined with glass windowed shops selling watches and hideous chunky gold jewellery. Being used to the bustle and banter of the Moroccan souks, we couldn’t drum up much enthusiasm for what was supposed to be one of the world’s best bazaars.

More like a shopping mall than a bazaar, Istanbul

More like a shopping mall than a bazaar, Istanbul

Things improved slightly as we delved deeper into what was essentially a shopping mall, and hubbie kept out of trouble by eyeing up the antiques. With everything from pistols and compasses to diving bells and pocket watches, these were far more interesting than the job-lot tracksuits and boxes of processed Turkish delight for the tourists. Hubbie was no doubt secretly thankful that for once I wouldn’t be returning home with a suitcase full of junk.

One thing we did find everywhere was the blue Nazar, or evil eye, used as a talisman to ward off bad luck. Perhaps we should have bought one.

Spice Bazaar

Tucked over near the Galata Bridge, the Spice Bazaar was small but at least we knew what we’d be seeing! This was a bit more like it, with cones of saffron and tumeric lining the aisles alongside boxes of baclava and dates. As it was so cold there was very little smell which was a bit of an anti-climax, so I might have to blame this damp squib on the weather. No-one tried to make me buy anything, a disappointment in itself, and although the Turkish delight here is indeed the real thing (some of it not even looking like Turish Delight) I couldn’t get excited about it.

The Spice Bazaar was slightly better, Istanbul

The Spice Bazaar was slightly better, Istanbul

More interesting in fact was the surrounding area, which was a lot more rough and ready, with a reputation for being less safe than the more central tourist areas, and clearly a popular lunch haunt for the working local population with doner kebabs and pide stalls everywhere we turned.

Grand Post Office

This rather impressive old building is worth poking your nose into for a few minutes on the way back from the Spice Bazaar to rest your aching feet and admire the architecture. And of course it’s also good if you in fact need the services of a post office!

The Death Wish Dogs

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of Istanbul were the numerous feral dogs roaming about the main square between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Without thought for the possible outcome, they wait patiently by the road for a passing vehicle, then bound out and chase it, getting right under the wheels and apparently enjoying playing chicken. They certainly rule the roost and surprisingly I never once saw one get injured. Oddly the dogs all seemed to have ear tags, which I can only assume means they’ve been checked for rabies or such like. Nevertheless I steered well clear.

The death wish dogs take a breather, Istanbul

The death wish dogs take a breather, Istanbul

I think I would have got on well with Constantinople had I been there in the 15th Century. I might even have warmed to the Istanbul of today had I not been spoiled by all the places with more character and identity I’ve seen on my wanderings. There are some magnificent sights in the city, but I’ve now seen them. And I won’t be rushing back.


If you’re looking for a great place to stay in Istanbul, check out this little gem – Hotel Amira in the centre of Sultanahmet.

2 Comments

  • Milosz Zak says:

    Can you imagine the second time I found myself in Istanbul, the Souq was closed, and only the Egyptian Spice Bazaar was open… let’s just say it’s giving me a reason to return. Out of all the sights in Istanbul, I think the Yerebetan Cistern will stay with me the most – it’s such a surreal construction, and right under the streets of the old city.

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