We arrived back in Istanbul to sunny skies – a rare event in winter. Dumping off our suitcases, we rushed out to see what the city looked like in the sunshine. Being a sunny Sunday afternoon everyone was out promenading. There is a restaurant atop of a hotel that overlooks the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and this was definitely the day to take advantage of the view. From six floors up one could appreciate the architecture of both of these buildings in a way not possible from ground level.
Particularly the Blue Mosque was an absolute wonder as the sunlight faded.
Saving the best for last, the next day we visited the Hagia Sofia. Of course the grey skies had returned. Above and beyond its architectural beauty, what is so hard to comprehend is that this enormous Byzantine edifice was constructed in 537 as a church. It changed hands between the Christians and Moslems until 1453 when Turkey remained predominantly Moslem. Finally Ataturk declared it a museum in 1935. Most remarkable are the high dome and gold mosaics.
Since we didn’t make it to Konya, famous for its whirling dervishes, we sought out a café just below the Blue Mosque that had three musicians and one whirling dervish. The trancelike dervish dance was hypnotic as round and round he spun for thirty minutes.
The Mosaic Museum was our last stop in Istanbul. It has a huge segment of floor from the Byzantine period that was part of the Great Palace. The mosaics depict daily life, including some gory hunting activities, and mythical creatures, all bordered with an elaborate ribbon of heart shaped leaves. Discovered in 1930s under a bazaar at the rear of the Blue Mosque by a team of Turkish and Scottish archeologists.
Turkey surpassed our expectations. We hope to return when it’s warmer to travel to Cappadocia and beyond; but we have no regrets for coming in late November. A man at our guesthouse mentioned that he was here just last June, and he much prefers Istanbul in the winter without the tourist crush despite the weather.
As we traveled around western Turkey we noticed that like so many other places we’ve been, the national identity is rapidly disappearing with blocks and blocks of concrete housing replacing whatever it was that was Turkish. If you squint you could be in one of dozens of countries. As the world shrinks it is harder and harder to find local/national antiquity beyond the great monuments.
But our experience is based only on western Turkey. We met someone from Mardin, which is very close to the Syrian Border. It looks like a wonderful old city and if it weren’t so close to Syria we’d like to incorporate it into our next trip. We have only met one Syrian refugee, a gift shop employee who obviously had money and/or contacts when he came over a year ago. Turkey is very concerned about the influx of refugees – an estimated one million have arrived already. While many are in refugee camps in the east; those who are able are flocking to Istanbul looking for work. The Turks are concerned about the economic impact of the refugees but they don’t seem to be afraid of the violence spreading into their country.