Day two in Instanbul was a long day; but a great day. We left the ship at 8 am and after a short drive through Old Town, the name given to the ancient part of the city, we got off the bus at the Hippodrome, once the most important place in the city. There was only the back wall and three monuments left of what once was the largest chariot race track of the Roman Byzantine Empire.
This long space was the site of the Hippodrome used for chariot races. Two obelisks and a bronze serpentine column were erected in the Hippodrome. The oldest one was from Egypt and was 3,000 years old. It had been brought to the Hippodrome site in 390 AD. The obelisk was created by Pharaoh Thutmosse III in the 18th dynasty 1479-1425 BC. Emperor Constantius II had it and a second obelisk transported down the Nile River to Alexandria to commemorate his 20 years on the throne in 357 AD. (The other obelisk was erected at the Circus Maximus in Rome.) It was made of solid granite and it actually looked the newest.
The obelisk was originally 30 meters tall. It was damaged in antiquity, possibly when being transported and is now 18. 5 meters tall. The base is quite a mish-mash of foundation stones. This one, called the Walled Obelisk, was the turning signal for the chariots racing at the Hippodrome. From the Hippodrome we walked next door to the famous Blue Mosque. Thank goodness we were on a pre-arranged tour! The line to get tickets was very, very long. Our tour guide already had all of our tickets so we just went right in.
We had to remove our shoes before entering the mosque and, if you didn’t have your own, scarves were provided for women to cover their hair. We had been told to wear long sleeves and pants so any bare skin was covered as a matter of respect.This long covered space along the side of the mosque is the ablutions facility (there is another one on the other side as well) where the men wash the parts of their bodies that are generally exposed to dirt and grime (hands, mouths, noses, face, head, ears and feet; each three times). This is called the Wudu and in this way they enter a state of purity before Allah, having removed the impurities from their bodies before entering the mosque to pray.
The mosque can accommodate 10,000 men during prayer. Sultan Ahmed, who was then 14 years old, ordered the building of an Islamic counterpart to Hagia Sophia, which was at that time a Christian church. The beautiful mosque was constructed between 1609 and 1616 and is a “triumph of harmony, proportion and elegance.” The official name of the mosque is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque but everyone, except the Turks, calls it the Blue Mosque because of all the blue patterned Iznik tiles (21,403 of them) covering the walls and ceiling domes. It must take this fellow a long, long time to vacuum this huge carpet. There were so many different colours and patterns of tiles. Every surface was covered. It was very lovely even if I found it a bit of a sensory overload. Another short walk took us to Topkapi Palace, built by order of Sultan Mehmet II (the Conqueror) after his army stormed and sacked Constantinople in 1453. The palace served as the official residence of the Ottoman sultans and the royal court until the mid-19th century. Topkapi means “cannon gate.” People, people, people.
The place has a pretty nice entrance. Our guide gave us an overview of the 3-5 different sections of the palace and then sent us off for 45 minutes to wander. Obviously, not nearly enough time to do such a huge place justice, and the long lines to enter the rooms ate up quite a bit of our time. Still, we managed to go through quite a lot of rooms before we had to go to our assigned meeting spot to go on the separate tour of the Harem rooms.
I love the shape of the fireplaces. These long lines were to go see the crown jewels and other items in the Treasury. We didn’t even think about it. The ‘jewel’ of the treasury is the 86-carat ‘Spoonmaker’s’ Diamond.
To visit the Harem rooms of the palace you need a second ticket; which our tour included. We think of the harem as the place where all the concubines lived, but it was more than that; it was the home of the sultan and all the members of his family – and, of course, the concubines. There was a very strict hierarchy observed between all the various family levels. Apparently every single square inch of every single room and surface must be covered by tiles of different colours and patterns. It almost makes your head spin after awhile. I’m not a real pink loving girl but this dome was very pretty. This wall could be used for a colour blindness test, or an analysis of the shapes and colours interpreted by the brain.