By Debi Lander
Many months ago, my friend Judy and I decided to visit Turkey, starting in Istanbul. We discussed the recent bombings and unrest in the world but decided that fear was not going to stop us. We’d be mindful and hope for the best. Besides, who can predict when or where the next violent rampage will happen in the United States?
Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, was the hub of the civilized world for centuries and the city’s treasures remain a powerful draw.
Before entering the glorious Blue Mosque, we removed our shoes and covered our heads with scarves. The courtyard and fountains are reminiscent of the seductive Alhambra in Spain. We kept encountering dome after dome overhead as we passed from the courtyard into the sacred place.
The mosque was constructed between 1606 – 1616 and the intricate curvilinear detail on the ceiling is like a fine embroidered silk. Multiple small domes and the main dome fill the vast interior held aloft by the hugest columns I’ve ever seen.
A roped off section is still used by Muslims who come to pray. The plan was to build a mosque larger than neighboring Hagia Sophia, but Sultan Ahmet changed his mind and scaled down the size. Nevertheless, visually the architecture and design of the exterior are much grander than its historic neighbor.
We left the Blue Mosque through a doorway that opens toward a wide plaza between these UNESCO World Heritage sites. The pedestrian-only park is alive with vibrant flowering gardens, fountains and walkways.
Hagia Sofia was originally built and used as an Orthodox Church for about 1,000 years. In 1435, it was converted into a mosque. Turkey’s first president, Ataturk, proclaimed it a museum in 1935. Therefore, visitors do not need to cover their heads, but must pass through a typical TSA-like screening.
The center dome is the fourth largest in the world (following the Vatican, St. Paul’s in London and Florence’s Duomo.) It is, of course, the oldest, completed in 532 AD. The dome’s diameter measures 107 feet and appears to hang in midair without support.
There wasn’t another monument of this size constructed for another 1,000 years, an awe-inspiring reminder of the knowledge acquired by the Byzantines. Despite the earthquakes that hit Istanbul from time to time, Hagia Sofia remains intact, although it has undergone many restorations.
We climbed to the second-floor galleries via a series of inclined rocky ramps. Here you can view the intricate golden mosaics from the earliest period, those that were previously covered by plaster when the structure was converted into a mosque; however, the figure of the Madonna and child, just below the central dome always remained visible — only their eyes were concealed.
We also visited the opulent Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces, former homes of the sultans, their harems and seemingly endless number of staff.
The Old City, where we stayed, is very walkable, feels safe and friendly. When locals ask where we are from, they are always delighted to hear us say “the United States.”
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander.
The Blue Mosque with gardens.