The plane circled the skies waiting for its turn in the queue for the landing strip. I craned my eyes to get a glimpse of this ancient city over the winter rain clouds. The landscape of Istanbul was a mosaic of red rooftops, mosque domes and minarets. Smoke escaped from the chimneys of the houses in the early morning, and the grey sky promised a cold and cheerless day.
After exiting immigration and customs, we searched the exit for our ride, as provided by the hotel. A lanky good looking youth, with long hair and a sports jacket waved casually to us as we acknowledged the names on his signboard. He was talking on his mobile phone while he directed us to the parking lot and he remained attached to the device till he dropped us off. Even though we were loaded with luggage, there was no offer to help us with it. We ran to keep up with him and almost got run over by a car. Clearly pedestrians are considered a nuisance in Istanbul. We eventually learned that secret to successfully crossing the road in the city in spite of “Walk” signal is a confident and quick gait, a hint of don’t-you-dare-hit-me defiance and the strength of numbers.
Our cab was soon making its way onto tight and crooked streets of Sultanahmet. We were deposited outside our hotel and I mean that literally. We climbed out, and our luggage was dumped on the pavement outside us while we were still figuring out the entrance to the lobby. Kapil turned to tip the driver but he was already on his way! He was clearly glad to be rid of us.
An apologetic looking busboy picked our suitcases and took us to the reception. We were given a one minute orientation on to the hotel, its facilities (of which a fully automatic, free to use massage chair caught our attention) and the nearby things to see. The hotel staff was nothing if not charming during the entire duration of the stay.
Itching to get out and explore, we were quickly out of our room and on the streets. Our first stop was St. Sophia which is located near At Meydani, the hotbed of tourist activity in Sultanahmet.
“Bosporus city tour leaving in 20 minutes!”
“Istanbul guidebook. In Engleesh”
“Namaste. You from India?”
“5 liras for this woolen cap. For you I make discount”
In a distance of a few hundred meters, we were approached by half a dozen men trying to convince us that we needed something. There was a mild aroma of roasted corn and chestnuts rising from the red carts of street vendors. I tried Salep, a Turkish drink made of hot milk, but did not enjoy it as it was laced with my least favorite spice, cinnamon.
The crowd at the entrance to St. Sophia looked intimidating. We were thinking that it being December, the place will be less touristy, but clearly more people thought like us. It wasn’t just all tourists though. In Istanbul, you learn soon enough that there are as many tourists as there are guides and other riff-raff that busy tourist spots attract.
I had just purchased the tickets and was standing uncertainly, debating on whether an audio-guide was worth the 15 TL, when we were approached by yet another tour guide. The last and the 3rd guide that we had refused had left us with – “If you don’t need a guide here, then you don’t need it anywhere in the world!” We were now feeling less confident of ourselves and our research.
The new fellow had an earnest face and a running nose and looked desperately in need of imparting his wealth of knowledge about Aya Sofia.
“I will show you things that no book will tell you about. I will tell you secrets” he promised.
I think we knew from the start that we were being ripped off but decided to buy into the experience. And to give him credit, he showed things to us that we would have surely missed. For instance, most people spend a great time inside Aya Sofia looking up at the magnificent dome, the arches and the mosaics on the wall; we spent considerable time looking at the marble floor, where he pointed to the indentations caused by the frequent opening of the various heavy doors. He pointed to the large slabs of stone flooring and asked us to find patterns in them. He took us to remote corners of the monument, where there were no other tourists and security guards looked at us suspiciously, and talked about shapes of camel heads on the wall. When I expressed an interest to go to the upstairs gallery to check out the world famous mosaics he impatiently said “Yes, yes! You go later. My tour only till here. Upstairs not much. Let me show you one more thing, follow me”. We were taken to a damp chamber, with a large marble tub, and giant urns. This was the baptism chamber when the building was a functioning church. Fascinating stuff, I tell you.
After he left, we explored Aya Sofiya on our own. It is no use denying the sense of awe that one feels stepping into its hallowed dome structure. The large lamps, lit with bulbs and not with oil as they would have been 1000 years ago, hung from dome provide the only illumination on a cloudy day. They help create the soft, quiet, somber atmosphere. On the walls are recovered remains of the Justinian mosaics alongside the paintwork by the Ottomans. Not much remains of the mosaics that must have once covered the ceilings of the church. Most of these are to be found on the Upper Gallery. The smooth, round columns, large enough for 2 people to put their arms around, support the upper gallery with intricately lace like carved column heads. The additions that were made to the church to convert into a mosque stand out like a sore thumb. The balcony on the upper floor has a bird’s eye view of the church and can be a place of quite meditation; however, with large crowds of tourists it’s impossible to find the serenity that is expected of a place of worship.
Several pieces of the church were not built in Istanbul but were gifts from smaller provinces deep in Turkey or Greece. The mind boggles at how these heavy structures were transported over the terrain. I am not a religious person and it is no secret that so much grief has been wrought on to this world in the name of religion, but I wondered as I stared at the gold leaved mosaics that adorn the ceilings and arches at Aya Sofiya, would these exist if there was no cause for them?
Istanbul is a magical city and it does not take too much to get wrapped up in its charm, but certain experiences stand out. In the days that followed, we saw several other famous mosques and churches but none quite captured the spirit and the grandeur of Aya Sofiya.
Here are our photos : Link to Picasa Album
- If you are an Indian passport holder but hold any American Visa, UK Visa or Schengen Visa then you will get visa on arrival. The process can take 30 minutes or more
- Exchange rates at the airport and near Grand Bazaar are much better than what you would get anywhere on Divan Yolu. Istanbul is spotted with the currency exchange shops, so even in the worst case scenarios you will always have place to change your money.
- If you are in Istanbul for 2-4 days and are covering the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Chora Museum then buying the 72 Lira Museum pass is highly recommended. You don’t have to stand in ticket lines and it gets you discount on Museum gift shops.
- Take a guide book or an audio guide instead of a tour guide. We noticed that most tour guides read from the plaques and elaborate