On the list of ports of call for this journey, today was one that I was looking forward to the most. Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, you know the song) is the third largest city in the entire world. Also on world comparisons, I would be visiting the second largest palace in the world, Topkapi Palace, to see the fifth largest diamond in the world, the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. I would also visit the mosque with the second most minarets in the world, the Blue Mosque, and the largest shopping venue in the world, The Grand Bazaar.
Because this is one of the more popular ports on the trip, pretty much all three thousand of us set out at the same time, flooding Istanbul’s already swelled population of 15 million alongside tourists from several other cruise ships docked next to us, as well as all the other tourists there on a busy Friday.
The first place we visited was the Hippodrome, which was built during Roman times by Emperor Septimius Severus, then made into a horseracing arena by Constantine. The only remnants of the Hippodrome today are three monuments. One of them is a very old spire Constantine plundered from Egypt, another is a column with snakes intertwining on the sides, which was taken from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece, and the other is a bronze column Constantine had erected himself.
The whole trip this far had been rain free, so that streak had to end sometime, and today was the day. As we were standing in the Hippodrome looking at the columns, the rain started steadily coming down. Immediately the always highly aggressive Turkish street merchants swarmed onto the scene, trying to sell everyone overpriced umbrellas and ponchos. Rain doesn’t really bother me (which was a good thing during my previous trip to the rain-soaked country of Scotland) so I just toughed it out.
We then escaped the rain inside our next destination next to the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, which was built between 1606 and 1616. This mosque is huge, the second largest in Istanbul, and has six minarets, which is rare among mosques. The number of minarets is a status symbol of whoever had the mosque built, and Sultan Ahmet I caused quite a bit of controversy when this mosque was built with six, the same number of minarets as the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. To quell the controversy, he donated a minaret to the Grand Mosque to increase Mecca’s to seven so he could keep his at six.
These minarets are used to call for prayer at certain times during the day, and all Muslims will stop what they are doing when they hear the call from the megaphones on the minarets and pray. It was very interesting when this happened because I had never experienced anything like that before. Because of the multiple mosques in the city, the call to prayer can be heard everywhere, and this happened several times because Friday is a holy day. The minarets from all the mosques in Istanbul are spikes in the cityscape, piercing the sky to create a distinct personality to the city.
The reason the Sultan Ahmet I Mosque is called the Blue Mosque is due to the massive blue stained-glass windows and blue tiles adorning the interior. The Blue Mosque is beautiful, both on the inside and out, and is truly a proud symbol of the Muslim people. I would have enjoyed the interior more however, if everyone from the multiple cruise ships didn’t all decide to go there at the same time. It was ridiculous how many people were packed in there, and it made me wonder what the Muslim people thought about having that many tourists crammed in their house of worship on a holy day.
The worst part of the massive amounts of people in there was that I was almost left there by my tour guide. She gave us five minutes to ourselves to look around then meet her outside, and I spent about three minutes running around taking pictures then headed for the exit. The problem was that evidently most of the tour guides told their groups the same thing, so there was a mob at the exit trying to get out one set of double doors. What slowed up the traffic was that we all had to take our shoes off before coming inside, so because it was raining people were blocking the exit to put their shoes back on just outside the doors. It took me ten minutes to move about twenty feet out the door.
When I got outside I could see my group heading off, and had to run to catch up with them as they headed towards Topkapi Palace. With how packed the exit was, I didn’t see why she wouldn’t wait, and I wasn’t the only one stuck trying to get out in time. Once we got to Topkapi Palace, we were still missing four people. We then had to sit there and wait while someone ran back from them. If we had waited at the Blue Mosque, we wouldn’t have wasted valuable time we could have spent in the palace.
This tour guide wasn’t really with it. She knew her stuff, but was spending a lot of time talking on her cell phone. All the other tour guides so far have talked to us the entire time, while this one seemed to just want to talk to us between phone conversations. There was a lot of standing around and waiting, wasting a lot of time we could have spent in the palace. Fortunately it stopped raining, so those people who bought the overpriced umbrellas in a panic were probably kicking themselves.
Finally the four people who were lost showed up, so after waiting for about 20 minutes we finally proceeded through the first gate into the first courtyard. This is a massive palace, the second largest in the world, as I said previously, and the enormousness of it is overwhelming when you first set foot on the grounds. The main thing I kept thinking as I was walking around was, “Damn, it was nice to be a sultan.”
The present structures of Topkapi Palace are only a small fraction of how big it actually was at the time (approx. 50,000 people lived and worked in it at one time). It has also gone through several transformations as each new sultan changed things around ever since it became the seat of the Ottoman Empire. It takes about ten minutes to walk the tree-lined path from the first gate to the second gate, which goes into the second courtyard.
Once we reached the second gate (Gate of Salutations), we were missing four people again, and guess what, it was the same four people. After waiting for about five minutes they finally showed up. We then ventured through into the second courtyard, which was even more impressive than the first. There were many interesting looking plants, with one peculiar occurrence of a tree growing out of the trunk of a different kind of tree. This was just a freak occurrence, but it was neat that it happened in such a lavish place.
On the right hand side of the second courtyard is the palace kitchens, which are enormous, and responsible for inventing much of the Turkish cuisine we know today. On the left hand side is the Council Chamber, the Imperial Stables and the entrance to the Harem, which is supposedly one of the most lavish parts of the entire palace.
Unfortunately, I was not able to visit the Harem because our time ran even more limited when, and you are not going to believe this, the same four people got lost again! We passed through the third gate (Gate of Felicity) and had to go through security, then it took about five more minutes before we were all back together. At that point we split up and were designated a meeting point, and were left with about 45 minutes to explore the palace on our own. Now I can understand getting separated once, heck, I was almost separated the first time, but three times is ridiculous and inconsiderate. Out of the 35 people in our group, no one other than these four people were ever separated, other than the close calls a few others and I experienced at the cluster in the Blue Mosque.
The Harem was where the sultan’s wives and concubines lived, but his mother and sisters lived there too. The only males that were allowed in the Harem during its usage were eunuchs (castrated male slaves). Males don’t have to be castrated today to enter because it is no longer in use, but I couldn’t see it anyway because it is one of the most popular attractions in the palace, and I didn’t have time to stand in the line to get in.
Possibly the greatest treasure of Topkapi Palace is the 84 carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the fifth largest diamond in the world. It is said the reason it was given that name is because a poor fisherman that found it on the riverbank traded it for three silver spoons, not knowing what it actually was. As I walked through the treasury to see this diamond, I also saw may other valuable treasures collected throughout the years. Two candles made of solid gold and adorned with 6,666 diamonds are also among the palace’s most valuable treasures.
There are some great panoramic views of Istanbul from inside the palace, to compliment the fantastic views of the palace from the inside. Unfortunately, I did not have near enough time to thoroughly explore before we had to meet our guide outside the first gate. Fortunately the four stragglers were there on time this time, and we were able to head to the Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar, as I said, is the largest shopping venue in the world. This massive shopping complex, from the 1700s, contains over 4,000 shops, spanning almost any item you could possibly think of. One of the biggest products of Turkey is the world famous Turkish carpet. I was hoping to purchase a flying carpet so I wouldn’t have to deal with airports on the return trip home, but unfortunately there were none for sale, though just about anything else imaginable is.
What I did get to do was see the ancient technique of how Turkish carpets are made as we watched a demonstration of the Turkish carpet making process. During the demonstration we drank Turkish apple tea, which was incredible. As expected after the demonstration the salesmen swooped in for the kill, trying to talk all of us into buying one. The carpets are beautiful and hand crafted, but cost a ton, and they don’t fly.
As with the Turkish street merchants, the merchants in the Grand Bazaar are very aggressive. The Grand Bazaar is an extremely high rent area, so these men and women have to be good at their craft. In fact, many of the merchants in the Grand Bazaar are so good they have published books on how to sell stuff.
The main thing to remember is to not make eye contact with any of the salesmen if you are not remotely interested in their stock. They will stand outside their shops scanning the crowd like a lion waiting for unsuspecting prey. As soon as eye contact is made, they pounce before you have a chance to blink, asking questions and trying to put things in your hands. For people that enjoy haggling prices however, this place is a shopping paradise. As nothing has a set price, every transaction is a battle of the minds. A neat little trick that works is to shake their hand with a firm grip and don’t let go, while maintaining direct eye contact and making your “final offer before you walk away.”
Some of the most popular items sold in the Grand Bazaar are name brand knock offs. There are many signs that say, “Genuine Fakes,” which is an oxymoron in itself, but hey, if you are going to get a fake I guess you would want a genuine fake, whatever that means. There are exact replicas of products (with the actual brand name on the products) from Prada, Gucci, Rolex, and pretty much any name brand you can think of. Because they aren’t authentic, they can be bought for substantially less than the real thing would cost, and they look exactly the same, in all their lawsuit-free infringement glory (Turkey has pretty lax laws on this).
The Grand Bazaar is so enormous there is no way to be able to even get close to seeing everything, plus many of the shops are selling the exact same thing. This is another reason salespeople are so aggressive, so you will buy the product from them rather than the other 50 shops selling it as well. After awhile the constant hassling starts to wear on you, so depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing, some people won’t make it for long.
The thing that many of these shopkeepers prey on is people that are too nice. They will get you tangled in a conversation and will not let you walk away unless you just cut them off mid-sentence and turn your back. From my experience these guys don’t follow you around like the street merchants do, because they won’t go past a certain radius of their shops. I told few guys they were wasting their time because I didn’t have any money, and they were missing out on getting a sale with someone that did.
The shops at the Grand Bazaar, as well as most anywhere in Turkey, will take any kind of currency, and they keep calculators handy to do the current exchange rates, and all of them can speak English. They especially like taking Euros because they are trying to get into the European Union (though most of the country is in Asia), so they like to have the currency already circulating around the country. There are a lot of very good deals to be made at the Grand Bazaar, so it is certainly worth checking out if you are ever in Istanbul, and even if you don’t buy anything it is very interesting to see all the happenings going on.
After returning to the ship, I sat out on the top deck and watched the sun set over the Istanbul cityscape. When the lights come on the view of Istanbul at night is magical. All the mosques, palaces, and monuments are lit up with floodlights, and the bridge crossing the Bosphorus River from Europe to Asia (Istanbul is in both Europe and Asia) is lit with many lights that sparkle and changed colors. As the ship pulled away, I watched the lights of this massive city fade into the background of the Aegean Sea, as we ventured towards Greece.