Monday, June 8, 2009

Turkey – City Slickers in Istanbul

Our trip started in Istanbul, home of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia – some of the most important historical/religious icons in the Arab world. Istanbul is an amazingly cosmopolitan and westernized city– located on the Bosphorus peninsula, it reminded us of San Francisco in many ways. With a population of 13 million, it was also quite crowded and lively –the pedestrian Istikal street at night reminded me of the crowd at a Michigan-Ohio State football game –an endless sea of people as far as we could see. We were immediately struck by the quality of the food here – delicious grilled kebabs, flavorful yogurt sauces with mint and dill, fresh tomato/cucumber salads and wonderful vegetarian dishes. I think it was probably the freshest and healthiest cuisine we have eaten all year. We awoke early to meet Khan our guide and then off we went to reconnect at the Hagia Sophia with the Andrews, who were flying in from Athens. The Hagia Sophia is the 4th largest religious structure in the world – a fascinating blend of byzantine and muslim influences. Built in the 6th century by the Byzantine Empire, it is stunning in its size and simplicity. Then we were off to the Basilica Cistern, a spectacular underground palace created to store water for the entire city during the Byzantine Empire, allowing it to withstand the many sieges upon the city. The cistern was constructed with columns of previous Greek structures and contains many interesting (and decidedly non-Byzantine) symbols to ward off evil spirits, such as a column of “evil eyes” and a giant medusa head turned on its side. While these features were never intended to be seen (the entire complex was under water), it is speculated that they were put there just in case the Byzantines were wrong in their new choice of religion. Whatever the reason, the kids seemed to enjoy it. Our last highlight was the Blue Mosque – a fully functioning religious site and the primary icon of Istanbul. While not as dramatic as the Hagia Sophia, it was worthwhile to be allowed into a mosque of this magnitude. And I guess our trip to Istanbul would not have been complete without an obligatory stop to the Grand Bazaar. Somehow, we managed to escape with our pockets lighter by only a few Euros, probably because everyone was tired from a long day and looking forward to a siesta back at the hotel. We finished our day with a huge fresh grilled fish washed down with some Efes beer and girded ourselves for a very unreasonable 5 am wakeup call the following morning.

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