|Richard & Stacy's Round the World Trip 2001|
Sunday, May 20, 2001.
Clouds had been rolling in the night before, and around the time of the first muezzims call of the day early in the morning, a huge downpour soaked Istanbul. When we finally did get up, it was a dark and cloudy day, much cooler than it had been the previous few days. It seemed like a good day to stick close to home (so to speak) and just explore the immediate area around the hotel, known as Sultanahmet.
After breakfast, we headed out from the hotel and into Sultanahmet proper... into a tourist nightmare. Tour buses everywhere and thousands of tourists! Being Sunday, this is a prime tourism day - not just foreigners like us, but other Turks, and locals with children who get in free (good old Museum Week). Likely the previous day (Saturday) was like this too, but we missed it all being trapped in a tour bus. To avoid the crowds (and surrounding street vendors), we ducked into the Basilica Cistern.
The Basilica Cistern is one of a number of underground caverns that provided water to the city in Byzantine times. It was a dark, fascinating exploration, especially when you realize that it was around 1,500 years old. It stretched more than a city block underground, so when we surfaced, it took us awhile to get our bearings again. We walked back up the road to the entrance of the cistern and then decided to wander through the Hippodrome... a place we'd visited the day of our arrival in Istanbul.
After our walk down the Hippodrome, laughing about our first day in Istanbul (and good old Zülküf, who we would meet again), we decided it was time to tackle the big ones - Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We walked back along the length of the Hippodrome to Haghia Sophia, paid our entrance fees and went inside.
The Haghia Sophia was original built as a Christian cathedral, but the Ottomans converted it into a mosque. After exploring its interior, we decided to walk all the way around the outside, which was a very long way. Along the way we spied the wall of the Topkapi Palace, which is behind the Haghia Sophia. When we got round the front again, we crossed the street and headed into the Blue Mosque.
It actually took longer to get into the Blue Mosque than it did to look around. All of the smaller rooms are closed off to the public, only the main room, known as the prayer hall, is available for touring, and even then, only a small portion of it - low fencing blocks off the majority of the prayer room for those that wish to pray (makes sense, doesn't it). Personally, we both felt uncomfortable in the mosque - it is a place of Islamic faith, and we were certainly invaders. The other 500 or so tourists wandering around didn't help much either, so we didn't stay long, instead heading out for a walk around the streets before dinner.
Tired from all the walking of the day, we had dinner in the hotel, swearing that it would be the last time this trip, that we would make the effort to find restaurants outside of the hotel from now on. As it turns out, it was the last time we ate dinner in the hotel. Over dinner we studied the guide book, trying to decide on our next tour. Just walking around was more fun than a "guided" tour anyway, so we decided that the next day we would head off the beaten path a bit and look at the old Byzantine city walls, along with some churches and other structures near the walls.