The highlights of Istanbul for a first-time visitor are:
The Hagia Sophia is a 6th-century Christian basilica, converted to a mosque by the Ottomans. After 85 years as a museum, Hagia Sophia became a working mosque again in 2020. If the word awesome still had meaning, I would use it to describe the Hagia Sophia, temple of Holy Wisdom. It set the standard for Byzantine architecture, though it was 1,000 years before another cathedral surpassed its size. From the outside, it’s a red-orange mountain that seems to anchor the city to the Bosphorus shore. It’s not particularly beautiful but the air of greatness can’t be missed. On the inside, it’s vast and filled with the light of heaven. The massive, superlative dome practically floats above the wide-open enormity below. Interior surfaces are decorated with frescos, mosaics, calligraphy and marble.
The Sultanahmet Mosque is just down the way from Hagia Sophia. Together they are like bookends to the Hippodrome (Roman entertainment center), sort of. The Sultanahmet Mosque is commonly called the Blue Mosque after the 20,000 hand-painted tiles on the interior walls. It pairs well with the Hagia Sophia, not only in proximity but also as a complementary experience. While Hagia Sophia draws the attention upward, the Blue Mosque induces inward reflection. Hagia Sophia makes me go Wow! Blue Mosque makes me go ahhh. One more… Hagia Sophia makes me feel small. Blue Mosque makes me feel peaceful. There’s a lot happening on the walls, with all the painted tiles, but the atmosphere is light and serene.
Topkapi Palace is the former residence of Ottoman sultans, where you can shamelessly gawk at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, because it’s history. See the reception rooms, where the men reclined on sofas lining the walls. See the harem, where the women reclined on sofas lining the walls. See the fabulous jewels. (This was not an official tour.)
Next time – the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian Bazaar, Bosphorus cruise
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