Spread densely between loping green hills, on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait, sits the mystical city of Istanbul, Turkey. Anciently known as Constantinople, the name was changed after Sultan Mehmet II claimed the city as headquarters of the mighty Ottoman Empire after defeating the Romans in 1453.
Within just a few hours, Sultan Mehmet II summoned an imam to the grand St. Sofia Cathedral and converted it into an imperial mosque. Thus began the 470 year reign of the Ottomans.
My wife Kim and I had the opportunity to visit Istanbul during the first week of November. Neither of us really knew what to expect before going. We wondered how they would treat American tourists and whether or not they would be offended that we were on vacation just a week after a devastating earthquake in the eastern part of the country killed hundreds.
We also worried about what kind of effect the religious holiday Kurban Bayram would have on our ability to get around. Even with these concerns, we threw caution to the wind and gave Turkey a try.
We arrived in the late afternoon and with the aid of several kind strangers on the subway, found the Erguvan Hotel in the area known as Sultanahmet just after darkness had settled. The receptionist, Eyub Kuden, welcomed us warmly and was prepared to help us with tour information that I had inquired about by email just a few days before. Any uneasiness we felt about being Americans in Turkey was completely laid to rest.
The Erguvan Hotel was in the perfect location, just steps from the famous ‘Blue Mosque.' We were also within short walking distance to the thought-provoking Hippodrome, Hagia Sofia, and the Basilica Cistern. Slightly further, but still a pleasant stroll, was Topkapi Palace where most of the sultans lived during their time in power.
In Istanbul, English is widely spoken and not a day went by that a helpful Turk didn’t stop to ask if they could help us while we searched our city map or looked confused on which direction to go. One day, after we trekked a mile away to see the Suleymaniye Mosque, a local dentist started talking to us as we sat admiring the towering minarets. To make a long story short, we ended up having lunch with him at a local outdoor cafÉ.
No kidding, the Turk’s warmth and friendliness seemed to be endless.
Every morning we woke up before sunrise listening to the Blue Mosque’s call to prayer resonating between the surrounding buildings. We never tired of listening to the melodic, ardent voices.
During our stay, the Dolmabache Palace was the most impressive thing I saw. Built in the mid 19th century, the monoblock building is really something to behold. Occupying more than 45,000 square meters, Dolmabache is the largest palace in Turkey. There is no shortage of stunningly huge rooms with vaulted ceilings in the classic European style building. Huge extravagant crystal staircases connect the floors which for the most part are still decorated with original furnishings.
Kim, on the other hand, appreciated the much older, and more classically Turkish, Topkopi Palace. The multi-building complex adorned with blue and green Iznik tiles, inside and out, was built in the mid-15th century and was the primary residence of the Sultans for 400 years.
I have to admit it was pretty fabulous to walk around the courtyards and gardens which boasted picturesque views of the Bosphorus Strait.
The many mosques were equally interesting. Over 3,000 of them dot the skyline of Istanbul. We were able to see the inside of a few. The Blue Mosque with its unprecedented six minarets and the previously Christian Hagia Sofia with its huge prayer room and lingering Christian themed mosaics were spectacular, to say the least.