Exploring Istanbul — The Ayasofya

Our otopark is turning out to be an excellent base from which to explore the city.

Recently we headed off  to see the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia in Greek). Until visiting Istanbul, I never realized how close the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya are to one another. It only takes about five minutes to stroll between them.

The shadowy, elephantine Ayasofya (the epitome of Byzantine architecture and prototype of scads of famous buildings from the Ottoman Blue Mosque to the Roman Pantheon) has a much darker and heavier feel than its lighter, airier neighbor, the Blue Mosque. This makes sense, because by the time the Blue Mosque was built, the Ayasofya was already 1000 years old.

The security guard liked our Kindles and Mark had fun showing him how they work.

 

The Hellenistic urn behind Scout was carved from a single piece of marble.

 

Mark heading upstairs. Why a ramp instead of stairs? So wealthy people could be driven upstairs in horse carts. (Some things never change.)

 

The Ayasofya was commissioned in 532 by the Emperor Justinian to be the greatest church in Christendom, which it remained until the Ottomans sacked the city in 1453 and immediately converted the church into a mosque. Due to Islam’s ban on graven (representative) images, the Ottomans plastered over most of the church’s beautiful Byzantine mosaics featuring Jesus & Co. They eventually built minarets, hung large medallions with Islamic calligraphy, and added a mihrab.

Islamic Elements

Islamic medallions. Also, can you make out the angels just below the main dome? The face of the right one is still covered from Ottoman days, but the face of the left one has been returned to its original form.

 

The sultan’s private worship area

 

Detail from the 19th-c timekeeper’s building (on the grounds but outside the museum)

 

The mihrab, off center because it faces Mecca instead of Jerusalem, was added to the church’s apse.

Mosaics

After being forgotten for centuries, many of the Byzantine mosaics were rediscovered in the 19th century. Some are in disrepair, but when refracting light, they’re stunning.

Finally in 1935, the first president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, turned the mosque into the museum it is today. These days, the place looks like it needs some TLC. I was surprised by the crumbly plaster and dingy feel. The walls have been painted with mustard-colored paint where the mosaics used to be. Some windows are bricked up.

The fading building is a great reminder of just how old and layered Istanbul’s history really is. Just like geographical strata reveal the history of a region, the Ayasofya’s layers reveal the history of the city, from the Byzantines, to the Ottomans, to Atatürk and the officially secular Republic of Turkey.

Seeing the Ayasofya for the first time was emotional for me, and I’ll confess I had the same reaction as I did at the Roman Colosseum, which was to stifle tears. It may be dilapidated, but it still inspires. Mark loved it too but didn’t burst into tears. Scout, already loyal to her beloved Blue Mosque, would only concede that the Ayasofia was “pretty good.” After about 45 minutes she announced she’d had enough and ordered us to feed her.

Dinnertime

By the time we left, the kid was going low blood sugar, and believe me, nobody wants that.

We wandered through the Sultanahmet neighborhood along a row barkers and overpriced restaurants—the type of thing we normally avoid—but the waiters trying to lure us into one particular place were quite funny and nice so we decided to take a chance. Besides, the menu out front indicated the place offered Hünkar Beğendi, which I’ve wanted to try ever since reading about it on the excellent Turkey’s for Life blog.

After finding out the HB wasn’t served with yogurt, a suspicious development, I decided to wait and try it another time. Instead we bought a ridiculous 65-lire mixed-grill platter (about 25 lire worth of street food spread out on a tray with two flaming pots). Though not a great value, the food was perfectly decent and Scout was over the moon about the flaming tray. Good enough!

Which one seems happier about their meal?

Afterward we strolled around the Hippodrome, swept up by the massive Ramazan crowds and pulled along as if by ocean currents. I’ll save Ramazan for a different post, so let me finish now by saying after two days in Istanbul, the city is rapidly becoming a highlight of an already wonderful trip.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Yesim September 2, 2011 at 11:31 am

i love Ayasofya, i loved the photos..

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2 Renee September 2, 2011 at 11:40 am

Thanks, Yesim. It’s such a grand building, isn’t it? We’re grateful for the chance to have seen it in person.

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3 Wilma Hatcher September 2, 2011 at 1:50 pm

You mentioned your daughter’s low blood sugar. Is she a Type I diabetic or hypoglycemic? We have a son diagnosed at 13 with Type I. He is now 40. We have traveled all over Europe and he has traveled in Russia. We made provisions far ahead of time and were usually able to handle situations. In 1984, we had to go to a drugstore to buy a diet drink.

I am so glad you posted your new blog name. I am enjoying following and catching up with your family, especially the adventures with the camper.

Keep us updated and take care.

Wilma in West Virginia

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4 Renee September 2, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Hi, Wilma. I’m touched that you came over form the other blog. Sorry I didn’t link over to ramblecrunch sooner, but it was such a busy time when we left, and to be honest, I didn’t realize anyone actually cared! I’m glad you’re here now.

You know, I don’t know that Scout is actually hypoglycemic. It’s more that she’s a ferocious whirlwind with great focus who forgets to eat. Then she pays the price later when, not realizing she’s hungry, she falls apart. Also her appetite is irregular, so it’s hard for me to keep up with how much she’s eaten. I need to work on that.

Your travels sound wonderful. Were you in a camper as well? I’d love to hear more about your experiences.

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5 baa September 2, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Lovely pictures. I think it is also important to note that Mehmed II actually bought the Hagia Sophia and turned it into a mosque after that.

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6 Renee September 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Thanks for your comment. Yes, Mehmed II was the Sultan who conquered Constantinople and turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, though I’ve never read that he bought the place first. Heading off now to Google that…

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7 Natalie September 3, 2011 at 7:40 am

Brilliant pictures. Takes me back as I saw it on my honeymoon. Food looks glorious as well.

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8 Renee September 3, 2011 at 7:43 am

Thanks, Natalie. Istanbul is the new love of my life.

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9 Turkey's For Life September 4, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Ooooooh, how we want to go back to the Aya Sofya now, after looking at your photos. It’s over 6 years since we braved the queues for a visit but we’re going to go again next month when we’re there.
Thanks for the mention with the Hünkar Beğendi. I noticed you mentioned yoghurt. You’re not mixing it up with the Ali Nazik post we did, are you? Anyway, that mixed grill looks FAB. Scout looks pretty pleased with life as she’s just about to tuck in. 🙂
Julia

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10 Renee September 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Cheers, Julia. If I recall, the HB was served with the yogurt on the side, right? That’s what I was after, yogurt on the side. When I asked the waiter about it, he reacted as though I’d made some really odd request, which is what made me decide to wait for a more auspicious occasion.

The grill was loads of fun. Scout was positively giddy about it. 🙂

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11 Markied54 September 4, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Your post makes me want to book a ticket to Istanbul right now. The photos are terrific! Let’s see more.

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12 Athomeintheworld6 September 4, 2011 at 8:47 pm

We loved Ayasofya too! Istanbul was definitely one of our favourite cities. I think we ate at the same restaurant you did. The kids were so thrilled with the fire dish and all the yummy meat, but I think we paid 85 TL for the 6 of us…ouch. I think it was our most expensive meal in Turkey. Brian and I loved the Iskender Kebabs. The best tasting were in Fethiye. What other parts of Turkey are you planning to explore? If you head over to Goreme, the Pottery Kebabs are amazing! And the kids LOVED the pides (Turkish pizzas) I think more so than the pizzas in Italy. Looking forward to reading more of your posts! 🙂
Jenn

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13 Anonymous September 5, 2011 at 11:39 am

That platter is hilariously distinctive. And yes, it was definitely
our priciest meal to date. Regarding Iskender, Mark and I love that too.
It’s my go-to meal whenever we eat at one of the little döner places.

We’re sticking along the Aegean this trip and are hoping to make it
all the way to Fethiye. But we also need to take some down time in
preparation for our next Schengen leg through France and Spain, which
will really keep us hopping. I wish I could say we’re going to
Cappadocia, but that will have to wait for our next trip. If my secret
plans materialize, we’ll move to Istanbul, and then Cappadocia can be a
little holiday outing.

When were you in Turkey?

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14 Athomeintheworld6 September 6, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Hi Renee,
So funny because the Iskender was our go-to meal when we were at the doner places too! :=) When we were in Paris walking back from Sacre Coeur we came across a Turkish restaurant and all we wanted to eat was Iskender Kebabs! LOL

We were in Turkey right after New Yrs (spent Christmas/New Years in Rome then flew into Istanbul), spent 2 months in Fethiye, then a month backpacking into the interior.

We’re living in Agde, (Southern) France right now. If you’re coming to France, you’re more than welcome to stay at our place! Agde is the 2nd oldest city in France next to Marseilles. The kids just started school yesterday and love it.

When do you plan to be in France?

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15 Renee September 7, 2011 at 9:40 am

I’m reading your Turkey posts now, Jenn. Great stuff. Lovely adventures, well written.

I was hoping we’d get to Fethiye, but I’m not sure we’ll have the time. For sanity (and productivity) sake, we need to spend a good, solid month parked in one spot, so Fethiye might involve too much driving. Also we’re not sure if the campground situation there will work for us. Still researching that one. I’ve heard it’s a lovely city through, so fingers crossed we can work it out.

Thanks for your kind offer to put us up. We’ll probably roll through Southern France in the late winter or early spring, and we would love to connect with your family. Scout would sure enjoy playing with other traveling, English-speaking kids. I’m planning the France/Spain leg of our journey now, so I’ll be sure to include a stop in Agde.

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16 Renee September 7, 2011 at 9:54 am

I’m reading your Turkey posts now, Jenn. Great stuff. Lovely adventures, well written.

I was hoping we’d get to Fethiye, but I’m not sure we’ll have the
time. For sanity (and productivity) sake, we need to spend a good, solid
month parked in one spot, so Fethiye might involve too much driving.
Also we’re not sure if the campground situation there will work for us.
Still researching that one. I’ve heard it’s a lovely city through, so
fingers crossed we can work it out.

Thanks for your kind offer to put us up (though we can sleep in our rig :-)). We’ll probably roll through
Southern France in the late winter or early spring, and we would love to
connect with your family. Scout would sure enjoy playing with other
traveling, English-speaking kids. I’m planning the France/Spain leg of
our journey now, so I’ll be sure to include a stop in Agde.

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17 Athomeintheworld6 September 8, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Yes, I totally understand about needing to be parked in one place for a while to rest and catch up on things to avoid burnout! Please do keep in touch and come visit us. I think my eldest and Scout would get along very well. They have the book lover thing in common. I’ve enjoyed reading your writing as well and look forward to more. We’d love to meet you!! – J

18 Montecristo Travels March 31, 2013 at 6:11 am

As a travel with pet blogger I really love your blog … it gives me ideas on what to see and what to do when we get there and … plan ahead on how to do the doggy hand-off. Your photos are above the normal so-so quality I often see so kudos! We are off to Greece, Bulgaria (Sofia), Turkey (Istanbul for 4-5 days) and then Crimea (Yalta) with our long hair Chihuahua in tow … I think we might be completely insane. 🙂

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19 Renee March 31, 2013 at 10:32 am

Thanks! Traveling with a dog isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it, isn’t it. I can’t imagine my life without travel and I can’t imagine my life without Archie.

We drove through Sofia on our way to Turkey. Do you have friends/family there or are you just visiting?

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20 Renee September 9, 2011 at 7:00 am

Thanks, Jenn.

We’d love to meet! Once we get closer to France, I’ll have a better idea of our timing and then we can put something together.

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