Balkan Honeymoon Stop 3: Istanbul

Istanbul (round 2): We arrived in Istanbul’s Sabiha Gocen Airport at approximately 3:00pm, about the same time that we left, thanks to the two hour time zone difference. Our friend AslI was waiting to greet us at the airport, and with her help we took a bus from the airport, then a minibus, to arrive at her apartment on the Asian side of Istanbul. After dropping off our things, we headed out, via minibus, ferry and Metro (the world’s second oldest underground railroad) to meet up with another friend, Ece and AslI’s boyfriend Sidar in the Galata neighborhood on the European side. Galata is one of the parts of Istanbul that once had numerous functioning synagogues (and still has the largest active one, as well as the Jewish museum); today the neighborhood is one of Istanbul’s trendier areas.

After a long evening alternating between Hebrew and Turkish music, we finally crashed. The next morning, Monday, after a leisurely breakfast, we once again crossed to the European side, putting our bags down in the historic Sultanhmet area and getting on a long, but fast-moving line to enter Topkapi Palace, one of oldest and most impressive of the many palaces and other Ottoman legacies in Istanbul. We spent several hours walking around the large palace which was the seat of the Ottoman governance for centuries, with its interior rooms displaying various collections. When we finally tired of palace visiting, we took the tram north-east, over the sea and back to the Galata neighborhood. After an unsuccessful attempt at finding the Jewish museum, we went to Galata Tower, with Byzantine origins, which has served in a variety of capacities over the centuries and today functions as a restaurant and bar, in addition to hosting tourists on its upper balcony for impressive views of (neighboring parts of) the city.

From Galata Tower we walked back over Galata Bridge to the Eminonu neighorhood, visiting Yeni Mescit, or “New Mosque,” an ironic name for a magnificent mosque which is well over 400 years old. We then walked through the Egyptian spice market, which was just beginning to close up, before heading back down to our hotel. Although Istanbul was filled with New Year’s parties, we had a low-key evening, to enable us to get an early start on the next day.

Tuesday turned out to be mosque-visiting day. We started the morning early with a visit to the Blue Mosque, one of the can’t miss sights of the city. From there we went to the Aya (or Hagia) Sophia, the Byzantine Church turned mosque. Along with the beautiful architecture and mosque décor, there are still a number of church murals that the Ottomans kept intact and which have survived the ages fairly well, as well as the grave of a crusader knight, who was buried in the building. The latter point is especially surprising given that the crusaders and Ottomans were enemies; yet the Ottomans left this body in the building that they would use for prayer.

Leaving the Aya Sophia, we could see a long line to get in and were happy that we had begun our day there, early in the morning. With a quick stop around the corner to visit mausoleums of various Ottoman figures, we crossed the street and entered the Basilica Cistern, another impressive ruin with a 1500 year old history. The cistern was essentially lost for a long time, until a relatively recent traveler to the city figure out based upon the placement of wells that there must be a significant water source and the cistern was rediscovered. Today one can walk around through the very large, dimly lit cistern, with a thin layer of water at the bottom that is home to a number of fish.

Emerging from the cistern, we went to the bottom of Sultanahmet to visit the “little” Aya Sophia, a small blue and white decorated mosque and a courtyard lined with craft shops. We then made another attempt to visit the Jewish museum, this time locating the building, only to find that it was closed for New Year’s. Once again walking over Galata bridge, we continued our mosque tour, with the Ahi Celebi mosque, a small structure just off the water, and several just past the spice market, including the Rustem Pasha mosque (which had a case of free travel Qurans and little sign reading “This is our presentation”), the Mehmet Ali Pasha mosque and the Ibrahim Pasha mosque. Heading further north, we located the Beyazid mosque, under renovations but still accessible and the Suleymaniye compound, built under Suleyman the Magnificent, with another impressively large and ornate mosque, as well as buildings for various other purposes. We then passed the Roman aqueducts and some other 1500 year-old Roman artifacts, before entering the Shehzade Mosque, another grandiose Ottoman construction. Our last stop of the day was the Fatih mosque, yet another very large, very impressive mosque (and compound) constructed by Mimar Sinan–Sinan the architect. There were many Ottoman sultans and pashas who founded or financed the construction of mosques, hammams and other structures. But by far the greatest of Ottoman architects was Mimar Sinan–nearly every large mosque we visited was his work, or that of a student of his. It is an interesting point to consider–if there is any one person who can be said to have had the greatest influence on the appearance of Istanbul (certainly from either an Islamic or tourist perspective), it would be Sinan the architect.

Following the Fatih Mosque visit, we returned via Tram to our hotel (we had ventured pretty far north by now), retrieved our bags and took the Tram and then Metro back up north to the bus station, where we concluded this second chapter of our Istanbul visit (with one more yet to come) and boarded the overnight bus to Thessaloniki.

About the Author
Steven Aiello has a BA in Economics from NYU and an MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies from the IDC Herzliya. He has also studied Jewish, Islamic, Israeli and British law. Steven has served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress.He edits and teaches part-time. He can be reached via email at