I’m never going straight back to work after Glastonbury again.

Last year, after four days of non-stop rain, (at best) ankle-deep mud, far more beer than is strictly wise and not an awful lot of sleep, I struggled back into work the next day and spent the whole week trying not to fall asleep at work and snapping at colleagues and clients.

This year I arrived in Istanbul the next day and spent the first afternoon on the roof terrace of our hotel reading, relaxing, and marvelling at the views of the Sea of Marmara and the Blue Mosque. The rest of the week followed in a similarly chilled fashion. Infinitely preferable.

It was the first time I’ve been to a large Islamic city, and obviously the first thing that stands out compared to the other European cities I’ve been to is the sea of minarets and the regular calls to prayer ringing out across the city, often with multiple calls from different mosques overlapping. I thought I might find it annoying but it’s a beautiful sound, simultaneously very alien sounding but also strangely relaxing.

Most prominent of the mosques is the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as the Blue Mosque), sitting atop one of the highest points of the old town. It’s a really magnificent building, visible from across the city.

It was the first mosque I’ve ever been inside, and the thing that struck me compared to the many cathedrals I’ve been to, is the emptiness. Aside from the beautiful pattern work covering every part of the interior, and lights hanging from the ceiling, it’s an empty space just used for prayer, which surprised me, and certainly makes for a very different atmosphere to christian places of worship.

Istanbul has an awful lot of history, and it shows – there are fantastic sights from every era of the city’s history.

The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century, and was used to store water under the city. Aside from looking impressive, it’s a great place to cool off when it’s 34 degrees outside:

Nearby is the Hagia Sofia, also built in the 6th century, which was the biggest cathedral in the world for a thousand years (and was later turned into a mosque, and is now a museum):

Unfortunately the elegant interior, unspoilt by as many big supporting columns as its neighbour, the Blue Mosque, was largely taken up by one of the largest pieces of scaffolding I’ve ever seen:

Biggest disappointnment was the Grand Bazaar. TV travel shows and guide books had led me to believe the whole thing would be a full-on assault on the senses, and I’d be lucky to escape without buying something. Either we caught them on an off day, or they’ve really chilled out. I didn’t get hassled once despite wandering around for quite a while. Eventually, as we were heading out, a man did approach us, and we were all set for a prolonged spot of haggling, only to find he thought we were lost and was offering us directions on the way out. At that point, we gave up and left.

7 responses to “Istanbul

  1. I love Istanbul- it’s really one of my favorite cities, and definitely my favorite corner of Europe. I never got to visit the Basilica cistern though- your photo really makes me wish I had.

    I had similar feelings about the Grand Bazaar. It felt like a rather underwhelming place, and to be honest I didn’t see anything that I wanted to take home. Somehow, the whole place felt sort of staged- rather different from Bangkok’s teeming Chatuchak market, for example. -X

  2. Pictures are impressive. Istanbul is on my “before I die” list. ;)

    “often with multiple calls from different mosques overlapping. I thought I might find it annoying but it’s a beautiful sound,” Well with 2 mosques in my neighbourhood I have different views. For a day or two it is ok to hear those ‘alien’ sounds but daily 5 times is a bit more to the ears. Don’t you think so ?

    I think in no time I’ll start chanting the same. :P

  3. Xander, I agree totally – I was in Chatuchak market in January, and it was much more impressive and exciting experience, and there was a lot more I wanted to buy, too.

    Cuckoo – yes, I expect if I had to live with it I may feel different, but for a holiday it was great.

  4. Great piece, I’ll have to add another destination to my “must see” list.

    The mosques must be similar to Thai wats. The same thing struck me in Thailand, the great empty spaces in religious buildings. I watched toddlers play in one wat while their mother and grandmother prayed. Not something you would see in a western church.

  5. Thanks for visiting Stevo – although I didn’t see toddlers playing in any of the Mosques, they mainly seem to be a place for prayer (with tourists kept to the back). But I know what you mean about the similarity with Thai wats.

  6. Pingback: Istanbul round-up « Itinerant Londoner

  7. Pingback: The Great Big Carnival of Cities | nerd's eye view

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