An early morning arrival in the port of Istanbul is famously picturesque. In one glimpse we were able to see the three main sites of our imminent visit: The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Topkapi Palace.
One can also see the bridge that connects Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus.
Like Rome, Istanbul (originally Byzantium) is built on seven hills, one of the features that attracted the emperor Constantine to make Byzantium the capital of the eastern Roman and so-called Byzantine Empire in 330 A.D. The newly-named Constantinople became a center of Christianity and Greek culture; many churches were built in the city, including the famous Hagia Sophia, and the Byzantine rule lasted until 1204 when the city was taken by Crusaders. In 1453 the city finally fell to the Turks, and the era of the Ottoman Empire began, lasting four centuries. During this time, when the Sultans ruled from Topkapi Palace, the city’s fabulous mosques were built and the palace acquired its enormous wealth.
The bridge from the new to the old city is teeming with activity, as is the inlet.
First stop was the Blue Mosque, built in 1616 and so nick-named for its exquisite blue tiles. This is one of city’s many mosques that were built during the first centuries of the Ottoman Empire.
The Blue Mosque gets its nickname from the overwhelming beauty of the blue tiles that line its interior.
It is only a short walk to the Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) church/mosque/museum. Originally a church built in the 6th century by the emperor Justinian, it was the largest cathedral in world for over a thousand years, eventually surpassed only by St. Peter’s in Rome and the Seville Cathedral in Spain.
On the day that Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmed II, he rode into the great church and with the aid of an iman proclaimed it a mosque. Minarets were erected, and the pulpit was moved off-center to face Mecca.
The interior is immense, the gigantic dome mesmerizing, and the detailed mosaics on the upper level are of incomparable beauty.
During the same period, construction was begun on the Grand Bazaar and the Topkapi Palace, home of the sultans and command center of the Ottoman Empire. We walked the short distance to the impressive entrance, erected by Suleyman the Magnificent in 1524.
During our visit we were surprised by an appearance of the palace marching band, a military or Janissary band, whose historic job it was to literally frighten the enemy with its music. The Turkish military band was the earliest of its kind; “Janissary” is derived from the Turkish word or phrase for “new soldier”. The band’s performance was a highly amusing and very photogenic experience that today probably frightens only babies.
Probably the most widely-talked about feature of the Topkapi palace is its area known as the Harem. It is not, as is commonly thought, a gigantic bordello; rather, it was the area of the palace that housed the greatly extended family of the sultan, which included usually four wives, many concubines, countless children, and all the servants, schoolteachers, babysitters, cooks, and the like who enabled the family to function.
The harem’s entrance, adorned with gorgeous tiles, was guarded by eunuchs who were imported from Africa. Their dark skin would have made a child by one of them and a concubine (sometimes they managed to grow something back!) an obvious anomaly.
The palace is filled with one stunning room after another, featuring exquisitely detailed tile and stone work. Many visitors – like us – probably fantasize about going home to re-do their kitchens and baths.
While the group headed to lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel, Wu Han and I went directly to the Grand Bazaar, which I had visited only once before on the Emerson Quartet’s first European tour almost thirty years ago. Much less intense today (my quartet was relentlessly hounded by merchants) we found the place entertaining if not quite stimulating to our shopping instincts as expected.
We headed down the hill to the Spice Market through the thickest crowds imaginable. The official population of Istanbul is around 12 million; our guide estimated 15 million, and I think he’s right. Apparently these crowds are the same size at midnight as at noon.
The Spice Market is filled with enticing food, and of course stalls with mounds of spices.
After an exhausting walk in the broiling sun back to the ship, we rested quickly and warmed up for the tour’s first concert, our own recital on board.
Sailing into the sunset on the Sea of Marmora, we somehow made it through the Mendelssohn D major and Brahms e minor sonatas, doing our best to give historical and musical information about the works in the style of our expert tour guides.
Click here for more photos of our Istanbul trip on Flickr.