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Southwest of the Hippodrome

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The winding streets and cobblestone alleys immediately southwest of the Hippodrome have a radically different atmosphere from the rest of tourist-oriented Sultanahmet. Sloping down swiftly to the Sea of Marmara, this little subsection of the city has a couple beautiful mosques, as well as a pleasing working-class vibe.

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Just a few hundred meters from the chaotic crowds at the Blue Mosque, we found the quiet Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Camii. Yet another creation of the Ottoman master architect Mimar Sinan, this lovely mosque was built in 1571 for the Grand Vizier of Suleyman the Magnificent. We were frustrated to find the doors locked, but a student in the attached Koran School suggested we just wait until prayer time.

We relaxed at a nearby rooftop cafe until the call to prayer was issued from the mosque’s solitary minaret. Then, hoping that a solemn demeanor would help us blend in, we filed into the Mehmet Paşa along with the worshipers. This was the first Muslim ceremony I’d witnessed, and I found it quite moving. While we silently observed from the rear of the mosque, an Imam led the prayers. In unison, the men would bow, kneel or join in the chanting. [More Pics of the Sokullu Mehmet Paşa | Location]

Right down the street is the Küçük Ayasofya Camii, or the Small Hagia Sofia, so named because of an architectural and chromatic resemblance to Istanbul’s most famous mosque. It was originally built in 527 as a Byzantine church and, from the exterior, looks its age. So the magnificence of the recently-restored interior comes as a surprise. It’s not as colorful as other mosques, but has a wonderful two-story colonnade, and visitors are allowed to explore the upper floors. [More Pics of the Küçük Ayasofya Camii | Location]

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The Greek writing betrays the Küçük Ayasofya’s original use as a Byzantine Church

After finishing up in the Little Hagia Sofia, we poked around the neighborhood. For being so close to Istanbul’s most popular sights, there were few tourists underway on these narrow, uneven streets. Instead, we saw Turks going on about their daily lives — visiting the market, repairing rotted old buildings, and sitting on tiny stools on the sidewalk, drinking tea. [More Pics from the Neighborhood]

To get home, we walked along the Sea of Marmara until reaching the Galata Bridge. This was a longer trek than we had anticipated, but an entertaining one. Views of Asian Istanbul accompanied us the whole way, along with stray cats, fishermen grilling their day’s catch on the wave breakers, and tankers sounding their horns on their way into the Bosphorus. [More Pics from our Walk along the Sea]

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More Pictures from the Neighborhood
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More Pictures from the Sokullu Mehmet Paşa
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More Pictures from the Kuçuk Ayasofya
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More Pictures from our Walk along the Sea
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March 27, 2013 at 9:27 am Comment (1)

Black as Hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love

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An old Turkish proverb perfectly describes the country’s unique take on my favorite caffeinated beverage: “Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love”. Turkish coffee is a thing unto itself, and although I initially found it disgusting, it didn’t take long to win me over. Exactly two weeks, in fact.

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[March 6th, 2013] “This is just stirred-up sludge!” That was my first judgement, after I’d foolishly emptied the espresso-sized glass into my mouth. With the mud-like coffee grinds sticking to my teeth and back of my throat, I growled. “Who wants to drink this crap?” And then I ordered an Americano.

[March 12th, 2013] “If you like your tiny shot of liquid tar with a ton of sugar, then this is your drink!” By now, I’d learned to leave the sludge at the bottom of the cup alone, but still scoffed at the idea of Turkish Coffee as a pleasure to be greedily anticipated. More like a chore.

[March 15th, 2013] “The foam is my favorite.” Capitvated by the rich layer of foam found on top of every well-prepared cup, my mind had started to open to Turkish coffee’s charms. I had learned how to order it with “a little” (bir az) sugar, which helped, and had begun sitting back in my chair, drinking in small, dainty sips. Like I’d seen cool-looking Turkish guys do.

[March 20th, 2013] “Other countries are so stupid! Turkish coffee is so much better than their stupid coffees, why doesn’t everyone drink this?” It took fourteen days, but I had embraced Turkish coffee with the obnoxious enthusiasm beginners tend to bring to every new thing they’ve just discovered. I had even bought a Turkish coffee pot (a cezve) and taught myself how to make it at home.

Oh yes, I can be very annoying. Excited by my new obsession, and eager to use my cezve (how I loved saying that word! Cezve!), I fell into the habit of making another round of coffee every hour or so, each time ceremoniously presenting it to Jürgen on a tray, and secretly hurt if he didn’t notice or comment upon the layer of foam I’d so painstakingly crafted.

Mine was alright, but the best Turkish coffee we found in Istanbul was at Café Mandabatmaz, just off İstiklal Caddesi. Just a tiny room with enough stools for maybe eight people, and a master who’s been perfecting his craft for decades, the cups of coffee you get here are out of this world. Thick, rich, sweet and strong. Just like it should be.

Location of Mandabatmaz on our Istanbul Map

We also enjoyed Turkish Coffee in the Közde Türk Kahvesi, in front of the Yeni Camii, and the Nano Cafe, near the cruise terminal. Any other great recommendations? Let us know.

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March 24, 2013 at 5:44 pm Comment (1)

The Remains of the Hippodrome

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An arena nearly half a kilometer long, packed with 100,000 howling fans. The emperor seated with his family in the imperial loge, disinterestedly following the proceedings. Hundreds of golden statues, columns, monuments and treasures decorating the track. And the thunderous sound of 32 horses, galloping under the whip’s cruel crack. Oh, to experience the Hippodrome during Constantinople’s Golden Age!

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Little remains of this once great public arena. The Hippodrome, built in the 3rd century, had fallen into disrepair long before the Ottomans claimed the city in 1453, and the new rulers of Istanbul had little use for chariot racing. But the arena’s general shape survived in the form of Sultanahmet Square, and one chunk of its massive retaining wall is still visible in the southeast corner. So it’s not difficult to get a sense of the Hippodrome’s former size.

Of the many monuments which were once lined up along the track’s spine, only three remain. Coming from the south, the first of these is the Walled Obelisk: 32-meters in height and with the appearance of a mid-game Jenga tower. It had been covered in gilded bronze until the Fourth Crusade, when Europe’s Christian soldiers decided to end their “holy quest” by sacking their Christian brothers in Constantinople. By the time they were done looting, the Crusaders had stripped the Walled Obelisk bare.

Meters away is the Serpentine Column: a strange spiral of weathered bronze. There had originally been three snake heads atop the column, which was taken from Delphi at the command of Constantine the Great. This is one of humanity’s oldest Greek treasures, crafted in 478 BC as an offering to Apollo, following the legendary Battle of Plataea in which an over-matched alliance of Greek states defeated the powerful Persians of Xerxes I. The column’s snake heads were lopped off sometime during the Ottoman regency of Istanbul, but one can still be seen in the city’s Museum of Archaeology.

The Serpentine column’s age is impressive, but the Hippodrome’s third monument is even older. A lot older. The Egyptian Obelisk was originally erected in Luxor sometime around 1450 BC. That’s about three and a half millennia ago. Give or take a century. Made of red granite, it’s in unfathomably good condition, despite being moved to Constantinople by Theodosius in 390 AD and re-erected in the center of the Hippodrome.

The obelisk is covered in bizarre Egyptian hieroglyphs and its nearly perfect condition just adds to its mysterious aura. Many believe it to be imbued with magical powers and, while I’ve never been one to buy into mysticism, it’s hard to remain completely skeptical while in its presence.

Location of the Hippodrome on our Map

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March 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm Comments (2)

The Blue Mosque

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Popularly known as the Blue Mosque thanks to the color of the Iznik tiles lining its walls, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque dominates Istanbul’s skyline with six minarets. Completed in 1616, the mosque is still used for worship, but due to its grandeur and location, has become a popular tourist attraction.

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From the moment it was proposed by Sultan Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque was contentious; not only did it require demolishing the palaces of powerful Ottoman ministers, but the unusual number of minarets was considered an effrontery. Four had long been the accepted maximum, with only the Grand Mosque in Mecca claiming six. But Sultan Ahmed was a man used to getting his way, and refused to budge. Luckily a compromise was found before any blood was shed: another minaret was simply added to Mecca’s mosque.

The Blue Mosque is stunning, especially when viewed from its courtyard. Perfectly symmetrical and of jaw-dropping size, the curved domes, rounded and hexagonal turrets and towering minarets work with the courtyard’s arches to create a profile of sublime beauty. It’s hard to imagine the impact such a sight must have made on visiting 17th-century dignitaries… or, perhaps it’s not at all hard to imagine. Their reaction must have been the same as mine: speechless awe.

We removed our shoes and stepped inside. Indoors, the mosque is not as cavernous as it would appear from the exterior, but it is exquisite. Over 20,000 blue Iznik tiles decorate the walls, making the room glow, and the central dome is spacious enough to house a large family of pigeons. Four gargantuan pillars called the Elephant’s Feet support half-domes, and the plentiful light filtering in through stained-glass gives the mosque a bright and spacious air.

We loved our visit to the Blue Mosque, and were surprised to be in and out within twenty minutes. There was no wait in line and no admission charge, though a small donation is appreciated, making this surely one of the most magnificent “quick and easy” sights we’ve ever visited.

Location on our Istanbul Map
The Blue Mosque – Website

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March 22, 2013 at 6:18 pm Comments (6)

The Spice Bazaar (or Egyptian Bazaar)

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Its real name might be the Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı), but the Spice Bazaar is how everyone refers to it, and gives a better indication of what to expect inside. Found next to the Yeni Camii near the Golden Horn, this ancient covered market dates from 1660 and is Istanbul’s second biggest bazaar.

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Although we found the shopping experience inside the bazaar stressful and monotonous, the building itself is wonderful. After the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, they raised the funds to build this covered market by imposing heavy taxes on Cairo. For centuries afterward, the Egyptian Bazaar was the center of Istanbul’s spice trade, where handlers would truck in colorful herbs and seasonings from across the far-flung empire. The L-shaped building is a bit of a curiosity — there are six gates, but the main entrance is at the joint known as the “Prayer Field”. In this, the bazaar’s only wooden section, an officer would lead the merchants in morning prayer and remind them to trade fairly.

I hadn’t necessarily been anticipating turbaned merchants in the Spice Market, sitting atop piles of cinnamon and mirthfully counting out their golden coins, but perhaps something a little more genuine than the tourist trap it has become. There was still spice, and plenty of it, but every stand had the same selection and the same prices. The same hawkers perched outside, entreating you to examine their teas and aphrodisiacs. A lot of stands were dedicated wholly to souvenirs. It’s definitely not the place locals come to fill their spicing needs, and the inauthenticity ruins the experience.

Just outside, though, in the nook of the building’s L-shape, is a place where locals do shop: the outdoor Pet and Gardening Market, with hundreds of caged birds, fish, some dogs, and boxes full of clucking chicks. We enjoyed the atmosphere here a lot more than inside the Spice Market. One of the more interesting aspects was a row of Leech Doctors with buckets full of the blood suckers to be applied to feet or even the face. We had hoped to get a picture of the doctors plying their trade, but unfortunately, none of them had clients. And despite Jürgen’s pleading, I wasn’t about to sit down.

Location of the Spice Market on our Map

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March 22, 2013 at 10:14 am Comments (4)

A Southern Turkish Feast at the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası

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Serving up traditional food from Hatay, Turkey’s southernmost province, the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası is a family-owned and operated restaurant which has won a lot of press and gained a loyal following since opening in 2007. We were invited to sample some of their best dishes one early Monday evening… and that’s not the kind of invitation we’re ever going to turn down.

Tuzda-Tavuk

Hatay, squished between the Mediterranean and Syria, has always been an object of contention. Syria argues that Turkey stole the province by rigging the 1939 referendum in which Hatay’s citizens voted to join Turkey. Today, the matter is mostly settled, but Syria has never officially withdrawn its claim to the province. Hatay’s climate is warmer than the rest of Turkey’s, and their cuisine more Middle Eastern.

We met Mehmet at the doors to the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, in the neighborhood of Askaray. The son of the restaurant’s founder, Mehmet spent the afternoon with us, introducing us to the food of Hatay and even allowing us into the restaurant’s kitchen to take photos. The Akdeniz is consistently crowded and employs a huge staff, but despite the congestion, the chefs didn’t seem to mind our presence, and it was a lot of fun to watch them work.

The restaurant’s claim to fame is the Tuzda Tavuk — a chicken stuffed with rice, packed in rock salt and then shoved into a huge wood-fired oven to bake for two hours. When ready, it’s wheeled out to the table and set on fire. After the flames are extinguished, the waiter chisels at the rock-hard salt shell until the chicken emerges golden brown and perfectly cooked from its igloo-like prison… and not all that salty. But the highlight is the rice, which is mixed with allspice, currants, crushed almonds and pine nuts. You can also order the same thing with lamb instead of chicken.

We were also able to try the Cerra Kebab, which is a leg of lamb baked inside a clay pot, with garlic, onion and spices. At the table, the pot is smacked open and the steaming contents poured out into a bowl. Just as delicious as the chicken, and more succulent. I could have eaten two pots full.

Meze-Restaurant-Istanbul

Before the main dishes appeared, Mehmet had selected a few of his favorite meze, including humus, muhamarra (a spicy red chili paste with walnuts), tebbuli (white thyme salad), mütebbel (yogurt eggplant sauce) and kısır (a reddish salad of wheat, parsley and tomato paste). I had assumed humus would be a normal part of Turkish cuisine, but it’s actually more Middle Eastern; this was the first time I’d seen it in Istanbul. The mütebbel was possibly my favorite of the bunch, or perhaps the white thyme salad. Or the perfectly spicy muhamarra. It’s hard to say.

We had polished off enough food to sustain a camel for months, and our stomachs were bursting. So when dessert arrived, I suspected that Mehmet was deriving some sadistic joy out of torturing us. But if the torture is being “forced” to eat künefe, you can’t complain too much. You just sit there, endure your punishment, and enjoy every last bite of it. Künefe is Hatay’s most famous dessert: layers of flour and goat cheese, caramelized on top and served with a big glass of milk.

Considering how long the main dishes need to bake, you should call ahead well in advance to both order and reserve a table. But don’t miss out on the best place in Istanbul to try some of Turkey’s most distinctive cuisine.

Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası – Website
Location on our Istanbul Map
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March 20, 2013 at 6:05 pm Comments (4)

Three Mosques of Üsküdar

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Much of our first day on the Asian side of Istanbul was spent visiting Üsküdar’s mosques. There are over 180 in just this section of the city, so we had a lot to choose from, but stuck to three of the most well-known: the Yeni Valide, &#350emsi Paşa and Atik Valide.

The Yeni Valide Camii
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Üsküdar’s “Mosque of the New Queen Mother” was the very first mosque we visited in Turkey. Completed in 1703 by Emetullah Rabia Gülnûş, the mother of Sultan Ahmed III, the mosque is situated near the Bosphorus and its twin minarets have become part of Istanbul’s Asian profile. As a girl, the Greek Emetullah had led a peaceful existence on Crete before being kidnapped by the Ottomans and sent to the harem of Sultan Mehmet IV. Lovely and intelligent, she soon attracted the sultan’s favor and bore him two sons, both of whom would become sultans as well.

Since this was our first mosque, its huge dome, colorful tiles, intricate patterns, and stunning courtyard were especially astounding to us. The Queen Mother is buried here, in a tomb protected by a nicely-wrought cage of green iron. [More Pics | Location]

The &#350emsi Paşa Camii
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This tiny mosque on the Bosphorus coast was unfortunately encircled by the massive construction of the Marmara project, which will link Asia to Europe by subway. It was built in 1581 by Mimar Sinan for the Grand Vizier (prime minister) of the time, &#350emsi Paşa.

The noise and mess of construction really detracted from our experience here, which is a shame since the &#350emsi Paşa is considered one of Istanbul’s architectural gems. There’s a pleasing simplicity to the humble mosque, with its lone dome and single minaret, and when there’s no construction, the courtyard with its view over the Bosphorus must be wonderful. [More Pics | Location]

The Atik Valide Külliyesi
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Completed in 1583, the mosque of the Atik Valide Külliyesi was our favorite of the day. It took a while to reach, as it’s found at the top of a hill further inland, but was worth the effort. The mosque was built at the behest of the Sultan Valide Nurbanu, wife of Selim the Sot (one of the Ottoman Empire’s most disastrous rulers) and mother of Sultan Murad III. During her time as valide sultan (mother of the sultan), she exercised enormous influence, and was recognized as the true power behind the throne. She died in 1583, possibly poisoned by Genoese agents, and was buried in the Hagia Sofia.

The complex (Külliyesi) which Nurbanu commissioned in Üsküdar was the final masterpiece of Istanbul’s ubiquitous architect Mimar Sinan, and includes a dervish lodge, insane asylum, and soup kitchen. The mosque is glorious, sporting a wide central dome surrounded by five smaller domes, but is very nearly eclipsed in beauty by the attached courtyard, where there are old burnt trees, a fountain and a popular tea house. We love this aspect of mosques; they double as community centers, providing a place hang out even when there’s no service. [More Pics | Location]

More Pictures from the Yeni Valide Camii
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March 20, 2013 at 7:11 am Comments (2)

A Day in Üsküdar

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It was a sunny Sunday morning, perfect for our first foray into Asian Istanbul, so we hopped on a ferry and headed over to Üsküdar. Originally settled by the Greeks as Chrysopolis in the 7th century BC, Üsküdar’s founding actually predates that of Byzantium.

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To get a sense of how insanely populous Istanbul is, consider this. Üsküdar comprises just a small section of the city, but half a million people are packed into its eighteen square miles. If just this section of Istanbul were a city in Idaho, it would be by far that state’s most populous. More than twice as many people live in Üsküdar as in Boise.

Throughout the day, we were struck by the neighborhood’s radically different atmosphere; apart from the Bosphorus and the hills, it’s nothing like the Istanbul we’ve been slowly growing accustomed to. Quieter and more conservative, Üsküdar has historically been home to poorer families transplanted from the Anatolian countryside. English is rarely heard here, and there are few tourists underway. Amazing, considering how easy it is to reach. We saw only one other foreign couple the whole day.

Perhaps for that reason, we found the locals here a bit warmer than in Beyoğlu or Sultanahmet. We sat down at a tiny side-street stand serving tea (and only tea), and the kid working there nearly wet himself when I tried to order in Turkish. Later, we asked an older man for directions, and he walked with us for ten minutes to show us the way. He was so friendly, it hardly mattered that he was leading us in the totally wrong direction. And after playing with her pug, we got into a long chat with a woman in Doğancilar Park. She had spent fifteen years living in Bremen, and was obviously eager to give her German a workout.

We ended our day with a walk down at the seaside, enjoying the views of Istanbul’s European profile across the Bosphorus. A long stretch of the coastline is dedicated to sea-facing benches outfitted with pillows, and waiters who serve tea and coffee. Stoked by a day of walking, our appetites were raging, so we sat down at Filizler Köftecısı, a large and popular restaurant which serves up köfte: ground beef packed into meatballs or patties. With our bellies full, we lingered for awhile to enjoy the view of the Bosphorus from the terrace before returning to the ferry.

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March 18, 2013 at 4:52 pm Comments (3)

From Sultanhamet Square to Beyazit

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Before we arrived in Istanbul, I spent a long time poring over a map of the city. And I needed a long time, because Istanbul is catastrophically huge. The megalopolis has stretched its border (and the bounds of belief) to over 2000 square miles, remorselessly swallowing any unlucky village in its path. I was nervous that in order to reach the various sights scattered about Istanbul, we’d have a lot of long bus and train rides to look forward to.

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The Arch of Theodosius

So the reality of getting around in Istanbul has come as a major relief. The city is far easier to walk than I’d feared, and public transportation is cheap, quick and efficient (if crowded). Most importantly, most of the major sights are packed closely together in or near the historic center. On one of our first days, we walked along the tram line from Sultanhamet Square (next to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia) to Beyazit: a short, straight walk during which we saw one historic treasure after the other.

We started at the fountain between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Tourist central. Locals have almost entirely moved out of this neighborhood, which is now dominated by foreigners and the people who cater to them. After visiting the Sunken Cistern, we escaped the morass by walking west down the Divan Yolu, or the “Road to the Imperial Council”. As the name suggests, it’s a thoroughfare which has been integral to the city since Roman times.

Column-of-Constantine

Following the tram tracks, we soon reached the Column of Constantine. Known in Turkish as the Çemberlitaş sütunu (Hooped Stone), this is one of Istanbul’s oldest surviving relics, erected in 330 AD, when the city was christened Constantinople and became the capital of Roman Empire. The column was damaged by an earthquake in 416, after which the iron hoops were added, and again in a massive 1779 fire that earned it another nickname: the Burnt Column.

Across from the gate to the university, we found the ruins of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius. There’s not much left to see; the ruins, only discovered in the 1950s, are laid rather haphazardly on the ground and won’t mean much to the archaeological layperson. But experts have been able to determine how the arch must once of looked.

Perhaps even more than the monuments, we enjoyed the modern city sights: the googly-eyed tourists at Sultanahmet Square (I don’t mean that disparagingly; googly-eyed is the only way to be when flanked by the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque), stray cats lounging on city benches, men hard at work on one of Istanbul’s endless construction projects, and students on their way to class. The 21st century hurrying busily along its path, oblivious to the ancient relics all around. It’s a fun dynamic, and one we’ll be seeing a lot of in Istanbul.

Location of the Column of Constantine | Arch of Theodosius
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March 17, 2013 at 3:49 pm Comment (1)

The Great Palace Mosaic Museum

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Not much remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople, built in 330 AD and home to Byzantine emperors for over 800 years. After taking the city in 1453, the Ottomans reduced the palace to rubble and eventually erected the Blue Mosque on top of it. But not all was lost. Excavations in the 1920s uncovered some brilliant mosaic patterns which had once decorated the palace’s floors and walls. And these have been preserved in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Mosaic-Head-Istanbul

The entrance to the museum is hidden in the midst of the bustling Arasta Bazaar and we walked right past it a couple times, distracted by the colorful carpets and souvenirs. But once inside, the place is fascinating. As far as possible, the mosaics of the palace have been left where they were found. It’s estimated that there were up to 80 million individually-laid cubes of terracotta and glass. Only a small fraction has survived the tumult of the centuries, but it’s more than enough to impress.

The scenes represented in the mosaics are both natural and mythical, with bears and monkeys joining griffins and chimeras in the patterns. There are fruits, floral scenes, and humans engaged in hunting, fighting and playing. Placards around the museum do an excellent job of explaining each surviving mosaic, enhancing the experience dramatically.

Location on our Istanbul Map
Great Palace Mosaic Museum – Website
Other great mosaics we visited on Sicily: Villa Romana del Casale

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March 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm Comments (3)

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