Bulgaria & Turkey, November 2001 Travelogue
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Monday, Nov. 26th, 2001

Monday is always tricky when you are traveling, because many museums are closed that day. Luckily Istanbul is so chock-full of sights that they divide the off-days between Monday and Tuesday.

I said goodbye to the other breakfasting Mavi backpackers, feeling a bit bad that I was leaving them just so I could have a warmer room. I walked 6 blocks to my new hostel, locked my bag to the sink, & went to visit the rest of Topkapi palace.

The palace grounds were hovering right around zero Celsius, so I couldn't enjoy the carefully planned garden areas. They had a large collection of Chinese ceramics, a sacred relics area, a Treasury, the Harem, an armory and a garden with a view of the Sea of Marmara.

The armory was my favorite, with maces, whips, rifles, armor, lances and axes displayed very well. There was a host of Turkish and Arab armor that I had never seen before. There was also a few gigantic crusader swords, one of which was a ridiculous ten feet long. The sacred relics area welcomed me with a sign: This Suite of rooms has had a religious significance to Muslims for many centuries and all objects on exhibit here are considered to be sacred. Therefore it is kindly requested that during the visits to these rooms, our guests converse quietly and conduct themselves with a dignity and seriousness appropriate to such a place. My plans for selling balloon animals shattered, I decided to concentrate on taking illicit photos.

They weren't kidding when they said sacred. They had the seal of Mohammed, his footprint and pieces of his beard, a bunch of stuff from the apostles and a staff of Moses. My jaw dropped when I saw that staff.

The Harem was a separate ticket, and somewhat disappointing. There was a lot of nice tile along every one of the 12 rooms, and some nice stained glass, but there were only a few carpeted rooms, and nearly all of the furniture and little sultan decorations were gone. It was like visiting the house of a tile mogul after he had already moved out. The guide did liven it up with his stories of intrigue and by dispelling of a bunch of Harem myths I had never heard of. I guess it is hard to live up to my image of "harem" I developed playing Diablo 2.

The treasury was also a separate ticket, with gold encrusted gifts to and from other world rulers over the centuries. I saw the Topkapi Dagger & a wheelbarrow full of emeralds, rubies and diamonds. In case you are wondering, you could cover a melon-baller with sapphires and you'd have a great gift for royalty.

The garden view was nice... more marble and tiles, with a few fountains, etc.

I stopped off at my new hostel & found the lights off & someone sleeping. That was one of the lame parts of sharing a room, the other is being woken up by some dork wanting to download photos onto his laptop while you are trying to sleep.

Next I decided to venture across the Golden Horn to another part of Istanbul. I got on board a ferry at the shore, where hundreds of commuting Istanbullers piled on, trying to get home.

When the trip took longer than 5 minutes, I realized that I wasn't just passing north across the golden horn, but was instead crossing the Bosphorus into Asia. Luckily it was just the Asian side of Istanbul, so it only took about 15 minutes, and was easy to get back after some minor shopping and strolling. The Asian side was a little less cramped than Sultanahmet, where I was staying. I browsed through my first modern Turkish Supermarket, which was small like the ones in London, but which had something exotic indeed: black pantyliners. If anyone dares to tackle the cultural implications of this, please email me.

As night fell and the call to prayer sounded, I noticed almost every shop had a little table with it's workers crowded around it, eating. Muslims fast during the daylight hours of Ramadan, so that at nightfall, there is a mad rush to eat. It is amazing, and kind of sweet, how it brings everyone together in suffering and in the relief at the end of the day. I also became uneasy about eating on the tram during the middle of the day because I realized it was probably a bit cruel.

I got back to my part of town around 6:30 and found someone ELSE in bed with the lights off, so I had little choice but go for another walk.

This time I found some really dim places and wet alleys, but eventually popped out near the ancient aqueduct so I was able to orient myself. If I didn't mention it before, Istanbul has a very tangible feeling of safety.

I got home & hung out in the hostel bar, watching billiards and meeting a nice Dutch guy learning Turkish and a friendly Kiwi.

In front of Topkapi Palace


Japanese and gigantic crusader swords


embroidered double pistol holster
Hey Ken, why don't you get one of these?


Turkish Halberds


outside of the hall of the Divan


in the Harem, one of the few furnishings


the hand of John the Baptist


I think this is called a bower


Turkish Circus Tent

Tuesday, Nov. 27th, 2001

On Tuesday, I finally made it to the two landmark sites that had been greeting my view for the last 4 days, the Aya Sofya and Sultanahmet Camii.
I woke up early, had breakfast and coffee, and went into the Aya Sofya, the "church of the divine wisdom". It is very impressive, using every trick in the 6th century engineering book to obtain a huge dome unsupported by thick walls. It was a mosque, but now it is a museum. The building has a long history of being the most impressive building in Byzantine times. I assume it was filled with fantastic treasures before being sacked by Crusaders in 1204, but now it is just an amazing open space, with large marble columns, floor and wall panels.

I would like to state that it was the largest enclosed space in the world for almost a thousand years. You could fly a kite in there, and it was built in the 6th century. I kind of thought it would take me a while to tour the building, but since I didn't have a guide, and it was pretty much a really big single room, I was done in about 45 minutes.

The highlight was when a group of 5 Turkish schoolboys came over to me and started asking questions about where I was from and what I thought of Istanbul...ok that and the impossibly tall scaffolding they had to erect to work on the ceiling.

Next on my list was the Sultanahmet Camii, or Blue Mosque. This mosque is really gigantic as well, famous, and damn near the Aya Sofia. It has six minarets, the pointy parts that go up at the corners. I think the only other mosque with six minarets is the one at Mecca.

I was on my way in & made the mistake of talking to a guy near the exit, whereupon he latched onto me like a leech & started giving me the guided tour around the perimeter. That was bad news, because it meant that he was going to try to get me to his carpet shop later. I had to avoid this at all costs, so I made an excuse about going to the mosque later, doubled back towards my hotel, then ducked into the nearby book fair, and snuck over to the visitor's entrance. Alas, it was prayer time, so I couldn't go in anyway.

I had to kill about an hour until it opened up again, so I took a tram back into town, back to the aqueduct. From there I wandered through the streets, some steep as San Francisco, and found another market, this one on the outskirts of the Grand Bazaar. Here I found pirate CD's being sold. Windows XP was on sale for US$2 and Adobe Photoshop was also US$2. There was also a small stand with some porn vCDs ("American!", the vendor exclaimed to me proudly), condoms, and boxes of Viagra. This was the first adult material I had seen marketed in Turkey, but this was no time to browse through the debauchery, I was supposed to be at the Mosque for heaven's sake!

I asked for directions by handing a tram token to a guy on the street and pointing down the street with a questioning look on my face. He thought that was pretty funny & pointed me in the right direction. Soon I arrived and was greeted with a sign:

TO THE VISITORS' ATTENTION
  • 1. please remove your shoes and place them in the shelf or put them in a bag.
  • 2.the ladies should wear a scarf and a long skirt
  • 3. the gentlemen should be in trousers not in shorts
  • 4. should not speak aloud inside the mosque
  • 5. photograph should not be taken during the prayers
  • 6. should wait at the rear until the prayer ends
  • 7. should not go beyond the area allocated for visitors
  • 8. for any information contact to the mosque personnel.
Thank You.

Seemed reasonable enough, although it did put to rest my plans to open a Cabaret-style dance school in there.

I took my shoes off & carefully and quietly went in. The entire floor is carpeted with an ornate rug. It is so big that the pattern-repeats play tricks on your eyes. I don't know what that effect is called, but it was cool. There are gigantic columns inside, 3 meters WIDE, which are impressive in their own right, but seem like overkill when you have come directly from the Aya Sofia which has a bigger dome and NO nearby columns supporting it.

I was approached immediately by a guy who started giving me little bits of information about the site, so I turned around and walked away.

I took a few photos and got ready to leave. I peered out of the exit and saw that there was a small horde of carpet-selling tour-friends out front, so I snuck out the way I came in. You may think it would be easy to get rid of them, but let me assure you, it is not. Imagine "walking, talking, X-10 pop-up ads".

After a stop at my hostel, I voyaged out to take some more photos. I walked out to the water's edge, talked with the fishermen there a bit, and walked across the bridge to the other side of the Golden Horn. It was getting dark & people were closing up shop, so I only stayed there for a short while before heading back over the water and home. People were fishing off of the bridge, and road construction was forcing people to walk perilously close to the traffic.

That evening I went out to an internet cafe and I was approached by this young Turkish guy who assured me he did not want to sell me a carpet, but that he was just working on his English. I suspected the worst, but he had a pleasant demeanor. He told me I could kick him in the face if he tried to sell me a carpet. I told him I was just on my way to email some people, and would be just typing, so I wouldn't be the best company, but he wasn't concerned. He asked me about a few English grammar questions and watched me check my mail for about an hour. I was answering Holly's email about "where the hottest girls are", and he protested my answer of Sofia, insisting that the women of Istanbul were the finest in the world. He offered to bring me to a club where the beauties of the city were truly represented.

As I walked home, I was thinking, "how can I ditch this guy?". I had read a couple warnings about strangers offering me a drink & robbing me, and I couldn't develop a trust of this guy, although his offer was compelling. I told him I was going back to my room to write postcards, and we split.

I ended the night at a deserted Korean/Chinese Restaurant, where the owner and I discussed how the attack on the US in September had devastated the tourist economy of Turkey. He had had many Chinese and Korean tour groups cancel their trips, as his desolate eatery attested. I feel sorry for Turkey because it is caught between the Islamic world and the Democratic world. It takes abuse from both sides, I think, like that half-black, half-Asian kid at school.

He recommended that I buy a tour package for the rest of Turkey, because I could get a very cheap rate and stay at 5-star hotels that are sitting near-empty. He gave me the name and address of a tour company & I gave it some thought.


Interior of the Aya Sofia


Scaffolding to the top dome


staircase-stage thing


vessel and something


outside fountain


sultan-tastic!


street market in Istanbul


Inside the Blue Mosque


Inside the Blue Mosque

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Read my other travelogues: Minneapolis 2001 | Burning Man 2001 | Europe 1999 | Costa Rica 2000

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