Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Europe Meets Asia


Map picture

Istanbul, Turkey

During the last two days our ship, the Royal Princess, travelled at full speed southeast from Venice. We crossed the Adriatic Sea with Italy on our right and Greece on our left. Yesterday we made a left turn around the bottom of Greece and headed northwest across the Aegean Sea towards Istanbul. As we made our way through the Greek Isles, it was a truly beautiful sight.

Early this morning the ship entered the Dardanelles Strait. The Strait is only 38 miles in length. At the most narrow point, it is only ¾ mile wide and never more than 6 miles in width. It may be small, but its importance is immense. It is the body of water that separates Europe from Asia. Technically we will enter the Strait from the Aegean Sea, and when we exit, it will be into the Marmara Sea, which is completely surrounded by Turkey. On its northern shore is  the city of Istanbul. After our stop at Istanbul, the ship will travel a short distance north on the Straits of Bosphorus and enter the Black Sea.

As we entered the harbor at Istanbul this morning the sun was shining and the day looked to be wonderful. IMG_3066St. Sophia

This gave us a chance to get some very good photographs of two of the most important tourist sites, St. Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

IMG_3064Blue Mosque

However, as we got closer to our dock the clouds quickly formed and before we got off the ship, it had started to rain heavily. It continued for the remainder of the morning to intermittently rain or drizzle with overcast skies, which made getting good photographs almost impossible. You will see in the pictures that it is dark and on many shots drops of water on the camera lens are clearly visible.

We had arranged for a private car with a guide because we had visited this city on two prior occasions and did not need the package tour. It turned out that the city was very quiet which was unheard of in our experience. Istanbul is home to over 14 million people and on our prior trips the traffic was awful and extremely slow. It turns out that today was a public holiday. The feast of Ramadan had ended on Sunday, but on Monday they celebrate the Second Feast. All of the shops and businesses were closed--even the Grand Bazaar was closed. So, we were able to zip around very quickly.

Since we had visited before, our guide decided to take us someplace rarely visited by tourists, the Chora Church. IMG_3090 Chora Church

It is reputed to be one of the finest Byzantine Churches in existence. It was built in the 16th Century, and is best know for the marvelous mosaics that cover its walls and ceilings. However, when the Ottoman Turks took over the country, they converted the church to a mosque. Their religion does not allow for any icons to be displayed, so they set about destroying the mosaics. Some were simply chiseled off the walls, but others were merely plastered over and painted. The building was converted to a museum in 1948 and since that time, restorers have patiently been removing the plaster to reveal the outstanding mosaics beneath.


Our guide expected the church/museum to be nearly empty on this holiday Monday, but for some unexplained reason it was absolutely jammed packed with tourists, and not people from our ship either. It was so crowed that it was stuffy with heat and you could hardly move. I was able however in spite of the rain and the crowds to get a few photographs to share.

Our next stop was to St. Sophia. This is without a doubt the best museum in all of Istanbul. On our two prior visits the museum was closed. It was closed again today, except that Princess had made arrangement for the museum to open only for passengers of the Royal Princess. We arrived at the museum around 9 am, which was well before the organized tours had arrived. After some discussion, the guards agreed to allow us to enter, and so unbelievably we had the entire complex all to ourselves. What an experience!

Let me explain a little about St Sophia, and why it is so very important. When the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, now Istanbul, he dedicated himself to building a “New Rome.” St. Sophia, or the Church of the Holy Wisdom, was to be the “queen church” of the new empire. Sadly the original basilica was burned down during the Nike Rebellion, so the Emperor Justinian replaced it with the present masterpiece which dates from around 330 A.D. This huge edifice was constructed of material gathered for all over the ancient empire. Object and stones were brought from ancient Greece to be used in the construction; so much of the interior is much older than its construction date. It was a magnificent basilica.

However, in 1453 the Ottoman Turks defeated the Roman Empire and turned Constantinople into their new capital. St. Sophia’s was converted from a church to a mosque, and graceful minarets were added to the corners. The Islamic faith does not allow images in a place of worship, so the mosaics had to be removed. However the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, had them plastered over rather than destroyed. In 1936, when the structure was converted into a national museum, the original mosaics were discovered, and ever since then their painstaking recovery has been ongoing, and is still underway.


Besides the unique experience of being the only people, except for the occasional guard in this huge and awe inspiring structure, we did encounter a beautiful cat.IMG_3131 Yes, I said a cat in a museum. Our guide explained that this was one special cat. He is fed and maintained by the staff. If you are a tourist and approach the cat, he will let you pet him while he purrs; however if you are a local and approach the cat will run off. Truth be told when President Obama visited the site a few months ago, the cat allowed himself to be picked up by the President, who then proceeded to spend the remainder of his tour carrying and petting the cat. As if to show the truth of his words, our guide approached the cat and he ran off. However, when Lisa approached he allowed her to pet him. Now, you must admit that is one strange story.

My pictures do not do justice to the magnificent interior, IMG_3148but hopefully you can gain some idea of the experience. You will notice that I photographed two very large alabaster jars. These jars were carried on campaigns by Alexander the Great and are over 2,600 years old. 


A short walk in the rain brought us to the Blue Mosque, so named because of the 20,000 blue Inzik tiles that line the interior.IMG_3164 This unique structure has six graceful minarets to adorn the elegant structure.  When built in 1609, it was the intention of the architect to surpass the beauty of St. Sophia just across the street, and by most accounts he did just that. I was able to obtain some good interior pictures and do hope you enjoy.

As we departed Istanbul in the early evening. Lisa and I sat on our deck and marveled at the amazing skyline of the city. As tourists, we had been taken to the old inner city to marvel at the history of the region. Our ship had in fact docked right near the monuments. However as we cruised down the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea we were stunned at the modern city we saw lining the narrow channel. It went on and on for almost two hours. Modern buildings, stunning bridges and super highways; coupled with large high rise office and apartment structures, all combined to remind is that Istanbul is a very large and vibrant modern city with a very long history.

As I am writing this, the ship is proceeding across the Black Sea towards our next destination Sochi, Russia. From the warm and sunny shores of the Mediterranean, we are now traversing a storm tossed sea in a pouring rain. Nearby we can see the mountains of northern Turkey which are already covered in snow.

Our next five days are going to be very hectic with a new stop every day. That means that I may well get behind on writing and in posting pictures, but I will do the best I can. I do hope everyone is enjoying my updates.


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