Turkey is an exciting exploration of history with museum relics dating back to the Paleolithic period. The landscape varies from farmlands to high mountains, seas, and exotic natural formations found nowhere else on earth. The population is educated and extremely polite, hospitable, and welcoming. Turkish customs stress cleanliness of themselves, their homes, their land, and their thoughts and actions and are reflected throughout the pristine country. Turkey is a great travel value and being a crossroads throughout world history is one of the most fascinating countries in Europe. We chose to journey there with SmarTours, which offered especially good prices and something unique and interesting everyday.
In the two-week tour we traveled 2,200 miles on a comfortable coach, seeing all the highlights of middle and western Turkey. Our guide, Metin Engiz, was personable and humorous as he gave informative lectures about each place before we arrived and more while we were there. Matin, one of the best guides you could ever find anywhere, has a Ph.D. in political science and sociology and a thorough understanding of world history and religion. He conveys his knowledge generously, helping visitors understand the time line of world history in which this land has always played a strategic role, uniquely situated as a bridge from Europe to Asia and to the Middle East and North Africa.
Sixty-five different civilizations and ethnicities have mixed here and blended their cultures in this melting pot over the thousands of years of the civilizations of mankind. The only country that straddles two continents, the west side brings heritage of Thrace from Europe (which means west). The eastern side of Turkey, known as Asia Minor, was called by the Greeks: Anatolya, land of sunrise. Turkey today is 18% larger than Texas and is the second largest country in Europe, with the smallest and possibly most important sea in world, the Marmara Sea, which offers the only ice-free shipping to the Atlantic for several countries, especially Russia. Marmara Island, in the middle of this small sea, is known for its marble mines.
While in Istanbul we stayed Hotel Germir Palais on the European side. The hotel was located just a block from the modern Taksim Square, a busy center like Broadway. It is well-located and is a lovely 100 yr old residence hotel with small rooms, floral carpet, marble baths, crisp white linens and big Turkish towels, and includes an excellent breakfast. We were thankful for non-smoking hotel rooms and restaurants, a new and welcome concept in Turkey and smartly enforced.
We loved the special tour of the Boshporus Straits on a boat in beautiful weather. We toured up the coast on the European side and returned on the Asian side; a beautiful afternoon with amazing sights. The first bridge connecting two continents was built in 1910 across the Bosphorus, which means “ford of the calf.” The harbor of Istanbul is called the Golden Horn and this is the main body of water dividing Istanbul. This city is officially among the seven most beautiful in the world and is one of the twenty largest cities in the world with about 13 million residents. With recorded history dating to 6,000 BC, the city has been known through the ages as a crossroads of trade between Europe and Asia. The early settlers of Istanbul were said to be colonist from Megara led by Byzas, and the city became known as Byzantium from this early founder. After Constantine I became sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 324AD he moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium and later renamed the city Constantinople. By 330AD Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire and Constantinople was dedicated as capital of the Byzantine Empire. However, the heyday for beautiful architecture seen today was under the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century A.D. He built new city walls, some of which are still standing today. This period of history from the time of Justinian is known today as the Byzantine period.
In the old part of Istanbul on the European side on a hill facing the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus, we visited the museum Hagia Sophia (which means Holy Wisdom), a beautiful World Heritage Site. The present building was the third building built on the site where the first building was a basilica built in 390AD, but it burned. The church was rebuilt in the second century but was destroyed by an earthquake. In 537 Justinian rebuilt the church as the magnificent structure we see today. It became the center of the Greek Orthodox Church, comparable to The Vatican in Rome, after the Catholic Religion divided. However, the Muslim Arab Ottomon soldiers arrived, and in 1453 Mehmed II captured Constantinople then turned Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. He granted religious tolerance to the conquered Christians and instead of destroying the Christian statues and frescoes in Hagia Sophia, he plastered over them as he turned this masterpiece of architecture into the Mosque. In the 20th Century when Turkey became a secular republic and during the restoration of Hagia Sophia the plaster was removed to reveal the original Christian décor in beautiful condition. Today visitors can see both the Christian and Moslem symbols throughout this huge edifice, which is distinguished by its four minarets.
Just across the plaza from Hagia Sophia we removed our shoes to enter the Blue Mosque, built in the 17th Century by Sultan Ahmet I. It is called the Blue Mosque because of the fantastic blue tiles that adorn the walls. The inside of this mosque, considered the most beautiful of all mosques in the world, has walls that are covered with exquisite blue tiles, handmade in a way that cannot be duplicated today. This mosque has six minarets representing the six 6 articles of Islamic faith which are: (Moslems must worship only Allah; believe Mohamed is His messenger; must give alms; must pray 5 times a day after cleansing; must journey to Mecca once; must each year observe the 30-day fast called Ramadan) All visitors must dress modestly and remove their shoes; women need to cover their heads only if worshipping.
We stood in the huge Hippodrome, originally built by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus in 203AD to hold 100.000 spectators for horse races and games, but later 50,000 people were killed in this place, a tragedy ending its use for these sporting events. In the area which was once the Hippodrome we viewed the Egyptian Obelisk that came from Karnak in Egypt and sent by the Roman governor of Alexandria to Theodosius I in 390AD. Also, in the area of the Hippodrome can be seen the Serpentine Column, which is a huge bronze structure of three entwined serpents, made as a tribute by the Greek cities for the defeat of the Persians and brought from Delphi to Constantinoble by Constantine I in the 4th Century AD.
We also visited the Topkapi Palace, which stands not far from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Otomans built Topkapi Palace in this their capital city and thousands of tulips were planted and are still the symbol of Turkey, costing 6 million lire each year to re-plant! The palace housed 5,000 residents as a city within a city and extends over 170 acres. The Sultans through the centuries held absolute rule, and 21 of the 26 Sultans of the Ottoman Empire lived one after the other in this palace until the 20th Century. We spent hours going through this beautiful and vast palace, which is actually made up of numerous buildings within palace walls.
There are collections of clothing, furniture, art, weapons, and many other articles reminiscent of the power and wealth of these mighty rulers. We found most fascinating two museums there. One holds Holy Relics from Jewish, Christian, and Moslem faiths, such as the sword of Mohamed and the staff of Moses, and the finger of John the Baptist, and many more items. The other museum displays, under heavy security, were the treasures of the Sultans, including a chest overflowing with huge emeralds, a gem-laden gold dagger, many jewels, crowns, gold pieces, and a 86 carat diamond surrounded by other diamonds. Our minds kept telling us these had to be replicas, but they were real! The many walkways, arches, fountains, and rooms of Topkapi Palace invite the imagination to picture the lavishly dressed Emperial families and the humble servants who strolled these grounds for centuries.
Although hot in summer (and air conditioning is not plentiful) Turkey is beautiful at all seasons with flowering trees, bulbs, and roses everywhere. In spring when we were there wildflowers, pansies and tulips bloomed in profusion. Local residents shop at Istanbul’s Spice Market, a large, clean “mall” of exotic scents and arrays of color with all kinds of spices, fruits, nuts, grains, and handmade items beautifully displayed. We made our selections from the most popular Turkish spices: black pepper, cumin, oregano, mint, paprika, chili, mild red pepper, sour sumak for salads (not poisonous), mixed spice for meatballs. Of course visitors must taste Turkish coffee, apple tea, strong Turkish tea in the little glasses without handles, and various flavors of Turkish delight candies. Here is also where residents buy henna for painting hands and hair in different tones from black to red.
The much larger Grand Bazaar, occupying a building built between 1455-1461 by Sultan Mehmet the conqueror of Constantinoble, is a warren of 4,000 shops and 14 main numbered gates. We had dreaded the experience because in other countries the vendors mobbed us and followed us until we could not bear the shopping experience, but in Turkey this shopping is delightful and so interesting! It is almost like going to a mall, but the building by dating to the 15th century makes you fell that you are traveling back to an exotic time. Each kiosk is filled with different items, many of which are handmade, and all of which are Turkish in design and construction. Bargaining is expected, and you can walk away and have the price reduced by as much as 50%. This is the ideal place for souvenirs and items you just like. But we were advised that to buy fine jewelry here could be a mistake.
Be sure to have a meal at one of the excellent fish restaurants on the Bosphorus. And try Efez beer, the Turkish favorite. We enjoyed the gypsy band, which performs in the various restaurants and selects various on-lookers to learn the gypsy dances with them. A lot of fun! We found Istanbul, one of the oldest, most fascinating and beautiful cities in the world, to be near the top of the list of our favorites!