Eastern Mediterranean Cruise
Friday June 19 to Saturday June 20, 2009

The ecomoic and cultural centre of Turkey

Our morning started reasonably early, with us making it to the Oceanview Cafe for breakfast at about 8:00am. After breakfast we spent a bit of time in the library then took in a lecture in the Solstice Theatre. The lecture was part of the “Enrichment Series” and was entitled “Introducing Istanbul - Mosques, Minarets and Majolica” led by Dr. Mary Jane Cryan Pancani. She is an American author and historian who has lived in Italy since 1965. Clearly, her strength lay in Italian history - so her lecture on Istanbul was more of a comparison of Istanbul to Rome. It was not much of an exposé on Istanbul, and she admitted during the lecture that she had never been there and was looking forward to the experience. What? Never been there? Actually, that wasn’t so hard to believe - she seemed ill prepared to lead this lecture. It was disappointing. We found out later in the cruise that she was a no-show for one of her other scheduled lectures.

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  • Friday June 19, 2009

    Hagia Sophia, Topkaki Palace and the Istanbul Archaeology Museums

    After the less than enriching lecture our next stop was Cafe al Bacio, followed by some reading time in the Sky Lounge on Deck 14 forward. We found a nice place to sit, and could see the outline of the Istanbul skyline on the horizon. Once closer to the city we moved to the open deck on Deck 14 for a better view and then had a light lunch in the Oceanview Cafe. We were much closer after we had finished lunch and made our way back to the open deck to enjoy the impressive scenery.

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      Besides the striking Istanbul skyline, the thing that most stood out to us was the busyness of the Bosphorus - the strait between Europe and Asia. This strait connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. We had approached Istanbul from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and at Istanbul what we saw was a waterway that truly had the look of a water highway in rush hour.

      We made it back to our room as the ship began its final manoeuvres to dock in Istanbul. This time the ship was docking on the port side, so we got a good view of it from our balcony. The approach came complete with a Turkish band playing on the dock. After the ship docked we made our way to the Solstice Theatre for our tour. We were schedule to leave at 1:15pm, which was shortly after the ship had been cleared by the Turkish authorities. For Turkey, we needed to fill out landing cards and keep them with us the entire time we were in Istanbul. It was a beautiful day in Istanbul - warm and sunny. The bus for our tour was parked just outside the terminal building, so it was a quick walk from the ship.

      Our tour bus took us over the Galata Bridge to get to the area known as the Old City. Our first stop was Hagia Sophia - built originally as a Byzantine church, rebuilt as a church after the first one was destroyed, then rebuilt twice more as a church and then modified as an Ottoman mosque. What is it now? a museum. More than that, it is also an impressive building. There is no evidence of the original church that dates back to 360 AD, but there is evidence of the second church from 415 AD - even though it had been burned down in 532 AD. The current building is the unusual mixture of the third church of 537, restorations of said church and the conversion, restoration and expansion of the Ottoman mosque that started in 1453 when the Ottoman’s conquered what was then Constantinople - what is now Istanbul.

      Hagia Sophia has been a museum since 1935. With its conversion to a museum, the church mosaics, stained glass windows and marble floor were uncovered - revealing the Christian images and decorations that had been hidden during the building’s tenure as a mosque. We found the inside of Hagia Sophia fascinating with its mixture of Christian art and Muslim calligraphy as well as decorations from both. One location in particular stood out - where the mosque’s mihrab was located slightly off centre of the church altar. The mihrab’s position was set to show the location of Mecca, but high over it was an image of Christ as a child sitting in Mary’s lap. Between the image and the mihrab were some of the church’s stained glass windows. The large domed roof of the building was partially obscured by scaffolding being used by restoration workers. The scaffolding looked very tall - the centre of the dome is 56 metres above the floor level. There was no indication of how extensive the restoration was to be, but large areas of the ceiling and walls could definitely benefit from some attention.

      The topic of converting this building to a museum in 1935 by the new government of the equally new Republic of Turkey was the perfect launching ground for our guide to put his spin on the nation. Statistics show that 99 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, yet according to our guide Turkey is not a Muslim nation, but rather a nation where the vast majority of the population is Muslim. He went to great lengths to picture Turkey as a secular Republic. Interesting, but is it true? Not sure. We left Hagia Sophia through the southwestern entrance, passing under some vivid Christian mosaics that date back to 944 AD.

      It was a short stroll from Hagia Sophia to our next destination of Topkapi Palace. Immediately after exiting the museum we first had to run the gauntlet of very pushy street vendors - it would be safe to say that they were the most aggressive we've seen anyway. We walked around the perimeter of Hagia Sophia on our way to the Imperial Gate; the main entrance of Topkapi Palace. The gate dated back to 1478 and would be how the sultans would have entered through this gate so it was also referred to as "Gate of the Sultan". Passing through the gate we were then in the First Courtyard. The courtyard had the appearance of a park with pathways leading to different parts of the palace. The main path led to the Gate of Salutation. Either side of the gate stood two octagonal towers so the style of the gate is that of the Byzantines. Interesting that it isn't more reminiscent of Ottoman architecture. The construction date of this gate is uncertain, but there is evidence that it goes back to at least 1542. Walking through the the Gate of Salutation we came to the Second Courtyard and the palace proper. This courtyard, too, had the look of a park, with a number of paths including one large central path leading to another gate. In its day, this courtyard would have been the playground for courtiers complete with all manner of exotic animals. We made our way along the main path and to our left sat the impressive palace kitchens. These were the largest kitchens in the Ottoman Empire with as many as 6000 meals prepared each day. Through one more gate, known as the The Gate of Felicity, we were led to the Third Courtyard. From this courtyard we toured a number of the buildings around its perimeter.

      We started with the Imperial Treasury that housed an impressive collection of jewelry and works of art - mostly either the spoils of war or the gifts from other nations or kingdoms. The most valuable of all objects on display here is a pear shaped diamond weighing in at a whopping 86 carats surrounded by two rows of 49 smaller diamonds. The “official” record of the origin of this diamond is that a man found the diamond in a garbage dump in 1669 and traded it with a spoonmaker for three wooden spoons. The story further goes that the spoonmaker then sold it to a jeweller for 10 silver coins. The story goes on from there, but you get the idea. It would be safe to say that this story is a bit dubious and there are plenty of versions of its origin floating around - but this diamond is known as The Spoonmaker’s Diamond and also as The Kasikci. Just as impressive as all of the jewels and jewel encrusted objects was a collection of kaftans from the Ottoman sultans in an adjacent room. These ranged in size from small child kaftans to very large man kaftans. They have been kept in amazing condition.

      From the Imperial Treasury we made our way through to the Fourth Courtyard and here we got a great view of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. We didn’t spend long here, opting rather to return to the Third Courtyard to look at some of the other buildings there before we met back up with our tour group at the appointed hour.

      We walked from Topkapi Palace to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, which is a collection of three museums. The walk was short because the site of the museums was originally part of the outer gardens of Topkapi Palace. We first entered the main Archaeological Museum building and almost immediately found what we’d consider to be the coolest artifact in the museum - the Alexander Sarcophagus. This massive 4th century BC marble sarcophagus is so named for the detailed reliefs of Alexander the Great. It is not his sarcophagus. It was found in Sidon, Lebanon in 1887 and was part of a set of four. It is not clear for whom this one was made. It was one of the few artifacts protected inside a large plexiglass box, but it was possible to see the intricate detail of the reliefs covering the sarcophagus. It was also possible to make out the remnant of the colour originally applied to the reliefs. Beside the sarcophagus there was a coloured reconstruction of one part of the panel showing Alexander on horseback fighting the Persians in the Battle of Issus in 333 BC to show how it would have looked in its day. The sarcophagus is in amazing condition.

      Nearby was another beautiful sarcophagus from the same find in Sidon - this one was named Sarcophagus of the Crying Women. Surrounding the sarcophagus are carvings of 18 women in various states of mourning. It, too, is an impressive piece that dates back to sometime around 500 BC. The museum was full of other fascinating objects covering a vast range of eras. Most prominent was that of the Greeks and Romans at their peak periods of history. The museum boasts that it has over a million objects on display - not sure if we saw them all, but we did see a lot. It was worth the visit. When our time was up, we met back with our tour group and walked to the meeting point for our bus. One small problem - no bus. The Istanbul traffic had the bus in its grasp, and would be delayed getting to us. Our tour guide was either talking to the driver or dispatcher, but there was no real way to predict how much of a delay there’d be. It was hot and sunny, so most of our tour group tried to find a shady spot to stand. It was interesting to do some people watching and check out some of the shops nearby. Was also interesting to watch some of the driving going on. We didn't stray too far, just in case the bus made a break through in the traffic. Once the bus arrived we piled on and that would be the end of the tour for the day, so we were heading back to the ship. On the way back to the ship the guide mentioned that he’d be our guide for tomorrow as well - which we were pleased to hear. We liked this fellow, he was informative and one of the better guides we’d had on either of our cruises.

      We returned to Celebrity Solstice shortly after 6:00pm. For this evening there was an additional dinner choice of a Mediterranean Buffet in the Oceanview Cafe. It sounded like a good idea to us so we decided to make that our dinner venue. We had plenty of time to get cleaned up and relax a bit before we did anything else.

      Before dinner, we made our first stop at Cellar Masters on Deck 4, midship. On offer here were some nice wines sold by the glass, kept fresh by a nitrogen purging system. Sitting near the window with a view of the busy Bosphorus we enjoyed a nice glass a wine with some tasty snacks. It wasn’t busy in Cellar Masters and the staff was quite attentive - so a very nice spot. It was about 8:15pm when we made our way to the Oceanview Cafe for the buffet. It turned out to be a very nice dinner with a lot of choice. We weren’t going to make this a late night; the second part of our tour started at 7:00am. At about 10:00pm we made our way to Cafe al Bacio for an espresso before a short stroll outside to view Istanbul in the night sky. It looked very pretty. From our room we also got a nice view with the sounds of a very popular nightclub right next to the ship.

  • Saturday June 20, 2009

    The Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar

    Our second day in Istanbul started even earlier than we had originally planned. To get breakfast in advance of our tour that left at 7:00am, we had figured we needed to be up at about 5:00am. The Istanbul alarm, however, rang loudly at 4:30am. What was it? the sunrise call to prayer. Five times each day the call to prayer is made from the minarets in the mosques all over the city. Nowadays, these calls are recordings rather than an actual person reciting the call, and from our ship location we could hear many of them - so it was a cacophony of noise. At 4:30am the city itself was quieter, so it sounded much louder without the normal background noise. If you needed to wake at sunrise there was no need for an alarm in Istanbul! We had learnt on the tour yesterday that the call as well as the prayers recited in the mosques were in arabic, although the Turkish people do not speak arabic. Most people can recite the prayers, but our guide figured that most people didn’t know what the prayers meant.

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      For the second part of this tour we needed to proceed directly to our bus parked outside the terminal building. Once everyone was onboard we set off. The first destination was to travel over the First Bosphorus Bridge to go from the European side of Istanbul to the asian side. We didn't stay too long on the asian side because even though most Istanbul residents live on the asian side of the city, the main tourist sites are all on the European side. So, after a photo opp were were back on the bus to cross once again over the Bosphorus. Our first European stop for this day was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (more commonly known as the Blue Mosque). Before we left the bus the tour guide provided us all with a bag to carry our shoes in while we were inside the mosque. To enter the mosque it is necessary to remove one’s footwear. We entered the grounds of the mosque through a large gateway that led us to the inner courtyard. This mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 as is regarded as the last example of Ottoman architecture. We stood in the courtyard for a while taking in the views and listening to our guide give us more of the history of this mosque and of the Muslim people. This mosque is one of only two mosques in Turkey with six minarets, which was considered somewhat presumptuous at the time of its construction. We noticed as we were standing listening to our guide that there were other groups that went immediately inside the mosque. In hindsight we were really glad that our group didn’t do that - but, more about that in a moment.

      We made our way to head inside the mosque. Before getting inside we reached the point that we were required to remove our shoes. We then had to walk on rather grubby looking mats to reach the entrance of the mosque. The mosque itself was fully carpeted. Linda asked our guide about the shoe removal practice. The answer was surprising to us, for there is nothing spiritual about this requirement - it is strictly an attempt to keep the carpet inside this and other mosques clean for the people kneeling and putting their faces to the carpet as they prayed. Well. Supposedly the current carpet had been placed there recently. It did not smell good inside. From our perspective, the Blue Mosque could do with a hulk-sized bottle of Febreze! Think about it, all kinds of people walking on this carpet either bare foot or in socks and the nasal evidence would suggest that plenty of them had foot odour issues. Now we could feel sorry for the groups that marched quickly into the mosque and got their history and religion lecture inside. We had the benefit of that time in the fresh air of the courtyard. The common name of the Blue Mosque comes from the predominance of blue ceramic tiles that adorn the interior of the mosque. You can see that on the photo to the right as well as a couple of interior photos we included on the day 2 photos from Istanbul. The ceiling is an impressive collection of domes, supported by four massive columns that do have the appearance of their nickname - elephant legs. Leaving the Blue Mosque we stopped to put our shoes back on then we walked around a portion of the outside of the mosque towards our next destination of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Our guide referred to it as the Hippodrome area, and that is a more accurate way to describe this spot. The area is now known as Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square) and very little of the ancient Hippodrome is visible. The first Hippodrome was built in this location before the time of Constantine by Septimius Severus in 204 for the purpose of chariot races and other sporting events. Constantine renovated the Hippodrome along with vast expansion of the city that he renamed after himself. It is estimated that the Hippodrome had a capacity of 100,000 spectators after that renovation. The paving the we could see in the present day square showed the outline of the Hippodrome racetrack, but the original track is located some 2 metres below the current ground level. In the centre of the square stands the Obelisk of Theodosius. This ancient obelisk was built during the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutmoses III in 1490 BC in the temple of Karnak near Luxor. It was moved to Constantinople (and renamed in his own honour) by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in 390 AD. Only 18.54 metres of the original 30 metre tall obelisk successfully made the trip - it had been cut into three pieces to be moved, and only the top section survived. The remaining section is in amazingly good condition, and is a stark contrast to another obelisk in the square known as the Walled Obelisk. The Walled Obelisk is much newer obelisk standing 32 metres tall that looks in much worse shape. It was built sometime in the 10th century and is comprised of rough cut stones originally covered by gilded bronze plaques. The bronze was stripped off the obelisk in 1204 by Crusaders, and the stones have been damaged badly over the time since. Between the two obelisks stands the remnant of an ancient Greek bronze sacrificial tripod. It was built in Delphi, and while the exact year of construction is unknown, it is at least as old as 478 BC when it was dedicated as an offering to Apollo. What is left today is known as the Serpent Column - approximately a 5.5 metre tall and 60 cm diameter column of bronze coils. In its day it would have stood 8 metres tall with three serpent heads at the top. A portion of one of the heads is in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums that we had visited yesterday.

      Our next stop was the Grand Bazaar. Before entering the older covered market we looked around the more high end shops along Nuruosmaniye Caddesi - one of the major streets leading to the Grand Bazaar. There were all manner of expensive jewelry and carpet stores along this street. Our tour included a “carpet demonstration” which is tour speak for “a showing of many carpets followed by high pressure sales tactics in a closed room”. We were sat down in a room that had a bench all the way around its perimeter. We were given some Turkish bread and a cider drink - then the “demonstration” began.

      The display of fine Turkish carpets was actually amazing, with men tossing carpet after carpet on the floor in front of us. They started with the lowest quality and worked their way up to the truly beautiful silk on silk carpets with staggeringly high thread counts and equally staggering price tags. Even given the fact that the prices listed on the carpets were just the starting point for bartering, these carpets would burn a huge hole in one’s pocket. Having said that, if one was intending to by a fine Turkish carpet - it must still be quite a bit cheaper to buy it in Turkey rather than in North America. Carpet stores such as this one had contracts with Celebrity Cruises, so the purchase was guaranteed by Celebrity Cruises and the price agreed in the end was all-in, including delivery and all taxes and duty. Other carpet and jewelry stores we passed had signs to identify similar arrangements with other cruise lines. It has to be a lucrative business. With all of the intended carpets thrown down in front of us, men appeared from nowhere and the doors were closed. Hard sales time. Not interested in making a purchase, we made our way to the door to make our escape. The exit was not the same as the entrance, so to get out we had to go through the jewelry store operated by the same company, complete with plenty of waiting leaches dressed in suits.

      We left the carpet/jewelry store and made our way to the older covered Grand Bazaar. We had quite a bit of time on our own to wander around before needing to meet back with the group and head back to the ship. We entered the covered bazaar though the Nuruosmaniye Gate and were first struct by how much this reminded us of the markets that we had seen years before in Jerusalem. This market was originally opened in 1461 and is sprawling covered area of 58 streets housing well over a thousand shops and stalls. Some sources say the number of shops is over 4000, which might have been true once but likely nothing like that now. At every shop the vendor would stand outside and try to engage people as they passed by. Some lines were truly entertaining, and they were clearly praying on the politeness of visitors to answer and thus get sucked into a barrage of sales pitches. It was not overly busy as we walked through the bazaar, so it felt like we ran the full gauntlet of aggressive salespeople. In the end, there wasn’t really anything on offer in the bazaar that we really wanted, so believe it or not we left there empty handed. Just taking lots of memories.

      From the Grand Bazaar we made our way back to Nuruosmaniye Caddesi to find a spot to get a drink before we met back up with our tour group. We opted for an iced coffee at Starbucks with some Turkish Delight to enjoy with it. On this hot day, the iced coffee was refreshing as we sat outside watching the people pass by. We met back with our tour group at 12:15pm and our bus arrived shortly thereafter to take us back to the ship. The all aboard time was 1:45pm, so they were taking the Istanbul traffic into account on the departure time from the Old City to where the ship was docked.

      When we returned to Celebrity Solstice we were required to drop off the Turkish Landing Cards we had even though our next port of call was still in Turkey. That seemed odd. Back onboard, we took lunch in the Oceanview Cafe and then took a walk around Deck 14 before the ship set sail. Gary also tried a bit of golf putting on the real grass. The only problem with this was the grass was too long, it was like putting on the fairway. Following that we had a “sail-away” photo taken while the ship was being prepared to to leave Istanbul. We returned to our room at about the point that the ship began to move away from the port. We sat on the balcony and checked our email as the ship navigated first along the southern end of the Bosphorus, then out to the Marama Sea.

      Finding a nice spot on Deck 12, we enjoyed some good reading time outside. At 6:00pm daily the Sushi Bar opened but we weren’t always around to enjoy it. Today, though, we had the time to enjoy the sushi while sitting outside reading. We returned to our room after the reading and sushi to get cleaned up for dinner. Our dinner for this evening was our normal 8:45pm late sitting in the main dining room. For our main course we both selected prime rime, which was very good. Better, still, was a fabulous bottle of Allegrini Amarone that we enjoyed with the meal. Our plan was to take in the show after dinner. The show started at 10:50pm, and was underway by the time we made it to the Solstice Theatre. It was another variety show, and we probably walked in at the wrong time - was was going on at the time we arrive seemed lame and we decided not the stay. We did see Jack and Barbara as we were heading out of the theatre, they told us the following day that the show was better after the bit we saw. Instead we checked out the shops onboard, and did find some nice gifts to take home.

      It was the end of a nice visit to Istanbul. We enjoyed it, but both thought that Istanbul isn’t likely a place we’d rush back to visit. But who knows?

Istanbul Image Gallery

Looking towards the Old City of Istanbul
Istanbul viewed from our room on Celebrity Solstice
Perimeter of Hagia Sofia
The different styles of Hagia Sofia through its history
The fountain in Hagia Sofia “for ritual ablutions”
Looking at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) from Hagia Sofia
Topkapi Palace
Alexander Sarcophagus at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Nusretiye Mosque at night
The Old City of Istanbul in the early morning sunlight
Looking across the First Bosphorus Bridge from the Asian side of Istanbul
The Blue Mosque from inside the courtyard
Inside the Blue Mosque
The German Fountain at the north end of the Hippodrome
Gardens surrounding the Blue Mosque
Street view outside the Grand Bazaar
Nuruosmaniye Gate entrance to the Grand Bazaar
Gary on Celebrity Solstice with the Old City of Istanbul in the background
About WHITEonline

WHITEonline is the digital home of Gary & Linda White. We’ve been married since 1980 and live just outside Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Linda was born and raised in Toronto while Gary was born in London, England and moved to Canada at the age of 11. We enjoy travelling and taking photos while we travel. WHITEonline provides the opportunity to share some of our photos & experiences.

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