Armenian teachers get pretty generous breaks from school. First, there’s a full week off in October, the fall break. Then, there’s at least two weeks in December/January for the holidays. And finally, there’s another full week in March, the spring break. There are also numerous one or two day holidays throughout the year, much like in the U.S.
This year, during fall break, Nicole and I went to Istanbul. We took a bus all the way from Yerevan through Georgia and then Turkey along the Black Sea coast. Sixty bucks and about thirty two hours later, we arrived in Istanbul…not bad. The bus ride itself was an experience.
I’m not an experienced international traveler, but of the few places I’ve been, Istanbul may be my favorite. Once the heart of Eastern Christianity and then of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, the city displays a fascinating fusion of east and west. The Aya Sofia, or Hagia Sofia, beautifully embodies this interesting history. It was the largest Christian cathedral in the world for over a thousand years before Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, at which point it was converted into a mosque. Much of its Christian features were removed and replaced by Islamic ones at that time, but the Ottomans did well in preserving the structure and in 1935 when it was converted into museum, much of the original elements were restored and placed on display next to their Islamic counterparts creating a stunning work of art and history.
In the picture below, Nicole is sitting next to the remains of the old basilica built in 415 AD currently placed outside Aya Sofia. In the original relief, there were twelve lambs depicting the twelve disciples.
Across from the Aya Sofia is the Blue Mosque. With six minarets and a beautiful interior adorned with blue tiles, there’s no wonder why it’s a major tourist attraction. It’s still in operation, but after taking off your shoes and covering your head (for females) you can enter certain parts of it.
In the picture below, I’m standing on the carpet in the Blue Mosque as a worshiper would. You can see that the pattern is designed for kneeling and prostrating during prayer. You stand with your feet in the two ovals, kneel down placing your knees on the flowers in front of you, and then you bend forward to the floor where there are two more flowers for your hands as well as one for your face.
There are roughly three thousand mosques in Istanbul. Needless to say, we only visited a few, but the customs and architecture were amazing. In the first picture below, men are washing their hands, forearms, faces, and feet before entering the mosque in a purification process typically required before prayer. I believe we took this picture at the Yeni Mosque. In the second picture, you can see the front side of the same mosque from the Galata Bridge. If I remember correctly, the final picture is of Suleymaniye Mosque, another famous Istanbul landmark. I apologize if I got any of the names or locations wrong.
The next two pictures were taken just outside of the Yeni Mosque.
Another highlight of the trip was Topkapi Palace, the former palace of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly four hundred years. Although it’s a little expensive to tour both the palace and the harem, it’s definitely worth it. Comprised of over four hundred rooms, the harem housed the sultan’s family, concubines, and servants. The first picture is of the imperial hall with the sultan’s throne and the second is of Nicole standing against some beautiful tiles somewhere in the heart of the harem.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is just as impressive as its mosques and palaces. Its labyrinthine shops encompass a huge area of the city and provide an amazing shopping experience, if you don’t mind some intense bargaining. Below you can see one of the entrances, a congested hallway, Nicole browsing through scarves, and a beautiful display of Turkish delight, which was delicious.
Equally as delicious as the Turkish delight was the astounding array of baklava and tea.
Tea, spices, food, and tobacco can all be bought from colorful back street markets or from the amazing Spice Bazaar near Yeni Mosque, second in size only to the Grand Bazaar.
Here’s another interesting observation, Istanbul was full of stray cats. Nicole and I even stayed at a hostel called the Stray Cat where cats wandered in and out at their discretion without being pestered. Everywhere we went we saw food and water bowls set up for these cats in random places and they all looked well feed and healthy. It was actually pretty nice. The picture below was taken inside Topkapi Palace.
The trip was great, even the bus ride was memorable. I could definitely go back to Istanbul.