As you will recall if you read my Khiva and Out Blog, I spent my last two days in Uzbekistan going thru a stressful 48 hours working my way thru not only an emergency plan B but then a plan C and Plan D before barely catching my 2 am flight out of Tashkent bound for Istanbul.
I arrived in Istanbul at 6 am bleary-eyed, cranky and ready for a nap. I made it thru passport control, baggage claim and customs quickly and without a hitch. My first setback came when I exited the secure area and the person assigned to meet me at the airport was nowhere to be seen. I spent the next 15 minutes wandering around looking for some idiot holding a sign with my name on it. I found him sitting in a coffee shop enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee on my time! I would have left him and just grabbed a taxi but I had no idea what hotel the tour agency had booked for me.
My travel arrangements are normally a lot more buttoned-up than this but as this blog’s title hinted – this was Turkey Plan B. you see – on July 5th barely over two weeks before I was to arrive in Istanbul, the Agency that I had paid $2,400 in March to make my in-country arrangements informed me that they could not honor their contract and would refund my money at some point in the future. So, I had two weeks to cobble together a schedule that would allow me to visit all the sites in Istanbul, ancient Troy, the battlefield of Gallipoli, Pergamon, Pamukkale, Ephesus, the last home of Mother Mary, Konya and the museum/mausoleum of the Sufi Mystic and Poet Rumi, and Cappadocia.
At the last minute, I secured the Turkey Travel Tips Agency to help me with the logistics of transportation, hotels and local guides. The trip became a hodge-podge of transport with a bus of Aussies to the Gallipoli Site, a mini bus to Pamukkale and Ephesus, and then private vehicle transport and air transport across the rest of the tour. Group tours in Gallipoli, Pamukkale, Ephesus, Cappadocia, and Istanbul and private tours of Troy and Pergaman and on my own in Konya. And despite the rocky start, the agency did an incredible job on very short notice and my time spent in Turkey was one of the highlights of my first four months of travel. Now back to my rough start.
I soon found this was just my first delay. It seems this guy was just the greeter for about 20 people coming in on different flights over the next several hours and someone else would be along to collect me. So, I waited another 30 minutes for a guy with the list that my name was not on. After going back and forth with the guy I finally lost my patience and took the list out of his hands to look for myself and guess what? My name was on the list the idiot just couldn’t read!
I made it to my hotel finally around 9 am and was told I could not check in until 2 pm. To which I responded “Fine, I’ll take a nap right here in the lobby on that couch over there – but I should warn you I snore quite loudly”. And just like that, he found me a room! He even gave me a voucher for breakfast at the rooftop café to help me wind down and relax before my nap. ( Photos of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia attached were taken from the café that first morning).
After breakfast, shower and a short power nap, I walked across the street to the Tour Agency to collect my itinerary, travel vouchers, hotel vouchers, and site tickets. There I was informed the person handling my account had a long night, was still asleep and would not be into the office until around 2 pm. Okay, so I reverted to the old pre-Tibetan Buddhist Rockie and went a little Medieval on the poor office staff – which accomplished absolutely nothing lol. After my very best imitation of an Ugly American, I went to grab some lunch and wander around the neighborhood until sleeping beauty showed up to work.
Eventually, my narcoleptic tour facilitator roused himself out of bed and by the time I returned had everything on my schedule in order and extremely well organized and from that point on the entire Turkey tour went off without a hitch.
My formal tour was not scheduled to begin until the next day so I took the rest of my free day to visit several sites, not on the walking tour then attend a Whirling Dervish Religious Ceremony/Tourist Show. I had wanted to sit in on a ceremony on my 2015 visit to Turkey but I was traveling with my son and he vetoed it. After sitting thru this one, Ryan proved to be far wiser than his father. The show was fine for the first 15 minutes but you can only watch grown men in dresses twirl around in a circle for so long before your eyes begin to blur and your ass becomes numb.
I had been to Istanbul before and consider it one of my favorite cities and was looking forward to visiting the major sites again (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippordrome, Obelisk of Theodosius, Serpent Column, German Fountain, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Taksim Square, enjoy a Turkish Bath, and join a Bosporus Dinner Cruise) and in between all the historical sites simply sit in the street cafes and soak up the city’s ambiance.
Istanbul is like no other city. Thru the centuries, the city has been the seat of three major empires: Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman and blends the cultures of east and west like no other city. Currently, 11 million of the city’s population live on the Asian side of the Bosporus and 5 million live in the European part of the city west of the Strait. And though at one time Istanbul or Constantinople as it was once known as the heart of the Eastern Catholic Church after 500 years of Ottoman rule the city and country are primarily Muslim (90%) – though the country is fairly secular. In Istanbul alone, there are over 3,000 active mosques.
An interesting bit of trivia is that the Turks are not native to Turkey. The Turks were 10th century refugees fleeing Central Asia and the devastation and slaughter of hundreds of thousand by Genghis Kahn and his Mongol Light Calvary. Over the next 3 centuries, these displaced central Asian tribes became the dominate political and social power in the country and by the 13th century, the Ottoman Empire was born in the Anatolian town of Sogut. In time the Ottoman Empire would extend from northern Africa, thru the middle east, and into southern Europe only crumbling after picking the wrong side in World War I.
My walking tour of Istanbul began with a visit to the remains of the Roman Hippodrome. Built in the 3rd century by Emperor Severus and given a grandiose makeover in the 4th century by Constantine I – the facility was designed for chariot racing. Though it was also used for parades, executions and humiliating anyone Constantine was pissed at. The racetrack was 1300 feet long, 650 feet wide with ovals at each end. Spaced along the centerline of the track were 7 obelisks most which were looted from Egypt and Greece.
Today only three of the obelisks remain because the 12th century Crusaders sacked the city and looted everything they could carry off including 4 of the 7 obelisks. What remains are the Egyptian obelisk that was looted originally by the Romans from Karnack, the bronze serpent column looted from the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and a crappy looking one the Roman’s built themselves minus the many embedded jewels which the crusaders did manage to pry loose and loot.
It takes a little bit of imagination but if you close your eyes and listen you can still hear 30 to 60 thousand rabid fans cheering on the chariots circling the track 7 times at break neck speeds.
Next, we visited the Blue Mosque just a very short walk from the Hippodrome. And the short walk would make sense since the Mosque was built on the foundation of the Roman Emperor’s old palace (Constantine had his own private underground passage from the palace to the Hippodrome).
The Blue Mosque was built in the 14th century by Sultan Ahmed Camil to accommodate 8,000 worshipers per service. The mosque has 6 very tall minarets, a central dome, and what looks to be dozens of smaller to mid-size domes. And like many mosques of its time, the Blue Mosque is really part of larger complex that also includes a mausoleum of its founder and a madrassah. The Mosque was dubbed the Blue Mosque because of the beautiful blue tiles covering the walls and columns inside the building.
Unfortunately, the mosque like most of Istanbul’s significant historical architectural treasures (Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Basilica Cistern) is undergoing a major cleaning and restoration so you can’t truly appreciate its beauty behind the scaffolding and plastic wrap. I am so gland that Ryan and I saw these historic gems in all their glory in 2015 sans scaffolding and plastic wrap.
A couple of points about visiting an active mosque like this – shoes must be removed before entering the mosque, women must cover their hair with a scarf, and if you are wearing a tank top and/or shorts you must cover your shoulders and legs before entering. And once inside conversations should be limited and whispered. Photos are allowed but without a flash and it is rude to photograph worshipers. Remember these places are holy houses of worship and you are a guest. Act appropriately!
Directly across a very large and nice park from the Blue Mosque sits the Hagia Sophia. Originally built as a Christian Cathedral in the 5th century on the remains of two former churches the Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest building and an engineering marvel of its time. The church remained a Christian house of worship for 900 years until the Ottomans repurposed it into a mosque.
The Ottomans destroyed the church bells and mosaics depicting Jesus, Mother Mary, Christian Saints, and angels were all either destroyed or plastered over. A mihrab (nitch for indicating the direction of Mecca for prayer) minbar (pulpit) and 4 minarets were all added to complete the Islamic conversion. The Hagia Sophia remained a mosque from the 1400s until 1931 when it was closed and then reopened in 1935 as a museum. This beautiful Byzantine Building is also undergoing a major interior restoration and its beauty is partially obscured by scaffolding and plastic coverings but still is worth visiting and appreciating.
Less than a 5-minute walk from the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern which was one of my favorite sites from my 2015 visit. The massive cistern is 453 feet by 213 feet in area and over 30 feet from floor to ceiling. The ceiling is held up by 336 huge marble columns arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns with no column being more than 16 feet from another one. The various columns sport capitals in the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian styles. The water to fill the cistern was routed via a 12-mile long aqueduct from the Belgrade Forest built by Emperor Justinian.
In the northwest corner of the cistern sits two huge carved heads of Medusa which were featured in the Dan Brown book and movie adaptation “Inferno”. I am a huge fan of Brown’s books and visited the cistern right after finishing the book which climaxes in a heart-pumping conclusion in the cistern in a race against time to save the world from a biological time bomb that had been placed beneath the cistern’s waterline.
There was still about 5 feet of water in the cistern in 2015, but the water has all been drained and like the other major landmarks the site is under restoration with parts blocked off by plastic sheeting and scaffolding. But still worth a visit.
After re-exploring the cistern, I headed over to the Grand Bazaar to lose myself in the warren of alleys and tiny lanes. The Grand Bazaar has over 4,000 stores under its massive roof with 26 gates for entry to its 66 streets. It is said that for women 26 gates to heaven for men their hell. It is claimed by some that this Bazaar was the first indoor mall begun in 1455. Today you can buy anything and everything imaginable under this ancient roof.
Istanbul’s second great bazaar is the Spice or Egyptian Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar was built in the 16th century and began as an outlet for spices. Today there are 85 shops selling spices, Turkish Delight, jewelry, souvenirs, dried fruits and nuts.
Topkapi Palace and Archaeological Museum are both undergoing major facelifts and are not worth visiting at this point. Seventy percent of the Palace is closed due to restoration work and most of the exhibits in the museum are shuttered until further notice. Again, I am glad I had the opportunity to explore both the museum and the palace before the work began in 2015.
Next morning I was off to Gallipoli for a five-hour bus ride with a bunch of Aussies. Everything I knew about the battle of Gallipoli was from the 1981 Mel Gibson movie “Gallipoli”. And it turns out the movie was a very fictionalized version of events that in no way represented the misery and human toll that actually occurred on this site. During the bus ride over I wondered why the site was so important to the Aussies. I soon found out that for Australians and New Zealand Kiwis Gallipoli is as important as Normandy or Okinawa to Americans.
During our day tour we visited Brighton Beach, Beach Cemetery, ANZAC Cove, Ari Burnu (First ANZAC landing place) Lone Pine Cemetery, Johnson’s Jolly – where we walked the trenches, Viewed Shrapnel Valley, Turkish Memorial, The Nek and Walker’s Ridge, and Chunuk Bair (the main New Zealand memorial).
View of the Golden Horn from hilltop
Gallipoli landing site
Lone Pine Cemetery
Trenches of war
The Turkish hero of Gallipoli and father of modern Turkey
A couple of points about the battle for the Dardanelles – in places the opposing trenches were no further apart than the width of a two-lane road. Twenty thousand Aussie and Kiwi soldiers were facing the Turks on their home soil. The British were eventually forced to withdraw without reaching their objectives, not because of a lack of courage or skill of the ANZAC troops but rather the incompetence of their British leaders.
The invasion was doomed from the beginning by excessive optimism (the British high command believed they would take the entirety of the Dardanelles in 24 hours with light casualties), a lack of clarity of the mission (they landed on the wrong beach) and timid leadership that left the troops sitting on a deserted beach for months waiting for reinforcements against an a lightly populated opposing force miles away.
This combination of hubris and inept leadership allowed the Turks to marshal their troops along the ridges and high ground making future ANZAC gains either impossible or excessively costly. Had the Allied forces moved inland immediately and pushed toward their objective before the Turks could mobilize the campaign most probably would have been a success.
Leadership on the Turk side of the battle was both bold and decisive. One Turkish Colonel when he received word of the British Landing mounted his horse and rode 10 kilometers alone to the landing site to observe the enemy’s strength for himself. Then while the British general in charge was sitting comfortably on a Greek island offshore on an estate in comfort this Turkish Colonel was everywhere marshaling his troops demanding reinforcements pressing volunteers into service to protect their homeland and securing the high ground for the battles to come.
That one Turkish Colonel thwarted the Great British Empire’s ambitious plan to open the Black Sea to the British Fleet and relieve a beleaguered Russia. That Colonel was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who would later become a Turkish Field Marshal and the founder and first president of the modern day secular Turkey.
And honestly, I enjoyed this day much more than I thought I would. I learned a lot of history. Had an opportunity to be reminded that the bravery of ordinary men win battles and wars and the hubris, incompetence and personal cowardness of their generals can just as easily lose both battles and lives.
In the next blog I will begin my day at the site of ancient Troy…