Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"...not Constantinople." (rewritten)

The last few days of Egypt were a blur. First off, we had the 11 hour (it ended up being more like 13 hour) night bus ride back to Cairo. Sometime around dawn, we discovered we were near the Suez Canal, which seemed a little odd since Suez didn't seem to be near Cairo on the map, but eventually the driver got around to dropping us off in downtown Cairo.

Back in Cairo, we checked into a pension for the day. Since our flight left at 3am the following night, it meant we had to be at the airport at 1am, and leave from teh pension at midnight. So, basically, we'd get no sleep for the second night in a row.

With that in mind, we spent the day resting, cleaning up, taking care of last minute "housekeeping" and generally preparing for the final leg of our trip. After a daredevil midnight ride to the airport (seriously, it was possibly the scarest cab ride we've had so far), we boarded our flight and quickly found ourselves in Istanbul (partially because we both slept most of the flight itself).

Checking into our hotel, the first thing we did was crash. Big time. And didn't wake up again until sometime after noon. Stumbling out the door of our hostel, we decided it was time to check out Istanbul.

Now, it must be said, I wasn't that excited for this final leg of our trip. I've been struggling a bit with burn out, and as we near the end of our Grand Voyage I find my mind returning home more and more often.

That said, I adore Istanbul.

It's exactly what I needed at this point in our journey. And I don't think that Sarah would disagree with that assessment. With its narrow streets and cafes, its a little bit Paris. And, with its winding neighborhoods perched on hillsides overlooking the Bosphorous, its a little bit San Fransisco. And, while Orhan Pamuk paints a dour picture of Istanbul in his book by the same name, I feel its a little bit like Seattle: That city that bursts into life for the few months we are blessed with sun.

Furthermore, it's a city that has endless depth culturally, religiously and historically. It's a muslim city, but one that was the center of Christianity for hundreds of years. This fact is made apparent by the ornamental twin turtles of Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque engaged in their endless staring contest across a well manicured garden littered with sunburnt tourists. The majority of the city sits in Europe, but a large portion of it lies across the river in Asia. It's a little Eastern European, a little Mediterranean and a little Middle Eastern. And entirely fascinating.

OK. Enough raving. Let's get down to what Sarah and I did with ourselves during those first couple days.

Awaking form our nap, we made our way up past the Blue Mosque to the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome was originally used, in Justinian Times as a site for chariot races, but had fallen into disrepair for many years before being resurrected as a park and boulevard. Not much is left of the original Hippodrome today, just two obelisks (one stolen from Egypt, the other form Delphi) and the serpent column (who's heads were purported stolen by a drunken Polish noble).

"I thought we just left Egypt?!" One of the obelisks at the Hippodrome.

After that, and a lunch of donner kabobs, we went to check out the the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum. At first Sarah and i just decided to check it out in search of air conditioning. But, the museum pieces ended up being quite fascinating with an array for ancient rugs, metal work and (possibly the most fascinating) calligraphy.

Already beat again, we went back to rest up for dinner. After resting and dinner, we happened to stumble across something I doubt my father saw when he visited Istanbul over 30 years ago: A light show on the Blue Mosque. Sure, it was a little crass, but the music was still engaging... and they had actual Whirling Dervishes.

The light show at the Blue Mosque.

And you know what I like as much as Istanbul? Whirling Dervishes.

Like chanting Buddhist monks, it's one of those things that -when experiencing it in really life- I find to be completely engaging and affecting. Plus, there is something so esoteric about the whole thing that its completely fascinating.

Random person: What are you doing?
Sufi: I'm spinning.
Random person: Why?
Sufi: To get closer to God.

Who am I to argue with that logic? I also have to wonder what a dervish would say to all those parents who scolded their children: "Don't spin in circle like that! You'll make yourself sick!"

Another cafe nearby had another (easier to photograph) whirling dervish.

After the lightshow and whirling dervish action, we called it a night. We had a big day ahead of us tomorrow.

The following day, after eating breakfast on the roof of our hotel, we made our way up to the blue mosque. We made our way around to the tourist entrance, took off our shoes and put them in plastic bags, and Sarah wrapped a shawl over her head and went in.

The blue Mosque... sans light show.

The inside of the blue mosque is impressive. Massive, with ornamental tiles, detailed carpet and giant stained glass windows, it still manages to convey a sense of peace and quiet (even with tourists stumbling around snapping photos).

I was totally fascinated by the chandeliers in the blue Mosque. The ceiling was massive and domed, yet they hung to barely above head level, giving the place the feeling of being both giant and intimate.

After reemerging into the daylight, we made our way over the the Basilica Cistern. The Basilica Cistern is a giant underground complex that, in Justinian times, was used to provide water to the people of (then) Byzantium. Oddly, the city managed to forget it was there for about 500 years, until it was noticed that people were able to collect water (and fish) by lowering a bucket through holes in their basements.

The cisterns...
...me at the cisterns.

The cistern itself is a gigantic, atmospheric cavern of 336, eight-meter tall columns. Water drips from the ceil, as you walk on gangplanks over the fish-filled water on the cisterns floor. To add to the sense of mystery, there are two giant Medusa heads on the base of two columns on the far side of the cistern. Their exact origin and meaning are unknown, but speculating is fun.

Sarah tried and tried again to get a good picture of the medusa heads, but the stupid other tourists kept getting in her way before she could get a proper shot in the dim light.

We made our way back ot the surface to discover that it had rained briefly while we were underground. Undaunted, we caught the tram down to the waterfront. Hopping off, we made our way around the New Mosque (Istanbul has a silly number of huge, minerat forested mosques) to the Spice Market.

The Spice Market original specialized in spices (naturally), but now you can buy a wide variety of food and treats there. So, roughly an hour later, Sarah had spent too much money on bags of cured meat, candied fruits, random treats and Turkish Delights. Making our way to a nearby bench, we dug into our bag of snacks.

Spices at the (aptly named) Spice Market.

But, the Spice Market also had amazing varieties of dried fruit, candies and other snacks and food stuff.

As we ate, we looked across the Golden Horn to the Tower of Galata sitting atop the hill on the north side. With our stomachs filled with meats and sweets, we felt we had enough energy to make the trek to it, so we set out across the bridge and up the hill.

The Tower of Galata has had a long and storied history serving as a lighthouse, fire lookout station (until it burnt down in a fire) and even the site of an early attempt at aviation. Today though, its a restaurant, nightclub and tourist beacon. Riding the elevator to the top, we were treated to a stunning panoramic view of Istanbul.

A view from Galata Tower... maybe I'll send Tim the panoramic photos Sarah took, and see if he can stitch them together for us.

After soaking in the city for a bit, we made our way back down the hill, and caught a tram back to our hotel. We wrere tired, but had one more thing to do that evening: Celebrate our 2 Year Wedding Anniversary!

Yup. In addition to it being our first full day in Turkey, and our 6 month travel Anniversary, the day also marked the completion of our second year of marriage. And what a happy and amazing two years its been!

Our plan was to clean up a bit, and go find a nice restaurant for celebrate at. Cleaning up proves to be a bit of a trick for us these days. After six months of travelling, our wardrobes leave something to be desired. Stained. Torn. Stretched out. Haggard. Our clothes have all seen better days. Still Sarah managed to make herself look stunning with a green, Tibetan wrap shirt, black skirt and her black pearl necklace from Tahiti. I tried to keep up with my white shirt, jeans and Maasai bracelet.

The restaurant we ended up picking out was a classy and quiet little cafe down a small alley, where we snacked on mezes, ate dinner and enjoyed some wine and sparkling water. My dinner was especially nice, Manti (or "turkish raviolis"), lamb in homemade pasta, with a sauce of yogurt, mint and chili... yum. As always, my dinner companion was beautiful, charming and entertaining.

Happy Second Anniversary, Honey! I love you!

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