Turkey for £99 part 1: Istanbul – 26th November 2015   Leave a comment

Turkey for £99 (including flights) the advert proclaimed. I said to Margaret that they couldn’t possibly do it for that price, and of course I was right. Only one departure was at £99 and that was full, then there were additional charges for food and excursions etc, etc. In the end we paid about £600 each, but that still represented incredible value, especially considering the quality of the hotels we stayed at. The tour, based around sightseeing sites of cultural/historical interest, started at Istanbul and went south crossing into Asia at the Dardanelles, on to the historical sites of Troy, Sardis, Laodicea and Aspendos, finishing at Antalya on the Mediterranean coast, a week and 1000 miles later.

I found the trip very enjoyable, my only complaint was the lengthy enforced visits to carpet, leather and jewelry factories where we subjected to the ‘hard sell’, when we could have spent the time more enjoyably at the historical sites we had come to visit.

We arrived at Istanbul late at night on the 25th and it was 0130 before we got to our rooms, so the 0800 departure the following day was a bit of a shock for some but as we are used to getting up at silly o’clock for birding, we took it in our stride. I had visited Istanbul before as part of a birding tour in 1999, but Margaret had never been. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t kind to us but at least most of today’s activities were indoors.

IMG_1360 Hagia Sophia

Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits astride two continents. we landed on the Asian (Anatolian) side and crossed by bridge to Europe, where most of the famous tourist sites can be found, most notably the Hagia Sophia (above) and the Blue Mosque, but first we would make a visit to the Topkapi Palace.

IMG_1361 Laughing Dove

I knew all along that this wasn’t going to be a birding tour, however I kept by binoculars with me and was rewarded with a few interesting sightings. Of course I also underwent frustration when interesting birds couldn’t be conclusively identified due to lack of time or because the they were seen from a moving bus. Here in Istanbul we saw several Laughing Doves, a common species in the Middle East that just gets into Europe in European Turkey and extreme eastern Greece and Bulgaria.

IMG_1398 M at Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace was the royal residence of the Ottoman Sultans from 1465–1856, nearly two-thirds of their 600 year reign.

IMG_1393 Topkapi Palace

Several of the rooms contain priceless artifacts, gifts to the sultans of jewelry, beautifully worked pieces in precious metals, ivory or ceramics but photography was banned. Other rooms such as this one were closed due to the weather to prevent hundreds of wet feet from spoiling the flooring. That said I got perfectly good photo through the window without the crowds spoiling the view.

IMG_1404 Topkapi palace

A feature of Islamic art is that as representations of the human form are not allowed these wonderful and beautiful geometric patterns are favoured instead.

IMG_1421 Bosphorus

The Topkapi Palace overlooks the Bosphorus, the narrow channel of water that separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Marmora. The Asian side of the city is on the right, the Bosphorus Bridge over which we crossed the night before can be seen in the mid distance. I was able to see several flocks of Yelkouan Shearwaters from this vantage point, this must be the easiest place in the world to see this east Mediterranean speciality.

IMG_1524 Parakeet

Several cities across Europe have feral populations of parakeets like this Rose-ringed Parakeet female photographed at the Topkapi Palace, we also saw the larger Alexandrine Parakeet in the area.

IMG_1438 Hagia Sophia

Then it was time to visit the wonderful Hagia Sophia ……

IMG_1444 Hagia Spohia

Hagia Sophia (from the Greek ‘Holy Wisdom’) originally a basilica constructed from 537 AD onwards during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. It served as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople until 1453 (except for 57 years in the 13th century after the 4th Crusade when it became a Roman Catholic cathedral). With the rise of the Ottoman Empire it was converted into a mosque until the secular Turkish State under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk reopened it as a museum in 1935. The view from the balcony is especially awe-inspiring. The original Christian altar can be seen at the far end of the building. I last visited Hagia Sophia in 1999 and was disappointed to see that scaffolding obscured the view. I was even more disappointed to see that scaffolding was still there 16 years later (on the left hand side of this photo) but of course old buildings need renovating if they are to be preserved for future generations.

IMG_1454 shield Hagia Sophia

Continuing building work was carried out during the Ottoman period, the addition of the minarets occurred during the 16th century, whilst during the renovation of 1847 new gigantic circular-framed disks or medallions were hung on the columns. These were inscribed with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the first four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and the two grandchildren of Muhammad: Hassan and Hussain, by the calligrapher Kazasker Mustafa İzzed Effendi.

IMG_1456 Hagia Sophia fresco

Fortunately rather than being destroyed when the basilica was converted to a mosque, the beautiful Christian mosaics were plastered over allowing for many to be later restored to their former glory.

IMG_1476 Hagia Sophia

In this beautiful mosaic Mary and the Christ Child are being presented with a model of Hagia Sophia by Emperor Justinian and by a model of the city’s fortifications (then known as Constantinople) by its founder the Emperor Constantine.

IMG_1428 Hagia Spohia

Originally lit by candles, it must have taken some effort to remove all the wax from the carpets.

IMG_1426 Hagia Spohia

The symmetry and beauty of Islamic art and decoration is breathtaking, from the light fittings ….

IMG_1429 Hagia Spohia

…. to the ceiling decorations above.

IMG_1482 Blue Mosque

Exiting Hagia Sophia we headed for the, rather wet, Hippodrome 

IMG_1483 Opimist Hotel

On our way to our lunch stop we passed the ‘Optimist Hotel’, amused by the name I took a photo. I was later to discover that it once belonged to Margaret’s son-in-law’s cousin’s husband. A strange connection.

IMG_1488 Obelisk

We returned to the Hippodrome (horse path in Greek), originally a circus for chariot racing, it has now been renamed Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square). Centre piece is the Obelisk of Thutmose III, brought from Egypt in 390 AD. The Imams from the Blue Mosque were calling to faithful to prayer whilst we were there and it was very loud, but quite evocative.

IMG_1494 spiral column

Also in the Hippodrome is the Serpent Column. The Tripod of Plataea, as it was originally known, was cast to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians during the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC. Constantine ordered the Tripod to be moved from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and set in middle of the Hippodrome. The top was adorned with a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads. The bowl was destroyed or stolen during the Fourth Crusade. The serpent heads were destroyed as late as the end of the 17th Century. The original ground level of the Hippodrome can be seen in this photo.

IMG_1512 Blue Mosque

Then it was time to visit the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. Unlike the Hagia Sophia this is a functioning place of worship and the appropriate dress code must be adhered to. Built from 1609 – 1616 on the site of the former place of the Byzantine emperors, it consists of one main dome, six minarets, and eight secondary domes.

IMG_1531 Blue Mosque

The interior is truly magnificent ….

IMG_1542 Blue Mosque

…. with many suspended chandeliers ….

IMG_1554 Blue Mosque

…. and the wide open carpeted floor where the faithful come to pray.

IMG_1548 Blue Mosque

An Imam speaks to his students and one point explained the basic concepts of Islam in English over the loudspeakers.

IMG_1549 Blue Mosque

After some final photographs of the magnificent dome we left and headed the short distance to the Golden Horn, a six-mile long inlet of the Bosphorus at the very heart of Istanbul.

IMG_1597 castle from the Bosphorus

In the late afternoon we took a boat trip on the Bosphorus and as darkness fell we had great views of the Rumelihisarı castle on the European side of the city, which was built in 1451 by the Ottomans as their base prior to the conquest of Constantinople.

IMG_1610 Istanbul bridge at night

Our boat trip took us out of the Golden Horn, northwards into the Bosphorus as far as the more northerly Fatih Sultan Bridge.

IMG_1622 Istanbul bridge at night

Returning down the Asian side we had great views of the floodlit palaces ….

IMG_1635 Istanbul bridge at night

…. before we approached the Bosphorus bridge ….

IMG_1637 Istanbul bridge at night

…. giving us a wonderful view of one of the great city sky scape.

IMG_1639 Istanbul bridge at night

The computerised LED lighting on both bridges constantly changes colour ….

IMG_1662 Hagia Sophia from the Bosphorus

…. finally we turned into the Golden Horn and with the Hagia Sophia spotlit on the hill we returned to the bus and then to our hotel.



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