Originally, I was supposed to catch a 10:30 am flight from Rome to Istanbul, but due to the lack of people wanting to risk a visit to Istanbul in the wake of the spring bombings, that flight was canceled and I was shuffled over to a 7 am flight. Which sucked, in one respect. However, I got to Istanbul before lunch, and was able to have a nice lunch before hitting the sights.
After lunch, I set out to explore. My hotel overlooked Sultan Ahmet Park, so I was in a great position to see the most iconic sights without having to go very far. My first stop was the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. Completed in 1616, it was built to reassert the dominance and glory of the Ottoman Empire. While it is impressive, and in a way warmer than the Hagia Sophia, it does feel newer and perhaps not as steeped in history. I will say, that having visited the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, it does still give you a feeling of age, though perhaps more on par with the great cathedrals of England and France, while the Hagia Sophia just feels more…ancient, like the Roman ruins I visited in Italy.
The two sit at opposite ends of Sultan Ahmet Park, continually giving each other the stink-eye, in the most polite, and beautiful way possible.
The Blue Mosque is still a working mosque, which is reflected by the interior. The prayer area is covered by thick carpeting, which adds to the silence gravity of the space. Of course, I was more interested in the decoration on the ceilings, walls, and windows.
It was an impressive space, and it was nice to have a counterpoint to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which while lovely, was a little ‘Vegas’ in comparison.
After the mosque, I did a little window shopping and was dragged into two separate rug shops, where I was schooled on the differences in rugs made in the region. The first shop I visited had what most people consider the ‘usual’ hand-knotted Turkish rugs. The prices were enough to take my breath away, but Sam, the salesman, plied me with Turkish coffee and showed me probably 30 different rugs, ranging from $600 to $10,000 in price. If I ever win the lottery, I am going back there.
They had both wool and silk, and I wish I had taken video of the spinning trick they use with the silk rugs. Due to the thread, the color presents differently depending on your position relative to the rug. The guys in the showroom do a need trick where they quickly pick up the rug and spin it, allowing you to see the change in color in one swift motion. No need to tell you that the silk rugs were the really expensive one. However, the hand knotted wool weren’t without their charms.
Notice on the rug in the back, you can see the sheen of the silk, which contributes to the color changing properties.
After my time with Sam, I was pulled in to a Kurdish rug shop. The difference in Kurdish rugs is in the colors (more natural dyes) and the construction. Kurdish rugs are woven as opposed to knotted, apparently. The gentlemen at this store plied me with tea and kebabs while they made their sales pitch. They had more than rugs, and some of their stock is shown below.
Once I escaped, I found a hop-on/hop-off tour bus and went to my other must-see destination, the Istanbul spice market. I had two reasons that wanted to go. Firstly, my writing has sent me down the rabbit hole of researching spice trading. As much as I love Penzeys, I wanted to see something that was a little closer to the ancient spice markets I’ve been writing about. Secondly, in a fortuitous turn of events, friends back home had been posting about the differences between the black pepper we currently use and a type called long pepper, which is supposed to have quite a different flavor profile. I had found a blogger/expat/chef in Istanbul who had a great rundown of where to buy and where to skip, so I was able to find what I needed quickly.
The market itself is overwhelming, and I couldn’t stay too long–after the length of trip I had been on, I was exhausted and my threshold of dealing with crowds was long-since passed. However, I did get a some good notes on the place, and was able to source some of the much-anticipated long pepper.
The market is a large ‘L’ shaped building full of stalls that carry a whole lot more than spices. There were stalls lined with tourist tchotchkes and and foods. I found a reputable seller, and it’s amazing how much better the prices were there, especially when it came to saffron. Also, some of the first stalls I visited had no idea what long pepper was, and these guys led me right to it. They vacuum-seal it for you so that you can take it on the plane, although I took the roasted pistachios as-is, because they were that dang good.
Security was tight in the market, with armed guards at the entrance. Then again, they’d just had bombings, which made it all understandable.
After the spice market, I went back to the hotel and took my camera and laptop up to the roof terrace, which had some amazing views of the city. A glass of wine later, I was pretty satisfied with life.
After my visit to the Hagia Sophia the next morning, I headed back to the airport. There were eight checkpoints between when I walked into the airport and when I boarded my plane. The security there is no joke. There’s a reason why the asshole bombers from earlier this week didn’t get any further than they did.
It breaks my heart for the people of Istanbul. Aside from a couple of pushy assholes, they were warm and welcoming. Even at that point, their economy was suffering from the lack of tourists visiting the city, and I can only imagine that this will make it worse. So I’m saying a prayer for the people of that city, and for all of us. The world is a wonderful and amazing adventure, but it can be scary too. Don’t let the assholes keep you from living your life and exploring this wonderful planet.