Talkin' Turkey : Istanbul, Part 1

You might have heard of a little place which was once known as Constantinople. It's the only city in the world which straddles two continents (Europe and Asia), and both its streets and its past contain layers and layers of history. Turkey's capital of Istanbul is one of the most cultural and colorful places on earth. I had about two and a half days here; not enough time to make it out of the touristy center and into the heart of the city, but just enough to experience some of its flavors, leaving me excited to come back and truly delve into this wonderful city.

The headliner to the downtown area is the magnificent Hagia Sophia, which I first became acquainted with back in my art history days in college. Built as a cathedral in the year 360 (!!), it was the largest cathedral in the world for almost 1,000 years! In 1453, it was converted into a mosque, and today it is a marvelous museum.

"10,000 workers, working from sunset to sundown, 6 days a week, and it still took 6 years to finish." The Hagia Sophia is the epitome of Byzantine architecture, and is said to have "changed the history of architecture." From the moment you lay eyes on it, there is no doubt that all of this is true:
Currently, as a museum, considerations must be made as to what early Christian relics and artwork are uncovered at the expense of the Muslim ones. The original church was richly decorated with lavish mosaics, and the ones I photographed date from the 9th, 12th, and 14th centuries...protected from years of plaster coverings:
I've already mentioned the incredible eating in Turkey. Istanbul no doubt facilitates this Epicurian adventure even more through smiti (sesame-covered dough rings), doner kebaps and savory meat dishes, lokum (Turkish delight...a sweet made from the gel of starch or sugar), salep, a hot drink made from orchid, cinnamon, vanilla, and cream (which I drank everyday), and bakalava (some of the chocolate-drenched variety) just to name a few:
Okay, so I couldn't make it out of Turkey, and especially Istanbul, without delving into some good market shopping. The best place for this is at the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with more than 58 covered streets and over 4,000 shops!  It's a haggler's dream (or possible nightmare)!
Another "must see" destination while in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern. It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns which lie beneath the streets of the city. Built by 7,000 slaves in the 5th century AD, the cistern is able to hold up to 100,000 tons of water in its cathedral-like chamber (only a few feet is there today, however), and provided filtered water for the city up until modern times:
Two strange Medusa heads hold up two of the 336 marble columns...one is on its side and one is upside down. No one really knows how they got there or there is any meaning behind them (other than just being the right height for column-support). Whoever put them there probably thought a lot like the ancient Aztecs did when creating their calendar: "Man, this is really going to freak someone out someday!"
Making homemade lavash for a lunch of wrapped chicken doner (followed by yet another serving of baklava, of course):
Dusk shot of the Hagia Sophia...so beautiful:
I even had a chance to meet up with a couple of other English Language Fellows who I met at the conference in Antalya. Here we are representing Ukraine, Serbia, and Kosovo (and Turkey, respectively, with water pipe in hand):
Tomorrow, part II of Istanbul: The Blue Mosque, Spice Bazaar, and more of my Turkish food obsession...