Istanbul -- The glory of Byzantine and Ottoman

Travel Journal of NH and BJ, 2002

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Istanbul Oct 19th – Oct 23rd

On Saturday, Oct 19th we left for Istanbul.  We arrived Istanbul at 7 am Sunday. The immigration and baggage clearance were surprisingly fast. Due to miscommunication, my prearranged pick-up did not turn up and so we took a taxi to the city. The trip that took 30 min or so cost 17 million TRL, or RM 39. We stayed in one of the Conference Hotels, Konak Hotel, which is just a block away from Istanbul Hilton, the Conference venue. We were in Takzim,  the ‘modern’ section of European Istanbul but it is a city with many 19th century buildings. The Konak Hotel is a European style, old building. It was not the typical, modern tourist hotel but was really cozy. Breakfast at Konak Hotel was a treat. The freshly baked pastries were fantastic and the best I ever had! Early in the morning, even in our room we could smell the aroma of the pastries. During our stay in the hotel, every morning I looked forward for breakfast!



             The Konak Hotel


Cumhuriyet Caddesi (Republican Avenue) of Taksim. 

Konak Hotel is at one of the side lane

      Soon after arrival, I called the Union Church of Istanbul. We always like to attend church services of the nations we visited, and so before our departure I have searched through the internet about Protestant church worship services in Istanbul, I came across two: the Union Church of Istanbul and Christ Church. The people answered the phone confirmed that there is an English Service at 11 am. Judging from the map of Istanbul, Istiklal Caddesi (where the church is located) was not far away from our hotel. The staff at the reception desk told us that it was only a 20 min walk – but it turned up to be more than that, perhaps we are not fast ‘walkers’. The Istiklal Caddesi (Independent Avenue, Caddesi means Avenue), a 19th century cobble stone street, was a colorful pedestrian mall. However, it was quite quiet because it was Sunday. After some walking we still we saw no sign of the church. I tried to get direction but the Turks on the streets generally did not understand any English and they could not help us. I was not good in understanding sign language either! There were several churches and cathedrals along the way, but these are Catholic or Orthodox churches. Finally we got a bit tired (also because we had not rested well during the 10 hours flight) and almost wanted to give up, then we saw a small sign on the side walk  “The Union Church of Istanbul”, pointing to a side lane downhill. We’ve found it!

As we walked into the courtyard of the church, we were in for a surprise – two big size men, apparently security guards, searched our body thoroughly using metal detector, and also our begs before allowing us to enter into the small church. I learned later that they have to do this to prevent terrorists from entering into the church. Some years ago, a group of terrorist did break into a Jewish synagogue in Istanbul and killed some 20 worshippers! I wonder if we all have to go through tight security check before entering our church for Sunday worship, how many of us would rather stay home?

The church was rather full, packed with some 70 of so people. This is a stone building and more than 100 years old! The service, however, was not very much different from what we have in PJEFC. We sang hymns and chorus, followed by time of intercession and message. Since there are quite a number of foreign consulates here, many of the people who came for the service were foreigners. I learned that in the afternoon the church also has a Turkish service.



As we walked along Independent Avenue, we came across this notice board



          The Union Church is on the left, with the arc 

           shape entrance


The Bosphorus Cruise

 In the morning we took a taxi (4 million TRL) across the Golden Horn (an inlet of the sea that separates Takzim from Sultanahmet) to Sultanahmet, the Old Istanbul. We went straight to Eminonu, the ferry terminal, Pier 3 (Bogazici Pier) as instructed by the guide book, to take a ferry cruise from there up the Bosphorus, the strait that separates Europe from Asia. Before we bought the tickets (5 million TRL), an Indian looking man came to persuade us to take his private boat instead. It is more expensive (15 million TRL per person) but less time consuming and less crowded (3 hrs return instead of 6 hrs). We were interested. Unfortunately, he could not persuade enough people to take his boat, and so by 1020, as we noted that the big ferry ship was about to depart, we decided to say goodbye to the Indian looking man and went to take the big ferry trip. There is only one trip per day, if we missed this one, then we will have to come back the next day. We managed to get into the ferry in time, and found the ferry full of tourists.



There were tourists from China, Hong Kong, various European countries, Malays from Indonesia... . I settled down in a cozy seat in a relatively quiet corner, but suddenly a big group of Malaysian Malays came in. They noticed the empty seats around me and suddenly I found myself completely surrounded by them. And then their Turkish tour guide started to brief the group (in good BM!) and he voice was so loud that at the end I decided to move to the other seat to have some peace.


               Istanbul Skyline

    Some Malaysians in the ferry


The ferry was rather full, must be few hundreds passengers here taking this famous and cheap cruise of the Bosphorus. It was indeed a scenic ‘cruise’; the European side of the land is particularly scenic, with beautiful hills and forests, 19th century buildings and castles. We passed beneath the towering bridge connecting Europe and Asia too. Taking pictures from the ship, however, was a big challenge because the deck was always full of people, particularly at the spot ideal for taking good pictures! It was really hard to take picture of the scenery without somebody blocking. However, as with all cruises, after a while people got bored and started shopping – there were a lot of vendors on board too.

          Galata Tower in Taksim



The bridge that connects Asia and Europe



The Bosphorus: Istanbul at lower right corner, Sariyer is at upper left corner

   The Bridge Connecting Europe and Asia

     15th century Rumeli Hisari Fortress

      After one hour plus we reached a town called Sariyer. As we saw many passengers (tourists) disembarked, we also followed them. Once we came out of the jetty I discovered to my horror that Sariyer is not the terminal! The tourists who disembarked were whisked back to Istanbul by their prearranged tour buses, and by that time the big ferry ship had departed. There were only a few tourists left in this town, a beautiful but hectic small town. I was told that the ferry will return to Sariyer to pick up passengers and back to Istanbul only in the afternoon, about 3 hrs later, so we decided to take a stroll and enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the waterfront. This town, with narrow streets, is actually a suburb of the Greater Istanbul. It was crowded with people; noisy and full of live. There were a number of seafood restaurants at the waterfront, the seafood was good but a bit pricey, and we spent 30 million TRL for our lunch. It was here that we learned about the Turkish popular  ‘shepherd salad’ – it is actually a mixture of tomato, vegetables and olives etc. We were also each given a half egg shape staff wrapped by white linen. I was curious to find out what it was, so with some effort I managed to remove the white linen – it was a half piece of lemon, the lemon was wrapped in such a way that when you squeeze the lemon for the juice you don’t have to worry that the seeds may drop into your dish!


 Sariyer Towm, the seafood restaurants



 Look at the lemon wrapped in white linen

By the time we finished the lunch it was still early and instead of waiting for another hour plus for the ferry, I decided to try for a bus ride back to Istanbul. I managed to locate the bus station – it was along the waterfront road; but it took some effort to find the ticket boot – actually a kiosk that also sells bus tickets. Language was a problem but I managed to ‘tell’ the person I wanted two tickets back to Istanbul, and to ensure that he understood me, I had to bring BJ along to show him that I meant tickets for ‘two’! (I had to do this because the fare was so cheap, less than 1.5 million TRL for two tickets) There were many buses passing through and soon we saw a bus labeled with ‘Takzim Square’ as destination, this must be it! So without hesitation we boarded the bus. It was a scenic drive in the earlier part of the journey, the bus went through suburbs and climbed up the hills, but soon it reached the populated suburbs of Istanbul with the usual ugly urban sights and traffic jam. The bus picked up more and more passengers on the way and it became quite full later on. After a one-hour ride we finally reached Takzim Square, just 15 min walk from our Hotel Konak. It is really quite an experience to take a local bus trip in Istanbul!

Aya Sofia, the glory of Christian Byzantine

One of the ‘must see’ for tourists in Istanbul is Aya Sofia. It is one of the greatest buildings in ancient times. The original building was built by Emperor Constantine, it was destroyed later, and rebuilt in 6th century by Emperor Justinin. During the Byzantine time it was named ‘Haghia Sophia’, which means ‘ Church of Divine Wisdom’. For a thousand years nobody had been able to build anything near that. This huge building was a demonstration of the superior technology power of the Byzantine dynasty, and the ingenuity of the Greek architects. I have visited the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven of Beijing but I must say that these impressive Chinese ancient buildings, built 1000 years after Haghia Sophia, cannot possibly compare with the grandiose of Aya Sofia. It is real hard to imagine how with their primitive tools the Greeks architects and builders could build such a huge dome that survived earthquakes, wars and many fires, for over 1500 years!


 Above: Today's Aya Sofia, Church of Heavenly Wisdom

Below: Aya Sofia in Byzantine period (artist impression)


Byzantine column with sign of the cross in the tea garden


Aya Sofia – now a museum, is certainly a popular tourist attraction – early in the morning when we reached there, already there were a long queue of tourists waiting to enter. However, once we entered into the building, because of the vastness, we didn’t notice the crowd at all. Unfortunately, the interior was not well preserved. When the Sultan of Ottoman Empire conquered Istanbul (Constantinople at that time), he was so impressed with the grandiose of the building that he prayed there and immediately ordered it to be converted to a mosque, and to cover the mosaic by white paint. And it was used as a mosque for the next five hundred years, until the founder of modern Turkey, Attaturk ordered it to be converted to a museum early 20th century. Then archeologists started to rediscover some of the original mosaic (Christian wall paintings) after they removed the layer of white paint covering the walls of the buildings.



                Inside the Aya Sofya



These mosaics are the only signs that this was once a grand church building. However, outside the church building in the tea garden, we saw many excavated Byzantine marble columns, huge columns, many with the sign of the cross. And outside the entrance of Aya Sofia was an excavation site with exhibits of some marble blocks used for construction of the original Aya Sofia (probably the original one built by Emperor Constantine). Many of these marble blocks have the sign of the cross. However, from afar the striking features of Aya Sofia was a red monstrous buildings surrounded by four minarets, symbolizing the eclipse of the Christian Empire in the land of Turkey and the dominance of Islam today in this ancient Christian land.

We took a rest in the lovely tea garden outside Aya Sofia. This open-air tea garden is full of Byzantine columns; some of the column capitals are used as the base of tables. At first we thought these were imitates! Actually over the last hundred years so many of the ancient columns were excavated that archeologists couldn’t be bother with these anymore. Turkey is a land so rich in history, with civilizations that trace back to perhaps 10th century BC, so what is the worth of marble columns ‘only’ a thousand years old!

Haghia Sophia was built to demonstrate the power of the Christian Byzantine Empire. Yes, the building was most impressive, it was built with architectural technology that was 1000 years ahead of its time. To the subjects of the Empire and foreign visitors at that time, it must be awe-inspiring. But great building does not equal great faith. The building was more of an exhibition of man’s wisdom and power, it was the pride of the Byzantine Empire, but today it stands in Istanbul, with its four minarets serve to demonstrate the supremacy of Islam over Christianity in this cradle of the early Church. Where were Paul’s and John’s congregations?

Opposite the Aya Sofia is the equally famous Blue Mosque built one thousand years later but the architecture style and designs were copied from Aya Sofia.

Just a few minutes walk away is the Yerebatan cistern, the huge underground ancient cistern of Constantinople. It was built by the Byzantine Romans and the structure is perhaps close to a thousand years old. It is quite a sight, with 336 marble Corinthian columns supporting the brick vault, the whole structure a few hundred meters in length. It was rather dim inside, still fills with perhaps 2-3 feet of water. Walking along the wooden walkway was truly a mystic and romantic experience, with water dripping constantly and the background music from the pipes! We really enjoyed the walk in the semi darkness.



The Egyptian Oblisk (front) and Constantine Column in the Hippodrome


   The underground Yerebatan Cistern


The Hippodrome and the Archeological Museum

 After that we walked across the street and reached the famous Hippodrome. This was once the center of Byzantine civic life and the racecourse of the very popular chariot racing. Today it is a narrow strip of garden with three Byzantine monuments still standing: the Obelisk of Theodosius, the bronze Serpentine Column and the Column of Constantine. Standing in front of the Obelisk of Theodosius, our imagination went back to 3000 years ago, how the Egypt Pharaoh celebrated his victory by erecting the Obelisk, but 1500 years later it was moved away from Egypt to Constantinople – Egypt was then part of the Byzantine Empire. The Obelisk is still a very solid block of stone today. It has witnessed the rise and fall of the Egyptian Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and the birth of modern Turkey. But it is not an everlasting structure – only the Kingdom of God is everlasting. The day our Lord returns, Peter says, “the heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare”. How wonderful it is to know that the day when this immensely solid Obelisk disappeared, we who are in Christ will still be in the New Earth rejoicing in the Lord!

As for the Serpentine Column and the Column of Constantine, there is nothing much to see.

After that we went to visit the Istanbul Archeological museum, just next to the garden of the famous Tokkapi Palace but with different entrance, so it was quite a walk along the quiet, undulating cobble street to there. As expected, there were very few visitors, I am not really very interested to visit museum, in particular archeological museum!. But I read somewhere that the inscription stone recovered from the Jersualem Hezekiel Tunnel is there, so I would like to see with my own eye that piece of stone! The museum is a huge complex, with rows and rows of Hellenistic sculptures, reconstructed Greek buildings, at certain section I was the lone soul walking! The exhibition rooms were dimly lighted, and walking alone in the midst of archeological artifacts – including sarcophagus, gave you a strange feeling! Unfortunately the Hezekiel inscription stone was not on exhibit this time of the year. As one walks through the museum, you can forget that you are in Turkey – most of the exhibits are the pride of Ionian Greek culture! Don’t know what a Turk would think about all these exhibits if he choose to visit this museum, for it is apparent that this land of Anatonia (the Asia portion of Turkey) was the Greek’s land since10th century BC. The Turks were the latecomers, and took over the land through military conquest. I learn that until early 20th century, there was still a substantial Greek population in Turkey, particularly along the southwestern coast, the traditional Ionian land. Unfortunately, after the Turkey War of Independent (1920-21) the 1.5 million Greek were dispatched to Greece. Today you can hardly see a Greek in Turkey other than in Istanbul.


Sculpture of Alexander the Great in the 

Archeological Museum

Sculpture of the Young  


The Grand Covered Bazaar


Leaving the museum we took a rather long walk uphill to Divan Yolu, the old main street of Sultanahmet, the old Istanbul. A pedestrian mall now, this is an interesting street to walk, many of the shops are, of course, cater for tourists. There are a number of English bookstores here with interesting titles. From here we walked to the famous Istanbul covered bazaar with 4000+ shops. There are rows and rows of shops but there is nothing much for us to buy. It is interesting to hear some shopkeepers greeted us in Mandarin:  “Ni How!” (How are you?), apparently Turkey is waiting for the invasion of Chinese tourists!

 Takzim walkabout and the Galata Tower

 Takzim is the more ‘modern’ part of European Istanbul, separated from Sultanahmet by the Golden Horn, an inlet of the sea. Takzim square is a huge roundabout with several main streets radiating from it, including the historical, not-so-wide Istiklal Caddesi. It is another interesting pedestrian mall, a good place for window-shopping with many souvenir shops. There were a number of churches (Catholic and Orthodox) perhaps because many foreign consulates are located on this street. This area is also the ‘older’ part of Takzim with many impressive looking buildings and some English bookshops, and all kinds of restaurants. A good place to sample Turkish food! We walked along Istiklal Caddesi all the way – window-shopping and people watching, until we reached the famous Galata Tower.



                      Takzim Square



                        Istiklal Caddesi



           Delicious Turkish Mixed-Rice


               Sweet Turkish rice pudding


The Galta Tower is a solid, stone-built tower that was built by Genoese in the 13th century for defensive purpose. The 61 meter high tower is open to public, so we bought the tickets and went in to take a look. The lift took us up to level 7, after that we had to walk up 3 flights of stairs to level 9 – the top. There is a fine coffee house at the top and one can walk around the tower outer rim to have a fantastic view of Istanbul, the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, the Takzim area and the Sultanahmet opposite across the Golden Horn.



                    The Galata Tower



  European Istanbul from the top of Galata Tower


       The Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn,

       connecting Taksim and Sultanahmet


    The Topkapi Palace from Galata Tower


Around Galata Tower is the old Jewish colony of Istanbul, still with a large Jewish population here (25000). We managed to locate the Jewish Neve Shalom Synagogue – famous also because some twenty years ago terrorists broke into the Synagogue and killed over 20 worshippers. I asked the smartly dress guard whether we can visit the synagogue. He used his intercom to call out another very smartly dress security guard who told us courteously that the visiting hours was over, ‘Please come tomorrow!’ Well, tomorrow we would be in Izmir already! But we could see that the security is very tight here. These days, it is indeed not easy for the Jews to live in Islamic Turkey!

     The Neve Shalom Jewish Synagogue
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