Turkey Travelog – Part 2 – Istanbul Redux

Continuing the travelog of Turkey. Here’s a link to the 1st post in the thread.

If I were to list the Top-10 things to do in Istanbul, eating pistachios from Osmanlioglu in the Spice Bazaar will feature prominently. Nowhere else in the world will you find such perfectly roasted, mildly salted, impeccably flavored pistachios.  The Spice Bazaar is popularly called the “Mısr Çarşısı” (Egyptian Bazaar), since it originally featured spices from Egypt. The small bazaar is an obstacle course. Warding off a store clerk’s assiduous efforts to sell me Turkish Viagra (“Very effective, madam” he assured me), I picked up a bottle of an intriguing amber colored liquid – “Grape Syrup”. Istanbullus swear by this concoction and use it instead of jam or sugar. It was cloyingly sweet, more like an extract of raisins than grapes.

The star attraction in Turkey is the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish) – or the Church of Divine Wisdom. This is a 1,500 year old church, built by Emperor Justinian. The church is massive – it must have been quiet a sight back in its days. The interior of the church is beautifully decorated with thousands of tiny gold tesserae (mosaic tiles) and varicolored granite and marble. Sadly, most of the mosaics are badly damaged and painstaking restoration is ongoing. The large central dome of the church appears unsupported – though its cunningly supported by hidden columns built into the walls.

Compared to the stunning interior, the exterior is almost drab. This is in keeping with the Byzantine tradition of keeping the exteriors simple, while lavishing all the attention of the interior. So breathtaking is the interior of Aya Sofya, that 1000 years later, it was proclaimed a mosque by the Ottoman Sultans. Nowadays, its mostly viewed as a museum.

We checked out the “Weeping Column”. It’s a simple column with a worn-out copper plating and a hole. The faithful believe that if you insert your finger into the hole & it returns moist, your ailments will be healed. Hence it was a sad day for me when my finger emerged dry as Sahara.

When in Turkey, eat like the Turks. Missing Dondurma must be the 8th deadly sin. This Turkish version of ice cream beats all other versions hands down. In addition to the usual ingredients, it has Mastic and Sahlep, the milk from orchid bulbs grown exclusively in Turkey. If you are in Turkey, try one of the ubiquitous “Mado” ice cream bars. Their ice creams are thicker, stretchier and sinfully tasty – probably because they feed their cows the same orchid bulbs that goes into making the ice-cream. Since I’m on a diet, I watched Sukumar stuff himself with scoop after tantalizing scoop of Mado ice creams.

The 2nd most popular attraction in Istanbul is the “Blue Mosque” or the Sultanahmet Mosue. What’s blue about the Blue Mosque? Nothing in the exterior, but the inside – especially around the domes – is lined with thousands of beautiful blue Iznik tiles. This splendid mosque, with 6 minarets, is a photographer’s delight. It was built by the Ottomans, as Islam’s answer to Aya Sofya. No effort was spared to make the Blue Mosque more breathtaking than Aya Sofya. Our tour guide told us that when the mosque was built, it caused a lot of consternation – since the only other mosque with 6 minarets is in Mecca.

Sultanhmet Square, the locus of tourist spots, is full of small, interesting cafeterias. For a few Turkish Liras, you can have your fill of strong, miniscule cups of muddy – albeit flavorful – Turkish coffee and smoke the Nargileh (water pipe for tobacco). Being non-smokers, we gave the Nargileh a wide berth, while all around us, Turks smoked like chimneys. Turkish tea is for the masochist in you. I didn’t know what to make of the inky brew. Or the equally weird tasting Apple Tea (Elma Chai) that beaming carpet salesmen ply on tourists. It tasted like a watered down version of “Mott’s Apple Juice”.

Nobody lures tourists like the salesmen and women in the 500 year old Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı, or Covered Bazaar). This charming and almost medieval, shopper’s delight offers everything Turkish you ever wanted to buy, even items you never knew you wanted. We bought some souvenirs (read: junk), seduced by the sweet-talking shopkeepers. Prominently displayed are the blue and white Nazar (Eye) symbols, which Turks believe wards off the evil eye.

Say “Turkey” and your mind conjures up images of “Rahat Lokum” or Turkish Delight. This delicious sweet is Turkey’s answer to the Indian Halwa, sans the butter and ghee. I’ve done Turkey a great disservice if I don’t agree that Lokum – the precursor of Halwa – was invented by Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir, a Turk. Legend has it that sweets were mostly hard candies till Hacı Bekir invented the soft lokum. He offered it to the Sultan, who fell in love with it at the first bite. Sukumar OD-ed on Findik and Fistik lokum (Hazelnut and Pistachio) from Hacı Bekir’s shop in the happening street, Istiklal Caddesi – while I – watched him wolf it all down.

I must say that the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara was a major let-down. We had hoped to gain more insights on the Neolithic and Chalcolithic civilizations in Turkey, but the museum needs a better curator and more “steals”. There weren’t many star attractions – crowning glories – in the museum’s possession. Those that they had wasn’t documented and displayed to its advantage. We were surprised to learn that this was an award winning museum. The Istanbul Archaeological museum was better – but more about that in another post.

Sukumar’s photo blog is next, so stay with us.


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said January 4, 2011, 11:08 pm:

    Good one Priya. The taste of the amazing Dondurma from Mado is still lingering in my mouth. I have never tasted icecream that is so good. Italian Gelato can’t hold a candle.

    Haci Bekir’s Lokum is another out of the world experience. The whole ambience in Istiklal Caddesi is unforgettable.

    Blue mosque and Aya Sofia of course were great. But it is Suleimaniye Mosque that gets my vote.

  2. Quote

    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment.

    Thanks for reminding me to write about the Suleimaniye Mosque.

  3. Quote
    Peer Mohamed said January 10, 2011, 12:13 am:

    Well written!! great travel experience. Enjoyed reading 🙂

  4. Quote

    Peer – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

  5. Quote

    Read the Turkey Travelogue series.U r blessed with a wonderful writing skill which reflects the style in which u talk with a tinge of humour.For me,Reading ur posts is like talking to u {or in my case, listening to u and spending hours with u as we were doing in our GCT days:)}.As far as language is concerned,u ve a complete mastery over it.Lovely!
    Keep Blogging Priya!

  6. Quote

    Padma – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    >>or in my case, listening to u

    Yeah, right 😀 Its more like, we listened to you, admiring your jokes, timing & sense of humor.

  7. Quote

    Istanbul’s one of the cities I’ve always wanted to visit, after Rome. One query about the museums, are they focused more on preserving the Turkish identity of Anatolia or gives a fair view of pre 1000 AD Anatolia? The lack of ancient artifacts of Anatolia would be in line with the former logic. There was a comment by Dalrymple in his From the Holy Mountain on how Turkish children asked Greek children why the Greeks came to Turkey because they brought trouble with them. The Greek child could only reply, “we didn’t come, you did”.

  8. Quote

    Arby – Thanks for your comment.

    The museums – the Anatolian Civilization & the Istanbul Archealogical – focus more on ancient Turkey & provide a rather unbiased view of the past. I didn’t say there was a lack of ancient artifacts – I said there were little or no “steals”. The treaty of Kadesh was one such steal we saw in the Istanbul museum. Most 1st world museums have a fair share of prized possessions, there were very few in Turkey. There are many artifacts from Turkey’s venerable past, but they were not displayed to their advantage.

  9. Quote
    Karthik.pk said February 4, 2011, 9:56 pm:

    Another brilliant post Priya …But I really pity for not being able to eat all th goodies (I feel since ur were on vacation u cud have cheated on ur Diet :))….I was of the opinion the Hagia Sofia was built by Constantine the great did not know that it was constructed by Justinan….

  10. Quote

    Karthik – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    I wish I had cheated on my diet. Its this darn discipline of mine, its like being in a self-imposed prison sometimes.

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