Istanbul To Athens
DAY One: Istanbul - For ten days, my husband, Robert, and I cruised the Turkey and Greek coasts aboard the Azamara Quest. The ship held 580 people and it was a pleasure to cruise with a smaller number than those we found on larger lines. The ship would sail down the west coast of Turkey on the Aegean Sea and up the east coast of Greece as far north as Macedonia and then back down to Athens.
We would like to share our experience in this land of antiquity. We want to know more about these people of Turkey and Greece who all sprang from the same ancestry and were once one country. Their history of enmity intrigues us.
Before we sailed, we attended a lecture on a summary history of Istanbul by Greg Autry, Ph.D. We were reminded that before Mohammed, Jesus Christ, and our Jewish heritages, there were humans making an effort to survive here. The people of the Roman and Byzantine eras have made their marks in developing the aqueducts, military conquests, trade, education, architecture, home construction, and other forms of developing civilization.
We signed up on this first day for the tour of the Best of Istanbul, an eight-hour engagement with the four major Istanbul attractions. The eight hours did signal that this tour would be a challenge but we had no idea how difficult it was to be.
Our first stop was at the Blue Mosque, officially the Sultana MahMet, named after its builder king, Constantine. The mosque is quite large and beautifully decorated. We were disappointed for several reasons. The crowds of tourists were overwhelming. Experiencing the requirement for women to wear head coverings is quite different than simply knowing that it is an enforced ritual. Watching the men without any covering and the women warmly togged in the sweltering heat raised a number of female tempers. Then, the general disrespect for visitors was a surprise. Standing in the sacred place for an hour in the heat was an endurance contest with our heads and throats being wrapped tightly. Robert was carrying his backpack, and his upper body was drenched with sweat. We all felt that our guide could have shown us more respect and concern by holding his lecture until we all had seen the mosque and returned outside. Since his lecture was more a history lesson than an explanation of the mosque, it would have been more accepted.
In addition, the crowds made the visit a spectator sport rather than honoring a holy place. In addition to the head coverings for women, it was required that we take off our shoes before entering the carpeted area of the mosque. We were told by our tour guide that being shoeless was not a Muslim holy law, but it was required simply to keep the carpet clean and unworn. Adding to the discomfort was the absence of a place to sit while taking off and replacing our shoes. For many people, this was a great imposition and insult.
Not far from the Blue Mosque was the Hagia Sofia, another mosque that had its own rough history and was one of the four major sites of importance in Istanbul. Built by Constantine, the Hagia Sofia was once a Roman Catholic place of worship, in honor of Constantine’s mother, Helena. Hagia Sofia means Church of the Holy Wisdom. In its conversion to a mosque, it kept that name. The rules were similar for entrance to the Blue Mosque but somewhat more enforced as the male guides were alerted to correct the violators. They even insisted that you not sit on the steps to replace your walking shoes, an almost impossible task while standing or even sitting on the ground for most people.
Following Hagia Sofia was the visit to the King’s palace, now a museum. The lines were very long to see the exquisite jewelry and valuable gold household and military items clustered with emerald, ruby, diamond, aquamarine, and sapphire stones. The pieces were quite elaborate. And beautiful. In this museum, there were also other expositions: a library of models of very old books, and a building for military armaments. After four hours and much exhaustion of walking over five miles, we settled in for a long lunch.
Finally, we went to the very famous commercial location, the Bazaar, a collection of 4000 stores selling six categories of goods: high-end and estate jewelry, carpets, perfumes, leather jackets, and purses, as well as spices and Turkish delights of sweets. One wonders how any one of the retailers made money since they all seemed to be selling the very same items. Of the 15 people in our group, no one purchased anything in the hour and a half we were given to peruse the stores. But the streets that lined the shops were crowded with buyers, or at least, with lookers. At the end of our very long day, we had counted over 12,000 steps and over six miles of trekking with very high humidity. We were very pleased to open our cabin door to a welcoming presentation of delicious appetizers and cold drinks, compliments of the ship.