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13 September 2013

What if when you knew you were going to be visiting Istanbul, one of the things you were most excited about seeing was The Blue Mosque, which everyone had told you was so gorgeous and which some people told you was so big that you could fit the Vatican inside it.  What if you expected to see it on your city tour the first day you arrived in Istanbul but had the schedule changed so that you were now going to see it the second day.  What if you got up early to be among the first groups to tour, arrived at the grounds and listened to a very long history of the building of it, and the genealogy of every important royal person associated with it traced back to a primordial, protoplasmyl atomic globule all the while other groups are entering the grounds and those inviting souvenir stands are just out of reach.

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What if you then entered the grounds and saw this sign:

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What if you were a very popular tour director who suddenly realized that there were 40 pissed people who were now VERY angry with you.   Ibi made no apologies, but just said that we could not enter but we could still go to the Hagia Sophia, which was at the other end of the complex.  40 pissed people in sullen silence turned away from the famous Blue Mosque and followed him out of the courtyard.

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40 pissed people trudged to the Hagia Sophia, looking back at the Blue Mosque we had traveled thousands of miles to see, and were now not going to see because most of us were leaving Istanbul before dawn the next morning.   40 pissed people realized that if the original schedule had been kept, we would have gone to the Blue Mosque the day before when it was open!

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For a bit of an explanation about these two edifaces, The area is the Sultanahmet, the city's spiritual center.  It is a large open area "bookended" by the Hagia Sophia (also known as the Aya Sofya) at one end and the Blue Mosque at the other  It is built over the ruins of the Great Palace of Byzantium.  The Hagia Sophia was commissioned by Emperor Justinian and consecrated as a church in537.  It was converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. It is commonly acknowledged as one of the world's great buildings.

The Blue Mosque was the project of Sultan Ahmet I, who ruled from 1603-17.  His tomb is located on the northern side of the site, facing the park (behind construction barricades now).  The mosque, Istanbul's most photographed site, features a huge courtyard, a cascade of domes and six minarets (more than anyh other Ottoman mosque).  Inside, thousands of blue Iznik tiles adorn the walls and give the building its unofficial, but commonly used name.

We turned in our entrance tickets at Hagia Sophia and went through the x-ray screening (where somehow I lost my bottle of water, which made me even angrier).  40 pissed people then milled around while Ibi made sure we were all there.  Wouldn't want to lose any members of his group!

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We finally moved into the vestibule of the mosque, where Ibi proceeded to explain to us every. single. one. of the history panels while other groups went in and out of the museum.  We figured he was trying to fill the time that he would have taken touring the Blue Mosque.  But it only made us more pissed.  At one point he asked "Am I boring you" and there was a loud shout of "YES!!!!" from the people who were still around him and hadn't moved off on their own.

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(Note all the happy faces of the people)

We finally entered Hagia Sophia and discovered that half of it is hidden by scaffolding while 1/4 on the other side is behind painted walls because they are repairing things.  All that was left was the center section which, of course, was impressive, but we only really saw a small portion of this beautiful building.

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(dome with scaffolding)

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(drawing of what you would see if this drapery weren't there)

Even with all the coverings, it's still an impressive building

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This is a postcard of what it would look like without the scaffolding.

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One of the local residents is shown below.   Mike says he was a "cat-lick."

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You see lots and lots of stray dogs and cats in both Ukraine and Turkey, but more in Turkey.  They all seem well fed and especially the dogs spend a lot of time stretched out, sleeping in the sun on the grass of many of these places we visited.

I didn't take a lot of photos of Hagia Sophia, realizing that I couldn't do it justice, and figuring I'd get postcards or a book that showed it in its best light, but the thing about our time in Istanbul is that I had almost NO time to visit any souvenir stands whatsoever.  I never even got to the hotel shop, and only had about 10 minutes in a teeny shop later this day, and they had only one postcard of the inside of Hagia Sophia.  So I will just have to remember its finer points and try not to remember how tired and hot and sweaty I was, despite the fact that Walt had run around and found me a replacement bottle of water, which I very much appreciated.

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Things looked up a bit after we left Hagia Sophia.  Ibi had been consulting with the powers that be and suggested that we go to the Grand Bazaar and spend some time and then come back to the Blue Mosque when it was opened.  This would mean that those of us going on the optional excursion to Asia (Istanbul is the only city in the world which spans two continents) would leave later than originally planned and return to the hotel later than originally planned, but there was no objection to this from anybody.

In better spirits, then, we headed off to the Grand Bazaar.  Our meeting place was to be the "handicraft center," which, from its description by Ibi sounded like a place where several artisans sold their wares as opposed to the more commercial vendors in the bazaar.  Uh.  Sort of.  It turned out to be a carpet shop where we spent close to an hour getting a sales pitch by the guy who really, really wanted us to buy a rug from him.  He did serve us apple tea (which I loved), and more simit (which Ibi decided would make up for our disappointing morning) and the spiel was fun as carpet after carpet came flying out of the shop and plopped down on the floor in front of us.

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I don't know if anybody bought any rugs.   They were lovely, if you like Oriental rugs (I've never been a fan).  I had joked earlier that we should get a Polly sized rug for me to put across my leg to prevent her from digging her claws into my flesh.  However, the size I was thinking about had a price tag of 770 which, even if you figure that the Lire (the Turkey currency) to Doller conversion is 2 to 1, which would make this 335 dollars, it was ridiculously expensive for a joke...then I found out that the prices were in dollars, not Lire and couldn't believe it.  Some people might have bought rugs...we were with a money crowd...but it was nothing we were interested in.

While he talked, a woman sat on the floor behind him working on a rug.  I asked him after the demonstration if there was a certain amount of time that they could work before they had to take a break.  He said they work 20 minutes and then take 30 minutes off before coming back to work.  One room sized rug may take one woman a year to make, which helps explain the price!

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We were then directed to the Grand Bazaar, a couple of blocks away, and given a time to meet back at the Handicraft shop.  After our experience at the Spice Market yesterday, neither Char nor I had any desire to even enter the Grand Bazaar, so we didn't.  Instead we found a nice coffee shop with tables on the street and sat there having coffee and more baklava and watching the world pass by, including some very Turkish looking guys wearing shirts that said "baseball team" and then Los Angeles tournament, 1979.  Char spoke to one of them later and he kind of blew her off, so I guess he wasn't eager to talk about his experience playing baseball in a tournament in LA in 1979!

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After we left the cafe, Mike and Walt walked down to the Bazaar, Char came with me to a little souvenir shop across from the rug store, where I bought a few things, including apple tea, since I had enjoyed it so much at the rug store, and a few more things.  When the gal at the cash register went to add it all up, she was using her cell phone, which had a call just before she started to use it and I noticed on the screen that it showed the 49er logo.  I was exclaiming excitedly about that and trying to get a picture to show Tom, when Char noticed that on the back side of her phone was the Cal logo. The woman said her son is a 49er fan and he lives in Berkeley, apparently. We became instant buddies and she invited us to have something cold to drink, but we had to meet the group across the street in 5 minutes, so we thanked her and left.  Just a little "moment" in our day!

The group wended its way to the place where the bus awaited us and we all got on.  That was when Ibi discovered that two people were missing.  The rest of us sat on the bus (in air conditioning, fortunately) while Ibi went back to the rug store to see if they were there and to search the path to the Grand Bazaar.  He realized that finding them IN the Bazaar was impossible.  Finally he decided he had to leave and hoped that they had decided to walk to the Blue Mosque. The other passengers on the bus assured him they were "experienced travelers."   I can't imagine what goes through the mind of a tour guide who has lost two of his group!

We got to the mosque and yes, the missing couple were there.  No apologies, just said that they had decided to go ahead of the group so they could be sure to get in!

Ibi managed to get us to the front of the mosque line of people waiting for 2:45 and the opening of the building.  Great thing that was because by the time the line started moving it was so long you couldn't see the end of it.  We were among the first to enter.

This is a place where you must dress appropriately...head coverings and covered shoulders and arms for women, removal of hats for men, and removal of shoes for all.  You take a plastic bag from a machine and remove your shoes and put them in the bag and then you are inspected by people who decide if you are appropriate or not.  If women are not covered enough, they have clothes they have to put on over their own clothes.

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The mosque is beautiful.  And it is big.   I don't know what I expected, but I think I thought it was more than one big, albeit beautifully decorated room.

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Walt put it best when he remembered Fiddler on the Roof, where Motel the Tailor gets a new sewing machine and Tevye is late getting to the shop to see it.  Wife Golde is anxious to go home and tells Tevye he can see the sewing machine later. Tevye stomps his feet and says "I am going to see the machine now!," pokes his head in the shop, takes a look, comes back out again and says "OK...I've seen it..."  Kinda how we felt about the mosque.   We saw it and were ready to leave in a few minutes, once we had taken our photos.

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This may not be the best picture of Char and me ever taken...heck, it may be the worst picture of us taken, but I had not realized until I saw it later that my head covering had slipped off--and nobody seemed to notice.

Outside again, everyone sits on the steps to put their shoes back on again.

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We returned to the bus and a different couple had gone missing.  Ibi asked Alex, the youngest in the group (probably in his 20s, vacationing with his family) to take his (Ibi's) cell phone and check for the couple while Ibi went back to the mosque to check for them.  Alex found them, called Ibi and soon everybody was back on the bus again.  We returned to the hotel and had 20 minutes to get ready for our trip to Asia.

Istanbul is the only city in the world which spans two continents.  Part of the city is in Europe and the other part of the city is across the Bosphorus, in Asia. Ibi says that only 10% of the residents of Istanbul live in Europe and the other 90% live in Asia. 

We crossed this bridge from Europe to Asia.

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If you loook up at the towers to the left of the bridge, that was going to be our next stop, a placed where you could get a sweeping view of the whole area. On the top of the hill is bunch of TV towers.  Ibi says that TV is fairly recent to Istanbul, and color TV even more recent.

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The bus parked here and the group was to walk up a hill to the top to get the view. Unfortunately, it was across a lot of those "quaint cobblestones" I love so much and my foot had started sending shooting pains up my leg whenever I stepped on a stone wrong, so I decided to skip the short walk.   The group was gone a long time, during which time I occupied myself by trying to nap on my cane.  I was surrounded by food stands but couldn't buy a thing because I didn't have a penny, a hryvnia, a lire, or a euro to my name!

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The group all came back, most of them eating ice cream cones.  Walt asked if I wanted one (is the pope Catholic?) and we walked up to an ice cream stand.  I had seen the ice cream tricksters on Amazing Race and was prepared for the antics he put me through to get the cone, but was definitely NOT prepared for the ice cream.  It has the consistency of cold nougat.  It's made with dried orchid root and "mastic," which is pine flavored resin from the mastic tree, along with milk, sugar and flavorings.   It was OK, but the flavor was not very strong -- and it was the first time I had to chew my ice cream!

We drove through the Asia part of Istanbul, more a tour of neighborhoods than famous sights.  At one point in the tour, Ibi got a phone call from one of the tour guides he organizes, who said that someone on his group had been crossing the street to go to an ATM and had been hit by a car, so the guide was calling from the hospital.

We finally turned the bus back toward Europe.   It was sunset and the sky was just gorgeous.

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There were no scheduled dinners planned and we were on our own, so we decided to go to the hotel's roof restaurant with Mike and Char, and found several others from our group there.

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That's David and Jean at the end on Mike's side and Linda and Bob next to Walt.  At other tables were others from our group.  We were all saying goodbye to each other...except that most of us ended on the same bus to the airport a few hours later. 

The view from the restaurant was wonderful.

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We went back to our room after dinner to finish packing and sleep for a couple of hours.  We had to be up by 2:30 in order to get ready to go downstairs and meet Ibi for our trip top the airport.  The three days in Istanbul had passed in an eyeblink and yet we had seen and done so much. It was a city of contradictions, for me. I loved the sights of Istanbul, I hated the unending, interminable traffic.  I loved its uniqueness and hated the crowds.  I was so glad we had the opportunity to visit this extraordinary city, happy to have had a guide like Ibi, and, in all honesty, have absolutely NO desire to ever come back again.

I was already thinking about being home under a passle of dogs again and checking in with my mother.



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