In the Courtyard of the Sultan

I am back in Turkey. I arrived in Istanbul yesterday night and found a nice bed in a cool hotel in the backpacker’s part of Sultanahmet.

From the rooftop terrace, I have a view of the Hagia Sofia on my right, the Blue Mosque on my left and the Bosphorus on the back and I only pay 20YTL a day for it. I am sure even the Sultan did not have it that good from his bedroom in the Topkapi Palace just up North from here!

Today, I went on a tour of Sultanahmet which has two of the major monuments of Istanbul I just mentioned.

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I started by visiting the Hagia Sofya that used to be the largest church of the Bizantine empire and was converted to a Mosque by the Ottomans when they took the city in the 13th century. After fending off the scammers hanging out in the square separating the Hagia Sofya from the Mosque and at the entrance, I got into the monument that has been closed to all religious purpose after World War I. The first thing you notice is a huge scaffolding in the middle that seems to have been there forever. I discovered that it actually had been there for more than 20 years making it also kind of antique ;). The place is quite impressive and the restored mosaics are a sight not to be missed. It is interesting to note that the Muslims did not destroy these mosaics when they converted the place but just plastered them instead. Later on, one of the Sultans actually got two Italians to remove the plaster, restore them and reapply the plaster! I really like this story which tells a lot about the fact that the sultans did respect other religions and works of art in general.

During the visit, I did what I really like to do. I listened to the guides do their job :). It is always interesting to listen to several guides because it gives different perspectives on the same place. It is also funny to realize that sometimes they don’t have the same story and it just does not match! Especially in Egypt, it was interesting to see that some of the guides clearly did not know what they were talking about. The best is when you score a National Geographic tour guide as they are usually historians or archeologists and it is always very educative. Understanding 3 languages is definitely an advantage in this situation as I can sneak into English, French and Spanish tours. I have wished sometimes that I understood German and Italian, when the only guides around were talking these languages so it might be a good reason to push me to learn them.

Anyway, I digress! Try it for yourselves next time you go somewhere. It can be a lot of fun.

Mohammed in Arabic Allah in Arabic

So I was listening to these guides and I learned this time how the words Mohamed and Allah were written, so I can now recognize them when I get into a mosque.

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After that, I went around checking the hippodrome with its three columns and a cistern called the Basilica Cisterna. It used to provide water for the Topkapi palace located close by and it is now open to the public. Visiting it is fun and different, a bit like visiting the Catacombs in Paris.

I went around a bit more but it was so hot that I retreated to the hotel! I hung out there for a while until the sun got a bit lower. I then decided to resume my tour by going to visit the less important sites of Sultanahmet. It seems not many people do that and I found myself out of the beaten path. The Constantine Column was hidden by a scaffolding so no luck there.


It took me some time to find the Mehmet Pasa Mosque which was actually closed with no tourists in sight. I checked out the outside and was leaving when a guy came by and opened the door for me. He told me not a lot of people were visiting the place and they closed the doors to prevent looting. I understood the precaution when I saw the interior with very fine Iznik tiles. Also, they have this small piece of green stone that is supposed to come from the Kabaa in Mecca. No pictures allowed though so you won’t see it here!

The last place I wanted to visit was the Church of Sergius and Bacchus located South of the district. I kind of got lost when looking for it. At this time I met two female tourists that seem to be lost and a bit concerned as well. It is true that we were not in the touristy part of the district anymore and the place looked more like Middle-East to me than Europe with almost only men in the streets. And in this situation, two blonde girls cannot go unnoticed. The girls had a good map so we managed to find out where we were and where they should go. I also tried to make them feel better about the situation.

I walked around some more but could not find the church so I ended up watching a soccer game between some Turkish teenagers for 20 minutes. It is funny how a soccer game looks the same in every country! I guess disputes, unfair plays and fights on the field are universal. And it is not the behavior of some of the star players that will help make things better!

I finally found the church but it was being renovated so it was closed to the public! It is funny how one can get frustrated when a monument is closed or hidden behind scaffolding.

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Later, I decided to visit the Blue Mosque since it is open all day. It was peaceful as most of the tourists had deserted the place and only a handful of faithful tourists were there.

Well, this whole tour allowed me to finally get an authentic feel for the real Sultanahmet as I was starting to get the impression it was only inhabited by tourists and backpackers!

At the end of the day I went back to my rooftop terrace. The Blue Mosque on my left and the Hagia Sofia on my right were completely floodlit with scores of seagulls playing and bathing in the light. It makes for a great sight. I loved it. Yes, I am now sure the Sultan did not have it that good!

1 thought on “In the Courtyard of the Sultan

  1. So can you put a picture of how you write Mohamed and Allah ?

    you guys should go check out the pictures, there is a girl in a green dress….

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