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Whew, we’ve got a few cities to get through today in order to get caught up, so expect a couple more posts later today. For now, though, we start in Istanbul, Turkey.

After grabbing some breakfast aboard the ship, we made our way through the port terminal to join our tour group to see a few wonders of the seat of power in the eastern Roman Empire, which managed to outlast the western Roman Empire by a solid thousand years.

We made straight for the Blue Mosque and Hippodrome at the top of the old city on the western side of the city. The Blue Mosque is a fully functioning mosque today, so we started by removing our shoes before being allowed to enter. Once inside it back obvious why the building is called the Blue Mosque. There are tens of thousands of blue and white tiles decorating the interior of the mosque, with multiple domes and large pillars for support. Large wrought iron light fixtures (chandelier-ish, actually) hang from the ceiling to provide light. It was really impressive.

Outside, the tour guide told us that there are six spires, where the imams used to lead prayer for the surrounding area from a total of 14 platforms. Both of those numbers relate to the sultan who built the mosque. He was the sixth sultan, and took power at 14 years of age. However, 14 wasn’t so lucky of a number for him, as he died 14 years later at the age of 28.

After the Blue Mosque, we walked to the Hippodrome, an area that was once used for chariot races and large political gatherings while the Romans ruled the city. It’s currently a green space with a small bazaar and a few monuments, including an Egyptian obelisk that was moved to Istanbul during Roman rule. The obelisk, seen in a photo at the top of the post, is more than 4,500 years old, but is in much better shape than many newer buildings and monuments we’ve seen. Apparently, this is because the obelisk is made of pink marble, which stands the test of time quite well.

We made our way from the Hippodrome toward the Hagia Sophia Museum. Just outside the museum is a small pillar signifying the very center of the eastern Roman Empire. Distance to every other place in the empire was measured from this stone.

The Hagia Sophia started life as a Christian basilica when the Romans ruled the city. However, after the Ottoman Turks took control of the city it was converted to a mosque. Usually in a case like this any Christian artwork in the building would be destroyed. However, the sultan really respected the Christian art and didn’t want to see it destroyed, so he ordered it to be covered with wood or metal, or even plastered over, but left otherwise intact. This would satisfy the Muslim requirement that there be no depictions of people in the mosque, but would leave the many beautiful mosaics depicting Jesus intact underneath. Once the Ottoman Empire gave way to democracy, the building was converted to a museum, and some of the coverings were removed to show the underlying Christian artwork. It’s now a tapestry of both Christian and Muslim paintings and mosaics. Overall, we gained a great amount of respect for the Turks while in Istanbul in this regard. Time and a again, they respected other cultures and religions enough to preserve their artifacts and art.

Bonus tidbit: The mirrored marble panels adorning the walls of the Hagia Sophia were cut using silk threads. Can’t begin to imagine how long that took.

A short drive later we arrived at a local Turkish carpet store. Once inside we were immediately offered a warm apple tea, as is customary when being hosted by someone in Turkey. While they were fetching the tea, we got to watch an artist (and they truly are artists) make a silk rug. The rug she was making had approximately one million knots tied per square meter, all done by hand. Even though her hands were a blur, a decent sized rug would be expected to take several years to complete.

After the demonstration, those of us brave enough to try it were given raki, a traditional Turkish liquor. Raki is very similar to Greek ouzo, a potent anise flavored drink. It’s milky white (probably why it’s referred to as lion’s milk) and tastes like black licorice. However, I found the raki to be much smoother than ouzo, despite being just as strong. While ouzo was a bit harsh for my taste, I’d drink raki again in a heartbeat.

We were then shown several dozen beautiful rugs in several styles, colors, and materials. One interesting aspect of the rugs is that they change color based in which direction you view them from, especially when new. Pale blues would become deeper turquoise. Bright reds would turn a darker burgundy. It was really cool.

After the demonstration it was of course time to sic the salesmen on us. Every group of people was given an individual helper to assist them in finding the right rug, since there were thousands of rugs spread over many floors of the building. We eventually narrowed it down to two choices, a black and a red one in a very soft type of cotton (those silk ones in any usable size would quickly outpace the cost of the entire honeymoon!). After some haggling, we came away with……both! We’re kicking ourselves for not taking a photo to show you here, but once we get back to the States I’ll toss another post up with pictures for you to see.

With carpets in hand, we headed to the Grand Bazaar, the largest bazaar in Turkey with more than 4000 shops. Dawin and I were expecting an outdoor market, but the bazaar was actually an enclosed maze of hallways with small tiny shops along the sides, like an incredibly large mall with very small stores. We were there for an hour or two and saw hundreds of shops, but even that was only a fraction of what was there. In the end, we came away with a nice glass mosaic lamp, a scarf for Dawin, a bowl, a magnet, and a cool little wooden top (I couldn’t help myself) all of which involved significant haggling. It’s a really tiring way of shopping if you’re not used to it.

We escaped the bazaar, grabbed some delicious spiced lamb and curried chicken for a very late lunch, then headed back to the ship.

Next stop: Kusadasi and the ruins of Ephesus.