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FLORENCE     Florence –  the capital of the Tuscany region and the cradle of Renaissance   We opted for Flix Bus while traveling from Venice to Florence. The road journey takes about three and a half-hour. In Florence, it terminates at the rear end of Santa Maria Novella (SMN) train station. One of Italy’s busiest stations, it got its name from Santa Maria Novella Church just across the plaza from the main entrance. We debarked at the station and refreshed ourselves at McDonald's before hiring a cab for our hotel. Florence, popularly known as ‘Firenze’ by the Italians, is located in central Italy. This dreamy city with a romantic name is the regional capital of the lovely Tuscany region.   Columbus Hotel, where we stayed, is located in Lugarno District. We always prefer to book our hotels through Booking.com as we always land up getting good hotels at good locations. Despite being a little away from the heart of the city and Santa Maria Novella station


ISTANBUL                                                                                                                                                                          (Part II)  

Istanbul is believed to have been inhabited since 5500 BC. Being strategically located on the Mediterranean, it was vulnerable to invaders from different countries in Asia and Europe who periodically occupied Istanbul from time to time. The first recorded occupation had taken place in the late seventh century BC when the Greek ruler Byzas established his kingdom here and named it Byzantium. Emperor Constantine the Great of Rome conquered the place in 306 AD and renamed it Constantinople. He also made it the capital of the second Roman Empire.  He was the first Roman Emperor who devoted in spreading Christianity in his empire and was sometimes referred as Saint. Tradition and ethnicity make the city so unique that one is bound to brush with History at every nook and corner of the city. The way the major heritage sites have been maintained is really commendable.

The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s brilliant novel ‘My Name is Red’ paints a vivid picture of Istanbul during Ottomans rule in the late sixteenth century. It is a thrilling murder mystery and takes place during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III (1574 – 95).The story revolves around miniaturists, artists who used to paint and embellish books and manuscripts. The highly skilled amongst them were hired at Sultan’s workshop and were paid highly in silver coins. The unique style in his writing is that the entire book is in first person and how each individual including a dog   saw and felt about Istanbul during that period. Through their eyes there are mentions of narrow alleys, ornate horse drawn carriages, dervish houses and even coffee houses. One could find mentions of Golden Horn, Suleymanye Mosque, Farrier’s Market also. The following passage in the book describes the beauty and exotic nature of the city during that period.
‘I ended up watching the snow as it fell into the Golden Horn from a spot beside the Suleymanye Mosque. Snow had already begun to accumulate on the rooftops facing north and on sections of the dome exposed to the northeasterly breeze. An approaching ship, whose sails were being lowered, greeted me with a flutter of canvas. The color of the sails matched the leaden and foggy hue of the surface of the Golden Horn. The cypress and plane trees ,the rooftops, the heartache of dusk, the sounds coming from the neighbourhood below, the calls of hawkers and cries of children playing in mosque courtyards mingled in my head and announced emphatically that,hereafter,I wouldn’t be able to live anywhere but in their city.
So vivid and convincing is the description that when I walked the streets of Istanbul I was taken on a time machine and could visualize how the city looked and behaved over four hundred years back.

Suleymanye Mosque mentioned in the passage was constructed in the 1550s by Suleymanye the magnificent. Today it is the second largest mosque in Istanbul and one can get a good view of the mosque from Galata Tower. The building is a blend of Islamic and Byzantine architecture as the supporting half domes are similar to Hagia Sophia which was a Byzantine Church and later converted to mosque of ‘Aya Sofia’ by the Ottomans. In 1935 the mosque was converted into a museum by Kemal Pasha to bring in secularism to perhaps the oldest surviving basilica.

Hagia Sophia

The six paintings shown above  decorate the wall in the passageway to Aya Sofia and recount the history of the cathedral turned mosque,Constantinople and Istanbul

Map of Istanbul during Emperor Constantine's rule

Aya Sofia ceiling
Islamic calligraphy in Aya Sofia
Another view of Aya Sofia interior

Christian mosaic which remained unplastered due to inaccessible height when the church was converted into a mosque

Inside Aya Sofia

Islamic worship area

Islamic add on in Aya Sofia

Christian mosaic

A marble jar inside Aya Sofia

The pathway inside Aya Sofia was constructed to enable horses come inside

Another view of Aya Sofia
A closer view of a ruined structure

Islamic worship area
Christian mosaics from the time when Aya Sophia was a cathedral
Islamic calligraphy and Christian mosaic in Aya Sophia
A view from the top

Some broken structures from the Roman era at Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia)
One has to buy entry ticket for going inside the museum. This magnificent architectural piece was built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I in the fifth century AD to serve as a medieval Church and remained the largest Cathedral in the world till 1520. By that time the Ottoman Turks had already occupied the city and settled down after it was wrested from the Romans by Sultan Mehmet II in the mid fifteenth century. The city of Constantinople was renamed as Istanbul and Hagia Sophia Church was overnight converted into Aya Sofia Mosque. This happened to be the first mosque in Istanbul. As I entered the interior of this magnificent cathedral I was awed by the height of the central dome which must have been around 250 feet. The whole interior was a display of granite, marbles and mosaics. It is difficult to imagine how the tall granite columns survived the ravages of fire and earthquakes right from the fifth century AD. That is why Emperor Justinian, who had overseen the completion of this great cathedral, was said to have proclaimed ‘Solomon I have outdone thee!’ The temple passed through a lot of destructions and restoration over the centuries. One of the most striking features inside is that there is balance of Islamic calligraphic and art alongside mosaics depicting Christian saints. When the mosque was converted into a museum the restorers uncovered a lot of Christian demographic mosaics which were said to have been covered with plasters during the Ottoman regime. There are huge chandeliers of pendant type in which are now fitted with modern day electric lamps. So as soon as one enters inside he or she is greeted by these glittering chandeliers. Outside one could also find some huge columns of typical Roman design which might have broken during the earthquakes.
It is said that the Roman Emperors were fond of building Squares bearing their names on the main thoroughfare. These squares used to be equidistantly located and decorated with monuments and surrounded by various buildings. The first square on the main road assumed special significance for being surrounded by the Great Palace, Hippodrome and Hagia Sophia. Known as Sultahnahmet Square it was earlier known as Agusteion Square. Among the surviving squares Forum of Constantine can also be seen on the same road. This square was built by Emperor Constantine, the founder of Constantinople. After coming out of Hagia Sophia if you turn left and walk seaward along the Sultahnahmet Square you will come to an open air café on your right. On turning left from there , a brief stroll along shops selling Turkish handicrafts will take you to the main gate of famous Topkapi Palace – a Royal township built by the Ottoman Sultans over the years and used as their main administrative centre for almost 400 years. Started by Sultan Mehmet (Mehmet the Conqueror) the palace was completed after his death. Buildings were added over the centuries by different rulers of Ottoman regime. That’s why I called it a township. More so because unlike any other palace I have seen this one has a cluster of buildings of simple design nestled  in  sprawling courtyards and surrounded by gardens. The entire compound stands on a hillock providing a commanding view of the Sea of Marmara. Since potable water used to be a scarcity in Istanbul the Turks had put up a lot of fountains as they always believed that running water provides cleaner water in contrast to Romans’ concept of building cisterns during the Byzantine era. One such famous fountain the ‘Fountain of Sultan Ahmed III’ can be seen at Topkapi Palace. As Istanbul was a favourite location of Ian Fleming, the sixties James Bond movie ‘From Russia with Love’ renamed ‘From 007 with Love’ was partly shot in the famous Basilica Cistern.Even the latest Bond movie Sky Fall, released in 2012, was shot in Istanbul.In fact the movie opens with a thrilling chase scene through historic streets of Istanbul. Daniel Craig,as Bond, is also shown biking through the interior of Grand Bazaar which happens to be the oldest and largest covered bazaar in the world. 
As we walked towards the palace compound we saw the Church of Hagia Eirene one of the first churches built during the reign of Emperor Constantine. Then in one of the courtyards we found centuries old hollow trees and tulips in bloom. I always carried an impression that Holland is the land of tulips. But Istanbul completely broke the myth and later on I found out from one of their tourist brochure that the first tulip bulbs were sent abroad from Istanbul in the Ottoman period.  We bought tickets and self audio guide to enter the palace courtyard which is surrounded by residences for Sultans, the Royal staff , palace kitchens with tall chimneys, a hospital, harems ,the mint and the treasury, mosques etc in other word a township with all infrastructure and amenities for the Royal families and their staff. Most of the buildings and rooms have now been converted into museum where we saw large collection of robes and ceremonial garments used during different periods, weapons, shields, armours, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, murals, Ottoman treasures, jewellery and thrones. One such throne saddened me as the throne was robbed by the butcher Nadir Shah when he plundered Delhi during the Mughal period and gifted to a Sultan when he came to Istanbul. Another thing which kept me wondering were the gigantic sizes of some of the robes. The last exhibition hall which I visited is a place where all sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammed, the door keys of the Kaaba in Mecca and so on. When you enter this hall you would hear passages from Holy Koran being chanted and this is on for 24 hours. After that we entered the last courtyard of the palace. From there we enjoyed the panoramic view of the sea, the metro running at the bottom and a bistro at a higher level. We enjoyed the mellowed heat of the evening sun and the gentle sea breeze as we walked back through the sprawling gardens and courtyards  after leaving the Royal walls.

Outside the main gate of Top Kapi

Birds in Top Kapi compound. Sparrows are larger in size compared to the Indian Sparrows.

Two street dogs caught playing in Top Kapi compound. An unusual sight in an European city as we did not see street dogs in any of the other European cities we visited.

A view of busy Sea of Marmara from Top Kapi

Top Kapi Palace

A garden in Top Kapi

A Bistro in Top Kapi
A Policewoman manning Museum Entrance

Self audio guide counter at Top Kapi

Another view of a Top Kapi Garden

Inside Chamber of Islamic relics

Carpet from Ottoman era

Sultan's robe

Robes from Sultan's wardrobe

Way to Top Kapi Palace
Top Kapi palace compound

A view of Marmara sea from Top Kapi palace
Tulips on way from Top Kapi Palace and Roman Quarters to Arasta Bazaa

After a hearty breakfast on the cozy terrace of Ida Hotel we decided to visit Blue Mosque. Coming out of the hotel we turned left, sauntered a few yards on the cobbled path of Cankurtaran Mh. And then the first right hand turn brought us to Arasta market which was about a stone’s throw. At the dead end of the market there were steps which lead to the colossal but grandiose Blue Mosque. I remember that during my childhood days I was awed by the beautiful pictures of Blue Mosque and learnt that the mosque is located in the city of Istanbul. In fact the mosque symbolizes Istanbul as nowhere else on the planet one could find a mosque so different in looks. The mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet in the early seventeenth century and because of the priceless blue tiles used extensively for building the mosque it is popularly known as the Blue Mosque. The grandeur of the mosque is in its architecture. Shallow domes cascading down on either side of the central dome like ripples present a stunningly awesome view. The interior of the mosque is equally awesome. Entry is free and one has to take off shoes and carry them in  plastic bags provided by the staff over there. Women have to cover their heads for entering inside. The entire floor inside the mosque is covered with rich red carpet. Billions of footfalls have taken place over the centuries but the carpet looks immaculate. Even the color has not faded a bit. We also saw the prayer which took place at the cordoned off central portion of the interior. After exiting the mosque we came to the beautiful courtyard where Sultan Ahmet’s tomb is located. The garden at the courtyard also blooms with tulip. From there we came out to the huge park of Sultahnahmet Square and relaxed with a cup of tea and enjoyed the majestic view of the mosque which was a dream come true for us.
Way to Blue Mosque through Arasta Bazaar

Blue Mosque

Courtyard in Blue Mosque premises

Ceiling in Blue Mosque

Islamic calligraphy in Blue Mosque

A portion of carpet which is laid in the entire area inside Blue Mosque

Prayer area inside Blue Mosque

A portion of decorative ceiling in Blue Mosque

Inside Blue Mosque

Glazed fenestration with artwork in Blue Mosque


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Latika Dhar said…
Enjoyed reading your blog on Turkey and Istanbul.
What a wonderful city with layers of history built in to its buildings
What a wonderful city like bakalava built in layers
It seems that you had a wonderful time in Istanbul. It is such a dazzling city. We enjoyed our time there too, so much to see and eat :)

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