Istanbul isn’t all mosques, despite what you may have heard. It’s also historic bazaars; countless structures, new, old, and ancient; incredible food; streetcars (see the tracks in the next photo); and everything else 14 million people need.
There are a lot of mosques. Flying over any Turkish town or city you’ll be struck by the sheer number of mosques poking up out of every neighborhood. The architecture ranges from ancient to modern, but the minarets are always a giveaway.
Not everyone goes to a mosque. Just like European and North American cities, Istanbul is co-habited more or less peacefully – notwithstanding the recent terrorist atrocities – between religious and non-religious people.
I like this image of a simit vendor – simit is a traditional bread shaped into a circle, sold all over the city – and a man hauling a load of (I think) plastic-packed carpets in front of a big mosque. (And if anyone can tell me the name of this mosque, please leave a comment below this article.)
Having seen the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, we spent the next day walking about the city, visiting the great bazaars and some other historic mosques and just getting the lay of the land. The Spice Bazaar is a marvelous emporium of spices, teas, food, and assorted other goods.
A substantial spread of bustling commerce, it’s more manageable than the tremendous Grand Bazaar, which we plunged into later. First, two more historic mosques.
The Rüstem Pasha Mosque is one of the landmarks left by Ottoman imperial architect Mimar Sinan. Sinan built it in the early 1560s after the death of the grand vizier Rüstem Pasha, a son-in-law of Suleiman the Magnificent.
The Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque may be the most famous structures in Istanbul, and they are certainly spectacular, but I was more taken with the largest purpose-built mosque in the city: The Süleymaniye Mosque, another of Sinan’s masterpieces, was built in the 1550s at the command of Süleyman the Magnificent.
It’s not just a mosque but a world unto itself, a world of the living and the dead, a complex that included schools, baths, a public kitchen that served the poor, and more.
As in other mosques, visitors stay out of the main area reserved for prayer, keeping to a back section. There are wooden cubbies for storing your shoes, which you must take off before entering. Mosques that are major tourist sites supply plastic bags for this purpose.
The most honored of the noble dead have hallowed places in special shrines.
The interior tile work is as ornate and beautiful as anywhere in Turkey.
The interiors of the domes are spectacular as well.
For a drastic change from the hushed interior of the Süleymaniye Mosque, nothing could beat the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı), one of Istanbul’s must-sees just for its sheer hugeness. It’s really a whole covered neighborhood of streets (the map looks just like a neighborhood map) jammed with some 5,000 shops.
Dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, the Grand Bazaar has been a central marketplace for centuries. Today’s vendors sell every kind of beautiful thing, from furniture, carpets, and clocks to jewelry, prayer beads, and ceramics, all under ornately patterned arched ceilings.
The Grand Bazaar also includes hamams, cafés, and restaurants. And it contains multitudes. On our visit, though, the crowds were not overwhelming, partly because the ways are wide, maybe also because the place is just so expansive. As malls go, the Istanbul Grand Bazaar is at the majestic extreme.
One passageway was lined with Turkish flags. I don’t know if these expressions of patriotism are always out. Back in Cappadocia we had seen many flags come out in response to the bombing that occurred while we were there, which now, sadly, we have to refer to as the first Ankara bombing.
Outside the walls of the Bazaar there’s yet more commerce.
A bearded man was selling art by a tremendous tree.
Yours truly, an Old English Major, was naturally partial to the Old Book Bazaar.
Speaking of books, nearby is Istanbul University, established in 1453, where you can study everything from Medicine to Transportation and Logistics to Ataturk’s Principles and Reforms.
I envied these rooftop construction workers their roc‘s-eye view of the whole crazy scene.
In the next installment: The Dolmabahçe Palace and the Bosphorus, waterway between continents.
To be continued.
All photos © Jon Sobel and Elisa Peimer, Critical Lens Media