Night location: Istanbul, Turkey
This morning we decided that our first destination would be the Suleymaniye Mosque. En-route to the mosque we walked straight through the heart of The Grand Bazaar which was actually a lot more grand than either of us had anticipated. It was not yet packed with tour groups so we could appreciate the shop fronts and arched ceiling in a more leisurely fashion. There are clearly different zones of the bazaar set up selling everything from shoes to glass tea sets to diamond necklaces to decorative rugs.
Suleymaniye Mosque is considered to be the greatest mosque in Istanbul. Built between 1550 and 1557 to supersede the Hagia Sophia as a symbol of Islamic superiority, the internal space is 3422 meters squared with the central dome towering over the large, light filled open area reserved for prayer. Low lying chandeliers dangled over a plush red carpeted space and beautiful Arabic calligraphy adorned the pillars and the centres of the domes.
Being on one of the seven hills of Istanbul, the views across the Bosphorus to both the other European side and the Asian side of the city were fantastic. From here we walked back down the hill, through the magnificent Egyptian Spice Bazaar with its vast array of Turkish delight, baklava, tea and spices, to a cafe that sold excellent iced lattes. It was here while we sat on an outdoor window seat with a view of the water that we decided to go for a ferry ride across the strait to visit the Dolmabahce Palace.
In the mid nineteenth century, it was decided that Topkapi Palace was outdated and that a new palace should be built on the waterfront. The facade of the palace looks very European in comparison to Topkapi and we reflected that it reminded us of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. It was lived in by the Sultans and their wives, families and concubines from 1856 until 1924 and then after the foundation of the Republic, Ataturk stayed in the palace intermittently for four years until he passed away in one of the rooms in 1938. It was used as a Presidential house until 1949 and then opened to the public in 1984.
The palace is divided into three sections being the administrative part, the privy chambers or Harem, and the Grand Ceremonial Hall. It has 285 rooms, 44 halls, 68 toilets and 6 Turkish baths, covering an area of 14,595 meters squared. We were not allowed to take photos inside (which stopped no one but us law abiding Australians), but the grandeur was almost beyond comprehension. Crystal was used lavishly, not only on monolithic chandeliers, but also above fireplaces, on freestanding lamps and on stunning winding staircase balustrades. By far the most impressive space was the Grand Ceremonial Hall which was gargantuan and felt more like a mosque than a room. The domed ceiling was painted to create the illusion of even more space with windows painted to imitate the sky. Foreign dignitaries from any country on earth would be impressed with the artistry and wealth of this nation. Sadly, the extravagant cost of this building almost bankrupted the empire which contributed to its ultimate downfall.
After a short rest we caught the tram back to the other side of the city, crossing the Galata Bridge and arriving back at Sultanahmet just before the Blue Mosque was to be reopened after the afternoon prayers. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque to westerners due to its stunning blue painted tiles, was built between 1609 and 1617. While the majority of this mosque was undergoing a huge restoration, the back and one side of the internal space was not under scaffolding and we could clearly see why this has become such a famous tourist site. Hand painted ceramic tiles cover the walls, arches and pillars, the floral patterns representing the spring or the gardens of Paradise. We were really impressed with the beauty of this space, and we can only imagine how stunning it must be without the scaffolding to be able to appreciate the large central domed area.