Sultans, Palaces and Turkish Apple Tea

These last few weeks have gone by so fast! At the very end of February, I went on the optional trip with CYA to Istanbul, Turkey. We got up at the crack of dawn (to be at the academic center at 4 am!) and got into Istanbul in the morning only to hit the ground running. We were introduced to the city with a tour of Dolma Bahce palace, or one of the most important administrative centers of the Ottoman Empire. Even though we were all pretty tired, it was impossible not to be awestruck by the intricate, and larger-than-life design and decorations. Picture a mix between pictures you have seen of the inside of the titanic and the castle in Beauty and the Beast. We ended the night with a large, family-style Turkish meal, which was absolutely delicious! The food in Turkey is actually pretty similar to Greek food, except the Turks tend to put more spices in their dishes, which I love!
The next day was completely action packed and exhausting but incredible at the same time. I could write a short novel on everything we did, but, to keep this post reasonable a length, I will just give you some of the highlights. We started the day by going to the Blue Mosque, which had such a different feeling than the Ottoman-period Orthodox churches we had seen the day before. For one thing, rather than all the icons and gold mosaics that cover the walls of churches, decorations in the mosque were totally aniconic, or without any images of people. Instead, tiles with beautiful blue Arabic letters and vine-inspired designs spanned from floor to ceiling. It was beautiful to see a building with such a unique design.
Next up was the famous Hagia Sophia, which began as an ancient church when Turkey was part of the Byzantine empire, and was later converted into a mosque with the transition to the Muslim Ottoman empire. We could feel a nearly palpable tension between cultures as we walked around the massive building. Stunning gold mosaics picturing Christ and Mary appeared in tangent to equally beautiful Arabic calligraphy and excerpts from the Koran. After visiting the site, I would describe the Hagia Sophia as a church in an identity crisis; both the Christians and the Muslims lay claim to it, so today it is neither church nor mosque, but a neutral museum with an interesting blend of two very different cultures.
Some other interesting places we stopped were the location of the ancient hippodrome (or chariot track), an underground cistern and the Topkapi palace, which used to house the Ottoman Sultans. The museums in the Topkapi were particularly incredible, containing the crown jewels of the Ottoman sultans with their gem-incrusted weapons and furniture.
That night, we decided to check out a traditional Turkish bathhouse (sort of like a Turkish spa, but based to an ancient Turkish tradition. We had a bit of a crazy experience driving through a riot to get there, but once we arrived, our group was greeted by a wonderful group of Turkish woman who spoke only Turkish. I would definitely recommend the Turkish bath experience for anyone wanting to get a real cultural experience.
Sunday, our last day in Turkey, we visited the renowned Turkish markets which are both a shoppers dream and a complete sensory overload. Everywhere you look, store owners are calling you or trying to entice you into their store. Everyone calls you “friend” and promises the best prices “just for you.” As overwhelming as the market is, the prices are much lower than anything you can find in America, as long as you can perfect the survival skill of the market: haggling. Between my friends and I, we all purchased many of the main Turkish market specialties, including the delicious Turkish apple tea, silk scarves, Turkish delight, and beautiful, hand painted ceramic ware. We finished our trip by taking a 2-hour boat trip up and down the Baltic, or the body of water separating the European part of Turkey from the Asian part.
After the whirlwind weekend, our group returned to Athens, completely exhausted but so thankful for everything we got to see and do in Istanbul.

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