Istanbul’s Sunday covid curfew, excluding tourists, lasts all day, so it’s a perfect time to explore the massive city with less-crowded streets. The weather was fantastic, and I spent the day walking in Galata, Fatih, and Sultanahmet, enjoying streetart, Galata Tower, Fatih Mosque, the Spice Bazaar, and Hagia Sophia.
Understanding Istanbul’s neighborhoods, quarters, and districts gets confusing, so I’ll try to define the areas visited. Some still baffle me. Galata is a quarter within the Beyoğlu district. It’s on the northern shore of the Golden Horn, connected to Fatih by two bridges – Sultan Mehmet and Old Galata.
Most shops near Galata Tower were closed, so I was able to take pictures of graffiti on roll-up doors normally not visible when open. People have mixed feelings about graffiti, but it’s prolific throughout Galata.
The Galata Convent of Whirling Dervishes is a favorite attraction. Watching “Dervishes hypnotically spinning in deep prayer” is an incredible experience! Nearby Mevlevi Sema Ceremony “shows groups of men whirling in a trance-like state to the sound of ululating, sonorous, Islamic hymns”. During a previous visit, I viewed Dervishes performing at the HodjaPasha Culture Center.
“A Byzantine Artifact from 528, Galata Tower is one of the oldest towers in the world. Originally built by Byzantine Emperor Anastasius as a lighthouse, it’s been damaged and repaired many times and was almost completely destroyed during the Crusades in 1204. The Genoese repaired it in 1348.”
Historically, Galata Tower has had many uses, including a “shelter for prisoners of war in the 16th century, an observatory, and a fire tower”. A storm leveled the cone in 1875. Repair was “completed in 1967, giving the tower its current appearance”.
As a well-known symbol of Istanbul, Galata Tower is the subject of fascinating legends. In one, “Galata Tower and Maiden’s Tower are in love with each other, but the Bosphorus Strait between them prevents the lovers from meeting”. During a previous visit, I climbed Galata Tower to enjoy stunning panoramic views of Istanbul and the Bosphorus. This time, I’m admiring the tower from cafés below.
Fatih municipality is Istanbul’s capital district. It “hosts the provincial authorities, including the governor’s office, police headquarters, tax office, and fire department.” Fatih includes Eminönü district, and is bordered by the Golden Horn to the north, Theodosian Walls to the west, Sea of Marmara to the south, and Bosphorus Strait to the east.
Fatih is a unique, diverse community. Istanbul University and the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Church of St. George are located there. Fatih’s Çarşamba quarter, known for “bearded men wearing heavy coats, traditional baggy shalwar trousers, and Islamic turbans,” is part of Balat, the traditional Jewish quarter. Women of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order dressed in full black gowns are also a common site.
My main purpose for visiting Fatih was exploring the Spice Bazaar. With the covid curfew, it was quiet and a completely different experience when compared to my first visit in 2013. Located in Fatih’s Eminönü quarter, it’s one of Istanbul’s largest bazaars, and the hawkers are super aggressive. I didn’t buy anything, and must plan purchases carefully, or send boxes back to the US to avoid exceeding strict airline weight limits. Exceeding them is costly!
The bazaar is “the center for spice trade in Istanbul, but in recent years, other shops began replacing spice sellers. Spice Bazaar has 85 shops selling spices, Turkish delight, jewelry, souvenirs, nuts, and dried fruits. I stumbled upon a small pet shop near the entrance to the bazaar halls, and saw an adorable kitten. The Spice Bazaar building is part of Yeni Valid (Fatih) Mosque complex. Historically, “revenues from the bazaar’s rented shops were used to pay for mosque upkeep”.
Yeni Valide (Fatih) Mosque
Fatih Mosque, aka Yeni Valid, is an Ottoman imperial mosque. It’s situated on the Golden Horn, at the southern end of Galata Bridge. The area was once Istanbul’s prime commercial center, and home to a predominantly Jewish population. By situating the mosque there, “Safiye Sultan, a young Venetian woman, hoped to extend the sphere of Islamic influence within the city”.
Construction began in the early 1600s, was abandoned for political reasons, and completed years later in 1663. Stone blocks from the Greek Island Rhodes were used to build Fatih Mosque.
The exterior of the beautiful mosque has 66 domes and semi domes in a pyramidal arrangement and 2 minarets. Imperial mosques in Istanbul have courtyards on their west side. I stopped for a breather and enjoyed sitting in the quiet, peaceful garden near flowers and several beautiful fountains. The mosque’s central hall is undergoing restoration. I didn’t go inside.
My main reason for visiting Sultanahmet was to spend time at magnificent Hagia Sophia. Sultanahmet district is the heart of historic old Istanbul and most of the major tourist sites are located there – Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Byzantine Hippodrome, Basilica Cistern, and the Archeological Museum. I stayed in Sultanahmet during my first visit to Istanbul in 2013 and have seen most of these attractions. Hawkers in the area are vicious and expert at spotting vulnerable tourists! Visitors should beware of scams. Unbelievably, someone attempted to pull the “shoe shine scam” on me! I gave them my best “really” look.
“The reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is hardly a radical act. Given its complex history, the extraordinary edifice has the potential to support multiple religious practices.”
Hagia Sophia – aka the Great Holy Mosque of Ayasofya and formerly the Church of Hagia Sophia – was built in 537 as the largest Christian church of the eastern Roman Empire. The church passed hands many times, from the Roman Empire, to Constantinople, and the Ottomans. It was converted into a mosque and later established as a museum by the secular Turkish Republic. In 2020, after eight decades as a museum, Hagia Sophia re-opened as a mosque. The announcement that Hagia Sophia was to be “reconverted” from a museum into a mosque was followed by both an “outpouring of dismay and an upswell of enthusiasm”.
The sixth-century structure’s “resilience” over the centuries is “due to uninterrupted recognition of its unique qualities and rich aura of symbolic associations”. It’s a “living monument and collective house of worship for the communities it serves”.
Architectural, political, and monumental issues aside, Sophia Hagia is a magnificent structure! Inside, the powerful atmosphere is peaceful and spiritual. Hagia Sophia will always be my favorite place in Istanbul!
Interior Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque
It’s interesting to note that the USS Laboon, a US Navy destroyer, crossed through the Bosphorus and entered the Black Sea on June 11. I saw the battleship while on a ferry and took pictures.