Continuing with the lockdown armchair travel memories, and T is for Turkey. We’ve been there a couple of times on cruises, and we had a week in Istanbul in the late 90s, but I can’t find any of the photos from that holiday. So these pictures are from a day spent in Istanbul during an Eastern Mediterranean cruise in March 2012, concentrating on The Main Sights. So, what do you think of, when you think of Istanbul? Probably one of two places, depending on whether you’re Team Blue Mosque…
Or Team Aya Sofya
It’s a tough call. From the photos, you’d always say the Blue Mosque, but when you’re inside the Aya Sofya, it takes your breath away. We took a tram from near the port into the centre of the city, and headed straight away for the central complex that houses both these magnificent buildings, plus the ancient hippodrome.
I’m not sure Constantine would remember it looking like this, mind. OK, let’s head straight for the Blue Mosque.
Really the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, built between 1609 – 1616.
One of the five mosques in Turkey that has six minarets, apparently.
It’s a big tourist favourite, but is primarily a working mosque. It has a relatively small courtyard fountain.
Delightful from the outside…
But its beauty really hits you inside!
Look at that amazing decorated ceiling!
It really is the definition of breathtaking.
It’s beautifully lit too
And the calligraphy is stunning
The pictures tell their own story.
A brilliant place. After the Blue Mosque, we decided to find the Basilica Cistern, a favourite place of ours from our previous visit.
It’s called the Basilica Cistern, because it was built underneath a basilica in the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.
It’s an incredibly dramatic and moody place, enhanced by the lighting
With just a little water in there to make some extra-dramatic reflections.
There are two columns topped with Medusa heads
Or, rather, upside down! It’s a dark and haunting place
But, being Istanbul, you’re never too far from a spot of commercialism…
That’s so out of place! Anyway we left the Cistern and returned to the other end of the main square to see the Aya Sofya.
Or Hagia Sophia, if you prefer. It’s been a Roman Catholic cathedral, then it was converted to a mosque, and then in 1935 it was turned into a museum – which is how we saw it. But in 2020 it became a mosque again.
Those colours are extraordinary!
Just take it all in….
The immaculate marbled floor is apparently now covered by carpet
There’s a stunning minbar
Fabulous tiled walls
Ramps lead up to an upper floor
From where you get this great view!
And you can get a closer look at some of the detail
You’re also closer to the mosaics – this is the Deësis mosaic
The Comnenus mosaic dates from 1122
The Empress Zoe mosaic is even earlier
Southwestern entrance mosaic dates from the reign of Basil II (958-1025)
The Aya Sofya even has nice doors!
And a look out of its upper floor windows reveals a fascinating collection of domes!
Yes, I think I am still Team Aya Sofya. Other interesting sights include the Egyptian Obelisk
With its intricate base
And the Serpentine Column
Shoppers, of course, head for the Grand Bazaar
A massive covered market, probably the best I’ve ever visited
It’s a maze where you can easily get lost
You’ll get invited in by the shopkeepers to share a “no-obligation” cup of apple tea
If you believe “no-obligation”, you’ll believe anything!
Great place for lighting
We had a quick walk past the University
But the other place I really wanted to see before we left was the Suleymaniye Mosque
Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and inaugurated in 1557,
It was the largest mosque in Istanbul until the Çamlıca Mosque superseded it in 2019.
Four minarets, each and every one a stunner.
Again, it’s inside the mosque where the whole place comes alive
with its extraordinary ceilings
and just its innate grandeur.
Although, to be fair, it’s pretty grand from the outside too.
Streetlife in Istanbul is pretty hectic, as you would expect
But the views make up for it
And you can easily blend in with the crowds.
And that’s Istanbul – grandeur, magnificence, and the occasional bit of quirkiness.
Finally moving off S and on to T, and T is for Tunisia and one day spent in its capital, Tunis, during a Mediterranean cruise shortly before Christmas in 2012. So, when you think of Tunis, what do you think of? Probably not this…
But our cruise was one of the first that called into Tunisia after its 2011 revolution, and there were still plenty of military around, worried about security.
However, it didn’t spoil our day – the country was desperate to revitalise its old tourist industry, and the soldiers simply ignored us. Tunis is a delightful mix of the old and the new. Modern architecture like the City Hall
Sit comfortably side by side with sights such as the Catholic Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul.
The modernity of the University
And the tradition of the Youssef Dey Mosque
As with many Muslim cities, you get the best feel for real life in the bazaars and the souks. Tunis has a wealth of them.
You can have your hair cut
Buy from a tailor
Have a coffee
Buy decorative trinkets
And of course, a magic flying carpet!
And there’ll always be a traditional dancer there to encourage you to buy!
The architecture of the souks and the old town is fascinating too. I love the old doors
And those Moorish arches
And, of course, the tiles
Walking the streets is where you see the real people and the real sights
Outside Tunis, Sidi Bou Said is known for its beautiful blues.
Just one day in Tunisia is obviously not enough, but you can get just a taste of the life here.
And there’ll always be a traditional welcome for day trippers off a cruise!
More lockdown armchair travel and the last country on my list to begin with S is Syria – perhaps not one’s first thought for a holiday destination, but back in 2008 when we were there, it was an exciting, exotic and stunningly historical country, which we visited as the second part of a tour which also went to to Jordan (you can check out my Jordan pictures here if you like!) So when you think of Syria, what do you think of? Perhaps I should rephrase that and ask what did you think of?
The face of President Al-Assad appeared on many buildings – I always think he bears a curiously unemotional expression. This was on a back street behind our hotel in Bosra, the border town with Jordan where we first entered Syria. The town has one major sight – and it’s extraordinary.
Its amazing Roman theatre that dates from the 2nd century AD. The theatre is 102 metres across and has seating for about 15,000 people. It’s built so that speeches made from this stage reach the farthest spectators with the greatest of ease and no amplification.Sadly the site has been damaged in the Syrian Civil War. But I’m sure the amazing sunsets are still there.The next day we drove north, towards Aleppo. We first stopped at Maaloula, where some people still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. Among its extraordinary sights is the Greek Orthodox Convent of Saint Thecia, hidden in the rocks. It’s not just a convent and monastery town though. We saw the fascinating local habit of people buying their freshly baked bread, and then spreading it out and waving it around in an attempt to cool it down for eating! And, whilst I’m always up for trying local food, I though I’d give the sacrifice a miss. We journeyed on to discover the famous castle of Krak des Chevaliers. Steeped in history, this Crusader Castle was first inhabited in the 11th century. Full of atmospheric corridors and alleyways, doors and courtyards. Richard the Lionheart was there… You can tell it from his own lion decorations. New frescoes continued to be discovered there right up until the 1970s. Sadly this too has suffered damage during the Syrian Civil War. I’m so glad we got to see it before it was damaged. Dominating the surrounding countryside, it’s not difficult to see its strategic location! What was useful in those days, today we would say was a stunning view.From Krak we went on to Hama, famous for its waterwheels, or norias. Hama is the fourth largest city in Syria, but its appeal was all about the norias! Historically used for irrigation, today they are purely kept for the decorative appearance. In the early 1980s, Hama had emerged as a major source of opposition to the Ba’ath government during the Sunni armed Islamist uprising, which had begun in 1976. The city suffered some damage during its 2011 siege. The next day we carried on north, reaching the ruins of the Church of St Simeon Stylites. 19 miles outside Aleppo, this is where the ascetic saint St Simeon Stylites lived for 37 years on a pillar. This is all that remains of the pillar.It’s a beautiful ruin, with some exquisite carvings. This beautiful site hasn’t survived the recent conflict well. Much of it is now in ruin. It didn’t help that pilgrims and visitors kept helping themselves to stones to take home as relics. But it seems that an air strike by the Russian Air Force in May 2016 has destroyed most of the site. Irreplaceable history lost for ever. From the Church of St Simeon Stylites we retraced our steps back to the fascinating city of Aleppo. At the heart of its city, the citadel. A popular destination for school trips too! One of the oldest and largest castles in the world, the citadel is a medieval fortified palace. Here’s the relief on the main door! And who can resist this decorative cat gargoyle?! As you’d expect, the view from the top is (or rather, was) commanding! This is the entrance to the Throne Hall with its extraordinary ceiling But the throne isn’t there! You could get lost for hours in there I think this external gate has been damaged in the 2012 Battle of Aleppo, sadly. One of my main memories of Aleppo was of its remarkable Grand Souk. This, too, sadly, is largely destroyed. Just ordinary people, like you and me, going about their business, trying to make a living.