Crossroads Tour: Sleepless in the Sultanahmet – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Florence, Genoa and Istanbul in May 2011.

t was a sleepless night in the Sultanahmet. I was up until 1 AM tearing my room and my luggage apart, looking for my camera charger. Jackhammers pounded until well after midnight to demolish the building next door, and a steady stream of bricks was heaved into the dumpster below my window until about 2 AM. Morning calls to prayer wake me back up at 4:30 AM. I try to nap until 7:30 before giving up. I’m so sleep deprived and exhausted that I can barely function.  And now I cannot unlock my door to leave my room…

I sit down with a pen and paper and my Turkish phrase book, and try to translate my question about my camera charger. I collect everything I need for the day before finally outsmarting the lock on my door. Downstairs, the old hotelier will look for the address for a nearby camera shop while I’m at breakfast.  By the time I finish, he is gone.

It’s overcast outside, much like my mood. I’m still physically exhausted and now mentally fatigued from my ears being filled with the harsh sounds of a language I cannot interpret. I cannot get onto the WIFI for the Google maps I was depending on. I should have bought a scarf yesterday so I could visit the mosques today. In spite of the sites I saw yesterday, Istanbul may have been too challenging for me to handle, and I am ready to buy a return plane ticket if I can ever get online…

It’s not even 9 AM.  

Get a grip already!  I pick up my guidebook and plan my day. The Cistern is just down the street from Hotel Han, that’s easy. I decide to leave my camera at home to conserve the battery for the remainder of the week.

The Yerebatan Cistern was built in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. It measures 140 meters long by 70 meters wide, and contains 336 marble columns arranged in 10 rows, supporting brick archways which in turn support the ceiling. It can hold 100,000 tons of water which was fed to it by the Hadrian and Valens aqueducts. A network of aqueducts and cisterns were built in ancient Constantinople to guarantee a water supply when the city was under siege. The network later supplied water to the city until the population outgrew the cisterns and had to develop alternate sourcing. It is (as of this writing) the largest publicly accessible cistern in Istanbul.

Among the Corinthian and Ionic columns is a pair of Medusa heads that support a couple of the columns, which are thought to date back to the Roman era. My favorite version of the story is that they were placed here as a protective talisman for the building. One of the heads was placed upside down, the other placed on its side so that people could look upon the faces without being turned to stone.

The Yerebatan Cistern, photo courtesy

There are fish in the water.  It is very calm and cool here, and I start my book collection in the gift shop before exiting. BOOKS ! ! ! !

Further down the street is Sultanahmet Square, a lovely stretch of fountains and gardens that form a courtyard between the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque. As I am walking, an older Turkish gentleman matches my stride and strikes up a conversation. His English is very good. He tells me he’s a retired history teacher, and happy to see Americans here. I ask if he is looking for money but he just wants to show me his family rug shop after he has shown me the cathedral, which I need to hurry to see since it closes today at noon for sabbath prayers. With some hesitation, I say OK… 

The fountain between the Blue Mosque and the AyaSofia, a shot I took later in the week.

He pushes me to the front of the line, we bag our shoes in the plastic bags we are handed at the door, and he proceeds to give me a really informative tour of the famous Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque was built by architect Mehmet Aga, a student of Mimar Sinan, over a span of eight years during the early 17th century. The building combines elements from both traditional Islamic and Byzantine architecture. It is unique not only for its predominately blue tile and paint interior, but also for its six minarets. One popular story relates that when Sultan Ahmet asked the architect for a gold (altin) minaret, the Mehmet mistook the request for six (alti) minarets. Another story claims that Sultan Ahmet wanted his mosque to rival the one at Mecca, which also had six minarets.

This is my first visit to a mosque and I am surprised at how light and airy the interior is, a radical departure from the dark churches in Florence. The dome stands 141 feet above the floor and is over 100 feet wide. There are 260 windows; my guide tells me that the stained glass ones over the eastern wall (facing Mecca) are copies of the originals which have either deteriorated or been destroyed. The interior boasts over 21,000 blue tiles made in the factories at the city of Iznik. Verses from the Kor’an embellish the walls here, many of them from the hand of Seyyid kasim Gubari, who was regarded as the greatest calligrapher of his time.

My guide also points out the elephant’s feet columns which I would later learn are a predominant feature in many mosques, a weight bearing detail that allows for large expanses of space to be uninterrupted by columns. He points out the gallery where the sultan used to sit with his guards during prayer, and the tile work in the lower half of the balconies, and that the ceiling is painted rather than tiled. The beauty and expanse of it brings me to tears.

The Blue Mosque. Photo credit:

We exit and I follow him to his family’s rug shop. Having been through this process yesterday, I think I’m better prepared for this visit. Along the way, he points out the yellow building that is the police station, and the Million Mile marker from which the Roman Empire was measured. And then, unbelievably, we arrive at the carpet shop I was at yesterday! I refuse to go in.  “I bet you work for Mustafa, with whom I spoke yesterday.” And when he confirms it,  I say, “Thank you for the tour. And goodbye!”

I return to my hotel room for a rest, I crack open my laptop, and remember that it has a webcam. Oh yeah, a second camera… it’s harder to use but at least its something if I cannot find a new battery charger for my camera.  I pose on my bed, lining my head up with one of the motifs on the bedspread, which circles my head like a halo. Oh look, I’m a Turkish Bodhisattva : )

I head downstairs for lunch, where I meet a new concierge, a pleasant young man who asks me how things are going. I tell him things are OK… except for the construction… and morning prayers… and I’m running on about two hours of sleep… and the battery charger… His English is pretty good and he has a very melodic and soothing voice.

He seats me at a table and pours me a cup of American drip coffee. He asks me what my program is for today, and starts suggesting sites I should see, including Chora Church, the Suleyman Mosque and some Turkish bathhouse built by Suleyman’s architects’ teacher.

I am listening, but I am so tired…

I drink my coffee, and he pours me another cup. He asks for my netbook and fixes my WIFI connection. He offers to make reservations at a Turkish bath or perhaps a cruise to the Black Sea. He asks for my map, and frowns before replacing it with one from his drawer. He then sits down with me and starts circling sites on it, “my program for the day.” His name is Baha, the hotel manager, and he remembered handling my reservation. He will take me to the camera store after I finish my coffee.

He walks with me for several blocks to a camera store that I would have never found on my own. At one point he pulls me by the shoulders and gently guides me away from the path of an oncoming tram, which are as much a threat to pedestrians here as cars and bikes.

At the camera shop, he handles the transaction. There’s some banter about the price, and the charger has to come from a different store. Baha introduces me to the shopkeeper as one of his American guests.  Another man there identifies himself himself as Iranian, and with a big smile on his face, reaches out to shake my hand. A salesmen pulls out a stool for me to sit on. Thinking that Baha’s work is done here, I expect him to leave, but he doesn’t. And so we wait…

Istanbul is starting to feel a little more welcoming, and my attitude is starting to readjust. The charger finally arrives and we leave the store. I ask Baha about the Topkapi Palace and he takes me there. We walk past what I think is the palace, but which is actually the park surrounding it. Baha points and says ” You must see it. It is huge, like city” as he draws an expansive circle in the air. “Huge,” I mimic, and we both laugh. He drops me off and takes my charger back to my room.  

I am grateful for him going the extra mile.  It’s not a level of service I have encountered on this Crossroads Tour thus far.

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