Turkey: 5 Things to Do in Istanbul

Whirling Dervishes

Quite something to see and very much recommended. This is a religious ceremony (called sema), not a performance and it’s very moving. The dervishes are from the Mevlevi order from a mystical branch of Islam. The dervishes rotate slowly, raising their arms with one palm turned up to God and the other facing palm down in a gesture that says they keep nothing for themselves. In total they whirl for around 20-30 minutes, in sets of around 5 minutes each. They do not employ the ‘spotting’ technique of dancers to prevent themselves getting dizzy but there’s not one whisper of staggering during the whole ceremony. They whirl silently in a trance like state as an act of worship, whilst accompanied by traditional worship music.

Tourists admiring some of the beautiful mosaics in the Hagia Sofia

Tourists admiring some of the beautiful mosaics in the Hagia Sofia

Hagia Sofia

This beautiful building was originally a church and later became a mosque. The original church on the site was built in AD 360 but was destroyed during riots. A second church built in AD 405 burnt down in a fire and parts of this can still be seen outside the current building. This is the third construction on the site, dating from AD 573. It was converted to a mosque in 1453, after Istanbul (still called Constantinople) was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. During the 1930s it was declared a museum and since then some restoration work in revealing the Christian mosaics on the walls has begun. There is a strange juxtaposition here between the Christian art and Islamic elements. It’s well worth a visit to see the mosaics, mainly on the upper gallery (although there are a couple on the ground level too), they are beautiful.

Visit the Hamam

Take a traditional Turkish bath. It’s quite an experience. The ladies took me in hand and I was instructed to ‘sit, relax’ very firmly! First you relax in a steam room on a central hot stone. You’re left for around 10-20 minutes and then your attendant will come over and scrub you like you’ve never been scrubbed before to remove old, dead skin. Once done they will give you a bubble wash and massage, then rinse you off. Following that you will be left to yourself again to relax in the jacuzzi or on the hot stone and rinse some more. It’s a very strange experience being washed like a child but I left feeling like new!

The Queen Mother's quarters in the Harem in Topkapi Palace

The Queen Mother’s quarters in the Harem in Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace – Harem

This site is worth visiting for the Harem alone. It is covered, wall to wall in beautiful blue and white ceramic tiles. As you wander through the Queen Mother’s quarters you can sense the women of times past and what life might have been like between these walls. The Queen Mother would have run the Harem, making all key decisions. The only men allowed inside were eunuchs and the Sultan himself. You can still see the area where the eunuchs would have left food for the women to collect and the corridor where the Sultan reportedly dropped coins for the women to pick up. Charged with internal politics the harem was strictly ordered and hierarchical. The Queen Mother at the top, followed by the Sultans favorite concubines and then others followed in turn.

Items on sale in the Grand Bazaar

Many different items are on sale at the bazaar. Go prepared to haggle unless it’s marked as ‘fixed price’.

The Grand Bazaar

The bazaar is an assault on the senses. Noise, brightly coloured trinkets, people calling to you, crowds jostling. Items to purchase range from beads, ceramics, carpets, textiles, traditional musical instruments, Turkish Delight and, should you be so inclined a Fez. Go prepared for friendly banter and crowds, keep an eye on your valuables as you would in any city market; but all in all it’s a non-threatening and friendly place to spend some time.

To book to see the Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul I went to http://www.hodjapasha.com. There is no photography allowed as it is a religious ceremony but it was good to put the camera away and just watch this mystical event. The Hodjapasha Centre also has shows of traditional dance from all over the region – belly dancing and folk dancing.

I visited the Cemberlitas Hamami which is one of the oldest in Istanbul. It was very good. There are other Turkish baths in Istanbul but do check a review website like Trip Advisor before visiting as some have consistently poor reviews, with regards to attitudes to tourists in particular.

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