Istanbul: Whirling Dervishes, Galata Tower and Topkapi Palace
January 1, 1970
by Victoria Prizovskaya
Turkey is an amazing country with rich history and captivating culture influenced by Hellenistic, Byzantine and Ottoman eras. I lived in Turkey for many years and I knew that one needs a life time to explore this beautiful land. When I planned our trip, I was excited to share this country with my family. Below, is the story how we spent our first day in Istanbul.
We stayed in Karakoy, an old quarter of Taksim area, known for its restaurants, hotels, and shops. The Galata Tower is a relic landmark of the city which was built in 14th century as a part of the defense wall. It is about 200 feet tall and it is still the tallest building in the city. We enjoyed the astonishing view of the Bosporus Strait from the observatory platform (must see). The tower is open from 9 am to 10:30 pm, and the fee is 25 TL ($5 UDS) to enter the tower.
Our first evening, right after the flight, we immersed ourselves in an 800 year long-standing Sema ritual protected by UNESCO. This ritual is rooted in Sufism and teaching of Mevlana Rumi who is a well-known Islamic poet and philosopher. It was an unforgettable experience to observe the Whirling Dervishes in their spiritual journey to unite with God and the Universe through the music and dance. I recommend reading about Rumi and Sufism before attending the Sema ceremony. We paid 85 TL ($18 UDS). The ceremony was held in HODJAPASHA Historical Center which is 15-20 minutes walk from the Galata Tower.
The Topkapi Palace (Top means Cannon and Kapi means Gates) is located on the hills of the Golden Horn Harbor where Bosphoros Strait meets the Marmaris Sea. Turkey is surrounded by four Seas: Black, Marmaris, Aegean and Mediterranean which made this land a desirable trophy for many Empires in the past. The palace was a residence for Ottoman Sultans from 15th to 19th centuries. It also served as an administrative and political headquarter of the Sultanate.
The Main Entrance and the Fees
The main entrance to the palace is stunning and still demonstrates the supremacy and legacy left by the Ottomans. The top of the gates is decorated with the Tughra of Mehmed II who ordered the constructions of the palace in 15th century. Each Sultan of the Ottoman dynasty had personal signature, a seal known as Tughra. We paid 40 TL ($8 USD) to enter the palace, 25 TL ($5 USD) for Harem (must see) and 20 TL ($4 USD) to enter the Hagia Eirene Basilica (must see). The palace is opened from 9 am to 6 pm during the summer and from 9 am to 4 pm during the winter. I recommend coming earlier to avoid the lengthy line at the entrance.
The Audience Chamber
We crossed the Gates of Felicity where Sultans held audiences to enter the Audience Chamber. The entrance to the Audience Chamber is built from the finest marble decorated with beautiful blue mosaic. Blue and green are dominating colors in Muslim art because they exemplify life: the blue symbolizes water and the green the growth of flora. My daughter was surprised by the fact that the Chamber did not have a traditional throne. I explained that the Ottoman Sultans sat on sofas richly decorated with the precious stones and metals.
The Imperial Hall
We spent 6 hours exploring the courtyards of the palace. Visiting the private residence of the Sultans’ family, Harem, was beyond our expectations. We were staggered by the beauty and wealth of the Harem. The Imperial Hall was stunning: the walls and the ceiling were decorated with blue mosaic and ornamented by gold. Texts from the Qur’an carved in the finest marble were flawless.
The Elegant Tulips
We saw the exquisite Chamber of Valide Sultan (Mother Queen). The patterns of elegant red tulips on blue tiles made this room alive and vibrant. My daughter did not know that the tulip is an official flower of the country. During the reign of Suleyman Magnificent, Turks began to cultivate tulips. In 16th century the flowers were transported to Holland.
The Courtyard of Concubines
Walking through the courtyard of concubines and listening to the audio guide with the chanting music brought us back in time. I recommend renting the audio guide. It cost 20 TL ($5 US) and we could explore the sites on our own. The other surprising fact for my daughter was that the Ottoman Empire did not have queens. However, the mother of the reigning Sultan held the most eminent position in the Sultanate. We stopped to see the 400 year old palace’s kitchen with an amazing collection of art reflecting the culinary culture of Turkish people.
Hagia Eirene Church
The last stop was the Byzantine church of Hagia Eirene. During the Hellenistic era, there was a temple devoted to the goddess Aphrodite. Around the church we found pieces of ancient architecture related to Aphrodite. In 4th century the church became a Cathedral of Constantinople during the reign of Constantine I. The original name of Istanbul was Constantinople and it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire which lasted for 1,000 years. The Hagia Eirene church was reconstructed many times and was used for different purposes. It never was converted into mosque and in 1846 it became the first Turkish museum (must see).
Galata Bridge: Dinning experience
We finished our day by walking the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn and dinning in one of the restaurants on the bridge (must do). The experience was incredible. I ordered a fish dinner with a fresh Turkish salad penetrated in olive oil and lemon juice. My daughter order famous pide (similar to Italian pizza) and my mom ordered manti (similar to Italian ravioli) served with the delicious Turkish Yogurt. It is a Turkish custom to serve yogurt with the meal. The dinner was followed by Turkish pastry, baklava and delightful cup of tea. I never have enough of Turkish tea!
While dinning we enjoyed the view of the gracious Sulemaniya Mosque, Galata Tower and the enchanting beauty of the old city. I saw the excitement in my daughter’s eyes and happy smile on my mom’s face. I did not want to disrupt this moment, but I knew that there are so much more hidden treasures of Turkey for my family to discover.
Thank you for reading.