A Layover In Istanbul, Turkey

Photo of the Top of the hill in Istanbul

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We knew that we had a lengthy layover in Istanbul when we originally had booked a trip to Dubai, but since the flight time was so long we decided to book a second affordable trip to Greece after our Dubai trip ended. It was a 2 1/2 hour drive from our house in Sacramento to the airport in San Francisco, 3 hours from arrival until the flight left, 10 1/2 hours from San Francisco to London, a 3 hour layover and 7 hours London to Dubai, then about 2 hours to get our luggage, pass thru immigration, drive to the hotel, check-in, etc., so all told it was about 28 hours from our home to our hotel in Dubai.

Today we leave Dubai on Turkish Airlines flight 763 heading for Istanbul with our final destination of Athens, Greece. We got up this morning at 4 am, walked the stairs down to the lobby where our tour company, Gate 1, had arranged a bagged breakfast for us. They do such a good job and made the early start of our day terrific. As part of our packaged tour, Gate 1 had already arranged a taxi that would take us to the airport and he was already waiting when we stepped out of the hotel.

We arrived at the Dubai airport 3 1/2 hours early, but it was worth getting up at 4 am. The check-in to get our boarding passes, the security lines, and the immigration lines were so fast that we were in the waiting lounge, relaxing on a plush couch with no stress, in no time at all.  While we waited I looked at an old photo from an 1893 Shepps book of photographs of the world. 

The flight to Istanbul was smooth and I enjoyed watching our flight progress on the monitor. The countries below are those that I have only read about or heard about on news broadcasts. Many are quite unstable and controversial. We flew over the gigantic Persian Gulf, watching countries like Iran, Qatar, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait pass below us.

Above, (and below) a page from the 1893 book, Shepps Photographs of the World 

We arrived at the Istanbul airport without any fanfare, that is, until we reached immigration.  After enduring an endless line of people trying to pass through the immigration process, it was finally my turn. We had amused ourselves during this epic endurance of will by watching the immigration official at the front of our line as he stamped passports at a rate of about 1 to four compared to his colleagues and for every time he stamped a passport, he opened his mouth fully and yawned! 

My wife passed quickly through and when it was my turn I handed the officer my passport. I watched with slight annoyance as the yawning immigration officer somehow could not scan my passport! He made several attempts to scan it with his archaic machine, which somehow was unable to read it. Oddly, the same passport has been read by 32 other countries, and just a few days ago by the United Arab Emirates in Dubai. Yet somehow this officers machine could not, even after he who yawned incessantly, had tried several times to read the passport code. I was over-anxious to see Istanbul and the delay signaled that I might not have that opportunity. He even tried flattening it by rubbing the pages against a sharp corner and in my impatience I did all I could to prevent chuckling, or worse, telling him to get moving! The yawning man then sent me to three other immigration gates and none of them worked either!

They finally sent me to a manager who sent me to the gate which was reserved for diplomatic people and here the lady immigration officer was smart enough to simply type in my passport information when her machine couldn’t read it either. A simple procedure that perhaps a monkey could have performed!

My wife, Nida, had long passed through immigration and my debacle lasted for almost an hour. We had hired a day guide (www.toursbylocals.com) to show us around Istanbul while we had this ten-hour layover. Neslihan Akin, who had been waiting patiently for us to clear immigration, was our guide and she was such a welcome sight to see as we emerged from the immigration area and their asinine system and officials. We checked in our carry-on baggage at a luggage counter and headed out of the airport where we caught a taxi that took us to the heart of Istanbul.

The obelisk of Theodosius I in Istanbul

The taxi ride was really quick as Neslihan explained the city and the history. In no time we were in the central part of Istanbul where most of its attractions are close to each other. We drove up a hill where numerous buses had parked helter-skelter, blocking our way. Our driver honked his horn numerous times and the buses squeezed into spots that I would have not attempted to park my own much smaller vehicle.

We were soon on foot and Neslihan was talking excitedly about this marvelous, historic city. She was going on about this and that, the origins of this and the history of that. I felt bad because I was absorbing as much as I could while still taking in, with great amazement, the marvelous surroundings.

The Hagia Sophia, compare it to the 1893 Shepps photograph above

As we entered the square we were met with the Obelisk of Istanbul. This masterpiece of the ancient world was brought from Karnak to Constantinople by emperor Theodosius I in 390 AD. Not only is it an important artifact, but it is also the oldest monument that you can see in Istanbul. On each side of the obelisk, there is a standing god holding the hand of the king and extending to him the sign of life.

My brain was fried from a combination of numbness due to the chaotic experience through the Turkish immigration process and the overall excitement of experiencing a new, unfamiliar country and its obvious lengthy, rich history. On top of that, I wanted to take as many photos as possible and snapped endlessly away on my camera as Neslihan, our guide, spoke. Our frenetic pace required that we multitask if we were to experience as much as possible during this short layover.

As we walked I noticed that there were many men walking around with heavy white gauze bandages covering their heads. It looks like a zombie apocalypse in a movie. I thought perhaps they were victims of the Gulf War and were on some sort of R&R as part of their recovery. I must have been gawking awkwardly because Neslihan interrupted her historical narrative to explain this phenomenon. It seems that these men are not zombies nor are they in a movie, instead they have gotten scalp reduction surgery and hair transplants! Apparently, Istanbul is known for having very inexpensive surgery to add hair to balding heads or reducing the scalp!

The weather was pleasant as we found the Hagia Sophia mosque, an icon of the worlds most famous places and a sure must-see on any traveler’s bucket list. Constructed in 537 AD, and until 1453, it was an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. During that time, except between 1204 and 1261, it served as the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, now Istanbul.

During that gap, it had been converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral by the Crusaders under the Latin Empire which was also known as the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Empire of Romania or the Latin Occupation.

From May 29, 1453, until 1931, the grand building served as an Ottoman mosque. In 1935 the Turkish government secularized it, converted to a museum of which it is now the second-most visited in Turkey, attracting about 3.3 million visitors a year.

Above, the interior dome of the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is famous for the massive dome that sits atop the former mosque which epitomizes the architecture of the Byzantine era. Although it contains workmanship flaws in its construction, clearly it changed the overall design history of architecture.

The design concept provides stabilization for the massive dome, which is 102 feet in diameter and 184 feet in height, and its numerous walls and arches. However, when the original bricklayers built the walls, they made two major errors. For one, they used much more mortar than actual bricks. Secondly, they were in a hurry and did not let the mortar fully cure before another layer was added. The overall weight of the subsequent layers plus the weight of the massive dome caused the walls to shift outward, mostly due to the wet mortar beneath.

Above, the Comnenus Mosaic was created in 1122 and shows Emperor John Comnenus, his wife Eirene, their son Alexios along with the Virgin Mary and Christ.

The staircase that points to Mecca

Always the center of religion and faith, there is a movement underway to convert the museum back into a mosque. Currently, the Hagia Sophia does not function as a major place of worship. However, there is an adjoining room which was built as the final resting place of the former sultan, now officially called the Hagia Sophia mosque, where the daily call to prayer fills up the room with around 40 worshipers.

One of the stray cats of Hagia Sophia

The time that we spent inside the Hagia Sophia was simply not long enough. There were just so many things to see. Our wonderful guide, Neslihan, had brought handfuls of cat food which she fed the stray cats that live in the building. Much to their delight and the delight of the numerous visitors that enjoyed the feline presence.

The wishing column

There is a very large column at the back-northwest portion of the building. Along the column there is a hole where visitors put their thumbs inside and twist their hand 360 degrees, hoping to have their wish come true. The column is said to be damp when touched and has supernatural powers. Going by different names; the perspiring column, the wishing column, the sweating column or the crying column, legend has it that St. Gregory the Miracle Worker visited here in 1200. When he appeared, the column began to cry, and it is believed that touching the moisture cures many illnesses. It is said that if you feel wetness on your thumb, then your wish will come true.

Above, two carved stone Medusa’s inside the Basilica Cistern

Our next stop was the Basilica Cistern, which is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). The cistern, located 150 meters (490 ft) southwest of the Hagia Sophia on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It is quite dark in this place and not really that good for photography but well worth the visit. Two giant, snake-covered Medusa, carved of stone, sit at the base of massive columns. No one seems certain why one is upside down and the other is sideways.

It’s not Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco but sure looks like it could be

It was to our great advantage, since we had such little time, that all of the places that we wanted to see were in such close proximity to each other. All were within an easy walking distance from each other so as we emerged from the underground Basilica Cistern we were nearly at the famous Grand Bazaar and the adjacent Spice Market. The neighborhood bears a striking resemblance to parts of San Francisco.

The Grand Bazaar

No matter how well you are prepared, you will not be totally prepared for a major overload on your senses, all of them! The sights and commotion instantly grab you, then the sounds and smells overload you. Then if that weren’t enough, the wonderful tastes of samples that are handed you will fill in the gaps. We tried samples of dates and wonderful, freshly sliced pastrami, although a bit salty but very tasty. It was a wonderful appetizer!

Above, colorful lamps that they will ship anywhere in the World.  I regret not making a purchase!

Above, our guide Neslihan helping Nida evaluate ceramic pottery

How could she resists buying something from a shop with her name on it?

Above, freshly sliced pastrami inside the Grand Bazaar

It felt a bit odd to be the different one here, but I was never felt to be intimated. The hawkers were friendly and not pushy at all. I looked at Turkish cymbals for my drum kit and later regretted not purchasing one. I took as many photos as I could as our time was quickly running out. The ceramic pottery, the colorful glass lamps and the myriad of items available for purchase were overpowering. I did all I could to keep my hands in my pockets to prevent me from buying so many wonderful items!

The Spice Market of Istanbul

We emerged from the spice market, our appetite wetted from the wonderful smells and the appetizers we had consumed. Outside were many vendors selling all sorts of cooked items from roasted chestnuts to drinks made of fresh orange juice and pomegranates. We stopped at a street vendor where we bought a donor kabob sandwich which had a heavenly pickle as a garnish and ate it near the bridge that divides Asia and Europe. Along the bridge, I could see hundreds of men fishing with their poles dangling precariously close together. I longed to spend more time here and felt cheated that we were held up so long in immigration.

Like gleaming red rubies, pomegranites are put on display at the fruit market of the Grand Bizaare.  They are one of my most favorite fruit and I love to eat the tasty, crunchy seeds that are found on the inside.  Did you know that Thomas Jefferson planted pomegranates at Monticello in 1771? 

Soon after eating our lunch we conveniently found a taxi that would get us back to the airport. On the way back to the airport we dropped off our guide Neslihan near the train station.

As we returned to the highway, our taxi driver became a race car driver! Traffic along the highway had come to a standstill but our driver set new speed records. He zigzagged through traffic, cutting off even several ambulances and police cars who were speeding toward an accident that had nearly shut down this highway. After nearly avoiding untold and uncounted collisions we were finally back to the airport after our all-too-brief visit to Istanbul during this 10-hour layover. I promised myself that one day I would return, this time to see all there is to see and at my own pace!

Do you like to keep track of the countries that you have visited?  Does it count if you have a stopover and never leave the airport? My personal rule is that if I do not leave the airport, then I can’t really say that I have visited a country.  And although our stay in Istanbul was far too short, our wonderful guide Neslihan, who works with a tour group toursbylocals.com which caters specifically to tourists who have limited time.

Despite not having as much time as I would have liked to spend in Istanbul, I still saw quite a lot and savored many new experiences, and added many more drops in the bucket!


All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography and Nida Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use or for signed, high-resolution copies.
















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