What to do in Istanbul in five hours?
Answer: Five hours? What were you thinking?!
Luckily, on my way to Cairo, I had a long transit in Istanbul, one of my favorite Middle Eastern cities. Having visited Istanbul some 10 years ago, and knowing I had a few hours, I rushed to Sultanehmet to take in three wonders that are –fortunately, only a walking distant apart, namely Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Sunken Cistern.
While many people celebrate Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia) as a monumental structure where Christian and Islamic arts fuse together in harmony, I actually see nothing harmonious about it in spirit. Structurally, the complex reflects a clichéd clash of civilizations where minarets were added, minbars and mihrabs superimposed and Byzantine mosaics encroached from all sides by the Ottoman conquerors. From outside, it looks fortified and forbidding. Nevertheless, the building never fails to impress because once inside, you get a mesmerizing glimpse of the monumentality and grandeur of a civilization that is gone but never forgotten: that of the Byzantines. Few complexes are as impressive and awe-inspiring as this Church of the Holy Wisdom, begun in the VI century by Emperor Justinian. The best views are those you get when you climb to the gallery; only then can you fully appreciate the scale of Aya Sofia and enjoy its magnificent mosaics, specially the Deësis Mosaic.
Off to the seventeenth-century Blue Mosque with its soaring minarets and cluster of domes and half-domes, one can only wonder as how the Great Byzantine Palace and Hippodrome that had once stood here must have looked like. Once inside, all these mental images give way to the imposing tour-de-force of Ottoman mosaic manifest in the 20,000 blue Iznik tiles covering the walls of the mosque. The domes seem to float effortlessly, their floral designs and calligraphy bands
Then came the Sunken Cistern, exactly the way I remembered it: haunting and eerie. I went down the staircase to the underground cistern, a forest of over 300 marble columns supporting cross-vaulted domes. The columns, arranged in rows, are beautifully lit to magnify the awe-inspiring impression that it leaves on the visitor. Built by Emperor Justinian in the VI century, it used to bring water from the woods some 19 Km away.
A visit to Istanbul, no matter how short, is never complete with indulging in the culinary pleasures of the city: imam bayildi and doner kebab on the run, followed by baklava and washed down with apple tea…the ‘sweet’ end to a short tour in Dersaadet (i.e. The Gate of Felicity, an old name of Istanbul).