Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2012 trip to Turkey.
The Hagia Sophia is the reason Istanbul was on my bucket list. This marvel of architecture is something students of historic preservation study in wonder and awe. Completed in 537 A.D., it stood as a Christian church for 916 years until the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmed; it then became a mosque for 482 years until 1935, when it was converted to a museum under the order of Atatürk and the decision of the Council of Ministers.
The Hagia Sophia is open to visitors Tuesday through Sunday between 9AM and 5PM in the winter or 7PM in the summer. We visited in December and it was cold. There is really no heat anywhere on the property, except perhaps a couple of gift shops, so dress accordingly. Also, give yourself plenty of time. We spent the greater part of a day here and we would have loved to linger were there not so many other things to see in beautiful Istanbul.
Turkey is an excellent place to visit for an introduction to Islamic culture because although the majority of citizens consider themselves Muslim, Turkey is a secular nation. We, being a Christian couple from the “west” were most intrigued by the call to prayer, which sounds out six times a day, beginning before dawn and ending after sunset. It seems that no matter where you travel throughout Turkey, you can hear the call to prayer. We woke up to it each morning in our hotels, we heard it on the boat cruising the Bosphorus, while riding buses between regions, even at the bus station in Ankara piped over the P.A. system. At times in large cities like Istanbul, you can hear the call from multiple mosques, almost echoing off each other.
The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 and like so many mosques in Istanbul, was modeled architecturally off the Hagia Sophia. Its nickname comes from the ornate, blue decorated Iznik tiles that line its walls. I had only visited a mosque once before, during a mission trip to Los Angeles in which we visited places of worship of various faiths. Being a female, I was required to cover my hair. I had brought along a scarf for this purpose. Beautiful scarfs are abundantly available throughout Turkey if you’d like to buy one (or two or three) there. The mosques are open to visitors, though they do close during prayer times. Visitors enter through a marked set of doors and are required to remove shoes. Plastic bags are available for carrying shoes while inside the mosque. The visitor area is partitioned off from the main area, between it and the portion at the rear of the mosque reserved for Muslim women. Visitors are asked to be quiet and respectful but are free to sit, observe, and walk around the area
This day, we took Rick Steves’ advice and had lunch at Sultanahmet Koftecisi. Meatballs, or kofte, are a popular menu item throughout Turkey and according to Steves, this place started it all. We worried the restaurant located just off the tramway would be crowded with tourists but a server ushered us to a fine window seat on the second level, overlooking the street below. Around us, locals were enjoying the limited menu. We went all out. Brian ordered the sis kebab, I ordered the kofte, and we shared piyaz as an appetizer (it is a white bean salad in olive oil). We only ate here once but it was a place we would like to have gone to again. In fact, I think Brian suggested that when we returned to Istanbul, but at that point I was ready for something other than kebab and kofte! Anyway, the prices are great considering the location and being the Coca-cola addict that I am, this was one of the first places I learned how readily available coke is (throughout Turkey!–not sure if that is a good thing or a very, very sad thing).