Thursday, June 9, 2016


Istanbul was a must on my list.
And since several airlines and cruises have pulled out due to recent terrorist events, this was actually a great time to visit - no long lines or big crowds. We were vigilant about our surroundings, but felt relatively safe overall - there is a risk traveling anywhere in Europe or the Middle East, and when people stop traveling, the terrorists win. And oh, what a tragedy to miss this city!
We chose a cruise carefully, not for luxury, but for the many ports and islands we could visit. Pulling into the dock at Istanbul, we were greeted by the ancient Hagia Sophia on the right, and the Blue Mosque on the left. Mosques and minarets everywhere!
Our good friends, Leah & Oguz, who is from Turkey, helped us plot out the perfect itinerary for our visit to Byzantium.
 The outside of the Hagia Sophia.
This is a place I've always wanted to visit, ever since my Art History prof at KU shared her obsession with this world wonder, and it took my breath away. The magnitude of the Hagia Sophia can't be grasped unless you stand inside this mammoth monument (first a 6th century church, then a mosque, and today a museum).
I love St. Peter's in Rome, but it's got nothing on St. Sophia.
And oh, the history!
Built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, this is the spot that inspired the Russians to adopt Christianity at the turn of the 11th century, and was the site of the Great Schism in 1054 - the papal bull of excommunication from Rome was delivered to the altar.
Prince Vladimir of Kiev in 998 decided to adopt Orthodox Christianity as a unifying religion, after his emissaries visited the Hagia Sophia, and declared:
We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. Such splendor and beauty are not found anywhere on earth: it is impossible to describe. We only know that God was there among the people.
 My sentiments exactly.

It's difficult to imagine what it looked like as a church, since the iconoclast Ottomans painted over the images, but slowly and delicately they're being uncovered.
 I loved the gorgeous chandeliers floating just above our heads, with light streaming in from the great dome above us. It was so special to share this moment with L & G.

 See the cat? There were cats everywhere in Turkey and Greece.

I couldn't wait to see this mosaic in person, which is on balcony level. I love studying ancient art & iconography. Notice how Jesus' two fingers are crossed, symbolizing the hypostatic union (truly God, truly man) and how his thumb touches his last two fingers, a symbol of the Trinity. There's so much theological depth to every icon.

 I've always felt close to Mother Mary. I don't think most Protestants honor her enough, but clearly the ancients held the Theotokos in deepest esteem. As a mother myself, I love her and feel connected to her.

 The wishing spot - you place your thumb in this hole, turn your wrist, and your wish will be granted.

Outside Topkapi Palace, where we explored the grounds (but didn't enter the compound).
The 6th century Underground Cisterns were just immense and incredible. This was the kids' favorite spot in Istanbul, a vast echoing chamber of water and Roman arches. This too felt otherworldly.
 The weeping column.

 These Medusa heads are a mystery - no one knows exactly why they were placed here.
Lorelei's approximating the Medusa pose.
(Kids wouldn't stand on their heads for this one.)

We stopped for lunch at our friends', Leah and Oguz's, favorite restaurant. They recommended the bean salad. Delicious!
I forgot to take a picture until I'd already dug my fork into it.
Gryffy was having none of it, however. He couldn't believe they didn't have soy sauce for his rice. Utterly indignant. (Fortunately, he learned to branch out over the next two weeks.)
 We heard the wondrous call to prayer and hurried to the Blue Mosque, where Muslim pilgrims streamed inside.

We visited the courtyard, and waited until the prayers were finished to enter. The devout commitment to prayer was very moving and inspiring.

 After donning a long skirt and hijab over my hair, and removing our shoes, we stepped inside the glorious blue mosque.

 Here we are in the courtyard between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet Square.
 On our way to the Grand Bazaar!
 Turkish delights everywhere, and look at the colors of these lanterns!

The kids wanted hats. We bargained down to half price.

We loved Istanbul! Just behind Meteora (which I'll get to last), it was the highlight of the trip for me, even above the glorious Greek islands. I'll always treasure up this land that seemed so distant from all that was familiar - the kids' first visit to Asia.

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