Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Travel to Turkey - Blue Mosque, Istanbul Turkey . . . An Architectural Treasure Worth every Painful Step

The gradual crescendo of the alarm is a rising torture. Even the beauty of the first morning’s light through the kitschy curtains doesn't help the pain. I can’t believe it is time to start again. Every muscle and bone in my body is screaming for mercy.

I roll over and Roger is already awake. He is just sitting on the side of the bed, hands bracing him up and head hanging low. He slowly turns to look at me and we both just start laughing. The entire situation is so ludicrous that laughter is the only way to relieve the tension.

Katie & Roger at Ephesus
We are on Day 8 of our 10 day tour of Turkey

We survived the first five days in Ephesus with minor complaints but Istanbul has been a different situation all together.

Perhaps this is why tour companies make you pay upfront because they know that at some point before the end of the tour you will want to raise the white flag of surrender and capitulate due to extreme exhaustion. 

Yesterday we did three palaces in one day. I wished I would have counted the steps because that excursion has absolutely done us both in. I am totally certain that people who lived in those palaces so long ago must have stayed on one floor because they just couldn’t have managed to climb all those steps each day.

Küpeli Palace Hotel
As is our usual routine, Roger heads for the bathroom first. Our accommodations at the Hotel Küpeli  in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul is not exactly the “boutique” hotel we asked for. However, with the pain we are feeling right now, we are just happy we are able to have the one and only suite where there is enough room for both us to move around at the same time. 

Hotel Küpeli Palace rooftop “restaurant”
After dressing and packing our “travel” bag for the day, we take the elevator up one floor (yes, we took the elevator because neither of us can deal with the thought of even one more step) to the roof top “restaurant” where breakfast is served. As usual, we join the one or two other parties who are up early enough to enjoy the dawning of a new day over Istanbul.

We really can see the Bosporus from here if we stand up and peak around the building next to us. We get our yummy breakfast of hard boiled eggs, cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, toast and coffee. Because the coffee cups are minuscule, Roger gallantly gets me a second cup of coffee as he can see that I am too feeble to help myself.

Fortified, we take the elevator down to the “lobby” and meet our tour guide and driver. Today we are going to the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Sunken Palace Cistern and the Hagia Sophia.

‘Yesterday was really very hard for me. Today’s schedule looks quite full. Isn’t this a lot to cover in one day?” I ask our tour guide praying for a reprieve.

“No, today is good.  Mostly flat. No trouble.” she replies.

Amazingly, I haven’t learned my lesson yet!  I still believe what she says.

We welcome the driver as best we can in the little bit of Turkish we’ve learned and are off to the Blue Mosque. It is important for us to get there early and avoid the bus loads of crowds. Missing the busloads of tourists in Istanbul has become the number one quest of the trip.    

We enter the Mosque courtyard by the entrance on the Hippodrome which we have just toured.  The courtyard is lacking in any decorations as we are accustomed to seeing in Moorish architecture, but at the same time it can’t be described as plain since it is paved in marble.

Blue Mosque Courtyard
There is an aura here that is peaceful and calming. We gratefully take this in as the tour guide tells us some highlights of the Mosque. 

From the courtyard, which is the same size as the Mosque, you can readily see the grand proportions of the building. 

Six slender minarets (unique to this Mosque as most have two to four) tower over the Mosque like sentinels and can be seen from much of the city. The mosque domes tumble down from the highest roof like bubbles on a bubble making machine in overdrive.    

The story behind the six minarets is interesting. First, the term six (alti) was confused with what the Sultan wanted which was gold (altin). The addition of six minarets caused quite stir as the only other mosque with six was the most important Haram Mosque in Mecca. To appease everyone, Sultan Ahmet sent an architect to Mecca to add a seventh minaret to that mosque.

The actual name of the building is the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I who commissioned the mosque in 1609. He ascended the throne at age 13 and died one year after the mosque was completed in 1616 at the age 27.

The Blue Mosque
One of the most famous religions sites in the world, the Blue Mosque acquires this name from the more than 21,000 distinctive blue tiles that decorate the interior. In addition to the Mosque, the original complex included a medrese (religious school); a tomb (now holding the remains of Ahmed, his wife and their three sons); a hospital; a caravanserai (a fortified hostel); a primary school; public kitchens and a market. 

Muslims are called to prayer five times a day and whenever possible the men go to a mosque. Women are allowed to meet this duty at home. 

In the mosque, the men stand shoulder to shoulder facing Mecca to perform their prayers. There is no quarter given to rank when praying in the mosque; every man is equal in the eyes of God. 

The Blue Mosque can accommodate 10,000 worshipers.

The Blue Mosque Ablution Area
Before entering a mosque Muslims perform a ritual ablution called wadu - the washing of the face, mouth, arms to the elbow, hands, hair, ears, and feet. Mosques generally have an area outside of the prayer hall to perform this duty.  

When praying, Muslims are required to be properly clothed in clean loose fitting clothes. For men that means covering from the navel to knees. For women, only face and hands should show.

Blue Mosque prayer area for women
Sometimes mosques provide a separate area for women to worship. This is to adhere to the cultural tradition of women not mixing with men who are not family members.  

Non-Muslims are only allowed in certain mosques usually with the intention of learning about the Islam faith and as an act of openness to their communities.

Where non-Muslims are allowed in a mosque, like the Blue Mosque, the women must cover their heads and everyone removes their shoes (at the Blue Mosque they gave us coverings to put on our shoes). Entry is coordinated with the prayer times as non-Muslims may not be in the mosques during these prayers because this mosque is a living place of worship.

The interior of the Blue Mosque is well lit from the sunlight flooding in the 261 stunning stained glass windows that are along the walls. 

The unique Iznik blue tiles that decorate the ceiling,  walls and domes (the central dome is 141 feet high) of the Mosque come from the small town for which they are named – Iznik which sits on the eastern edge of Lake Iznik in northwest Turkey. 

Iznik was once called Nicaea. In 325 AD, Constantinople call for the first ecumenical (worldwide) council of the Christian Church, the Council of Nicaea, the be held there. 

The beautiful tiles were first produced in the Byzantine time and rose to be regarded as a distinctive art form under the Ottoman Turks.  The richly colored tiles are used to decorate the walls of the most important buildings in the Ottoman Empire. 

The Blue Mosque Prayer Hall

The Blue Mosque's Minbar
In the Prayer Hall we find the mihrab, a marker carved and sculptured from marble that points to Mecca. To one side is the minbar, the pulpit used by the Imam to deliver the Friday sermon.

The Sultan's Worship Area
On the other side of the Hall is the Sultan’s special area for worship. One wonders why he isn't shoulder to shoulder with the other men as directed by the Muslim faith. Perhaps he was being protected from assassination, a workplace hazard for any Sultan.

The Blue Mosque is listed on just about every “Top 10” lists of significant architectural and religious structures and heritage sites. Surely, building such a structure with the tools available to the artisans in the 16th century made it a real challenge. It is a beautiful monument that we give high ranking to on our own ”top 10” list of the most beautiful and spiritual places we have visited.

We go on to the underground Sunken Palace Cistern and the Hagia Sophia. But more about those sites at a later date.

Postscripts . . .
Paty & Katie in Times Square, NYC
Next wonder of the world . . . . . the Taj Mahal, India. I am looking forward to exploring another wonder of the world. My sister Paty, her friend Kathryn and I are going to visit the Taj Mahal when we take a 10-day tour of northern India in April. Paty is absolutely my favorite traveling companion - of course, except for darling Roger.   

Darling Roger  . . .  just in case anyone thinks I am abandoning my darling Roger by going on the trip to India without him, please rest assured that he is sending us off with good wishes and deep gratitude to Paty who has relieved the pressure on him to visit India – not exactly on his top ten list – plus, he will not have to participate in another of “Katie’s forced marches” through antiquity.  He is anxiously awaiting the tales from the “three blondes gone wild in India!”

Palace Steps . . . . All those palace steps really did do me in. I returned with a sore back and barely able to walk. My outstanding physical therapist Lauren was unable to “fix” me this time. As a last resort, in December I underwent back surgery performed by Dr. Kaseem El-Shunnar at American Hospital. It was a surprisingly good experience and each day I get a little bit better. Shunnar has promised that I will be walking 2-3 kilometers by April. Just in time for India!


  1. If Mrs. Chatterbox is cleared of health issues, we will be flying to Turkey for two weeks around May. So we're following your posts closely.

  2. I hope that all is cleared for your trip to Turkey. It is an amazing place with wonderful people. I will try and get some more blogs posted about our trip.

    The one spot not to miss - The Nisanyan House in Sirince near Ephesus.

  3. Glad that you are feeling better Katie. I hoped to see you at Anne's signing today?
    I loved this post and was riveted by the wealth of information and the lovely story of your visit. So much to learn from your posts. Wish I was going to of my favorite cultures from the music, movies..history etc. That dream will have to wait for now. One day soon Inshallah:)

  4. Please keep sending these wonderful adventures. Love the posts and amazed that you had back surgery and keep on ticking - just like and Everready Bunny.
    Chris and Jim

  5. Hey Katie,
    As usual, you've left me pining to visit a new place! I felt like I was right there with you and Roger and, despite also feeling your pain, you managed to burst through with your effervescent descriptions of some amazing places. We've had similar experiences where I've felt if I had to take one more step I was going to expire (the 800 steps to the Monastery in Petra, that last mile of the hike to the top of Machu Picchu and suffering altitude sickness before reaching the edge of the Pacaya volcanoe in Guatamala come to mind). In every instance, I was so glad I reached in the deepest recesses of stand-by energy reserves to make a last ditch effort to reach the end. I'm so glad you did as well. These photos are amazing and I love each and every one of your adventures. Can't wait to hear about India (another one on my list that hasn't been ticked off yet).
    Your fellow adventurer!
    Anne :)

  6. Hi Katie,
    Your photos of Turkey are beautiful! Just read your article in the Loyola magazine. (I graduated in 1969 - long time since our paths have crossed!) I told stories and gave storytelling workshops in Dubai a few years ago and loved it. Striking city and warm, welcoming people. I hope to get back there someday.

  7. Connie . . . so glad you enjoyed my article in the Loyola magazine and my blog. What brought you to Dubai? If you come back you must contact me!. Stay tuned for more great stories and photos - just returned from an 11 day tour of northern India - absolutely fabulous. Go see the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to get a taste of what we experienced.

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