A Glimpse at Istanbul by Mickey Hoffman

I wanted to visit Istanbul because I just had to see the Aya Sofya. Ever since I first learned of this incredible building in an art history class, I felt a pull toward it. And a few decades later, I managed to get there. Also known as the Hagia Sophia, this ancient structure is one of the marvels of the ancient world.

There are many other things to see in Istanbul, of course, but didn’t spend time in the usual tourist pursuits. For example, I only looked in at the huge bazaar from the outside entrance near a flower market. Carpet and tile stores didn’t interest me either. In fact, the only things I bought inTurkey were a fist sized, stuffed crow that I hunted down after seeing one hanging from the rear view mirror in a taxi and a beaded hanging symbol from a local soccer team. I did some great sketches and took some photos. I spent a lot of time inside the Aya Sofya, speaking to the walls.

In order to enter the Aya Sofya you first have to negotiate a gauntlet of carpet, leather and trinket vendors. All male. They reminded me of the merchants who used to try and pull you inside their stores on Maxwell Street in Chicago. They don’t take refusals easily. Perhaps because I was female and by myself, the interactions weren’t as pleasant as they might have been. I’ll never know. If I was polite they persisted and got into my personal space until I felt uncomfortable. If I got rude, the men’s tempers flared and scared me.  I would not recommend this walk to unaccompanied women of any age. More on that topic later.

The building, originally a church, dates from around 525 AD, or CE as they say now. The walls are about four feet thick and are heavily supported by adjacent smaller rooms and buttresses. This is the only way they knew to support the huge dome on top, which awed the citizens of the most advanced city in the western world. It still awes people today. The building has been a church, a mosque and now is a museum. It’s filled with gold leaf mosaics as well as gorgeous marble floors and many other adornments. The interior is just dark enough to be mysterious. Outside it’s salmon pink. Not a faint salmon, but a full-hearted orangey pink that’s shocking if you don’t expect it.

Aya Sofya6

The minarets were added when Aya Sofya became a mosque. To give a better sense of the enormity of this building here is another view.Aya Sofya 9

Aya Sofya5These side chambers support the roof.  And they’ve done this for centuries in spite of many large earthquakes. The building is brick and cement, and many much newer buildings made of these materials have collapsed from far less trauma. If you continue along the side you come to a rear courtyard which holds a beautiful covered fountain.


The inner roof right over the fountain looks like this:



Now let’s go  inside the Aya Sofya:

Aya Sofya 8

Aya Sofya 10

And this:

Aya Sofia

There’s a ramp that goes up to the balcony.  Not stairs, a ramp in a narrow and dark passage. It has bricked walls and a heavily cobbled floor. The balcony is decorated with Byzantine style mosaics. Here are two of them. The first is of Empress Theodora, who led an interesting life. She tried to expand the rights of women and had a lot of influence with her husband, Emperor Justinian. She is shown here in a saintlike pose which is rather amusing when you consider her early life as an “actress.” Enough said.

Aya Sofia3

Aya Sofya 9_0001

There is another ancient building in Istanbul which is called Little Aya Sofya. It was built by Constantine in 550. It’s a community mosque now. The day I went there only a few men were present, but even though only one man was praying inside, gaining entry wasn’t easy. Although the place is said to be open to the public, the caretaker seemed skeptical about my request to enter. He was completely unimpressed when I told him I’m an artist. Finally, he decided I could go in if I went right upstairs and didn’t make any noise. I took a only few photos and had just started to get my sketch pad out when the men decided my presence was too immodest and asked me to leave.

Little Aya Sofia 550 AD

If you’re wondering what that hanging thing is, it’s a light fixture. It hangs low over the floor. There will be a better view of one later in the Blue Mosque. This interior is much simpler and I like it better than the Blue Mosque. The simplicity is pleasing to the eye.

Little AYA2

The Topkapi palace is world famous, perhaps for its cache of jewels. I found it rather boring, but here are a few photos you might like. The courtyard shows you what traditional Turkish architecture is like.

Topkapi courtyard

Topkapi 4

Okay, okay. You want some bling?

Topkapi Jewels

The hand isn’t someone stealing the jewels, it’s there to show you the size of the emeralds.

Cleric davvening

In one of the museums they had a library which wasn’t open to the public. A Cleric was in there reading the Koran and singing. He sounded exactly like a Jewish cantor praying. Once again, I found it perplexing how two religions with so much in common can be in such interminable conflict.

The Blue Mosque is very famous and popular with tourists. This is the entrance. First a photo and then an etching. The day I stood there sketching, two women came and sat on the steps. They’d obviously been shopping but all their fine clothes were covered.

Blue Mosque1TheBlueMosque

A view of the entire mosque:

Blue Mosque3

Inside the Blue Mosque.

Blue Mosque2

Below the city lie the Roman cisterns. Wow. Creepy and amazing. Those Romans were so clever.


Having never been to Italy, I was most interested in seeing the Mosaic museum which exhibits art from the time of the Roman empire. Unfortunately the museum was closed. I ran into a young city police officer standing nearby who spoke fluent English. He said he could get me in and went to speak to the man in the ticket booth. I think he was the caretaker. He spoke no English so I’m not sure but he reluctantly agreed to let us in. I have only one photo to show you and this one isn’t very good.

Mosaic Museum

The reason for this is that once we got inside the deserted building, the policeman decided it would be more fun if he treated me like a date. A hot date. I slipped out of his grasp a few times and told him to stop and when he didn’t, I started to run. I ended up running full speed out of the building, zooming past the old ticket seller. I caught a mix of sadness and guilt in his eyes. He might have known what the policeman was like but didn’t know what to do about it. Anyway, I hadn’t expected this from a police officer, especially since I certainly hadn’t indicated in any way I wanted a romantic interlude. And I was wearing very loose loose clothes that covered me from wrist to chin to ankle in spite of the heat because I hadn’t wanted to stand out or offend anyone.

As much as I loved Istanbul, after this incident I was more than ready to leave the city. In my next blog we’ll visit Cappadocia in south central Turkey with a short side trip to Ankara.


Mickey is the author of two mystery novels, School of Lies and Deadly Traffic published by Second Wind, LLC. She is one of the contributing writers to an online serialized novel, Rubicon Ranch III: Secrets.


Filed under musings, photographs, Travel

8 responses to “A Glimpse at Istanbul by Mickey Hoffman

  1. You sure visit some exotic places, Mickey.

  2. You’ve been to such incredible places and seen such wonderful things! I love seeing the world through your eyes.

  3. Yikes, Mickey. Yes, the stranger in a strange land syndrome, especially the female stranger, who doesn’t expect to be accosted by men continuously. Gorgeous pictures, though, and I’m sorry he wouldn’t let you get a better look and more pics of the mosaics from Rome. I’m amazed they haven’t covered up the Empress Theodocia as well as all the other paintings from earlier times. Unhappily, each religion has to wipe out all traces of its’ predecessor.

    • Giving credit where it’s due, the modern Turks aren’t the ones who destroyed those older mosaics. There was a bit of bad blood after the Crusades which the Ottoman Turks couldn’t forget about. Eventually, I’ll put up my photos from Cappadocia where there are lots of sites from the beginnings of Christianity, including several where they claim the Virgin Mary visited. It’s their version of George Washington slept here. No way to say he didn’t. Anyhow, those have been preserved and are very interesting.

  4. We were lucky enough to have a daughter who taught at the International School in Istanbul for two years, so we went to Turkey a few times. I agree with you about the Aya Sofia. Never got to the Mosaic Museum, sadly. I was overwhelmed, though, trying to keep track of the country’s history. (So much history!) Looking forward to your piece (and photos) about Cappadocia.

  5. Another wonderful tour, Mickey. Thanks so much!

  6. tillitsea

    thank you Mickey, I loved my visit to Istanbul but most of the time I was in the company of a male person.
    It’s interesting that you confirm my suspicion that had I been alone I may not have felt so comfortable.
    The hareem section was very moving for me.

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