ISTANBUL: THE HAGIA SOFIA AND THE GRAND BAZAAR

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Straddling the divide between east and west, the European city of Istanbul has stood at the crossroads of history since the days of the Byzantine Empire, when it was known as Constantinople. And two of Istanbul’s most popular attractions personify this meeting of cultures: the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. One, a Byzantine church turned Ottoman mosque, the other, a marketplace where exotic goods from the east are on offer at the very edge of the Western world.

Hagia Sophia

Meaning Church of Holy Wisdom in Greek, the Hagia Sophia is considered one of the best surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. Constructed in the 6th century A.D. on the site of an earlier church built by Constantine the Great, its gold mosaics, polychrome marble, and great dome make the Hagia Sophia a breathtaking testament to both art and faith.

Its floorplan is of the classic European basilica — with the main rectangular space serving as the ground floor. The dome, with a diameter of 108 feet, sits atop four sections known as pendentives — concave, triangular structures supported by piers. The second floor gallery is thought to have served as seating for royals during services.

After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Over the following centuries, the minarets were added. In 1935, the site was secularized and turned into a national museum in Europe.

What to see during your visit:

Outside the entrance a series of stone cannonballs line the courtyard — these were used during the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.

The contrast of Christian and Muslim decoration is most noticeable under the main dome where ornate Muslim calligraphy is juxtaposed with the Christian mosaics above.

The ground floor retains much of the decoration and equipment from the Muslim era, while the second floor, in the galleries, is where the Christian mosaics can be found. Some are still being uncovered.

Afterward, be sure to visit the mausoleums of the sultans as well as several pieces from the old Roman-era church just outside the Hagia Sophia.

The Grand Bazaar

One of the largest covered markets in the world, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar has been a shopper’s paradise since at least the 15th century. Its thousands of shops and stalls offer jewelry, ceramics, embroideries, leather goods, furnishings, copper and brassware, antiques, spices, and, of course, Turkish carpets. This huge complex is composed of 60 streets and also houses several mosques as well as a variety of cafes and restaurants. No trip to Istanbul can be complete without at least a few hours spent roaming the many stalls or sitting at a café watching the action. The Grand Bazaar is a taste of old Istanbul, up close and personal.

Tips for your visit:

Much of the market is organized according to category; for instance, an entire street will have carpets for sale, while another will have stalls selling only leather goods. This makes it easier to target just the things you’re after for souvenirs.

On any given day between 250,000 to 400,000 people visit the Grand Bazaar — so be prepared for crowds. And as with any commercial district, petty street crime exists. So be aware that pick pockets and bag thieves roam the Bazaar. Just be mindful of your possessions and your surroundings.

Shop early to save — most salespeople work off of commission and must meet a daily quota. They’re often more apt to strike deals earlier in the day to be sure they reach that daily quota.

That being said, don’t be afraid to haggle — it’s part of the experience and expected. So don’t jump at the first price offered to you. Bring your negotiating A-game to the Grand Bazaar.

Educate yourself on the ancient history of Istanbul on a cruise to Europe with Holland America Line.