Sailing the Bosphorus – By Ferry and By Cruise

Bird in Flight

For millenia the Bosphorus has served as an influential gateway that has, and continues to leave a powerful footprint on human society.  It has been a key actor and primary muse in the generation of numerous empires and provided a fertile trade and bread basket to the peoples and civilizations that have controlled it.  The Bosphorus is a relatively short waterway which connects the Sea of Marma and greater Mediterranean with the Black Sea.  It serves as a dividing line between the European continent to the west and the Asian continent to the east, and is straddled by the great city of Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople.

Istanbul Harbor

The Kadıköy (Kadikoy) Ferry

For visitors based out of hostels and hotels on the European side of Istanbul the ferry docks located just off of the Eminönü‎ tram station offer a budget friendly, and convenient way to see the Bosphorus.  You’ll find three harbor stations (one was under repair during my visit) that offer several different routes.  Having heard that the Kadikoy district on the Asian side of Istanbul was well worth a visit I opted to give it a go.  I also recall that the Uskudar line leaves from the same location.

Istanbul Harbor

The ferries are considered part of the standard public transit infrastructure and run regularly.  You can purchase tokens at the small ferry terminals for 2 TL which are good for one voyage, though you could theoretically continue to ride the ferry back and forth for the duration of its shift.  The ships are large and pedestrian only which varies them somewhat from many of the other local ferries I’ve ridden in the past.

Istanbul Harbor

I can never quite place my finger on the origins of my love of ships. I suppose it might date back to times spent as a toddler in Puerto Penasco, Mexico where we’d spend a month every winter as a family.  Boating, fishing, swimming.  There’s just something about the rocking of a boat, the smell of fresh salty air, and the sound of gulls and waves that is soothing.  The Turkish ferries have large open deck areas as well as cozy interior seating with big windows allowing you to get the most out of the relatively short trip back and forth. Oh, and then there’s the Turkish tea of course which is dirt cheap and a must!

Maiden's Tower in Istanbul

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts my timing was both fantastic and dreadful. I ended up in Istanbul smack dab in the midst of the worst cold front and snow storms they’ve had in 25 years.  The result was an unusually snowy Istanbul, incredible light, and very, very, cold weather.  While this made spending time out on deck rather rough, it also shortened the days and resulted in visually stunning views from the ferry as the European side transitioned from three dimensions to silhouettes, and then faded into the haze as Istanbul’s famous lighthouse and the Asian side slowly emerged and became visible. The lighthouse which, is perched on a tiny island just large enough for the building and a dock, is gorgeous and has been featured in a number of movies the most famous of which was featured in The World is Not Enough, the semi-recent James Bond/007 film.

Sunset Over The Bosphorus

I can’t stress enough how incredible the light was.  This photo highlights the deep yellow/golden color of the light as it struggled to cut through the sea haze and snow clouds.  You can see a mixture of snowflakes and birds in this photo which are semi-indistinguishable.  The entire trip back and forth felt as though I was somehow caught in the midst of a 17th century oil painting.

Sunset Over The Bosphorus

One of the things that really surprised me about Istanbul was the number of major mosques and their size.  These structures are incredible.  They’re gorgeous. They’re ancient and they’re massive.  They also created a really impressive silhouette.  From time to time as a traveler you’re greeted with moments that take your breath away.  This was definitely one of those moments – the type that, if I was religious, I would call divinely inspired.  For me, they resonate as the type of moments where I feel an even deeper awe at the beauty and depth of the universe, humanity, and our relationship with nature.  If I could have paused and drawn out that moment, I’m sure hours would have passed without me noticing.

Bosphorus Cruise

The Tourist Cruise

The following day I opted for one of the actual harbor tours.  In retrospect I should have just gone with one of the longer ferry routes.  Still, it only cost a few dollars more and was a decent enough experience that I didn’t feel like it was a waste.  As we left the docks and steamed in the general direction of the Asian side, the first third of the route was similar to the previous day, only instead of heading to the right we turned left when we reached the coast.

Bosphorus Cruise

This took us up and past a number of beautiful old buildings that included administrative structures, palaces, and the Turkish military academy.  It was a fun look at buildings and areas that were considerably less touristy than the city’s historic center.

Bosphorus at Sunset

They were in widely varied states of repair and it was clear that many were used semi-seasonally to take advantage of Istanbul’s warm weather and plethora of small islands during the summer.  Most featured small docks and a few had built in boat garages, which were a really cool touch.

Bridge Over Bosphorus at Sunset

One of the most memorable buildings along the route was the Beylerbeyi Palace which is a historic Ottoman era summer palace built in the mid 1800s. A beautiful structure, it unfortunately sits immediately beside one of Istanbul’s largest suspension bridges. Despite the jarring visual clash between the two, it does serve as an interesting reminder of how things change.  I know it’s a small detail, and perhaps i’m just easily entertained, but one of my favorite parts of the palace were the series of harbor gates set up along the water.  They added a certain fantasy element to the palace which tugged at my romanticized daydreams of princesses, queens, and luxurious sea yachts.  Granted, of course, that this was the Ottoman Empire and the names varied.  Still, it definitely had Disney-esque potential.

Maiden's Tower in Istanbul

The final leg of the tourist cruise took us back towards the Maidens Tower.  I highly suggest spending time on either one of the cruises or the ferry around sunset.  Even though the skies were partly cloudy, the city silhouette was something I was impressed by once again.  It’s also fascinating to see the hundreds of ships lined up south of the city waiting for permission to make their way up and through the straights, fill up on freight, or to unload their cargo.

Maiden's Tower in Istanbul

The tower/lighthouse has been used in some capacity or another since at least 1100.  At various points it has served as customs station, military installation, lighthouse, restaurant and even a quarantine area.  It also seems to be a very popular destination for the local birds.  While I may find my way out to it during a future trip, my hunch is that it is best enjoyed in passing as a beautiful and historic oddity.

Sunset in Istanbul

By the time we prepared to wrap up the cruise and return to the docks the snow had returned which treated me to another gorgeous sunset.  There’s something about the minaret spires and domes of a mosque that really lends itself to brilliant silhouettes. Add in diffused sunlight reflecting off of dark water, a few birds battling snow and you end up with a very unique experience.   Perhaps part of what makes it such a powerful visual is the seemingly exotic clash between the two.  Though I know it is inaccurate, I always associate mosques and Turkey with Arab cultures and the desert. To see it and its occasional palm trees covered in snow in the midst of a light snow storm was definitely a bizarre contrast.  Yet, perhaps that is fitting for Istanbul and Turkey as a whole – a city and a nation that sits astride two continents and is caught at the center, standing astride two vastly different cultures and worlds.

Hagia Sophia and The Sultan Ahmed “Blue” Mosque

Hagia Sofia at Night

Hagia Sophia

Every art and architecture student has studied the beauty and wonder of  Hagia Sophia. It is a premier example of Byzantine art and construction. This fortress-esque structure has stood as a testament to human ingenuity since 537 AD.  That’s not a typo.   This massive sprawling citadel to God is just under 1,500 years old and has played a pivotal roll in human architectural history.  Some reports suggest that it also held the title of largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1,000 years.  No small accomplishment.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

Amazingly the entire structure was built in less than 10 years, reportedly by a work crew of some 10,000 people, by the decree of Justinian I of Constantinople. It was the third basilica to be built in the location and the largest of the three. Unfortunately, the structure was severely damaged less than 20 years after it was completed by a series of earthquakes which collapsed the main dome. Resiliently, the dome was re-built, re-structured and raised some 20+ feet. These enhancements were completed quickly and done by the year 562.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

The church stood as a shining example of Christiandom until 1453 when the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople. The church was immediately converted into a mosque, a process which resulted in the removal of most of the holy relics, altars, and bells. Interestingly, instead of removing the old Christian mosaics, the Ottomans decided to paint over them.  The interior was re-decorated to serve as a mosque and the building’s four large minarets were added.  The majority of the building’s interior (as seen today) dates back to this period, with the exception of several large christian mosaics which were recently uncovered.

Hagia Sophia (Recovered)

The building served as one of the largest and most impressive mosques in the Muslim world for the next several hundred years. The mosque’s design and appearance was mirrored in other Ottoman mosques and served as inspiration for Istanbul’s numerous structures. It served as the key model for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is now commonly known and recognized as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.  In an interesting turn of history, Hagia Sophia ceased to be a mosque in 1935 when the then newly elected President Ataturk decreed that it be converted into a museum.

Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

The interior of the structure is truly fascinating.  The sheer scale of the open space in the main area will leave you feeling tiny.  The mosaics are beautiful and reflect the periods in history during which they were created. The mixture of cultures, religions and periods in history is evident in all aspects of the structure creating an eclectic mixture that while somewhat cold, still manages to be very rich and engaging.   Stay tuned for video from inside Hagia Sophia in future posts.  Beyond that, you’ll just have to visit yourself!

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

Sultan Ahmed “the Blue” Mosque

The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 and sits immediately opposite Hagia Sophia.  The mosque embodies the epitome of Byzantine-influenced Ottoman construction. It relies on heavy inspiration from Hagia Sophia, but the building’s lines and domes are enhanced while simultaneously integrating a series of six minarets into the original design.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

From the start, the goal while creating the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was to create one of the greatest mosques in the world.  The structure was built on a massive scale and can accommodate 10,000 people during prayer.  It was created to be a purely Muslim structure, in contrast with Hagia Sophia which had a mixed heritage.   It was also fairly controversial initially due to its 6 minarets, which was a violation of accepted policy at that point in time-typically all mosques outside Masjid al-Haram in Mecca were limited to four minarets.

Blue Mosque

Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still in active use and faithful are welcomed to attend for daily prayer.  However, don’t fret – the mosque remains open most of the day for tourists, who are welcome into the mosque and given free roam of just under half the ground floor.  If, that is, you’re willing to leave your shoes at the door and have made sure to dress appropriately.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

The mosque’s nickname comes from the beautiful blue tile work that decorates its interior. This is accentuated by more than 200 blue stained-glass windows.   The tiles and beautifully painted calligraphy work has made the Blue Mosque one of Istanbul’s leading tourist attractions.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Every inch of the building’s interior is covered in rich, padded carpets, beautiful stained-glass windows, or intricately decorated Islamic decorations and calligraphic script. The amount of time and energy that went into these decorations is staggering and an amazing testament to the might, wealth, and glory of the Ottoman Empire at its peak.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

For people familiar with calligraphy, many of the tiles depict beautiful flowing script, which are verses from the Qur’an and were created by Seyyid Kasim Gubari – one of the greatest calligraphers in his era.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

The interior of the Blue Mosque is absolutely gorgeous.  However, it is also slightly overwhelming making the structure feel somewhat smaller and significantly more cozy than Hagia Sophia.  If planning a visit to Istanbul, I highly suggest visiting both structures and dedicating ample time to each. While it is easy to assume that the two will be very similar, the reality is that the experience varies significantly from one to the other.  The Blue Mosque will awe you with its beauty, with its polished architecture and wonderful lighting.  Hagia Sophia will captivate you with its size, scale, and odd mixture of religious and cultural history.

Mosque in Istanbul

Other Mosques Abound

As a first-timer to Istanbul I expected that the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia would be the only two large religious structures in the city.  Especially after seeing the incredible size and scale of the structures it made it hard to imagine that the city could have ever supported a third, fourth, or fifth building of similar scale and scope.

Istanbul at Sunset

So, perhaps you can understand (and share) my surprise at discovering that Istanbul’s skyline is decorated by the impressive domes and needle-like forms of towering minarets from at least half a dozen large mosques.

Have you visited Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque?  What were your favorite parts?  What surprised you?

**Bonus – While visiting Hagia Sophia, there is a free (and separate) series of tombs which can be accessed from the external side of the building.  These serve as the eternal resting place for a number of the region’s influential rulers and religious figures, in addition to boasting their own wealth of beautiful tile and mural work.