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Spring Break is a time for college and grad students to let off steam and escape the last days of winter. Many students head south for warmer weather, to Florida, Puerto Rico, or Mexico. For me, I always want to travel to an interesting place where I can experience a different culture and learn history. Alas, few agree with me. Travel abroad can get expensive. Remote countries aren't "fun" for most people. But my classmate and friend Andy Holland, a third-year student soon to be an assistant prosecutor at the District Attorney's Office at the Bronx, had a similar desire to travel overseas. Most of my travel has been to Asia; Andy is more of a Latin American adventurer; but we were both interested in seeing more of the world and discussed a destination in early 2005.

We thought about Greece. We thought about Morocco. But in the end we chose Turkey. I saw Istanbul last year on my way to Kazakhstan, but this time we planned to see more of Turkey proper: the Greek Ruins, the hills of Cappadocia, and some proper modern Turkish cities.

Andy wasn't the only one interested. My Dad, who has seen and heard much of my previous travels, didn't need much prodding to sign up. We bought plane tickets on Turkish Airlines shortly just two weeks prior to departure, and with precious little planning we set off for Turkey. Dad and I arrived in Istanbul on March 11, and Andy, having to take the MPRE on the 12th, left the US on the 13th to join us in Istanbul on the 14th.

We agreed to a rough draft of our route and played it by ear as we went. In the end, here was our journey:

Having visited Istanbul last year, I will refrain from posting repeat photos. However, Dad and I saw plenty of new sites. Perhaps the most important site was Aya Sofia, the enormous domed chuch built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The Ottomans converted the church into a Mosque after taking Constantinople in the 15th century, and today the building is a museum. Last year I was unable to enter because of renovations. While still taking place, we were able to enter and marvel at the architecture and restored icons.

On the outside, the building does not appear as impressive as the neighboring Blue Mosque (see below). That's partially because it was built one thousand years before, and additional supports have been added to support the unstable dome. Inside is a different experience...

A photograph can only capture so much. But you must truly crane your neck to view the dome. The current scaffolding gives some perspective to the enormity of the structure. The calligraphy circles were added after the church was converted into a mosque.

The second floor is accessible by walking up a ramp, originally constructed so that the Byzantine royalty could pray on the second floor.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Arab Muslim invaders from North Africa to China defaced graven images of disciples, Buddhas, icons, and scultures with chisels, weapons, and fire. The Ottoman Turks were less destructive. The icons in Aya Sofia were painted in plaster, which has made modern restoration relatively simple.

The ever present Turkish military, often on guard at tourist sites.

On our very first night we met up with Doruk, a friend from the United States. Doruk was a classmate of Hitomi at Rutgers. He's a fun guy to be with, and we occasionally hung out and even saw The Passion together. He returned to Istanbul last summer, and he now works for an American company by day and attends night school for an MA in International Business. His father is unfortunately very sick, but nonetheless came out to meet with us and treat us to dinner. We drove up the Bosphorus and found a nice restaurant that served us a delicious dinner of beer, salad, and fish.

Selling spices in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, and bread on the street.

The Blue Mosque. Built on the orders of Sultan Ahmet, the mosque was built in less than seven years. Directly opposite Aya Sofia, the Sultan wanted to make sure he showed the world that the Turks could construct a bigger dome then Hagia Sophia. Alas, his chief architect reported this was impossible, reportedly saying, "We cannot build it bigger, but we can build it better." He was right -- the proportions of the main dome and semidomes are perfect, and combined with the splendid minarets, the mosque is beautiful.

There is an interesting story to the six minarets. For a thousand years, the only mosque with six minarets was in Mecca. When the Blue Mosque matched it, the King of Mecca demanded that the Sultan destroy one of the minarets at the Blue Mosque. Instead the Sultan sent his architects to Mecca and constructed a seventh, Ottoman minaret there.

Another great site was the Byzantine Port. It was probably here that the Italian and Frankish soldiers of the Fourth Crusade beached their ships and invaded Constantinople in the early 13th century. Today, the port walls are crumbling, but accessible using some minor acrobatics.

On the morning of the 14th, we met up with Andy in the garden in front of the Blue Mosque. Despite the jet lag, he was in good spirits and happy to be in Turkey. We enjoyed a Turkish bath and then purchased bus tickets to the Turkish city of Bergama


c. 2005 Christopher Gunson