After reunited with my two travel buddies in Cairo, our homeward odyssey official began. From Cairo, we flew to Athens, then to Zurich, before crossing the Atlantic back to Canada. In Greece, our plan was to spend a few hours to visit the Acropolis, had supper, and took a bit of rest before heading out to the airport. We expected to see some crowds at the world famous Acropolis, but watching hundreds if not thousands of cruise ship tourists wearing the same cap marching up the citadel hill right below us was still a shock. Despite the crowds, seeing one of the most recognizable icons of Western civilization was definitely an impressive experience.
The Acropolis is home to some of the most recognizable Classical Greek structures: the Parthenon, Propylaea, Erechtheion, Temple of Athena Nike, etc. Most of the Acropolis was constructed under Pericles during the golden age of Athens in the 5th century BC, the century that saw Athen’s victory against the Persians. The Acropolis was a magnificent collaborative work by architects including Iktinos, Kallikrates, and Mnesikles, and sculptors such as Pheidias, Alkamenes, and Agorakritos. This iconic hill was also the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and theatre art of the Western world.
After seeing the Classical ruins, we headed down the northern slope to the Plaka quarter, a colourful and lovely neighbourhood full of lively restaurants, souvenir shops, and eye catching street art. In the evening, we picked a cosy restaurant for dinner. With English menus in hand, we ordered our dishes and I chose sirloin steak. The server tried his best to match our selections from his Greek menu. Somehow my sirloin steak was lost in translation and I ended up getting a whole grilled squid. It was a pleasant surprise and I had zero intention to swap it back to beef. The Mediterranean squid was fresh and delicious, and lived long in my memory. If it was a typical steak dinner, I would definitely not remember a single thing from that particular meal after all these years.
Built upon the 3rd century ruined gate of the Roman fortress, layers of palm tree logs and stones were used to construct the foundation for the Hanging Church. Probably the most famous church in Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church is also one of the oldest. Between 7th and 13th century, the Hanging Church was the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Although much of what we see today of the church’s exterior is from the 19th century, many of the interior architectural features and objects date back to various periods in history, including the 110 Christian icons in which the oldest dates back to the 8th century. Some parts of the church was off limits to tourists during our visit, but nonetheless the Hanging Church was the highlight of our visit of Coptic Cairo.
After Coptic Cairo, we spent much of the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the huge museum filled with treasures from ancient Egypt since 1901. The exhibits seemed disorienting at times, though its collection of the 120,000 ancient Egypt artefacts, such as papyrus, stone statues, jewellery, royal mummies (famous pharaohs such as Ramses II), and funeral accessories were truly magnificent. The most impressive of all was undoubtedly the treasures of the tomb of boy King Tutankhamen. According to plan, the Cairo’s Egyptian Museum would be replaced by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza in 2021. Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would likely affect the visitor numbers for the new museum at its grand opening.
Leaving the museum, we strolled along the Nile and saw a few felucca owners cleaning their boats. We didn’t have the interest to hire a felucca. Instead, we headed to Cafe Niche for a quick bite. Back at Luna Hotel, my two travel buddies rested a bit before heading to the train station for their quick visit of Upper Egypt. For me, I thought more time would be needed for a decent visit of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. Instead, I planned to spend the remaining few days in Egypt on my own. My destination was off the beaten track at Siwa Oasis and the Western Desert.
In the shaded valley of Mount Sinai stands the 1500-year fortified Eastern Orthodox monastery named after Catherine of Alexandria, the Christian saint and virgin who was martyred in the early 4th century in hands of Emperor Maxentius. Monastic life had been known since the 4th century at the Sinai location, in the barren land of austerity and remoteness. In AD 330, Empress Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, built the Chapel of Burning Bush and a small hermit refuge at the site where Moses was supposed to see the burning bush and was named by God as the leader to lead the Israelies out of Egypt. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of the monastery complex that we see today to house the Chapel of the Burning Bush. Amazingly the monastery still remains functioning as a Christian monastery today, and became one of the oldest monastic communities in the world. Due to the site’s significance in the Old Testament, the monastery is considered a sacred pilgrimage site for all sects of Christianity, Islam and Judaism throughout history.
After a sleepless night and hours of hiking in the rugged Mount Sinai, we finally made it to Saint Catherine’s Monastery at around 08:00. From the outside, the monastery resembles a highly fortified defense complex. It was hard to imagine that beyond the high stone walls stand one of the world’s oldest monastery, together with the oldest library in the Western world. The thousand-year-old library contains 3300 manuscripts written in 11 languages: Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Georgian and Slavonic. These manuscripts have became an extremely precious collection: classical Greek texts, medical writing, monastic documents and other texts created in different period in history, including some splendidly made manuscripts with glided letters and illuminations crafted in Constantinople. While the library is off limits to tourists, most visitors and pilgrims who have braved the harsh landscape and remote location of Sinai would find peace and bliss for the real life encounter with the legendary Burning Bush mentioned in the Book of Exodus.
We waited outside the monastery for about an hour until 09:00. Inside the complex, only the main church, a small museum and the exterior courtyard where the Burning Bush stands are opened to the public. At the crowded courtyard, everyone was trying to take pictures of themselves with the legendary Burning Bush. We wandered around the complex for a while and slowly returned to the parking lot of Mount Sinai for the tour minibus. We were quite sleepy and tired by the time we reached Bishibishi. At the hotel we grabbed a quick bite, packed our backpacks, and took the 14:30 bus leaving for Cairo. It was a long journey, passing by the Suez Canal at sunset, and reached Cairo after 8.5 hours on the road. At the bus station in Cairo, we took a taxi to Midan Talaat Harb, a star-shaped plaza at the centre of a shopping district, where our guesthouse was located. It was 23:30 when we arrived, but it felt like 20:00 as most shops and restaurants were still busy. After our hermitic days in the Arabian desert of Wadi Rum and Sinai Peninsula, the vibrant scenes of Cairo almost gave us a little shock.: the way people drive, cross the streets, yell in the shops, and occasionally intimidate tourists for a little tip. This is Cairo, the largest city in Africa, Middle East and the Arab world, with over 20 million of inhabitants who are proud of their pharaohic history.
It was nice to take an early morning walk in the Sultanahmet area. To visit Hagia Sophia, one of the country’s most popular attraction, an early morning start allowed us to beat the crowds to walk around the marvelous structure and enter the museum at 9am. Hagia Sophia to Istanbul is like Colosseum to Rome, Parthenon to Athens or the Great Pyramid of Giza to Cairo. These architecture represent the architectural and engineering marvel that has defined an era in world history. The current building was built in 537 AD during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian. Back then, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world. Its great dome has a diameter of 107 feet, and remained as the largest in the world until the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was completed in the late 16th century. In fact, one of the biggest achievements for architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus was to create the gigantic dome without resting on any solid wall support, but instead, constructed triangular pendentives to transfer the force of the circular structure to a square base.
Throughout history, Hagia Sophia has gone through times of destruction and alterations due to earthquakes and regime change. From 537 to 1453 AD, Hagia Sophia served as an Eastern Orthodox church and housed the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, four minarets were added, Christian figures and decorations were destroyed while mosaic art were plastered over, and the building was converted into the city’s primary mosque, until the Blue Mosque was completed in 1616. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, converted the famous structure into a museum.
Hagia Sophia is one of the most popular tourist attraction in Turkey. We came early in the morning to avoid the tourist groups.
The 1500-year-old structure has been altered several times in history.
After almost a thousand years as an Eastern Orthodox church, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque in 1453. Then in 1935 the building was converted into a museum.
The 40 windows at the dome allow plenty of natural light to enter the interior, and reduce the overall weight of the dome structure.
The interior of Hagia Sophia contains artifacts from the Byzantine and Ottoman era.
The windows in the dome allow natural light to enter the interior.
Richly decorated with mosaics and marble pillars, Hagia Sophia is the most important example of Byzantine architecture in the world. One of the highlights for a visit to check out the mosaic work on the upper level.
Outside the building, the splendid fountain built in 1740 is an Ottoman addition after the conversion into a mosque.
Served as a social gathering pavilion outside of the Hagia Sophia, the Fountain of Ahmed III was built in 1728 during the Ottoman era. The rococo-style fountain stands right outside the gate of Topkapi Palace, the royal palace of the Ottoman Empire.
Our Middle East journey began from Istanbul on 29th of April, 2006.
Formerly known as Constantinople, the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire for over 1500 years, Istanbul is a city full of layers, where kingdoms came and go, and new buildings being built upon ruined ones. Occupying both sides of Bosporus Strait that separates Europe and Asia, Istanbul has always been a venue of cultural exchange between the east and west. The Sultanahmet area in Fatih District was the historical centre of Constantinople, where the emperors of the Roman Empire (330-395), Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (395-1453) and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1923) chose to establish their splendid capital. Bounded three sides by water, the Historic Area of Istanbul is an UNESCO World Heritage site with a concentration of iconic cultural heritage that are precious to human civilization, including Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, etc. Like many tourists, we specifically chose our hostel in Sultanahmet, just a stone throw away from the Blue Mosque. In Sultanahmet, we never needed to walk far to encounter the former glory of the empires.
Legends has it that in 667 BC, the Greeks came to the intersection of Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea and found the city of Byzantium at the peninsula where the current Sultanahmet area is situated.
Because of its strategic location at the sole access point of the Black Sea, Byzantium was soon developed into a trading city. After Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium in the 4th century, Byzantium became Constantinople, and its glorious time as Europe’s largest and wealthiest city officially kicked off.
Defensive walls had been erected to protect Constantinople since Constantine’s time. Walls were also constructed along the waterfront to protect the city from sea attacks. After the partitioning of the Roman Empire, Constantinople remained as the capital of Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire).
In Istanbul, hundreds of underground cisterns were constructed during the Byzantine era. Measured 138m x 65m, Basilica Cistern was constructed by thousands of slaves in the 6th century under the orders of Emperor Justinian.
Probably taken from earlier Roman buildings, two stone heads of Medusa were used as column bases in Basilica Cistern. This mysterious cistern was forgotten briefly in the Middle Ages. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, local residents knew nothing about the cistern, but soon discovered that they were able to obtain water and even fish below their home basement by just lowering a bucket through a hole in the floor. The cistern was rediscovered by scholar Petrus Gyllius in 1545.
The most prominent Byzantine icon is undoubtedly Hagia Sophia. Built in 537, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world, and housed the patriarch seat of Eastern Orthodox Church until the the 15th century.
Standing opposite to Hagia Sophia is another cultural icon of Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque. Inspired by the Byzantine icon Hagia Sophia, the Ottomans left their mark in Constantinople more than 1000 years by constructing the Blue Mosque over the former palace complex of the Byzantine emperors.
Smaller in scale than the iconic monuments, Sultanahmet also host many lesser known historical buildings in the residential neighborhoods.
Walking in Sultanahmet was like going back in time, as if every other street bend was marked by splendid timber houses and pavilions from the Ottoman era.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the Cities introduces readers his childhood Istanbul with a melancholic depiction of the Ottoman houses.
Pamuk’s writing and black and white photos showed me an unique Istanbul beyond the historical palaces, churches and mosques.
Searching for the Ottoman houses in Istanbul was not as easy as I thought, since many had been torn down in recent years.
Due to continuous urban renewal in the historical centre, many Ottoman houses were at risk for redevelopment.
Today, Sultanahmet has become a tourist hub, where many buildings have been converted into hotels and restaurants. In the time of commercialization, even the ruins of a 550-year bathhouse, the Ishak Pasa Hamam, is up for sale.
In Istanbul, we stayed at the friendly Sultan Hostel just two blocks behind the Blue Mosque.
At night, tourists would gather at restaurants in Sultanahmet to enjoy dinner and nargile or Turkish water pipe, along with live performance of the Sufi whirling dance.