I'm off on another trip, this time to Istanbul, Turkey. I'm with a group studying Ottoman history, but we're really looking at sites from all periods of history in Istanbul. Our first day we went to the Haghia Sophia - the former great church of Byzantine times, which was transformed into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest in 1453. Across a beautiful garden with flowers and fountains is the Blue Mosque, built in the time of Sultan Ahmet I - an amazing, beautiful, serene building inside and out. We entered after the early afternoon prayer time was over and saw the soaring domes inside, with blue tiles (hence the name of the mosque) - many tourists but also people praying. I felt that I had entered a different atmosphere from that of contemporary tourist Istanbul, full of people from all over the world gawking at the sites. There is something about Islamic architecture that is truly impressive.
Yesterday we went to the Topkapi Palace, which was the palace of the Ottoman sultans for hundreds of years. Calling it opulent hardly does justice to the place - many buildings, spectacular blue and white tiles in the harem, treasures of the world amassed by the Ottomans and displayed in the Treasury. There are also holy Muslim relics, including the cloak of the Prophet and his sword, an impression of his footprint, hairs from his beard in reliquary boxes. In the room with the relics a man sat reciting from the Qur'an, since it is a Muslim pilgrimage site. It felt strange to be entering such a place as a tourist - but this is a feature of many holy places, which serve both as places of pilgrimage for the faithful and as sites for tourists to visit and touch the strange and exotic. (In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount serve both functions).