Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul and Turkish baths

We began the day by waking up to a freezing hostel room. We flipped a coin to see who had to brew tea for the other. Jordan gallantly made tea on the other side of the room and brought it to me. Evidence below.


We joined a walking tour (purchased with the bus tour) and went along the old Hippodrome and eventually into Hagia Sofia. The Hippodrome (which is now part of Sultanahmet square) is marked by two obelisks and the remains of a bronze snake pillar. It was the superdome of ancient Constantinople during the Byzantine empire. It was built when the town was still called Byzantium, but when Constantine moved the capital of Rome from the city Rome to Byzantium in 324 AD, he enlarged the Hippodrome. Because of its importance as a social place, it was the epicenter of many riots (sport teams, political factions, and religious arguments included). The Nika riots of 532 damaged the Hippodrome the most, as well as destroyed the Hagia Sofia (the second church on the site at that time). The main political factions at the time united during one of the games to threaten Emperor Justinian I’s claim to the throne. He thought of fleeing, but his wife Theodora (who began life as an erotic dancer around the Hippodrome and worked her way up to wool weaver, then empress) told him not to. As the riot grew, the rioters burned half of Constantinople, including the Hippodrome, Hagia Sofia, and other important buildings. Justinian eventually sent the army into the Hippodrome to quell the violence. In the end, about 30,000 people died.

Afterward, Theodora and Justinian had to rebuild the Hagia Sofia, the third and final rebuilding. That is what we saw next.


Here’s part of the dome. The place is utterly massive and breathtakingly beautiful. All the yellow paint is actually gilded gold on the mosaics. It was the patriarchal seat of the Greek Orthodox church after the Great Schism of 1053. “Hagia Sofia” in Greek means “Holy Wisdom.” The basilica has (barely) survived several earthquakes in the first millennium and the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. Many of the missing gold mosaic pieces went into Crusaders’ pockets at that time. After that, during the Latin occupation the basilica became a Roman Catholic cathedral until 1261. The Ottomans invaded in 1453 (which is a whole, fascinating story in and of itself). Women, children, and the elderly claimed sanctuary inside the Hagia Sofia, but in the end they were killed or taken as slaves. Sultan Mehmet II (who was 21 at the time) immediately converted the building into a mosque and over time Constantinople became known as Istanbul. All mosaics of people were covered over with plaster until 1935, when it became a museum. Evidences of both the Christian and Islamic faiths are still everywhere throughout the building.



We stumbled across Turkey’s Archeological Museum next, which cost 15 lira apiece (and they didn’t accept ISICs). We looked at lots of pottery shards. I’m not really sure why every museum has to include cases upon cases of pottery shards. The general public doesn’t get the significance. Anyway, the visit was still great because we were able to see artifacts from not just Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul but also ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.

I had been so excited to see three of the great Western civilizations in one month (Egypt, Greece, Rome), but was sad that I’d never get a chance to visit the “cradle of civilizations.” The territory lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, so basically Iraq with a little bit of Syria and Iran. Not good places for Americans to go these days. Sure, I’d seen Babylonian statues at the British museum, but that’s a good thousand years past Gilgamesh and Nineveh and Ur and such (not that I know anything about either Gilgamesh or the city of Ur). In the Bronze age (3300-1200 BC) Mesopotamia included Sumer, Babylonian, Akkadian, and Assyrians. Some of these are mentioned in the Bible. The others aren’t mentioned because they’re older.  The Sumerians invented the lyre, the wheel, and helped with cuneiform writing. They’re also the reason we use 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day. Very little is really known about the oldest parts of this ancient civilization. We use the Epic of Gilgamesh to interpret the culture rather than the other way around (unlike most literature). It is (I believe) the oldest written story we have, the earliest fragment from the Third Dynasty of Ur, or roughly 2100 BC.


This is a peace agreement between Ramses II of Egypt (remember that big tomb in Abu Simbel?) and Hittite king Hattusili III around 1259 BC. While I still know next to nothing about Mesopotamia, the first great civilization, Jordan and I could recognize these:


From the Ishtar gate in ancient Babylon, commissioned by Nebuchadnezzer II (the same king with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego). A smaller replica of the whole gate is in Berlin. It was built roughly 575 BC, to give a better idea of how ancient Gilgamesh and the Sumerians were.

Afterward we went to Miniaturk, a new park with lots of model buildings. It’s really neat, but it was way too cold to spend more than 15 minutes looking at them. It cost 10 lira per person to get in, but was well worth the cost. Most models are of sites in Turkey or neighboring areas, but some include the ancient wonders of the world (Temple of Artemis and the mausoleum).


This model is as close as we’re going to get to Cappadocia this trip. It had been a part of the plan until our flights delayed us for too long.


Jordan posed by the city of Mardin, a very ancient town in southeastern Turkey along the Tigris.

We ended the day (after hemming and hawing over the price) at a Turkish bath. Çemberlitaş Hamam, to be precise. This is, we think, the least-expensive-yet-still-good hamam near Sultanahmet (which most tourists stay in). We also read a review of how to bathe that included specific information for this bath house (hamam) so it worked well. Jordan paid 90 lira for his traditional service, which included a peştemal (a red/white checked long, thin towel), 15 minutes of scrubbing by an attendant, and the use of towels and toiletries. I paid 153 lira for their luxury service, which included everything from the traditional service and added 30 minute oil massage at the end. Lap of luxury, indeed.

This bath is a good choice (besides its prices) because it is authentic. It’s right across the street from the Çemberlitaş tram station. This tram station is in between the stop for the Grand Bazaar and the stop for Sultanahmet. If it’s good weather, it’s probably an easy 15 minute walk from most hotels in the Sultanahmet district. It was constructed by Mimar Sinan (a famous architect) in 1584 and I believe has been in use ever since. Both tourists and locals go here, so there’s a good mix. I will give more details in my women’s guide post.

For anyone thinking of visiting a Turkish bath, What to Expect When Visiting a Turkish Bath is a helpful website that we used when deciding what to do. I absolutely adored my experience and want to do it again. Jordan also was glad he did it (I kinda forced him because he didn’t like the idea of another man washing his body).

Jordan’s six pieces of advice to men planning to do this (besides the tips in the above article):

  1. All the other men are mostly naked too. All sorts of body types. Let that comfort you. Or gross you out. Either one.
  2. Don’t freak out when your attendant (scrubber/bather person) goes pretty far north up your legs.
  3. The male attendants are pretty rough. You will feel more pummeled rather than stroked.
  4. It’s okay if you’ve never done it before. You definitely look like a first-time tourist, but it’s okay because lots of other people do too.
  5. It is a public bath, so I followed the suggested cycle of rinse, scrub, wash, then rinse again.
  6. The hot water is really freaking hot, and the cold water is really freaking cold.

My experience was a little different, and I will detail the experience in a later blog post.

Categories: Turkey | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul and Turkish baths

  1. I haven’t been to Istanbul and have been wanting to go for a very long time. Hopefully this year.

    Love the Turkish bath experience. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul and Turkish baths | Christians Anonymous

  3. Great photos, especially of Madrin.

  4. Nancy Redding

    Love Jordan’s succinct but descriptive Turkish bath experience!

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