If you can possibly get to Istanbul, go! While many of the locals we met on our Viking cruise in November 2015 had the hard gruffness that characterizes many Middle Eastern countries, others were delighted at meeting Americans and sharing stories about their magnificent culture.
Not-to-be-missed highlights include:
• Hagia Sophia, a Greek Orthodox church turned imperial mosque turned amazing museum that dates from 537 A.D.
• The Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, has the most visually captivating set of cupolas and domes I’ve seen anywhere. They’re really otherworldly — just unbelievable!
• Topkapi Palace — make sure you leave an entire afternoon for this wonderland of extravaganzas.
• Rüstem Pasha Mosque, which dates to the 1400s, has the prettiest cupola I’ve ever seen.
• The Basilica Cistern, a trippy underground cavern with a cool carving of the Medusa at the rear.
• The ancient ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, about a 35-minute bus ride from the port of Kusadasi. Ephesus figures prominently in the New Testament (I’m a recovering Catholic), and I remember those homilies about Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, and John the Apostle lived in Ephesus and was buried there. The city was settled in the tenth century B.C. and had a population of 33,000 to 56,000 people during the Roman era.
One standout highlight was the awe-inspiring Library of Celsus, built around 125 A.D. in memory of Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, an ancient Greek who served as governor of Roman Asia (105–107) in the Roman Empire. Celsus paid for the construction of the library with his own personal wealth and is buried in a sarcophagus beneath it. The library once held nearly 12,000 scrolls. In front of the Library of Celsus are four statues depicting Wisdom, Virtue, Intellect and Knowledge.