Vatican City – The Smallest Country in the World Has Much to Offer (even if you’re not Roman Catholic)

St. Peter's Basilica's Dome

St. Peter’s Basilica’s Dome

Home of the Pope and two of the most important churches in Christianity, Vatican City will never fail to astonish. We spent no less then 7 hours admiring the paintings lining the walls of the Sistine Chapel, the Hall of Maps, St. Peter’s Basilica and many other wondrous Christian museums.

Our day in Vatican City started at 8:00 am. After checking our pre-bought tickets, we hurriedly speed-walked through the museum, completely bypassing many amazing paintings and sculptures in our rush to arrive at the Sistine Chapel before the thousands of group tours could. As we walked through the doors to the Sistine Chapel, we were completely unprepared for just how amazing this site would be.

The Last Judgment - Sistine Chapel

The Last Judgment – Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel contained 343 magnificent frescos painted by Michelangelo on the hockey rink-sized ceiling and walls, depicting the story of Christianity. From Adam and Eve to Noah’s Arc, these wonderful works of art were beyond any paintings I had seen before. Astonishingly, these awe-inspiring paintings on the ceiling took Michelangelo just over 4 years to complete – from 1508 to 1512. My favourite piece though was not his amazing ceiling, but instead his interpretation of The Last Judgment. Painted on the altar wall 15 years after the ceiling, this floor to ceiling masterpiece portrays hundreds of corpses being removed from their graves and taken by angels to either heaven or hell. The most unusual part of this painting was the flayed, barely recognizable carcass of a supposed Michelangelo on his way to eternal damnation.

 

After soaking up the beauty of the chapel for over two hours we found ourselves exiting the Sistine Chapel still amazed by how incredible the room was. As we continued through rooms painted and designed by Botticelli, Raphael and more, I couldn’t help but compare them to the great masterpiece of the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo created 500 years ago.

Matt and I in the Hall of Maps

Matt and I in the Hall of Maps

We continued our exploration in the Vatican museums. Dating from even before the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican museums contain the greatest collection of Christian art in the world. With paintings from the 9th through to the 20th century, the museums beautifully display the evolution of perspective and colour in painting throughout time. One of my favourite museums inside the Vatican was the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche or the Gallery of Maps. Commissioned in 1580, it took artist Ignazio Danzi 3 years to complete the 40 beautiful panels that line the 120-meter gallery walls. Showcasing highly accurate maps of the regions in Italy, the Gallery of Maps is one of the most visited rooms in the Vatican museums after the Sistine Chapel.

Once we had finished our visit of the museums, we decided to grab some lunch, and have a bit of a break before visiting our next stop, St. Peter’s Basilica – the biggest church in the world.

St. Peter's Basilica from the Front

St. Peter’s Basilica from the Front

Dodging hawkers and hordes of tourists, we made our way through the masses and towards St. Peter’s Basilica. The original St. Peter’s Basilica was built in the 4th century, and rebuilt on orders of the Pope in 1506. This church also supposedly holds the remains of St. Peter, one of Jesus’ Apostles, and the first Pope. For this reason many Popes have been, and want to be, interred in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Once we had finally reached St. Peter’s Square, we found multiple security check lineups that twisted and turned for what seemed to be forever! Through the crowds, my mom spotted a much shorter queue, which we quickly jumped into before anyone else could. After an extensive security check – it was similar to that of an airport – we continued up the marble staircase and on to the threshold.

Michelangelo's "La Pietà"

Michelangelo’s “La Pietà”

Quite a few photos later we were stepping though the massive metal doors and into the Basilica itself. Awe was probably my first emotion as my gaze swept over the breathtaking room. As we walked further in, I still couldn’t find any words as I glanced at the many elaborate grave statues of some of the most important people in the Roman Catholic Church. Next, I glanced to the right, I saw the famous “Pietà”, Michelangelo’s only statue with his signature on it. It depicts in marble the beautiful Madonna, clutching a dead Jesus on her lap, with a heartbroken expression on her young face. This piece was particularly controversial in Michelangelo’s time, as Mary appears to be the same age, if not younger then Jesus himself.

After admiring the “Pietà”, we continued down the right aisle, towards the grand altar, under which St. Peter supposedly rests and a famous metal statue of him. It has been so worshiped that one of his feet is much shorter then it used to be because many people have touched it over time to pay their respects.

Metal Statue of St. Peter

Metal Statue of St. Peter

Soon, we noticed that many people were moving through a set of gates and towards the seating for mass. We then realized that it was 5:00 pm, and mass was probably starting soon. My mother instantly decided that we must also go to mass. As I am not Roman Catholic or religious at all, as well as the fact that I have never been to a Catholic mass before, I was hesitant. A few minutes later we were traipsing though the gate, completely unquestioned by the numerous guards that were denying most people entrance. After easily finding seating, the mass quickly started. The two organs impressed me immensely because they were the best I had ever heard.

Two priests and a bishop soon entered, and the mass was started. As it was in Latin, I couldn’t understand a word of it, but all of the worshipers around me seemed to know exactly what to do. I happily followed along, copying the motions of the nuns in front of me. The 60-minute mass ended all too fast, and in a swirl of music the bishop and priests grandly exited the hall, leaving many weeping devout in their wake.

The end of the mass meant our visit to St. Peter’s Basilica was nearing its end. As we continued back up the left aisle and then through the giant front doors into the square, I reflected on the amazing architecture, painting, statues and mosaic art we had just seen.

Dome inside St. Peter's Basilica

Dome inside St. Peter’s Basilica

The Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica are the some of most important places of Roman Catholicism in the world, and I am extremely grateful to have had the chance to visit these amazing structures, and see such amazing artwork, at only 13 years of age. Many religious adults have never visited the home of the Roman Catholic Pope, and I feel privileged to have been able to admire these great monuments.

 

 

 

Dome in St. Peter's Basilica

Dome in St. Peter’s Basilica

The Front of St. Peter's Basilica

The Front of St. Peter’s Basilica

Spiral Staircase in the Vatican Museums

Spiral Staircase in the Vatican Museums

Hall of Maps

Hall of Maps

Matt, me and a Guard in front of St. Peter's Basilica

Matt, me and a Guard in front of St. Peter’s Basilica

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Bet You Didn’t Know This About Da Vinci!

  1. Leonardo DaVinciLeonardo was an illegitimate child, whose father was a merchant and whose mother was from a lower class than his father.
  2. Leonardo did not have a last name because he was not allowed to take his father’s last name.
  3. Da Vinci means “from Vinci” the town where he was born.
  4. He had no formal education but was an apprentice in an art guild at age 16 where he learned to paint.
  5. Leonardo never finished the Mona Lisa. He carried the painting around with him until he died. He worked on it constantly and technically it was never finished.
  6. He wrote from right to left. The reason for this is he was left-handed and had taught himself to write.
  7. Leonardo is known for his paintings, such as the Mona Lisa, but he was more of a war machine designer than a painter.
  8. Leonardo was the first person to have designed a version of a tank.
  9. He designed a submarine or underwater boat where people could breathe underwater.
  10. He designed a machine for walking under water similar to a SCUBA gear. He suggested that people could walk on the bottom of a shallow riverbed using a tube that went to the surface to breathe.
  11. He designed a mechanism for wartime that would for pushing ladders off walls of a fortification.
  12. He designed a giant crossbow that shot silently and could intimidate the enemy and shoot rocks and fire bombs.
  13. He designed the mortar for war. This machine was similar to a cannon but instead of shooting straight, the device would shoot upwards and strike the enemy from above.
  14. He designed the bicycle, a two-wheeled transportation device with a chain and gear system.
  15. He theorized about human flight suggesting that it was possible for people to fly with fake wings.
  16. Leonardo kept a lot of notes. There are at least 15000 pages of his notes in various museums. One notebook belongs to Bill Gates who bought it for 30.8 million US dollars in 1994.
  17. He never married or had any children.
  18. Leonardo and Michelangelo weren’t friends, but instead they were archenemies.
Da Vinci Museum - Venice

Da Vinci Museum – Venice

Mona Lisa - Up Close

Mona Lisa – Up Close

The Bicycle

The Bicycle

Human Flight

Human Flight

Ideas for Human Flight

Ideas for Human Flight

Vitruvian Man

Vitruvian Man

Mortar for War

Mortar for War

Mona Lisa at the Lourve

Mona Lisa at the Lourve

Exploring Ancient & Modern Delphi

Exploring Ancient Delphi

Me at Ancient Delphi

The ancient site of Delphi was supposedly created when Zeus sent out two eagles from both sides of the earth. The eagles supposedly met above Delphi. The Greeks built a temple for the god, Apollo, and for his oracle here. In the past, people from all over Greece, and many other countries, came to Delphi to seek information or advice from the Oracle.

The Oracle of Delphi was a woman and was only available to offer advice for nine days of each year. She sat on a tripod-like stool inside the Temple of Apollo above a fissure in the ground. Gases came up through the fissure and the Oracle would breath these in. Supposedly she was receiving messages from the god Apollo. She was really just hallucinating and saying crazy things. The priests at Delphi interrupted what she said and then passed this information on to the person who asked the question.

Theatre at Delphi

Theatre at Delphi

Stadium at Ancient Delphi

Stadium at Delphi

During the nine days when people were waiting to see the Oracle, there were shows in the theatre. There were also sporting events held at the stadium that were supposedly better than the ancient Olympic games.

At ancient Delphi today, one of the grandest monuments is a sculpture of three bronze snakes wrapped around each other. Only part of this column of snakes can be seen today. The snakeheads and the golden tripod that was on the top are missing. This monument at Delphi is a replica because the original was stolen and taken to Istanbul. I saw the original in the Hippodrome when we were in Istanbul.

Replica Snake Column at Delphi

Replica Snake Column at Delphi

Snake Column In Istanbul

Snake Column In Istanbul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Modern Delphi

Delphi from Above

Delphi from Above

My family and I were in the town of Delphi, Greece for five days during Orthodox Easter. Easter is one of the most important holidays in Greece. On Good Friday after dark, the whole town walked through the streets with many candles and a giant cross with Jesus Christ on it. A marching band, followed by a priest, led the people through the streets. We watched from the sidewalk.

On Easter Sunday in early May, my family and I hiked from the centre of Delphi to the top of the mountain that Delphi is located on. The paths zigzagged up the mountain and it took us about 2½ hours to get to the top. Near the top, my dad, my sister and I climbed out on to a big rock that dropped off about 300 meters. My mother did not come because she was scared of falling off. Thousands of years ago, non-believers of Christianity were thrown off this rock to their deaths.

Locals Roasting Lamb

Locals Roasting Lamb

On Easter Sunday, before and after the hike the townspeople were roasting whole lambs on spits in the streets. Alex thought this looked gross and I thought it looked creepy. In the evening, there was dancing to celebrate Easter in front of the church that we got to watch with the locals. The teenagers were setting off fireworks and firecrackers all night, which was annoying because I could not sleep. Overall, I really enjoyed staying in Delphi and visiting the ancient site.

 

 

Dad, Alex & Me - Throwing Rock

Dad, Alex & Me – Throwing Rock

Ancient Delphi

Ancient Delphi

Temple of Apollo Close Up

Temple of Apollo Close Up

Locals Dancing on Easter

Locals Dancing on Easter

Exploring Ruins of Ancient Greece – Olympia

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The Original Olympic Track 

The most important cultural and spiritual holiday on the Ancient Greek calendar, the Olympics, was a ginormous ceremony. Held every 4 years from 700 BCE to 393 CE, these ceremonies celebrated athleticism and paid tribute to the Gods. Over 50000 athletes and citizens would gather to celebrate. The Olympic games grew so important that time was eventually marked by the Olympics – called Olympiads.

 

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Platform for Judges on the Track

During these Olympic games a variety of different events were held: javelin, discus, running and wrestling were few of many. The Greeks also invented an event called “free for all”, which was basically an early gladiatorial performance. Two athletes would fight to the death with only two rules – no eye poking and no biting. For the most part, the Olympics were for men. Unmarried women were only permitted to compete in one event; an event dedicated to Hera.

 

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Temple of Zeus with Reconstructed Column

The Greeks glorified the human body and so the male athletes competed in the nude. All male participants, and eventual trainers of the male athletes, had to be naked. The rule about nudity of the trainers was created when one of the trainers was found to have been a female who had pretended to be a male. From that point on, all people involved – except spectators – were obligated to be undressed. Nearly 1200 years after their creation, the Christian Emperor Theodosius III ended the Olympics because he considered the games a pagan celebration.

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Columns in the Temple of Hera

 

As the Olympics weren’t just a celebration of sport but also of the Gods and Goddesses, there were many temples and shrines on the site that honored the Gods. The temples of Zeus and Hera were amongst the biggest. The grand temple of Zeus was constructed of imported white marble from Paros. It would still be erect today, if Theodosius III had not knocked it down after he ended the Olympic games. The remains of the columns can be seen scattered near and around its original base. This temple, also once held the legendary 13-meter tall marble statue of Zeus that is now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, this statue was stolen, and like the Athena Parthenos, was carted off to Constantinople where it disappeared into the ravages of time. The temple of Hera is older then that of Zeus, but was created with the porous local stone before the Greeks were able to move marble over large distances. Because Hera’s temple was made of a lighter stone, it degraded overtime but fortunately parts are still standing and visible today.

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Matt and I on the Starting Line, Olympic Track

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend about 1½ hours at the site itself, as it was a very, very rainy day. Luckily, the rain had stopped for a bit, and Matthew and I got to run on the remains of the original 200-meter Olympic running track. It was amazing to run on such an old and important track and to imagine myself participating in the 200-meter finals over 2500 years ago. Also, as I stood under my umbrella, in front of the temple of Zeus, I wondered where the great statue of the king of the gods was today. Maybe it had been broken up into pieces, or bought by a very wealthy collector, but I doubt that we will ever know what really happened.

I highly enjoyed visiting the ancient site of Olympia, running on the first Olympic track ever and exploring its very old ruins. The experience I had was definitely worth being soaked through and muddy by the end of the visit.

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Arch that Athletes Would Take to Enter the Track

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Triangular Column Outside the Temple of Zeus that Survived

Exploring Ruins of Ancient Greece: Mycenae

View of Mycenae

View of Mycenae

Mycenae, the civilization that followed the Minoans but essentially founded Greece. Accredited with creation of the Greek language, influence future myths and production of magnificent structures, some of which can still be seen today. In a mere 400 years, from 1600 BCE to 1100 BCE, the Mycenaean civilization thrived and conquered most of modern Greece. We were lucky enough to visit the archeological site of Mycenae.

 

 

Remains of the old town and view

Remains of the old town and view

This site houses the most popular set of ancient Mycenaean ruins in Greece, receiving 1000s of tourists every day. We left for our adventure through these 3500 year old ruins early in the morning on a free shuttle. As there was no local bus running to the site and it happened that there was a half marathon on the day we visited, there were free shuttles leaving Argos to transport runners to the starting line. We happily hopped on one, pretending, horribly I might add, that we were actually planning to run the race. I was surprised that we weren’t turfed from the bus instantly, as our acting skills are terrible.

 

The Lion Gate

The Lion Gate

We arrived at the Mycenaean site by 8:15 – only a few minutes after it had opened, and because it was early we were some of the first visitors. We were able to enjoy the most impressive parts alone, whereas my mom, who had visited the year before, had said that there were thousands of other tourists at that time.

All that can bee seen today are the remains of a fortress, the ruins of a small town and many tombs of the Mycenaeans. The main entrance to the ruins has been nicknamed the Lion Gate. Probably the most recognizable part of the entire site, this famous gate is known for the depiction of two lionesses standing in a heraldic pose, just above the lintel. It was amazing to take pictures of this gate with no one else in the background, unlike all of my mom’s photos from last year. The first area along the path after the gate was Grave Circle A, where Heinrich Schliemann found the supposed “Death Mask of Agamemnon”, which is now housed in the National Museum of Greece. It has recently been proven unlikely that this mask actually belonged to this particular King of Mycenae, as Agamemnon was supposedly alive 300 years earlier then the mask dates, and is now also thought that he was probably no more then a myth.

Tholos dome

Tholos Dome

After exploring the graves, we continued to wander through the fortress, seeing the remains of the castle, the cistern and the artisan’s workshops. We had the chance to see some half-worked chips of ivory, gold, semi-precious and precious stones from about 1300 BCE that had been used by the artists in these workshops. Our last stops in Mycenae were the tholos tombs. Shaped like beehives on the inside, these grand burial sites for royalty rivaled the Egyptian pyramids. The builders used stones with an average weight of 10 tones, whereas the pyramids stones are a maximum of 5 tones. The doors alone were about 8m x 5m x 1m, with lintels of over 125 tones – in other words – ginormous! As the space was shaped like a cone, the acoustics in these tombs were amazing. Even by stepping on the ground a sound would be created that was incredibly loud, and echo for a long time.

A fortress of the ages, Mycenae was one of my favourite places in Greece, along with Olympia. Stay tuned for my exploration of the place where the first Olympic games were held.

Pieces of gold jewelry found in Grave Circle A

Pieces of gold jewelry found in Grave Circle A

Grave Circle A

Grave Circle A

Grave Circle A - Close Up

Grave Circle A – Close Up

"The Death Mask of Agamemnon", found in Grave Circle A

“The Death Mask of Agamemnon”, found in Grave Circle A – National Museum of Greece

Golden Bull found in Grave Circle A

Golden Bull found in Grave Circle A

Entrance to Tholos Tomb

Entrance to Tholos Tomb

 

 

 

 

The Magnificent Parthenon

Heading Up to the Parthenon at the Gates

Heading Up to the Parthenon at the Gates

While we were in Athens, my family and I visited the great Parthenon. The Parthenon is a temple to the goddess Athena, the patron god of Athens. The Parthenon was built between 447 BCE to 432 BCE. It took the workers 15 years to finish the magnificent Parthenon. The workers used 22 000 tons (49280000 pounds) of white marble to build this structure. The Parthenon was built to show the wealth and power of Greece and to show respect to the goddess Athena.

The Parthenon is located on the Acropolis and is known as its crowning jewel. The Acropolis can be seen from anywhere in the city of Athens because it’s a small mountain in the centre and is the tallest thing in Athens by 100 meters. The Parthenon has 8 columns on each end and 16 columns on each side. The Parthenon does not have one straight line in the whole building. The columns bulge out in the center by five centimeters. The portico is a bit curved and the stairs are also curve down at the sides. The reason for this is to create an illusion so that from ground level below the Parthenon looks straight.

Portico with Remaining Few Marbles

Portico with Remaining Few Marbles

There use to be many sculptures above the columns all the way around the Parthenon. In the 19th century when the Turkish ruled Greece, Lord ‘Sticky Finger’ Elgin from England took many of the marble sculptures above the front and back entrances. These taken sculptures are now housed in the British Museum and are called the Elgin Marbles. There used to be a 13-meter statue of Athena made of gold and ivory called the Athena Parthenos inside the Parthenon. Unfortunately, this statue was supposedly stolen by the Turks and disappeared in Constantinople.

The Parthenon - End View

The Parthenon – End View

The Parthenon was used first as a Greek temple. Over the centuries, it was used as a Christian church and a Muslim mosque. It was partly destroyed in the 17th century when the Arabs stored gunpowder in the centre of the temple of Athena. Of the eight hundred canon shots shot at the Parthenon, one hit the gunpowder storage area causing a ‘big bang’. During the 20th and 21st centuries, the government of Greece has been trying to restore the Parthenon. The first restoration work in the 20th century did not work out because the restorers used metal clamps that corroded the original marble and destroyed it. Nowadays, the restorers use a titanium mix that does not corrode the marble. This is important so that the ruins remain in good shape in the future. There was a lot of equipment for fixing the Parthenon while I was there, but I still extremely enjoyed seeing it.

The Parthenon - Up Close

The Parthenon – Up Close

Alex & I with the Parthenon in the background

Alex & I with the Parthenon in the background

Parthenon - View from the Modern Olympic Stadium

Parthenon – View from the Modern Olympic Stadium

Acropolis from the Window of the Acropolis Museum

Acropolis from the Window of the Acropolis Museum

Parthenon - View from the Modern Olympic Stadium

Parthenon – View from the Modern Olympic Stadium

Amazing Physical Geography and Fascinating Geology of Turkey

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Chimney in Cappadocia

Cave Church Paintings - 10th C.

Cave Church Paintings – 10th C.

We visited several sites in Turkey where the physical geography and geology was unlike any other place I’d visited before. Cappadocia and Pamukkale are both sites where I was stunned by the amazing feats that Mother Nature could pull off – I mean creating a landscape of fluted rocks sticking up from an arid plain, and placing a huge mountain of calcite in the middle of nowhere is very impressive!

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House dug out of a chimney

Three volcanoes erupting frequently created the chimneys of Cappadocia. Lava flow formed a type of rock called tuff – a light porous rock formed by the hardening of volcanic ash. Wind and rain cut this rock into valleys of steep cliff faces with pointy and unusual chimneys sticking straight up out of the ground. At different times between the 3rd century C.E. and the 12th century C.E., the people of Cappadocia lived inside these rock formations, carving multi-level houses out of the soft stone. These Cappadocians were Christian; therefore, they also carved tombs, churches, nunneries, and chapels out of the chimneys. They would paint images of Jesus, Mary, various saints and disciples on the walls, some polychromatic and others monochromatic. The region of Cappadocia was amazing, I could go for a short walk through the middle of what felt like a desert and be able to visit these old cave houses and churches without restrictions. The feeling of exploration was exhilarating, and I imagined that my family and I were explorers finding these historic places for the first time.

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Some calcite pools on the side of the mountain

The physical geography and geology of Turkey continued to amaze me as we carried on to the small town of Pamukkale and its fascinating calcite mountain. This calcite mountain was created by a series of earthquakes. These quakes opened up numerous hot springs in this area. The water inside the springs has a high content of minerals, especially calcite. When the hot water evaporates and loses its warmth, the calcite that did not evaporate solidifies leaving white residue on any object that the water flowed over.

 

 

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Walking up the side of the mountain

The water from these hot springs flows over the mountainside and descends over one kilometer to the bottom. This creates a mountain that appears to be covered in snow from afar. In Turkish, Pamukkale means “Cotton Castle”, and after seeing this mountain of white from a distance, surrounded by cotton fields, I couldn’t agree more with its name. It definitely looked like a glacier in the middle of other green lush mountains. Though, given that it was over 30 degrees Celsius outside, a glacier would have been impossible!

 

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Walking up the side of the mountain

To protect the calcite deposits and to keep these clean and white, we had to remove ours shoes before entering the site and stepping on the calcite deposits. The water is continually flowing and these deposits form a hard-ridged pattern, similar to the ridges in sand on a beach caused by the waves. We entered the site from the base of the mountain and had to walk up the side of it. As we ascended, the water became increasingly warmer and pools appeared where we enjoyed wading in the warm turquoise water.

 

 

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Ruins in Heliopolis

At the top of Pamukkale rests the ancient city of Hieropolis. Once considered the city of the gods, anyone who was in need of healing came to the calcite springs to be cured. The people believed that the waters were magical. How else could such huge and amazing formations be created? They came from many far away places to be cured of their illnesses. Unfortunately, the water had virtually no healing powers. Because the diseased and injured people came from many different regions of Turkey, there are many different types of mausoleums, tombs, sarcophagi, and coffins located here. Today, the Necropolis of Hieropolis is one of the biggest and most diverse burial grounds in the world. Also located in Heliopolis are greatly preserved Greek ruins including massive columns, the remains of countless temples, old aqueducts, a huge amphitheater and much more!

Our experience at Hieropolis was similar to our time exploring the ancient houses and churches of Cappadocia. We could run around and explore almost the entire site with no rules or restrictions. It was astonishing that we were allowed to walk freely through such old and precious ruins. In most other countries that we have been in, guards were constantly telling us that we weren’t allowed walk too close to various ruins, never mind actually walking on them!

Exploring the physical geography and geology of Turkey was an amazing and fascinating experience that I thoroughly enjoyed!

Mom, Matt & I in Goreme, Cappadocia

Mom, Matt & I in Goreme, Cappadocia

We Slept in a Cave Hotel!

We Slept in a Cave Hotel!

Goreme, Capadoccia

Goreme, Capadoccia

Paintings in the cave churches, circa 10th century

Paintings in the cave churches, circa 10th century

 

Ampitheatre in Heliopolis, Turkey

Amphitheatre in Heliopolis, Turkey

Ruins at Heliopolis, Turkey

Ruins at Heliopolis, Turkey

Exploring the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia - Acrobat dressed as a tulip on stilts in foreground

Hagia Sophia – Acrobat dressed as a tulip on stilts in foreground

Stringing Europe and Asia together, Istanbul is the only city in the world that stretches across two continents. Influences of both of these continents can be seen everywhere. The many castles and fortifications around the city are clearly influenced by Europe, whereas the colours of mosaics and designs on carpets all have resemblances to Asian culture. Two famous architectural structures stand in the middle of Istanbul, showcasing both of these cultures: the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

 

 

 

Hagia Sophia - Part of the dome

Hagia Sophia – Part of the dome

In 330 C.E., Justinian I ordered the creation of the church Hagia Sophia. This incredible project was a beacon of wealth and power and was one of the grandest structures built at the time. The dome alone had a diameter of 32 meters and a height of 56 meters. This was the first dome of this size constructed in history. The sheer size of the dome left me amazed, and I couldn’t figure out how the builders of Hagia Sophia could paint so beautifully at such a height. I couldn’t help but feel insignificant inside this amazing and historic building.

 

Hagia Sophia - The minbar

Hagia Sophia – The minbar

Although the Hagia Sophia’s original purpose was that of a church, its role changed under the Ottoman Turks in 1453 C.E when they conquered the Byzantine Empire. Sultan Mehmed I was highly impressed by the magnificence of Hagia Sophia. As this new ruler was of the Islamic faith, he converted the building to a mosque adding many classic common Islamic features, including four minarets to the exterior and a mihrab and a minbar to the interior. The minarets are slender towers located on each corner and can be seen from far away. The mihrab is a human sized semi-circled niche cut out into the wall of the mosque. The Imam (similar to a priest in Christianity) will speak into the mihrab and his voice will rebound back into the prayer hall so that he is easily heard by the worshipers. The minbar is a short flight of stairs that ascends to a platform where the Imam stands to deliver speeches, before or after prayer.

 

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

Ahmed I, a Sultan who came to power 50 years after Mehmed I, decided to build a mosque that would surpass the Hagia Sophia’s splendor, and reassert Ottoman influence after losing a long war with Persia. Construction on Sultan Ahmed’s “Blue” Mosque was started in 1609, and was completed an astonishing 7 years later. As the dimensions of this mosque were 64 meters by 72 meters this was quite a feat. Later, Sultan Ahmed’s mosque was nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of its interior which contains 20,000 blue coloured tiles and more than 200 blue stained glass windows.

The Blue Mosque - The dome

The Blue Mosque – The dome

As non-Muslims cannot usually enter a mosque, I had never been in one before. I thought that the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia might have more similarities; however, once I entered the mosque, it was obvious that the only clearly visible parallel between the two were their domed ceilings. The interior of the Blue Mosque was much more colourful than Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque was intricately decorated, and had many windows, making it feel warm and very approachable. The interior of the Hagia Sophia was made of different types of marble and had few windows making the space very dark.

 

 

Hagia Sophia - Painted over crosses bleeding through

Hagia Sophia – Painted over crosses bleeding through

Another difference between the two is that the Hagia Sophia was converted from a church to a mosque, and later turned into a museum. When the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque all of the Christian symbols and mosaics were covered or removed and today many of the covered ones can be seen bleeding through the paint that hid them for centuries. The Blue Mosque has remained just this – a mosque – and has only Islamic images decorating the walls. It is still used today by Muslims as a space to pray.

 

 

Matt and I inside the Blue Mosque

Matt and I inside the Blue Mosque (For girls – you had to cover your hair)

We happen to be near the Blue Mosque on a Friday and witnessed thousands of Muslims exiting the mosque after midday prayer. Fridays are the most important holy day for Muslims and all are expected to attend midday prayer on this day. Men of the Islamic faith are called to pray five times a day, either in a mosque, or at their homes. The following is sung in Arabic at about 4:30, 6:15, 13:00, 17:00, and 20:00 each day: Allah is greatest. (X4) I bear witness that there is no god except Allah. (X2) I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. (X2) Come to prayer. (X2) Come to success (X2) Allah is greatest. (X2) There is no god except Allah. During the first call to pray in the morning, an additional line is added: Worship is better than sleep. I’m not certain that I agree with this because waking up at 8:00 am is difficult as it is. Getting up at 4:30 everyday would be nearly impossible.

The Blue Mosque - From the outdoor courtyard

The Blue Mosque – From the outdoor courtyard

I remember the first time that I had heard call to prayer. It was our first day in Morocco – the small town of Chefchaouen. I had nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard someone singing loudly in Arabic. It turned out that every street in the Medina of this town had speakers at the intersections. This woke us up every morning at 4:30 am. Call to prayer was much quieter in Turkey, which I was immensely grateful for because it didn’t wake us. We happened to be in the Aya Sofya (in English: Hagia Sophia) square when call to prayer happened in the early afternoon. It was neat to hear the muezzin’s voice switching from the Blue Mosque to Hagia Sophia and then back again calling the worshippers. It was also interesting to see the shops begin to close and the people (mostly men) head towards the Blue Mosque.

Matt, Dad and I outside of the Blue Mosque

Matt, Dad and I outside of the Blue Mosque

Both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque helped make Istanbul one of my favourite places on our trip. A melting pot of history, architecture and culture, this amazing city will never fail to captivate imaginations.

 

 

 

 

Hagia Sophia - Recently uncovered mosaic

Hagia Sophia – Recently uncovered mosaic

Hagia Sophia - Mom and I on the second floor

Hagia Sophia – Mom and I on the second floor

Hagia Sophia - The mihrab

Hagia Sophia – The mihrab

The Blue Mosque - Stained glass

The Blue Mosque – Stained glass

Hagia Sophia - Uncovered Christian mosaic

Hagia Sophia – Uncovered Christian mosaic

Hagia Sophia - Dad and I on the second floor

Hagia Sophia – Dad and I on the second floor

Underground Cities – Cappadocia, Turkey

Matthew in KaymakaliWe visited two underground cities, Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, while in Turkey. There are over two hundred and fifty underground cities in Cappadocia. Kaymakli is the widest underground city in Cappadocia and Derinkuyu is the deepest. The cities were originally built by Hittites for protection from invading armies. The cities grew and became more advanced over the centuries.

Both of these cities had a big ventilation shaft because when people live underground they would need air. The Kaymakli shaft was about 40 meters deep and the Derinkuyu shaft was about 55 meters deep. In Kaymakli, rocks above blocked off the top of the shaft, whereas in Derinkuyu you could see the sunlight at the top of the shaft. Both had wet and dry wells. Wet wells are where the city would get water from and dry wells are where the water is stored. Kaymakli could house over 3500 people and Derinkuyu could house over 10000 people.

Walking in the Underground City

Walking in the Underground City

When I first entered Kaymakli, I was excited because I had never been in an underground city before. Inside the underground city there were tunnels that led you to dug out rooms. Most of these were living rooms, some were kitchens, some were food storages, some were wineries, and some areas were for animals. On top of some of the living rooms there were bedrooms. You could climb up the wall to get to the bedroom or take the tunnel a bit higher to get to the door. This would probably be pretty fun to climb up to your bedroom at night.

Stone Door - Rolls Into Place

Stone Door – Rolls Into Place

 

 

 

To protect the underground cities the people who live there had to have traps. They had holes in the ceiling for spears, and bigger holes in the ceiling for men to throw hot oil on the enemy if the enemy entered the city. These traps meant that the enemy could not breach the city. They also had big rolling stone doors that can only be opened or closed from the inside by three or four men by rolling the circular doors into place. From the other side the enemy could not budge the door. I really liked the underground cities because of its traps and how people could live underground. ☺

Where does this tunnel lead?

Where does this tunnel lead?

Walking in the Tunnels

Walking in the Tunnels

Food & Animal Storage Areas

Food & Animal Storage Areas

Chitwan National Park – Rhinos, Elephants, Cobras, Crocodiles and More!

Rhino Baby with Mother

Rhino Baby with Mother

Chitwan National Park is a big conservation area where there are lots of animals that are protected from poachers and hunters. Humans are not allowed to live inside the park. On our first day in Chitwan we went on a jungle walk and saw a lot of animals. We saw eleven rhinos of which one was only two weeks old and hanging near its mother, six giant hornbills flying away from us, one antelope stopped on the path ahead of us, three wild boars two of which were six months old and had little horns, seven macaw monkeys running away from us, thirty-four deer eating the grass, one cobra that stood up and then slithered away from us, and a tiger kill with no tiger in sight, but a shredded deer lying in the tall grass.

Getting On the Elephant

Getting On the Elephant

The next day we went on an elephant safari inside the park. To mount the elephant you have to climb up twelve stairs and then climb into the howdah. A howdah is a place where you sit on the elephant. When the elephant started walking, it was a bit nerve wracking because we were tossed around a lot and the leaves of the trees kept whacking us. The first animal we saw was a large wild boar. When the boar saw our elephant coming, it froze and stared at us. A moment later another elephant carrying screaming tourists appeared and the wild boar quickly dashed into the foliage. Next, we saw two rhinos grazing – one was a mother and one was a baby. These rhinos were popular with the tourists, but they seemed domesticated. They continued eating and were not bothered by the screaming tourists sitting on the other elephants. The mother only looked up once when some of the tourists were really loud. Shortly after the rhinos, we came upon a clearing with 79 deer grazing. Nobody was around us because we had asked the mahout to take us to an area without other tourists. This meant it was quiet. When we saw the deer, we froze (like the wild boar) and our elephant carried us pass the deer. We were in the clearing looking at the deer, when our elephant stopped abruptly. Our mahout dismounted and left us for a few minutes sitting on the elephant. It seemed the mahout had to use the bathroom. The elephant started to move and we thought it might just leave the mahout behind. We were all very nervous. The elephant was actually only trying to get closer to the tall grass so that it could have a snack. Fortunately, the mahout returned and then we watched him climb up the trunk of the elephant onto the elephant’s neck, fix his cushion, and off we went again through the jungle. We then saw 22 monkeys – six of which were babies, one muskrat, and lots of different types of birds. After the safari ended, we dismounted and wanted to tip the mahout. I put the rupee note on the elephant’s trunk and the elephant passed it to the mahout using its trunk. This was fun.

Crocodile Hidden Near Shore

Crocodile Hidden Near Shore

We also went on a canoe ride down a river within the park in search of crocodiles and gharials (a fish-eating crocodile with a really thin snout). The canoe was made out of a single hollowed out tree. The poler/driver moved us through the water by using a pole to push off the bottom. We saw 13 crocodiles and zero gharials. The most amazing crocodile that we saw was a mother who was as at least as big as my dad and may have been at least 300 pounds. Fortunately, the crocs did not seem interested in us! Later that day while walking along another riverbank, we saw six gharials and another crocodile relaxing on the riverbank half in and half out of the water. Chitwan National Park is a nice place with lots of protected animals and I feel lucky to have visited the park and to have seen lots of its animals.

Jungle Walk

Jungle Walk

Rhino Hiding In Tall Grasses

Rhino Hiding In Tall Grasses

Deer in a Clearing

Deer in a Clearing

Mahout Climbing Onto Elephant

Mahout Climbing Onto Elephant

My Horn Is Not Medicine

My Horn Is Not Medicine

Very Large Male Elephant

Very Large Male Elephant