I am currently leading a “Missionary Journeys of Paul” tour in western Turkey. I have been planning this trip for a long time and I am very happy to be traveling with some good friends. I am using Tutku Tours, the same company that helped me with the May 2019 Israel trip. They did a great job helping me plan the itinerary and (so far) everything has gone according to plan.
To answer your first question: Yes, we are quite safe. We are traveling almost exclusively in southwest Turkey, very far from anything which might be considered troubling, And there is less risk of getting sick here than in the States, at least at the moment. Sadly the paranoia about the Corona Virus has reduced tourism greatly. We are the only group staying in this hotel and most of the usual tourist sites are not as crowded as expected.
Our day started with a drive through Istanbul traffic to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more popularly known as the Blue Mosque, is currently under renovation and many of the beautiful mosaic domes are unfortunately not visible. When I visited in 2018 the Mosque was totally closed, at least we could get inside this year. There is scaffolding blocking the view of the main dome, which is unfortunate. The mosque is know for its 20,000 hand-painted glazed ceramic tiles, which we were able to see in the main gallery.
The Hagia Sofia is just a short walk from the Blue Mosque. Built in A. D. 537 by the emperor Justinian, the church is known for its dome and many mosaics. There are a number of stunning mosaics in various parts of the church as well as four seraphim in each corner. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the church was converted to a mosque. Fortunately the mosaics were plastered over rather than destroyed. After Atatürk converted the mosque into a museum in 1935, this plaster was carefully removed and many mosaics were restored. Other than a few large groups of school children, the usually crowded site was not very full at all.
After Hagia Sofia, we crossed the street and made a short visit to the Basilica Cisterns. The cistern is about 100,000 square feet at has capacity for about 21 million gallons of water, although most of the water is now drained for cleaning. Last time I was there the water was a few feet deep and there were large fish. Most of the columns in the cistern are recycled from other places, so there was a need for bases of varying sizes to support the columns. The most interesting of these are two blocks featuring medusa heads. I noticed one block which looked like it had been dressed for an inscription, but was never actually inscribed (a factory reject?) If none of this interests you, the Basilica Cisterns were featured in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love and the film, Inferno, based on the Dan Brown book.
We ate lunch at the famous Pudding Shoppe, always a good lunch with great service. If you do not know why it is famous, read this.
After lunch we made a short walk to the Istanbul Museum. Like everything else in Istanbul, large portions of the museum are being renovated. Unfortunately this meant we were not able to visit the floor with many important archaeological finds from Israel, including the Siloam Inscription and the Gezer Calendar. The whole section for Greco-Roman archaeology was also closed, I do not know how long this area will be closed, but if you are planning a trip to the museum you might want to check to see what is actually open at the time. The Museum book store had a number of very good books on archaeology sites in Turkey, I managed to restrain myself and selected only two published in Turkey (one on the Terrace Houses in Ephesus and another on Luwian history).
The Ancient Near Eastern museum was open and is well-worth a visit. There is a nice collection of Hittite, Assyrian and Babylonian items, including panels from the neo-Babylonian period Ishtar Gate and a collection of uniform documents. In the main museum, several new displays (to me) were open. Although they they were nice, they did not make up for my disappointment at missing the biblical archaeology. The section of Greco-Roman tombs is always interesting.
Tomorrow, we fly to Antalya and begin tracking the first missionary journey of Paul at Perge.