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Things to Do in Istanbul

Once known as Constantinople and Byzantium, Istanbul's position on the Silk Road has made it an economical, historical and cultural center, serving as an imperial capital multiple times for the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. With both Asian and European sides to the city, there's a lot to explore. The old walled neighborhood of Sultanahmet is home to some of the most recognizable sights, such as the Hagia Sophia, with its dazzling mosaics and the enormous dome that has covered this space since the sixth century, when it was a Roman basilica. You'll also want to experience Topkapi Palace—containing lavish interiors and many Christian and Islamic relics—as well as the Blue Mosque and the giant underground Basilica Cistern. City views of the river suggest the next step: A Bosphorous cruise, navigating along the vast expanse of water that unites two continents, provides a wonderful way to see the banks of the Golden Horn. To delve into the local culture, as well as for help with haggling, visitors can take a private tour of the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, containing some of the richest smells in the world. For longer visits, tours from Istanbul can take visitors far and wide to the remarkable rocky landscapes of Cappadocia, the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus, and even to the WWI sites of the Gallipoli Peninsula.
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Bosphorus
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Bosphorus, or the Istanbul Strait, functions not just as a border between Europe and Asia, but as one of the most beautiful sites in all of Turkey. Lined with scenic greenery, palaces, parks, and not to mention an absolutely gorgeous waterfront, Bosphorus has much more to offer than one may initially suspect.

One of its more popular landmarks, Dolmabahce Palace is one of the Ottoman Empire’s most significant and grandiose structures. With more than 240 rooms, and 43 hallways, Dolmabahce was a political hub in Turkey for the better part of one and a half centuries before the collapse of the empire.

If you’re looking to embrace the wonderful outdoors of the area, two of Bosphorus’ more beautiful parks are the Emirgan and Macka Parks. Where Emirgan contains a plethora of water-related scenery including ponds, waterfalls and the Bosphorus itself, Macka too shares views of the Bosphorus’ beauty, but is composed of charming valley terrain.

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Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
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Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya) is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, built to be the world’s largest place of worship by Emperor Justinian in 532 AD. The church became a Mosque under the Ottomans, and its mosaics and decoration were plastered over. They have been successively revealed since the 1930s, when the building was declared a museum by Turkey’s legendary ruler, Atatürk. The Hagia Sophia’s golden mosaics are rivaled only by Ravenna’s, and its design was the inspiration for the basilica of San Marco in Venice. The huge complex is a riot of domes and minarets, focusing on the huge central dome which for centuries was unrivaled as an architectural masterpiece. Inside, the lofty interior is a soaring sequence of domed and arched spaces, centering on the shell-like apse and the massive dome, which seems to float unsupported and gives the church its amazing sense of space.
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Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)
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Synonymous with Ottoman style architecture, the Topkapi Palace is one of Istanbul’s most historical landmarks. Resident to Sultans for over 400 years, the palace is a measure of its empiric significance. Visitor interested in understanding the culture and pride of Turkey’s people would benefit from a visit to the complex.
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Dolmabahce Palace (Dolmabahce Sarayi)
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When the Ottoman sultans wanted to update their living space, they moved from the Topkapi complex on Seraglio Point to the Dolmabahce Palace (Dolmabahce Sarayi).

The sultans lived here from 1856 to 1922. With its columns and pediments, the opulent palace has a very European appearance, and the interior is a mid-Victorian statement in over-the-top luxury.

Gilt, marble and crystal abound, and also the home ot the world’s largest crystal chandelier, which was a gift from Queen Victoria.

Guided tours lead from waiting rooms to the offices of the Grand Vizier and other ornate apartments looking over the sea.

The palace has a special place in the hearts of modern-day Turks, as its where the leader Atatürk lived and passed away in in 1938.

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Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)
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A distinct Istanbul landmark, the world-famous Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii in Turkish) opened in 1616 and is renowned for its slender minarets and collection of domes. The Sultan Ahmet I conceived the structure to rival the nearby Byzantine Hagia Sofia which stands opposite the mosque in the city's busiest square. It was constructed over the site of an ancient hippodrome and Byzantine palace, and is one of the most beautiful mosques in Turkey.

Guarded by its six minarets and built around an enormous internal courtyard, the mosque's vast and curvaceous interior is ablaze with 20,000 delicate blue Iznik tiles—after which it gets its moniker of the Blue Mosque—featuring flowers, garlands, and intricate patterns.

The Blue Mosque can be visited on a small-group or private tour of the Sultanahmet neighborhood and is often paired with tours of Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia and the Hippodrome.

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Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Meydani)
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Originally built in the third century, the Hippodrome of Constantinople was the sporting and cultural center of the former Byzantine capital for over 1,000 years. With a U-shaped race track and two levels of spectator galleries, the Hippodrome likely held more than 100,000 people. While the Byzantine emperors (and later the Ottoman sultans) took great pride in the Hippodrome and devoted significant efforts to embellishing it, little remains of the original structure today.

Sultan Ahmet Square now covers the former site of the Hippodrome and largely follows its ground plan and dimensions. Pavement marks the course of the old race track and several interesting monuments remain as well. You can’t miss the towering Obelisk of Theodosius, the oldest monument in all of Istanbul. Made of pink granite, it was originally erected at the Amun Re temple at Karnak in Egypt, but was brought to Istanbul by the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century.

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Hodjapasha Culture Center (Hocapasa Kültür Merkezi)
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It’s been said that music, rhythm, and dance are universal languages that can transcend borders, ethnicity, race, and time. This is certainly true at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center, where ancient Turkish and Anatolian traditions are rhythmically weaved right before your eyes in an historic and intimate theater. The cultural center building itself was once an enormous Turkish bath dating back to 1470, and the building continued to serve as a bath up until 1988.

Today, however, this modern and captivating performance studio regularly hosts a variety of dance shows that manifest a spiritual beauty. Of the center’s three different dance performances, the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony is the most traditional, and features Whirling Dervishes who hypnotically spin in a mystical ancient routine. Other performances—such as Rhythm of the Dance—are more modern, upbeat, and lively, and belly dancers and troupes of both male and female dancers perform tales of Anatolian folklore.

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Bosphorus Bridge (Bogazici Koprusu)
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The Bosphorus Bridge is one of two bridges that spans the Bosphorus Strait, connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. It stretches from Ortakoy on the European side to Beylerbeyi on the Asian side and is sometimes referred to as the First Bosphorus Bridge. At 1560 meters long, the Bosphorus Bridge was the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1973 and was the first bridge to connect Europe and Asia since a bridge spanning the Dardanelles in 480 B.C. Today, it is the 21st longest suspension bridge in the world. In 2007, an LED lighting system was installed to illuminate the bridge at night and the computerized system is now used to create a colorful light show every evening. While the bridge is typically closed to pedestrians, it opens each October for the Istanbul Eurasia Marathon – the only marathon that crosses from one continent to another.
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Rumeli Fortress (Rumeli Hisari)
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The Rumeli Fortress sits on a hill on the European side of Istanbul, overlooking the Bosphorus at its narrowest point. Built by Sultan Mehmed II prior to the conquest of Constantinople, the fortress was intended to help him control traffic along the Bosphorus and prevent aid from reaching the city from the Black Sea during the Siege of Constantinople in 1453. With the help of thousands of workers, the fortress was completed in just over four months.

In addition to three main towers, the fortress had one small tower and thirteen watchtowers, as well as three main gates next to the three main towers. It also had wooden houses for soldiers, a small mosque and a large cistern that distributed water to the fortress through three wall fountains. The shaft of the mosque’s minaret and one of the water fountains remain in the fortress today. After the conquest of Constantinople, the fortress served as a customs checkpoint before later becoming a prison.

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Beylerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayi)
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Located on the shores of the Bosphorus, on the Asian side of Istanbul, the Beylerbeyi Palace was a summer residence for Ottoman sultans and a guest house to entertain foreign heads of state. Sultan Abdulaziz ordered the construction of the palace in 1863 and it formally opened two years later. Over the years, it hosted visitors such as Empress Eugenie of France, Emperor Joseph of Austria-Hungary, Crown Prince Oscar of Sweden and Nasireddin, the Shah of Iran. It also served as the last place of captivity for deposed Sultan Abdulhamid II, who lived there until his death in 1918.

The two-story stone palace consists of six halls, 24 rooms, one hamam and one bathroom. The interior decorations mix Western neo-classical elements and traditional Ottoman design, with much of the furniture coming from Europe. The elegant reception hall is known as the Hall with Mother-of-Pearl and leads to a fine seaside room covered with rich wood paneling.

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More Things to Do in Istanbul

Maiden’s Tower (Kiz Kulesi)

Maiden’s Tower (Kiz Kulesi)

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Maiden’s Tower, or Kiz Kulesi, is an ancient site in Istanbul located on a tiny islet in the Bosphorus Strait that has a history of both practicality and folklore. The origins of the tower aren’t completely known, leading to legends such as one attesting that it was built to lock away a princess after it was prophesized she would die from a snake bite on her 18th birthday.

The origin of Maiden’s Tower is believed to date back over 2,000 years, though the tower itself has changed over the centuries. Originally built of stone, a wooden tower was added in the 12th century after the Ottoman Turks conquered the area. This led to the tower’s downfall when a fire ravaged it in the 1700s. The tower was rebuilt in stone and in the 1800s a light was also added to the top. During this time, Maiden’s Tower also switched from being used as a defense tower to being intermittently used as a lighthouse and as a quarantine facility for those affected with cholera.

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Ortaköy

Ortaköy

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Once a small village, Ortakoy is now a neighborhood in the Besiktas district on the European side of Istanbul. With a plethora of bars, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs, Ortakoy buzzes with locals and tourists alike and is a great place to spend a day – especially a Sunday, when the street market comes to life.

During the Ottoman area and in the early years of the Turkish Republic, the area was home to a mix of Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Though the population today is primarily Muslim, remnants of the neighborhood’s historic diversity are still visible in the form of Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox and other Christian structures.

On the waterfront, you’ll find the Ortakoy Mosque, built in the mid-19th century and featuring a blend of baroque and neoclassical influences. Behind the mosque looms the Bosphorus Bridge, which makes for a classic photo opportunity exemplifying the old-meets-new character of Istanbul. You might also check out the Ciragan Palace.

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Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge

Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge

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Istanbul is often referred to as the city where east meets west due to its bordering of two different continents, Asia and Europe. This sentiment is literally true when it comes to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. Located over the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, one end of Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge is rooted in Europe while the other end sits in Asia. Residents of Istanbul who use Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge as their daily commute don't think twice about residing on one continent while working in another, but visitors to Istanbul will likely find it to be quite the novelty and will enjoy a drive across the bridge.

Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge was built in 1988 and is one of the longest steel suspension bridges in the world. It is named after Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror who took control of Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century, though the bridge is also commonly referred to as the Second Bosphorus Bridge.

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Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi)

Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi)

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The heady scents of saffron, cloves, sugar and spice fill the air at the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and Market, or Misir Carsisi, one of Istanbul's oldest markets. Aisle after aisle of stallholders sell their wares in this cavernous covered market, built in 1660, under the market's vaulted ceiling lit by Turkish lamps. Baskets filled with every spice under the sun add colors of gold, orange, yellow and green, and the array of dried fruits and nuts is astounding. Stock up on Turkish delight, dried apricots, pistachios and walnuts, honey sweets and top-quality saffron. This is a place to simply dive in and wander. Don't have an agenda, just walk the crowded stalls and get lost. Stop for a tea, stop to chat with a carpet seller. If you're in a rush, you're missing the point.
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Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii)

Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii)

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The largest mosque in Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque was built between 1550 and 1558 on the orders of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It is widely known as imperial architect Sinan’s greatest masterpiece.

You will enter the mosque through an impressive courtyard featuring columns of marble, granite and porphyry and four corner minarets – a number only allowable for a mosque commissioned by a sultan. Constructed as an almost perfect square, the interior of the Suleymaniye Mosque is grand in its simplicity, with basic designs in ivory and mother of pearl and a subtle use of Iznik tiles. The mosque was designed as part of a larger complex that included a hospital, primary school, a caravanseri, four madrassahs, a medical college and a public kitchen. Two mausoleums stand in the gardens behind the mosque, including the tombs of Suleyman I and his wife, daughter, mother and sister, as well as several other Ottoman sultans.

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Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)

Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)

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The medieval Galata Tower adds a fairytale element to the hilly Beyoğlu district, on the north side of the Golden Horn.

Capped with a conical tiled steeple and gold finial, the 67 meter (220 foot) stone tower was built by the Genoese in 1348. Visit the outdoor observation area at the top for a stunning panorama across to Sultanahmet, have dinner or a snack at the tower-top restaurant, or watch a Turkish belly-dancing show at the nightclub.

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Balat

Balat

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Balat is a historically Jewish neighborhood on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. While a significant Jewish population existed in the area since Byzantine times, the community grew substantially as Jews were evicted from Spain in 1492.

The most important attraction in the neighborhood may be the Chora Church, today known as the Kariye Museum. With its intricate mosaics and frescoes from the Byzantine era, it is a must-see. Also worth checking out are the ruins of the Byzantine palace, Tekfur Salay, which is built into the old city walls. Dating to the late 1200s or early 1300s, the palace was built for Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenetus but over time served as a menagerie, brothel, pottery workshop and poorhouse. It is currently closed, but you can catch a decent glimpse from outside.

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Küçüksu Palace (Küçüksu Kasri)

Küçüksu Palace (Küçüksu Kasri)

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See how the royalty of Istanbul’s past lived centuries ago with a visit to Küçüksu Palace, also referred to as Küçüksu Pavilion or Küçüksu Kasri. Built in the mid-1800s after being commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecit, Küçüksu Palace was used by Ottoman sultans as a summer palace where they headed for some hunting and relaxation.

Küçüksu Palace is smaller compared to other royal summer residences in Turkey, but still has an impressive façade and interior that blends together both European and Ottoman styles from the time period with intricate carvings along the exterior and gilded accents inside. Both history and design buffs will enjoy visiting the palace and learning more about life within its walls and outdoor gardens. The palace still reflects a stately Turkish home from the 19th and 20th centuries with traditional furniture along with a large collection of artwork.

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Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)

Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)

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Atmospheric music, rosy flood lighting and the lilting sound of water lapping on marble – entering the Underground Cistern known in Turkish as Yerebatan Sarayi - or Basilica Cistern, is an experience that charms all the senses.

Built to store water, this has to be the fanciest and most enormous well you’ll ever see. The cistern dates back to Byzantine days when the city was called Constantinople.

Built by Emperor Justinian in the mid-500s, the cavernous underground water-storage area has a vaulted brick ceiling supported by a forest of Corinthian-carved marble columns.

If this eerie, magical place looks a little familiar, you may recognize it from a scene in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love.

On your walk around the Basilica Cistern, seek out the two pillars that have the face of Medusa carved onto their base.

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Pierre Loti Hill (Pierre Loti Tepesi)

Pierre Loti Hill (Pierre Loti Tepesi)

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Known for its views across Istanbul's natural harbor — the Golden Horn — Pierre Loti Hill is named after the famous French novelist and traveler. A popular spot for snapping a selfie (or three), atop the hill there are six historic mansions that have been turned into a boutique hotel. There’s also a restaurant, and the famous Pierre Loti Coffee Shop where you can enjoy the views with a cup of Turkish tea or coffee in hand. Loti used to sit here and write his novels when the cafe was known as Rabia Kadın Café. For the best views of all, test the telescope on the observation deck at Piyerloti funicular station. The Golden Horn was once the center of the Byzantine and Ottoman navies, and it's fun to see the boats come in while enjoying the views of the parks and promenades that line the harbor’s shores.

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Patriarchal Church of St. George

Patriarchal Church of St. George

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Istanbul’s Church of St George has been the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople since 1600. Since the fall of the Ottomans, the Greek population of Istanbul has largely emigrated, so today it’s more of a symbolic center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate than anything else, but the spiritual leader of the world’s 260 million Greek Orthodox, Bartholomew I, continues to hold services here, and Orthodox Christians from Greece and across Eastern Europe stream though the church as pilgrims.

With its 19th-century neo-Classical facade which was constructed after severe fire damage, the church may look modest on the outside, but go inside and it’s a different story. Notice the Patriarch’s marble throne at the center of the altar, the huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and gold everything. Inside you’ll also find beautiful mosaic icons, and over the altar look out for the two-headed Byzantine Eagle.

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Camlica Hill (Camlica Tepesi)

Camlica Hill (Camlica Tepesi)

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Just a few kilometers from Uskudar in Istanbul, Camlica Hill offers a different perspective of the city. Split into two hills – Big Camlica and Little Camlica – it is a popular destination for residents to picnic and barbeque on the weekends.

At 267 meters above sea level, Big Camlica is the highest point in Istanbul and, not surprisingly, offers panoramic views of the surrounding area. From the top, you can see the Bosphorus Bridge, Eminonu Peninsula, the Sea of Marmara and the Princes’ Island. On the clearest of days, you can also see as far as Mount Uludag near Bursa. Tea gardens, restaurants and a variety of vendors are also scattered around the hill. Little Camlica is the quieter of the two hills. Despite its pleasant gardens and walking trails, it attracts fewer visitors than its counterpart.

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Taksim Square (Taksim Meydani)

Taksim Square (Taksim Meydani)

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Located on the European side of Istanbul, Taksim Square is the heart of the modern part of the city. It takes its name from the stone reservoir on the west side of the square, which today houses the Taksim Republic Art Gallery. Sultan Mahmud I originally established the square as the point where water lines from north of Istanbul converged before branching off to other parts of the city.

Today, Taksim Square buzzes with activity day and night. With Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, ending in the square, it is surrounded by shops, restaurants and high end hotels, making it a popular gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. Over the years, it has also been home to numerous public celebrations, parades and demonstrations.

In the center of the square, you’ll find the Monument of the Republic, constructed in 1928 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey after the Turkish War of Independence.

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Sultanahmet District

Sultanahmet District

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Leave the present day behind and take a wander around Old Istanbul, the wonderful old Sultanahmet district.

This World Heritage-listed district is crammed with historic buildings and enough magical atmosphere to keep you enthralled for days.

Drink in the majesty of Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia), a museum-church-mosque all in one, and admire the Blue Mosque that mirrors it. Spend days amid the riches of Topkapi Palace, and discover the underground world of the Basilica Cistern.

Then shop for everything from curly-toed slippers to magic lanterns in the massive Grand Bazaar.

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