What You Should Know About Istanbul’s Culture And Entertainment

Istanbul is truly a fascinating city.  It is replete with history and yet does not fail to look forward.  It is a fascinating blend of an illustrious past and a forward-looking present.  After all, emperors made their home here.  It was also the center of commerce and religion during its heyday.  The result is a host of tourist attractions that will keep you busy, busy, busy in your short stay.  There are so many places to see, so many things to experience, so much to do!

Istanbul Downtown

What’s great is that most of the must-see sites are clustered near the Sultanahmet area, although they’re still are remarkable tourist attractions in other areas.  A walk along the streets of Istanbul is like a trip back in time.  You will see water houses dating back to the 16th century, 19th-century houses and palaces, centuries-old mosques, all mingling with modern shopping malls and McDonald’s.

Hagia Sophia At Night

Istanbul prides itself with its dynamic contemporary art scene, a host of colorful feasts and festivals, museums, mosques, cathedrals, palaces, and oh, so many more!  Now, if you’re the type who wants to wine, dine and party the night away, you will find plenty of options – fabulous restaurants that serve an assortment of local and international cuisine, a vibrant nightlife and club scene, parks and sports arenas.  Also, Istanbul is not a major destination for F1 races for nothing.  It will also be the Culture Capital of the European Union in the year 2010.

Contemporary Istanbul

The excitement of such colorful cultural offerings – a kaleidoscope of cultural, commercial and social pursuits.  There are also a lot of festivals – film festivals, music festivals, festivals of arts.  Istanbul is sort of a mecca for dance groups, international artists, choral groups, orchestras.  This is especially true during the famed International Music Festival.  The month-long celebration during the month of June is a veritable smorgasbord of musical delights.  Also, the Istanbul International Film Festival is recognized as one of the continent’s important festivals, while the Istanbul Biennial Fine Arts Festivals plays host to the city’s and the rest of the country’s up and coming artists.

Topkapi Palace

Important cultural institutions you should remember to include in your list are: the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the Istanbul Modern, the Istanbul Mosaic Museum, the Constantinople Palace, the Topkapi Palace, and of course, the famous Hagia Sophia. You will be surprised that these historic sites are also places where live concerts and shows are played.  You can catch a show, if you come at the right time.

Princess Island

As for relaxation, you can take a swim at the beaches and lakeshore at the Bosphorus, Bakirkoy and the Princes’ Islands at the Marmara Sea. Visits to the Princes’ Islands and a boat tour of the Bosphorus are also something you should put into your calendar.

Here are the culture and entertainment options you can look into while you are in Istanbul:
–    Archeological Sights
–    Palaces and Castles
–    Museums
–    Art Galleries
–    Restaurants in Istanbul
–    Istanbul Nightlife – bars and clubs
–    Istanbul Parks and Amusement Centers
–    Istanbul Sports Centers


Istanbul is home to quite a number of museums, covering subjects such as archeology, modern art, and historical artifacts.

Archeological Museum

Istanbul Archeology Museum

Inarguably, the Istanbul Archeological Museum stands as one of the most important showcases of archeology.  Its collection boasts of more than a million artifacts that cover a lot of ground in the area of world history.   Here, you will find the Alexander Sarcophagus, as well as the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women and some Byzantine emperors.

The Museum actually has three major parts: the Archeological Museum (in the main building), the Tiled Kiosk or the Museum of Islamic Art and the Museum of the Ancient Orient.  It sits in what used to be the gardens of the Topkapi Palace.  First begun in 1891, its collection grew as members of the empire sent any artifacts they found to Istanbul.  The Main building houses the Snake’s heads that were broken off from the Serpentine Column, the Ephebos statue, an astounding collection of Ottoman medals, adornments and coins, a tablet of the Treaty of Kadesh (there are only three!) and pieces of ruins of the temple dedicated to Athena at Assos. The Museum of the Ancient Orient started as a school of Fine Arts until it was turned into a museum.  You will also find an extensive collection of artifacts from the Babylonian, Greek Anatolian, Ancient Egyptian, Pre-Islamic, Sumerian and Assyrian cultures.  Meanwhile, showcasing what is one of the finest and oldest specimens of Ottoman civil architecture is the Tiled Kiosk.

Opening Hours:  9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays
Address: Osman Hamdi Bey Yokusu, Gulhane, Eminonu

Hagia Sophia

This magnificent landmark also is a museum.  People used to argue about whose church it was, since it was an old Byzantine church, then turned into a mosque.  Now, as a museum, it is open to everyone.  Aside from the awe-inspiring dome, you will find a massive collection of Islamic and Christian art and Byzantine mosaics as well.

Opening Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays
Address: Sultanahmet Meydani, Eminonu

Ataturk Museum

Get a glimpse of the life and times of one of the respected leaders of Turkey – Ataturk.  If this house could talk, you will see the struggles and the triumphs before the War of Independence.  Here, you will see pieces of his life – his personal belongings, works of art, even his clothes.

Opening Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., every day, except Sundays and Thursdays
Address:  Halaskargazi Caddesi No. 250, Sisli

Pammakaristos Church/Fethiye Mosque Museum

You will find the burial corridor (parekleison) where again, great examples of 14th-century frescoes and mosaics are displayed.

Opening Hours: 930 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursdays to Tuesdays
Address: Fethiye Camii, Carsamba – Fatih

Chora Church Museum

If you still haven’t got your fill of Byzantine frescoes and mosques after your tour of the Hagia Sophia, this is the next place to go.  Have a great time poring over the mosaics and spend some time exploring the surroundings – the wooden Ottoman houses are worth the stroll.

Opening Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Thursdays to Tuesdays
Address: Edimekapi, Fatih

Other Museums to visit include:

Mosaics Museum

Mosaics Museum (Opens from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays, Eminonu)
–    Asiyan Museum (House of Tevfik Fikret, a famed Turkish poet). 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; Tuesdays to Saturdays, Bebek
–    Sadberk Hanim Museum (an Ottoman house that features Anatolian art). opens from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Thursdays to Tuesdays, Buyukdere – Sariyer
–    Modern Arts Museum: Explore and see the finest examples of the modern art scene in Turkey. opens from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays, Karakoy
–    Calligraphy Museum (see samples of how Turkish artisans practiced calligraphy – in miniatures, imperial seals, written descriptions of Allah), 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Tuesdays to Saturdays.
–    Caricature Museum (opens from 10:00 p.m. to 600 p.m., Fatih)
–    Painting and Sculpture Museum (opens from 12:00 noon to 4:00 p.m., Wednesdays to Sundays, Besiktas)
–    City Museum (outlines the life of Istanbul as a city; opens from 900 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Yildiz)
–    Carpet and Kilim Museum (Ottoman kilims and carpets galore! Opens from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Tuesdays to Saturdays, Eminonu)
–    Divan Literature Museum (Opens from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays, Beyoglu)
–    Tanzimat Museum (Opens from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Mondays to Saturdays, Eminonu)
–    Press Museum (Opens from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Mondays to Saturdays, Eminonu)
–    Turkish and Islamic Art Museum (Opens from 9:30 to 4:30 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays, Eminonu)
–    Santralistanbul Energy and Arts Museum (Opens from 10:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays, Eyup)
–    Islamic Sciences and Technology History Museum (Opens from 9:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays, Eminonu)
–    Rahmi Koc Industrial Museum (Opens from 8:30 to 5:00 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays, Beyoglu)
–    Pera Museum (Opens from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. from Tuesdays to Saturdays and 12:00 noon to 6:00 p.m. on Sundays, Beyoglu)
–    Ottoman Bank Museum (Open during weekdays, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Karakoy)
–    Huseyin Rahmi Gurpinar Museum (Opens from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays, Heybeliada)
–    Rezan Has Museum (Opens from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., daily, Cibali)
–    Sakip Sabanci Museum (Opens from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. from Tuesdays to Sundays, Sariyer)
–    Toy Museum (some 4000 toys, truly a kid’s wonderland, Opens from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays, Goztepe)
–    Ismet Inonu Museum (Opens from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., from April to November, Heybeliada)
–    Miniaturk (Turkey in small scale – over 100 models with scaled at 1:25, opens from 9:00 a.m. to 500 p.m., Daily, Beyoglu)
–    The Florence Nightingale Museum (Opens from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. during weekdays, Uskudar)
–    Naval Museum (Opens from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays, Besiktas)
–    Military Museum (Opens from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays, Harbiye – Sisli)
–    Aviation Museum (Opens from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays, Yesilurt)

Archeological Sights

The fact that Istanbul straddles the East and the West, as well as its, being a major historic spot, means that there are a number of interesting archeological sights in the city.  What’s even better is that what you will see are not ruins but restored, even pristine, examples of Istanbul archeology.  Some sights, like Constantine’s walls, admittedly only have remnants of its past glory, but most of the sights will surprise you with its splendor and majesty.

If you have an interest in archeology, the first place you should visit is the Sultanahmet Area, where most of the famous Istanbul sights are located.  The area sits squarely on what is called the Golden Horn.

Here are some of the places of interest you will see there:

Hagia Sofia

This marvelous specimen of the glory that was Constantinople is a fascinating shade of pink.  This color is even more amazing when the setting sun casts the last fading rays of light upon it.  The Hagia Sophia started out as a patriarchal basilica, turned into an Islamic mosque and later, to stop all arguments about whose church it was, it was converted into a museum.  It wields a huge unsupported dome.  It is home to a jaw-dropping collection of holy relics – among them a 15-meter high silver iconostasis. You will also find exquisite examples of stained glass windows, mosaics, paintings, chandeliers, a massive marble door and a number of minarets.

The Blue Mosque

Near the Hagia Sophia, you will find the Sultanahmet Camii or the Blue Mosque.  It was built as an answer to the Hagia Sophia, with a massive dome, supported by smaller domes, along with six minarets.  The main claims to fame are the Blue Iznik tiles that are highlighted by the stained glass windows. Before entering through the worshippers’ entrance, you will find several water fountains, where the men can perform their ablutions, cleansing themselves before they pray.  Visitors are to enter through a separate entrance behind the mosque.  Remember to wear a headscarf (for ladies), as well as remove your shoes prior to entering the mosque.

The Istanbul Archaeological Museum

This museum houses an astonishing collection of Turkey’s treasures.  Examples of the artifacts you will find there are the artworks from the Roman and Greek civilizations, as well as other Anatolian societies.  You will also find the sarcophagi of notable people – that of Alexander the Great, the Mourning Ladies and others.  The collections include some 15,000 artifacts harking from the time of the Ancient Mesopotamians up until the Pre-Islamic Arabic peoples.  The building was designed and built by the architect Vallaury, with the help of Osman Hamdi Bey, a famous Turkish painter.

Opening Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays.
Address: Osman Hamdi Bey Yokusu, Gulhan, Eminonu

Anatolian Fortress (Anadoluhisari)

Located on the Asian side, this is a castle that harks back to the 14th century.  It was a fortress built by the Sultan Yildirim Bayezit as part of his campaign to conquer Istanbul.  It stands directly on the ruins of a temple built in Zeus’ name.  The castle itself was built in 1395.  It is now an open-air museum with access to the outside walls only.

Opening Hours: Daily
Address: Anadoluhisari, Beykoz

Rumeli Fortress

This fortress took only four months to build, upon the command of Sultan Mehmet in 1452.  It figured in the conquest of Constantinople and played an important role in enabling the Ottomans to finally take the Byzantine capital for themselves.  It sits on the Bosphorus Strait.  It has suffered from several earthquakes but has since been restored.  It is now an open-air museum, where you can find performances such as concerts and dramatic shows, especially during the summers.

Opening Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursdays to Tuesdays
Address: Yahya Kemal Caddesi No. 42, Rumelihisari – Sariyer

Other areas of interest include:

Yedikule Hisari

–    The City Walls: The earliest foundations of the city walls hark back to the 5th century A.D. and were further enlarged by succeeding emperors. If only these walls could talk, it can tell us a lot about the sieges and wars it has witnessed.  Sadly, some of these walls were destroyed and the materials used to build other structures.  The walls had over 50 gates and 300 big towers.
–    The Seven Towers dungeons (Yedikule Hisari): This was the home of, to put it lightly, unwilling guests (statesmen and ambassadors were held here as prisoners) and the lions of the Topkapi Palace.  Today, it is an open-air museum, with the courtyard serving as the venue for performances and concerts.
–    Churches: The churches you can find here include the Saint Anthony Church (the city’s largest), the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Bulgarian Church, the Anglican Church and a number of other churches.

Yeni Mosque

There are also quite a number of mosques aside from the more famous ones mentioned earlier.  There is the Suleiman Mosque, the Eyup Mosque, the Yeni Mosque, the Dolmabahce Mosque, the Fatih Mosque and a whole lot more.
–    Other locations of interest include the Beyazit Tower, the Column of Constantine, the Goths Column, the Camlica TV Tower, the Yildiz, Nurretiye, Etfal Hospital and Dolmabahce Clock Towers, the Serpent Column and the Goths Column.


Istanbul is a land of interesting contrasts.  Because of its role as the capital of great empires such as the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, it is no surprise that it is a place where you can have your fill of architecture.  Indeed, the arts and architecture of Istanbul stand as national treasures, things that are definitely worth looking at.

Harem Topkapi Palace

Sadly, some of the older establishments did not survive the many sieges and sackings that the city experienced.  The destruction of a number of structures in Istanbul will forever be our loss.  However, a surprising number has survived and stood as reminders of the city’s glorious past.  There are also a number of modern structures that will catch your eye.

A tour of the architectural gems of Istanbul is done on foot.  That way, you can stop and take a leisurely look at the different structures.  You can even go inside some so that you can have more in-depth knowledge of these fine examples of architecture.


For the sports enthusiast, the choices are plenty and varied.  Istanbul offers not just a day at the gym, you can also go sailing, swimming or fishing.  You can also hit the soccer stands or spend a day at the golf club.

Because of its position – with the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Bosphorus Strait – you can expect some major action when it comes to water sports.  Sailing is a favorite and proof of this is the number of sailing clubs.  You will notice that there are clubs for experts, as well as newbies.  The sailboats usually ply the Bosphorus Strait.

Bridge Fishing
If you brought your fishing gear along, head for the Galata Bridge and join the locals vie for the biggest catch of the day.  Also, you can get certified at the number of diving schools and diving clubs in the city.

For women who want to go to the gym, it’s best that you go to the gym at the hotel, as most of the gyms in the city cater to men.

Here are some sporting venues in Istanbul:

Istanbul Park/Istanbul Racing Circuit (Akfirat County) The home of Formula 1 racers when in Istanbul.   With a race track circuit that covers over 5 kilometers, Turkish Grand Prix racers can speed up to the total distance of close to 310 kilometers in 58 laps.  The track is 14 meters wide at its narrowest and 21.5 meters wide at its widest.  The track is designed by Hermann Tilke, the famed architect of racetracks.

Abdi Ipekci Sports Center (Zeytinburnu District) Here, you can watch a basketball game, or a competition involving wrestling, volleyball or weightlifting.

Ali Sam Yen Stadium (Mecidiyekoy Quarter, Sisli) The national favorite, the Galatasaray SK Football Club calls this stadium their home.

Ataturk Olympic Stadium (Ikitelli District) This stadium now has the distinction of being one of the biggest in the world.  This is part of Turkey’s efforts to clinch the deal to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.  A massive renovation was made costing over 120 million dollars.

Ayhan Sahenk Sports Hall 
(Dacka) This indoor arena is also home to the basketball teams of Galatasaray Café Crown and Darussafaca.  It can seat some 3,500 people.

Bahcelievler Stadium (Yenibosna district, Bahçelievler) This is where you can usually watch games played by Istanbulspor AS and Yenibosna Spor Kulubu.

Sinan Erdem Dome (Akatoy, Barkikoy) This multi-purpose arena has the distinction of being one of the largest in the country and in Europe.

Inonu Stadium (Besiktas Inonu) The popular Besiktas J.K. Football Club makes their home here.

Sukru Saracoglu Stadium/ Fenerbahce Stadium (Fenerbahce, Kadikoy) Another popular football club, the Fenerbahce SK makes this stadium their headquarters.

You will notice that based on the number of football clubs, the sport is highly popular with the people of Turkey and Istanbul, specifically.  Football is said to be the second religion of Turkey.  It only goes to show that fans are very passionate about their teams.

Swimming Istanbul
Now, if you want to go swimming, try the Olympic standard pools available in the city.  Some also have half-Olympic pools.

Here are some of them.

Cemal Kamaci Sports Hall (Sark Kahvesi Bus stop /Okmeydani)
Hamza Yerlikaya Sports Hall (Sultançiftligi- Gaziosmanpasa)
Zeytinburnu Sports Hall (Telsiz Mah. Prof. Muammer Aksoy Cd. No.15 Z.Burnu Stadi Yani)

Turkish Baths

The Hamam or the Turkish bath is an age-old tradition for the Turks.  And yes, when they arrived and settled into Constantinople, they introduced this delightful habit to the people there.  Of course, the locals already had their own bathing traditions – that of the Byzantines and the Romans.  So what happened was that these two (or more!) traditions were blended together, and voila! the Turkish bath is born!

Hamam Istanbul
Now, you have to remember that the Turkish bath is not just about getting clean.  It was then a vital part of the city’s social life.  Hamam is one place where people of different social status could come together.  And, not surprisingly, men and women take baths at different times.
Of course, in the interest of your safety and hygiene, it is recommended that you try the Hamam at a hotel.  Hamams have a wide difference when it comes to levels of cleanliness.  But if you are a bit on the adventurous side, then, by all means, give it a try.  And while you’re there, try the massage and body rub.

Here are some of the Hamams that are available in the city:

Cagaloglu Bath (close to the Underground Cistern) Built upon the command of Sultan Mahmut I in 1741.  This hamam features a gobektasi (marble platform) at the center of the main bath, and there are bathing cubicles surrounding this gobektasi, as well as separate entrances for men and women and a waterjet at the pool.  Cagaloglu Bath features a variety of Ottoman styles.  The bath is open daily, with different times for men (8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.) and women (8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.).

Cardakli Bath (Kadirga) This may not be originally a bath, but a building converted into one.

Cemberlitas Bath (near the Cemberlitas Column) Built by Sinan and quite near most of the popular tourist destinations in Istanbul.  Here, the men and women have their own section of the bath.  This also has a gobektasi with bathing cubicles around it for private bathing.  Cemberlitas Bath is open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight.

Galatasaray Bath (Beyoglu) A public bath built-in 1715, this was originally exclusive for men.  However, a women’s section was added.

Suleymaniye Bath (Suleymaniye) One of the last great baths in Istanbul, this was built by the Ottoman Empire’s “official” architect – Sinan.  This belongs to the compound where you can also find the Suleymaniye Mosque.  There are no separate sections of the bath for men and women – this means that this is the only Hamam in the city that has a mixed Hamam.  This is open daily, from 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight.

Other baths include the Aga Bath (Uskudar), Sofular Bath (Fatih district), Eski Bath (Uskudar) and Buyuk Bath (Kasimpasa).


Get hooked on hookah!

The Turkish water pipe, like the Hamam, used to be an integral part of the city’s social life.  The experience of smoking the narghile (pronounced narg-ee-leh) is quite unique.  And no, it’s nothing like smoking a cigarette.  Smoking the hookah has its own meditative rhythm – you get to have enough time to sit there, to talk and think.  Some even drink a cup of tea or coffee as they enjoy the intoxicating sensation brought about by the narghile.

Smokers, men, and women, young and old alike, have enjoyed this Turkish pastime.  Although we must say that the narghile traces its origins in India, Turkey (along with the Arab world) made it their own – improving the pipe’s design, and adding a series of rules to how it is smoked.

The hookah pipe is basically composed of 4 parts – the mouthpiece (agizlik), the tube (marpuc), the top of the pipe (lule) and the body where the water is placed (govde).  The water is used to clean out the dirt generated from the burning tobacco.  It also has an added benefit of being able to soak up the nicotine.  Meanwhile, the tobacco is placed into the lule, which usually has a cap so that the flame will not die out.  The smoke goes up the tube (marpuc).  Sometimes, there are pipes that sport multiple tubes, so that friends can share the smoke together.  This pipe may be adorned by beadwork, handicrafts, and embroidery.

Girl Smoking
Sadly, at the appearance of cigarettes, hookah smoking took a back seat, with fewer and fewer hookah bars as time passes.  However, there still is a special breed of smokers that still yearn for the experience.

To smoke, suck gently, instead of inhaling vigorously as you would when you smoke a cigarette.  The motion of gentle sucking makes bubbling sounds in the govde.  One other tip – never light your pipe using the fire from someone else’s pipe!  That’s a definite no-no.

You can avail of the hookah in some of the bars and narghile cafes in Istanbul.  You can also buy the pipe at the Grand Bazaar.

Whirling Dervishes

Whirling dervishes!  The name itself suggests something exciting and unforgettable.
The Whirling Dervishes are devotees of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi and are called Mevlevi.  Rumi was a poet in the 13th century who wrote a series of chants and poems that seek to bring the person into a trance-like state.  And this is what the devotees do; they recite verses and whirl as they do the Mevlevi Sema, which is kind of a worship service.  They do this in imitation of Rumi, who had the fondness of whirling around the streets as a display of joy.

Mevlevi Sema Ceremony
The Sema itself is utterly spellbinding.  You will surely get caught up in the moment as you watch people in long white clothes doing repeated whirls as they recite or sing an age-old Islamic hymn.  This branch of Sufism holds to the belief that one can be used whirling to get closer to Allah.  Right palm up and left palm down, they proceed to whirl, as they symbolize the renunciation of their life on earth for the privilege of being reborn into a union with God.  Palms open up as they ask and are granted blessings from heaven.  And in turn, they convey these to the rest of the world.  The group then whirls simultaneously.

Whirling Dervishes
The Sema is a service that is open to all.  Rumi, in his writing, has been known to invite others, saying, “Whoever you may be, come.”

The Whirling Dervishes are usually clothed in voluminous white full-skirted robes.  Underneath, this robe is another black cloak.  They remove the cloak prior to the ceremony.  This symbolizes their removal of the concerns and anxieties of the world, even as they don a shroud to cover their ego (represented by the white skirts).  As for the music, the instruments used are the kettledrum, the reed flute (ney) and other percussion instruments.

Mevlevi Sema
The Whirling Dervishes start the ceremony with prayers and chants.  Then they bow to the master and start their whirling.  As they whirl, they pause, one by one, to salute the master as if asking for their blessing.

The best way to watch a Mevlevi Sema is to drop by the Mevlana Cultural Center located in Konya.    Aside from that, there is the Galata Mevlevihanese at Galipdede Caddesi, which has a Whirling Dervish hall.

Whirling Dervishes Istanbul
Some words of warning, though.  The music used by the Whirling Dervishes should never be used for other performances, such as belly dancing.  This does not show proper respect for their sacred music.

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