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Published: March 29th 2006
Sultan Ahmet Mosque at Sunset
Istanbul sits astride two continents. We photographed this from one of the many ferries that traverse the Bosphorus Straits between Asia and Europe.
March 2, 2006 (Antakya, Turkey) Sean:
We smuggled cigarettes and liquor across the Turkish border. Well, it wasn’t quite Midnight Express
, but Parliament 100’s and Johnny Walker Red aren’t exactly heroin either.
Let me back up and tell the story.
Leaving Aleppo, Syria this morning, we thought it was going to be a bit of a headache because the travel agency that “invited” us into the country had to escort us out as well. This wasn’t a problem for the company, it’s what they do, but the communications between the boss and our escort must be nonexistent because our escort showed up on the wrong day asking if we were ready. “Huh? Ready for what?” I asked the complete stranger. When he replied what he was there to do, I told him he needed to talk to his boss as we’d already arranged our exit date with him. He quickly dialed the number and spoke excitedly, trying to figure out what to do. After a long cell phone conversation, Abdullah (our escort) explained to me that he already had our “official” papers (excel spreadsheets) stamped with today’s date but that delaying by a day (to our originally agreed
Invented in Istanbul in the late 1700's, the original shop is still here, run by the descendents of the creator, Ali Muhiddin. It's chewy like a gumdrop and the nutty ones remind me of Aplets & Cotlets.
upon date) wouldn’t be a problem. He would explain to the customs officer that Shannon had gotten sick and couldn’t make the original itinerary. It’s always got to be the woman in these countries. Sigh.
When it came down to discussing the time we’d meet at the border though, Abdullah balked because the bus we were planning to take left too late in the day. We argued, but unless we wanted to delay our exit by two days (when he had more time) we’d have to leave sometime in the morning. This would require either taking (1) a high priced taxi from Aleppo, across the border and into Antakya or (2) breaking it up with mini-busses - one to the border, one through the border (the no-man’s land between the two countries is pretty wide), and then another bus from the Turkish side into Antakya. This can get spendy as well, because you have to negotiate with three different drivers and, from lots
of experience, we’ve found that when you’re waddling around with a heavy backpack and looking nothing like a local, you are a prime target for a little price gouging. We weren’t looking forward to it, but
Also known as Whirling Dervishes.
we chose option (2) as we did want to leave that day and that was the least expensive option.
The minibus from Aleppo to the Syrian border turned out to be very cheap. Unfortunately though, there were no mini-buses at the border when we arrived, which meant we would have to negotiate for a private taxi. It came as no surprise that the taxi drivers were on us like white on rice. Western tourists, stuck without a cheaper option. Abullah turned out to be a real asset though, as he began negotiating on our behalf as we tried to shoo the rest away. When he came back to us, he had a proposition: If we agreed to let this driver “use” our passports to purchase some duty free items and then claim them as our own on the Turkish side, he’d take us to Antakya for free. “For free?” we asked dumbfounded. We couldn’t believe that you could make that much money off of the resale of cigarettes and liquor. Not that the cab fare across the border and into Antakya would have been overwhelming, but an hour’s ride in a private taxi, even here, isn’t free.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque
Also known as the Blue Mosque because of the color of the tiles that decorate the interior.
were dubious, but, and we’ll probably go to hell for this one, we agreed.
Getting through the border formalities was easy and we said goodbye to Abdullah as we got in our “Contraband Cab”. We then drove until we got to the Turkish side. No problems as Shannon and I purchased our visas, had them affixed in our passports and were stamped into a new country. When we were done, our cabbie, Jemin, took the passports and came back about twenty minutes later with the booty. Shannon and I were now the proud owners of 3 cartons of Parliament 100’s and 4 bottles of Johnny Walker Red…each (a party just waiting to happen as I’m sure you will agree). Driving up to the border, our stamps were checked and we were all told to exit the vehicle from a very stern looking border guard. He rummaged around in Jemin’s stuff before pointing at the duty-free goods and finally asking me the 64,000 dollar question:
“Is this yours?”
“Yes, for my wife and I.”
He didn’t seem convinced, but he also didn’t look like he cared either. His next move surprised me though, as I’m not accustomed to the unofficial
actions of officials. He fully removed two boxes of Ceylon tea that Jemin had just sitting in the back of the taxi and gave them to one of his underlings to cart away. I was astonished that there was no pretense of subtlety from the border guard when he extracted his “payment”. For what service I wasn’t sure, no one seemed to be doing anything wrong. We certainly had our legal share of duty free items, and Jemin wasn’t hiding anything either. Later Jemin said that’s just how it works. If you’ve got something in your trunk that they want, they just take it. It’s easier to accept this than fight the man who controls the turnstile for whole country.
After we got across the border we lost our “stash” as Jemin gave it to his buddy and the money was exchanged. I wanted to ask more questions regarding this underbelly of society. Who did he sell it to? How much can you make doing this? Where will it all wind up? Not being a smoker or a scotch drinker, I’m immune to their charms; hence I just do not see the draw in obtaining them at the duty
Sean on the Train
Despite what our guidebook said, the trains in Turkey were very modern and comfortable. We ended up taking them several times as we criss-crossed the country.
free shop to sell on the black market. Maybe I should pay more attention.
Leaving these quasi-illicit deeds behind, it was obvious that the landscape changed dramatically after we crossed from Syria. On the Turkish side are lush green fields being worked mechanically and across the barbed wire fence separating the countries, are hills that seem to produce nothing but rocks and stones. Jemin told us that the Turkish land was actually Syria’s and was annexed a long time ago. To be precise, this area was its own independent state and voted to become a part of Turkey in 1939. The Syrians never acknowledged either the independent state or the annexation by their northern neighbors. After spending time in the south, I see that Turkey made out much better in the land grab.
Turkey is also much more modern than anything we’d seen coming through the Middle East. All the highway signs are European and everything else - from mode of dress to cleanliness standards - is more westernized. Upon reaching Antakya, we ate lunch at a restaurant that - gasp - looked to have a health certificate tacked on the wall. Shannon:
Turkey is also more
expensive than the other countries we have visited. We had expected as much …but it is still weird when, for no other reason than crossing a border, prices suddenly jump dramatically. It’s not like we stepped out of Syria into downtown Prague. The city might be a tad cleaner, but the heart of Antakya looks pretty much like every other low-budget concrete metropolis populating the Middle East. Street vendors are still selling us schwarma (called doner kebap here), only now they cost twice as much with half the meat. What is the most astounding to me are the gas prices. Turks pay far more than Joe and Suzy American to fill up at the pump (and many times what their Syrian counterparts pay as well). The prices we are seeing are about 2.30 YTL for a liter
of gasoline - that equates to about $6.55 a gallon. Those are prices that would make me think twice before buying that new Escalade with 20” spinners.
But it feels nice to be back in a country that we’re familiar with. As I think we’ve stated before, we really enjoyed Turkey back when we first visited in 1999. It’s a country that
From a distance, they are so detailed they could almost pass for a painting. It's not until you get closer that you can really appreciate the amount of artistry that goes into them.
has a lot going for it. It has a strong economy, a fairly literate populace, and is one of only 6 or so nations that are agriculturally self-sufficient. It’s also pretty westernized. For those that might not be aware, Turkey became modernized under a man named Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk) who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. In the process of founding the nation, he abolished just about everything to do with the old ruling Sultans, he modernized the legal system, established a secular constitution, adopted a Latin-based alphabet and gave women the right to vote. He’s firmly remembered as a hero in this country and his visage is EVERYWHERE. And I do mean everywhere. People hang his pictures in just about every conceivable place; statues and busts of him grace every public building. And since we learned a lot about him (and became very familiar with his image) the last
time we were here, seeing him now feels just a tiny bit like a homecoming of sorts.
March 3, 2006 (Antakya, Turkey) Sean:
After all we have eaten from street side vendors in the Middle East, it takes coming to a more westernized
Same mosaic - up close you can see the individual tiles.
culture before we succumb to stomach ailments. We’d been doing so well, too. In fact we hadn’t had any dodgy belly issues since first arriving in Guatemala way back at the beginning of this adventure. But we find ourselves right now lying in the fetal position in a hotel bed just trying to keep what little food we’d eaten down…and seeing who can whine louder. Ironic really, since we just passed through countries with very questionable health standards; lots of Upton Sinclair cringing meat practices and hand washing that, without fail, consisted of ice cold water and filthy bars of soap.
But I will not bore you with our physical misfortunes. The blog must go on!
While here in Antakya - between bouts of stomach clenching moaning - we did manage to see their great archeological museum. The centerpieces are the beautiful mosaics on display from the Roman 1st through 5th Centuries A.D. We’ve seen some herky-jerky mosaics on our travels so far, but these really show some artistic talent. The shading and subtle changes in skin tone and shadow, all done with little tiny colored stones, are amazing. They are so well executed you’d think they were
The Fairy Chimneys of Kapadokya
You many not realize it from the outside, but this was a convent at one time.
March 5, 2006 (Göreme, Turkey) Sean:
After a long trek from the south yesterday (still feeling a little wobbly), we’ve reached the interior of the country most notable for the alien landscape that surrounds the area. Kapadokya (as the region is called) is known for its weird natural formations (called “tuff cones”) that formed over the ages from the differences between the geologic materials that comprise the landscape. As the harsh elements scoured the countryside over the eons, the softer rock eroded and what remained were large conical and cylindrical shaped mounds as well as deep, twisting and colorful canyons. Earlier peoples built churches, houses, and even pigeon dwellings (to harvest the guano for agriculture) in many of these rocks. We spent the morning at the Open Air Museum in town to see a cluster of some of the better examples of churches that were dug out. Some are rather plain on the interior, but others (especially the ones that had little ambient light entering) still have amazingly colorful murals on just about every exposed surface. Shannon:
The frescos really are something to see. You enter these “caves” (for lack of a better word) dug
Interior of Cave Church
An example of one of the interiors of the rock-cut Byzantine churches within the Goreme Open Air Museum. From the outside they don't look like much, but as you can see the interiors are stunning.
out of the soft rock and as your eyes adjust to the light you find yourself in a little church with colorful depictions of scenes from the Bible. Kapadokya was one of the main reasons that Sean and I returned to Turkey again. In 1999 we didn’t have time to make it here, so it was high on our list for the return trip. It’s well worth the journey.
We’re staying at a wonderful little hotel in town called the Walnut House. There are other hotels in town that have incorporated parts of some “tuff cones” into their properties - you see signs all over advertising rooms in these “fairy chimneys”. They look pretty neat from the outside, but as Sean and I were mostly interested in something with good ‘ole reliable central heating, we went for a more conventional option. The Walnut House was a very good choice. The rooms are all stone with vaulted ceilings and really impeccable bathrooms. And they serve a very good traditional Turkish breakfast; much like elsewhere in the Middle East this consists of a hard boiled egg, olives, jam and bread. The Turks add sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and some wonderful cheese. It’s
delicious and the Walnut House does one better with homemade jams and fresh fruit. Yummy.
March 7, 2006 (Göreme, Turkey) Shannon:
It’s been a relaxing and enjoyable few days. The weather here in Kapadokya has been wonderful: bright blue skies, mild spring temperatures and plenty of sunshine. Yesterday we took advantage of the weather and went for a very long walk through some of the canyons in the area. Actually, we meant to go for a walk in one canyon and somehow ended up in another. But it turned out just fine as we eventually made it to the town we were headed for. Some of the rock formations in the area are just incredible. And being off-season, no one is around, so we had the canyons all to ourselves. Everywhere you see evidence that people have carved into the rocks - small holes, an occasional doorway, lots of pigeon roosts. As Sean mentioned before, the people in this area not only carved out the tuff cones for houses and churches, but also as low-tech fertilizer-factories. It was one of this area’s main exports for awhile. Cut out some niches for birds to roost, let them do
their business, and then harvest the guano after it falls into piles below to fertilize your crops. Pretty ingenious.
After finally reaching the town of Uchisar late in the afternoon and finding an open restaurant (not easy, as this town is a bit closed down for the season) we had the chance to sample one of the regional dishes that the area is known for. Called saç tava
, it is basically a meat dish cooked with tomatoes and cilantro in some sort of cumin-infused sauce. Served in a flat-bottomed pan (similar to a smaller, less concave wok), it’s delicious.
Afterwards we climbed to the highest point in the village, what they call the Castle. Basically a large fort carved in many levels out of a high rock, it affords a great view of the surrounding area. While we were there we met a local man who offered to show us a shortcut to another canyon, which we could take to get back to Göreme. This shortcut entailed climbing down through one of the carved-tuff “houses” built into a cliff (you enter at one of the top levels and exit at the bottom level). The local guy turned out
Fairy Chimney Hotel
We chose to stay in a more conventional hotel, but this gives you an idea of how modern construction has incorporated the old tuff cones.
to be a little too touchy-feely (a bit too eager to “help” me down in places, when all he was doing was helping himself to a free grope) but the experience was pretty interesting, that aside. The house we climbed down through must have been for a person of very good standing, or perhaps shared by many families, because it was simply enormous. I couldn’t help being astonished as we kept going down through level after level. It had kitchen areas, storage areas, living areas, you name it. The spaces were a bit primitive, granted, but hey - they were carved out of a rock. By hand. I’m not dismissing the effort.
The really neat thing about the whole experience is that we would never have done it except that we met a local who showed us where to go (even if it was Mr. Gropey Hands). This wasn’t some tourist attraction. It was just some random thing that locals know about and if you’re lucky, will tell you about - or even better - the kind of thing they will show you. It’s something we think is going to happen to us all the time when we’re traveling
These are the kids who raised such a ruckus talking with the Americans. They were overly zealous to be in the picture which is why the dour look on the girl's face throws me off. How did she get up front anyway?
but, in actual practice, very rarely does.
March 9, 2006 (Konya, Turkey) Sean:
From Kapadokya, we traveled west to the whirling dervish capital of the world to see where this mesmerizing Muslim religious order began. It was started by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi in 1273 as a way to get closer to god. His followers, the Mevlevi, accomplished this feat by spinning themselves into a catatonic state, freeing their minds from all earthly thoughts. Their flowing white gowns splay out as they twirl around, arms outstretched, eyes pointed toward heaven and chanting passages from the Koran. They do this sometimes for hours until their bodies fail them and they fall helplessly to the floor. The museum, with Rumi’s sarcophagus, celebrates the traditions he left behind. The practice was outlawed during the great modernization movement of Ataturk (he of the omnipresent visage) in the early part of the century, but was reinstated in the 1950’s in order to celebrate its value as being a part of the cultural heritage.
Our trip to the museum coincided with a school group and, as I explained about walking on the streets of Syria, we became the main attraction. Poor Rumi,
Solar Eclipse in the Heartland
On March 29th there will be a solar eclipse and the residents of Konya (the hometown of the Whirling Dervishes) are preparing a celebration. This is a picture of the poster announcing the event.
his body just a few feet away, couldn’t hold the kids’ attentions like a bald white guy and his camera toting wife. They were busting at the seams to speak English (loudly) and had to be shushed many, many times by their teacher who - and he made no pains to disguise it - just wished we would leave. When Shannon finally capitulated to their pleas for her take their picture (thinking this would end it all) it reignited the frenzy of pent up energy that only a group of 11 year olds can summon. They all fought to be in the front and kept walking forward cutting each other off as Shannon kept retreating for a clear shot. She has the blurry pictures to prove that even the fastest f-stop can’t capture a zealous child. She finally got a decent picture, showed it to the gleeful throng and we left, much to the audible relief of the poor teacher.
Pause for dramatic effect…
Want to buy a carpet?
Every visitor to Turkey has been asked this question numerous times and so far we are not in the minority. The sales pitches aren’t always hammy or forced
The Hard Sell in Action
Subtitled: A first person's view of "the Pitch".
either. The salespeople are sometimes nice guys (always men) and seem fairly sincere. Today’s pitch came from a very well spoken individual who had been trailing us for a few blocks (we deduced later) when he walked up - as if he just happened upon us - and started up a conversation. He was able to place our American accents accurately to the Pacific Northwest, which was impressive, so when the offer of a free cup of tea came (of course to be consumed in his family’s carpet shop) we acquiesced. We sat and chatted for a half hour about all topics and then the spiel came. He had testimonials and pictures from satisfied customers all over the walls as he walked us through the different types of Turkish carpets. This was the second pitch we’d been the recipients of in just two days. The first took us by surprise but was painless and quick. So after two days of “The Hard Sell” (as I like to call it) we are well acquainted with the offerings. And to squelch the flames of your burning curiosity on this matter, here they are: carpet, kilim, sumak, ju-jum, and a your-yook. We could
In one portion of the site you are allowed to walk through the pools as long as you don't wear shoes. The water was tepid, as it had cooled considerably during its journey from the top (these particular pools were close to the bottom of the hillside).
absolutely bore you with the differences in their construction, material content, thread count and possibly even their chemical compositions, but all you need to know is that there is a product for every budget and money is never
My dad told me once about those “free” nights they offer in resort towns to get you to look at their properties. He explained that everybody travels there thinking they’re not going to buy into a condo, but (and here’s the clincher) they wouldn’t offer the free weekend if the scheme wasn’t profitable. Someone is buying the condos. The same can be said here about carpets. They lure you into their shops with the offer of some tea and a chat and then work very, very hard to convince you that you not only want this item, but you are just not sure how you ever got along without it in the first place; You need
a Turkish carpet! This is a very lucrative industry, so obviously someone knows a thing or two about helping people part with their money.
I will be honest though and say that - from what we’ve seen - the carpets are well
Dry Dry Dry
In all the tourist posters these pools are overflowing with water and happy, frollicking travelers. Those pictures are years old as these haven't held water for quite some time.
made and priced competitively. We saw many samples that were a good value (decent quality and inexpensive). We certainly wouldn’t criticize anyone for purchasing one but unfortunately for all the carpet salesmen in Turkey, we just don’t want one. They’re not for us.
March 11, 2006 (Pamukkale, Turkey) Shannon:
We’ve moved on to a quiet little city called Pamukkale in the south-western part of the country. The reason for us traveling here are the famous travertine pools. The last time we were in Turkey, we saw pictures of these very distinctive icons everywhere. They were created when calcium-rich mineral water spilled over the hillside; as the water cooled, the calcium was deposited and formed these bone-white pools. Of course, in all the postcards and tourist posters you see people frolicking about in the water. This has since been done away with because of all the damage that was done by the millions of heavy footed travelers trodding everywhere. We knew that before we came. What really shocked me though, was how little water was actually in the pools - most of them were bone dry. Evidently the water that the nearby hotels have been using for their
Roman Ruins at Pamukkale
Not a lot of forethought went into the placement of this building.
swimming pools has dried up a good part of the natural water source; today, there is barely enough water left over to create a decent flow. It looks like the Turkish government is taking an interest in preserving them, though. At the time of our visit they were channeling much of the available water to certain sections of the hillside, presumably to restore those areas. And they are doing quite a bit of construction: they’re landscaping parts of the top of the hill and adding artificial pools. My guess is that these pools will be open for people to wade in sometime in the future; with this as their outlet, I’m sure many of them will forego trying to walk on the natural pools, which - despite signs warning people that they are off limits - are still a great temptation right now. It seemed like a sound plan. And hopefully they will figure out what to do about the low water flow.
Along with the travertine pools, we also got to see some old Roman ruins! I say this with an affectionate nod towards my wonderful husband, whose interest in all things old and Roman has waned with
Shannon taking the waters
A nice warm river is a good place to stop for a soak.
each broken column and half restored temple we’ve tramped through in the Middle East. I can’t say that I feel much differently; just as, after the first 3 weeks in Egypt, we became more than a little “Pharaohed-out”; so are we now with those ubiquitous builders from Rome. The Middle East and Turkey are filled with bits of ruined cities and ancient trade routes. As a consequence, Roman remains are about as rare in these parts as a coffee shop in downtown Seattle. That’s not a bad thing, but after a while you don’t exactly find yourself going out of the way to visit them. In this particular case, since we had come to see the pools but the ruins were right above them, we spent a few hours exploring. In Roman times the city was called Hieropolis, built as a spa town at the top of the travertine pools. Nice location. It had all the usual elements that we’ve come to expect: temples, theater, a paved main street, and a necropolis. We wandered through but mostly tried to avoid the gaggle of school children also touring the site. I am still amazed at how interesting they find us.
We felt duty bound to take pictures of the few pools still filled with water.
Also sharing the site is a large thermal pool. An enterprising soul had the good idea to throw a roof over some of the left over Roman odds-and-ends (columns and other miscellaneous stone pieces), pipe some of the natural mineral water over, contain it in a little pool and charge $14 a head to swim. Not a bad little setup. We declined to use the facilities though, and instead contented ourselves with sticking our feet in a little channel of water that feeds some of the other pools. It felt heavenly, especially after walking barefoot around some of the travertine pools (part of the area is accessible only if you trod sans
shoes - not a bad thing, I’m sure, in the summertime, but this is only March!). Sean:
The ruins are nothing you’d ever visit on their own and without the hot springs would be just another decaying outpost of the empire that once was. All over the country though, in travel agencies and hotels, you see Turkish travel posters depicting the old days of Pamukkale: speedo bedecked tourists basking in the warm weather and tepid waters. You can tell the tourism board isn't too interested in updating
In Jordan this was a drink you bought on the streets for pennies. In Turkey, it was yet another more-expensive-than-in-the-Middle-East item we were able to complain about to each other.
any of their posters for this area as new pictures wouldn't be nearly as dramatic and enticing.
March 14, 2006 (Istanbul…not Constantinople, Turkey) Shannon:
“Would you like to spend your money in my shop?” “No charge just for looking.” “It is not raining in my shop.” “You could not give your money to a nicer man than me.” “We have the cheapest prices in all of Turkey” These are the statements that let me know we’re back in Istanbul. Not that I’m complaining about the carpet touts. After a few months on the road, you really do grow hardened to it. And our tout radar has almost become perfected - we can now spot someone with a hustle from a mile away, even before they get out their lame “Excuse me, you look like a nice couple.” opener.
Istanbul is expensive, no doubt. But it’s all a matter of perspective. When we visited back in 1999, flush with cash for our two-week vacation, it didn’t seem very expensive at all. But now, the unemployed cheapskates that we are, things are looking a little different. And it doesn’t help that we’ve just come through some cheaper countries.
The Yeni (New) Mosque with Suleymaniye Mosque in the Background
Only in Istanbul would a mosque that was completed in 1663 be called "new".
There’s the endless temptation to shriek with indignation “What?? Three dollars for this? This would be, like, 17 cents in Syria!” It’s hard not to compare. But I’m trying, because Istanbul is a city that I really like. And yes, it is more expensive. Sean:
Perception is everything. Every place we visit is colored by the places we’ve been. As Shan said, Turkey seems expensive only because we were previously in much cheaper countries. But I met a guy who just traveled from London who has an opposite opinion of the prices here. For us though, it’s hard to get used to the cost of goods jumping so high when we barely changed our physical geography.
One of the glaring examples - counter intuitively - is Turkish coffee. All through the Middle Eastern countries we’ve visited, it is priced the same as tea (very cheap) and drunk with the same frequency. But in Turkey they don’t drink it as much so when you do find it, it’s three times as expensive as the tea they’re constantly sipping on.
March 15, 2006 (Istanbul, Turkey) Sean:
Today we trekked to the Grand Dame of all tourist sites
Not a dainty lady, but beautiful nevertheless.
in Turkey. Hovering over the bustling Bosphorus for 1,500 years, Aya Sofya is one of the most impressive buildings in the whole world. Mainly for it’s sheer size and antiquity. In the States, we have absolutely nothing to compare to this monument of ancient engineering. The pyramids at Giza are still very impressive and were ancient even when Emperor Justinian decided to build the grandest church in the known universe, but this house of worship must have stretched all the known realms of physics when it was constructed. Completed in just 5 years and inaugurated in AD 537 it lasted as the greatest homage to Christianity until Mehmet the Conquerer and his Muslim conquest in 1453 turned it into a mosque. In 1935, as part of his drive for modernization, Ataturk had it converted into a museum and so it remains today; the most visited attraction in the country.
What is most impressive to me (as it was the last time we visited) is the shear size of the unsupported dome. Measuring 32.5 meters in diameter and 56.6 meters high, it is huge by any stretch, and having stood for so long, it boggles my mind. Nobody at this
Aya Sofya Mosaic
This is probably the most famous of Aya Sofya's restored Christian mosaics. On the right is Constantine the Great presenting the city of Constantinople to baby Jesus and on the left, Emperor Justinian's gift is Aya Sofya herself.
time was doing anything even remotely this grand.
To be fair, it’s been shorn up over the years. During the Ottoman heydays, the architect Master Sinan is credited with adding the flying buttresses to the exterior to help dissipate the load from the massive weight being supported. And there was that earthquake just six years after completion that caved in the roof, but other than that, what you see is what all travelers to Istanbul have seen for the last millennia and a half.
Thankfully, when it was converted into a mosque, the intricate and beautiful Christian mosaics were only plastered over and not chipped away. They’ve been uncovered and restored and while nothing as artistic as what we saw in Antakya, their religious symbolism is awe inspiring. Shannon:
I can’t add much to what Sean has said above, except that Aya Sofya is one of my favorite buildings in the world. And it’s being preserved in an interesting state. For 900 years it one of the greatest Christian churches in the world; for almost another 500 years it served as a Muslim mosque. And for the past 70 years, it’s been straddling both religions as a
museum. Today it highlights some of the best of both: the wonderful Christian mosaics are being uncovered, yet the Muslim additions (the master calligraphy work, the beautiful mihrab and the towering minarets) are being preserved. In my mind, Aya Sofya is a good metaphor for Turkey itself. It’s a country that straddles two continents, (Christian) Europe and (Muslim) Asia, and in the 21st century is trying to strike the right balance for preserving the best of each.
March 20, 2006 (Ankara, Turkey) Sean:
As we’ve mentioned once or twice, Mustafa Kemal a.k.a. Ataturk is everywhere. His cult of personality is so potent that it is a crime to impugn his character. So when in the country’s capital - as we’ve found ourselves today - you can’t miss his combination crypt/monument/national museum. Wow. Not surprising, really, as he’s (in my opinion) Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and even a little Roosevelt all rolled into one. He was a heroic and successful military leader who led the fight for Turkish independence, then served as the first president and reformed the society into the modern country that he envisioned. He oversaw the building of a democratic nation, helped draft the new constitution,
modeled a new legal system on that of the West, and spearheaded the introduction of many social reforms. He was even the driving force in completely revamping the Turkish language (having excelled at math, he personally translated all the texts relating to geometry).
The Ottoman Empire, seen as “the sick man of Europe” really peaked in the 1600’s and hadn’t progressed at all in the ensuing years. Overburdened by mismanagement, bureaucracy and stagnant thinking, when it came time to choose sides in World War One, it chose poorly. After the dust settled in November 1918, the onerous penance and land transference demanded by the Allies ignited the nationalist movement in Turkey which led to their independent state and their current borders - all spearheaded by none other than Mustafa Kemal.
The mausoleum is huge. Not much else to say but they poured yards and yards of concrete and chipped tons and tons of marble to honor their most illustrious statesman. The museum, which charts the history of the country and, specifically Ataturk’s involvement in its creation, is chock-a-block full of information (in English) showing how forward thinking and amazing he was (So really, even if you could assail
his character, why would you?). He was an impressive man succumbing to cirrhosis at 57 after a strenuous life that included a lot of alcohol, cigarettes, and sleepless nights. He gave all to the modern country and they have repaid him by putting his face and likeness on just about every vertical surface. Every denomination of bill has the same face staring back at you, every large office building has his “half head” peaking out like the Wizard of Oz, and every large public works project shares the same appellation - Ataturk Dam, Ataturk Airport (Istanbul), Ataturk Bridge, and Ataturk Stadium. Shannon:
He really was an amazing man who accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. Of course, his governance was not without criticism - twice he encouraged the formation of another political party to lend healthy competition to his own. When those parties became more religiously conservative (separation of church and state was very important to him) he shut them down. Not something that we could claim was very democratic (though given the chance, I’m sure our own political parties in America could make the case otherwise if given the opportunity to oust the other).
Rahmi Koc Museum
Here are some of the cutaway machines. Unfortunately for my beautiful wife, they even have a tractor with a plexiglas encased transmission that I was able to bore her with, explaining the principles of gearing.
March 22, 2006 (Istanbul, Turkey) Sean:
We wouldn’t be us if we didn’t search out the cheesiest tourist attractions in whatever country we went to. But like Buenos Aires’ homage to the Old Testament, Istanbul’s Miniaturk theme park is earnest and informative. Sprawling throughout a large bayside park is every significant site and historic building in Turkey all done in 1:25 scale. And with so much history, there are over a hundred different models portraying “…the traces of civilizations that ruled the lands of Anatolia and its surroundings for 3,000 long years”. It’s pretty cool and we think it would be a great idea for the States, too. Even at that scale though, the Empire State Building would still be over 50 feet tall.
Another attraction in Istanbul that we feel is a must see is the Rahmi Koç Museum. Filled to the rafters with stuff
, Smithsonian style, it has the feeling of a large warehouse - albeit a well documented one. From trains to cars to boats and even a submarine, this museum is a devotion to all things transportation. Shannon:
Not just transportation, though. It has a little bit of everything. In one room,
Rail Car Fit for a Sultan
Not exactly how we travel...
the “how it works” section, they have cutaways and diagrams of all sorts of machines and appliances (cars, radios, heaters, refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, etc.). Plexiglas windows allow visitors an opportunity to see inside while they are in motion, and in many cases the motors have been slowed down so that you get a chance to see the inner workings more clearly. Other rooms showcase different things: full size replicas of an olive press factory, a steam driven wood mill or the interior of a ship. You can walk through a double-decker London bus, a restored tram car, a decommissioned Turkish submarine (originally American) and a DC-3 ‘Dakota’ airplane - which is suspended 50’ feet off the ground. It also showcases vintage automobiles, motorcycles, carriages, wooden speedboats (and a very interesting amphicar - part car, part boat). And if none of that interests you, you can learn about a myriad of other things - astrological instruments, printing presses, phonographs, clocks and computers, to name a few. Or you can spend time in the “hands-on” lab learning about many principles of physics such as friction, pressure or pulleys. In short, there really is something for everyone. It’s all very attractively displayed
The Last Cup of Tea
Laurent and Virginia in their final minutes before flying to Spain.
in a renovated factory, and also across the road, in a restored Ottoman building. There are good descriptions in English for the majority of the displays, which is very helpful. Overall, it’s one of the best museums we’ve visited in quite a while.
March 25, 2006 (Istanbul, Turkey) Shannon:
We said goodbye to Laurent and Virginia today. We first met them in Egypt when we stayed at the same hotel; Laurent was kind enough to give us a tip regarding the boat touts to Philae Island. Since the traveling community is sometimes very small, we’ve been bumping into them everywhere since - from Egypt to Jordan to Syria and now in Turkey - we’ve seen them in each country. We’ve shared quite a few meals and logged more than a few hours of conversation. But now they’re headed home, their current adventure over and a new one starting. We wish them all the best.
After we saw them off, we visited the excellent Kariye Muzesi, once known as the Church of the Holy Savior Outside the Walls (so named because it was just outside the original city walls). Now a museum, it has amazing mosaics. Though
This former church, while not nearly as grand as Aya Sofya, has much more and better preserved mosaics.
not a large church, what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in quality. Just about every surface of the interior seems to be decorated with the most elaborate mosaics and frescos. It is truly dazzling.
March 26, 2006 (Istanbul, Turkey) Shannon:
One of the nice things about being in Istanbul is that we’ve been here before and seen most of the major sites, so I didn’t feel much pressure to see them again. With the exception of Aya Sofya (which is worth seeing every time, in my valid opinion), we didn’t revisit any of the sites we had seen before. That left us free to explore some of the other, less touristed places, such as Miniaturk and the Koç museum. And we’ve had a bit more time to just “live” in the city - running errands, etc.
I still have a very high opinion of Istanbul, though I’m not sure if it’s merely because I am more familiar with it than other cities we’ve visited. I will allow that, perhaps if I was visiting for the first time, I may have been off put by the prices or less impressed with the
One of the inumerable locations where James Bond barely escapes with his life and saves the world.
attractions. But it is a great city, with an amazing setting on the Bosphorus, the literal dividing line between Europe and Asia.
Today Sean and I spent our last afternoon soaking up some of that ambiance on the Asian side: our original intent was to go to Kiz Kulesi. That is the name of the small tower on a rock in the middle of the Bosphorus - many of you will recognize it from one of the recent James Bond films, The World Is Not Enough
. They have a coffee shop set up there during the day (which becomes a very fancy restaurant at night). But when we got there, we learned that it is no small expense to travel by boat to the tower. By that time we had discovered a much better option anyway. Some entrepreneurs have set up outdoor cafes on the wide and steep quay steps: throw down some rugs, set up cushions to sit on and lean against, and sell beverages for patrons to imbibe while they enjoy the view. So in lieu of catching the high-priced tourist boat, we joined the locals taking in the vista for the mere price of a cup
of tea. It was a beautiful day, the sun was warm on our faces, and the panorama was outstanding as we watched the numerous ferries and commercial boats plying the waters of the Bosphorus. It was a great ending to our Turkish experience.
We’re getting ready to leave Istanbul tonight on a train bound for Bulgaria, where we will publish this blog. To give all of our faithful readers a little something extra though, we’ve set up another website. Since Travelblog doesn’t support video, we’ve created this site as a repository for a few of the videos we’ve been shooting in our travels. Call it a bit of lagniappe
, as they say in New Orleans; a little somethin’ extra. It’s a bit basic right now but I’m sure we’ll get better as we go along. Click here for a whole new dimension in your travel blog experience
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