All the highlights of the old town

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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Istanbul
October 11th 2013
Published: October 1st 2017
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We woke as we were pulling into the berth at Istanbul, right at 8am sharp. Although we were cleared almost immediately, I had not arranged to meet our guide until 9am (just in case of problems), so we breakfasted and did email before we left the ship. I had a bit of problem getting out because my card had demagnetized and it no longer matched the records that had been sent to Turkey. But we worked through it, and it was fine. We met Hanifi at the gate – he was a great guide for the day. Our weather was excellent – clear, a little hazy, but comfortable temperature.

From the port, we took the tram (3 TL for a token, as far as you want to go) to the main Mahmet Sultan area, where we spent the rest of the day. The tram is easy to take and allows those that can't walk access to the old city, but it does rattle the ancient buildings, which has some negative consequences. After getting off the tram, we walked to Topkopi Palace, which is now a museum. The approach to the palace is through a long grove of sycamore trees. It is cool and comfortable and very pleasant (although thoroughly crowded). The Sultan definitely claimed the best land when he opted to build his palace here. Although there was a line to buy tickets, we could go to a special window for tour guides, since we were with Hanifi.

Entering through the gates, into another large courtyard, we first visited the building where the common people used to be able to bring their problems. Viziers would listen to what they had to say and make judgments. There was a special window for the sultan, so he could sometimes listen in but could leave when he needed to (or was bored). The rooms were covered in tiles.

From here, we visited museum rooms: the clock room, the armory, and the room of clothing. The clocks were mostly from Switzerland; some also from England and France. We didn't stay long, but they had table clocks, astronomical clocks, walls clocks, and more. The armory was most impressive … many jewel-encrusted swords and guns. Some massive two-handed swords, glass maces, and other ridiculous ceremonial weapons. The artwork on all were amazing. Finally, we visited a room where clothes of the sultan were displayed. Since the purpose of many outer coats and pants were to make the Sultan appear larger than those coming to meet with him, the coats had extremely long sleeves, and the trousers had very large, very pointy butts. It was strange.

Next, we passed into the second courtyard. The first building we visited is where secret meeting were held. Both inside and outside, there were taps with running water, which would be turned on to prevent people from eavesdropping.

In this courtyard, we visited the treasure rooms. So many jewel-encrusted everything. Mostly ewers and boxes, made out of jade, rock crystal, and zinc. Some had large emeralds or rubies … and these stones were mostly uncut. They actually looked like blobs of jelly, not like stones. Two strange artifacts were the miniatures of the sultan, one sitting in a tent. Manufactured human forms seem so unlike Islam. One major treasure is the "three spoons diamond." A farmer found the stone in a rubbish dump and traded it for three spoons. It later ended up – even cut it is 86 carats – on the finger of a Queen of France. When France needed the money, it was sold at auction and purchased by the Sultan. One of my favorite parts of the treasure rooms were not the artifacts – although those were impressive – but the archways that formed the doors. The vertical stones of the arch were cut like jigsaws, fitting together perfectly. It was amazing piece of stonecutting. After the treasure rooms – and a brief stop to view the Bosporus – we visited the rooms of holy relics, which include the staff of Moses, the cooking pot of Abraham, and the beard of the Prophet. These rooms were particularly beautiful, with deep blue tiles. In the last room, a person sits chanting from the Quran … this goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and has continued for somewhere around 500 years (we heard different estimates).

The final rooms were the best: the relaxation rooms. Stunning tiles and stained glass windows, with pleasant cushions where one can imagine whiling away the hours in conversation or reading. The center of the courtyard has a fountain, with the soothing chime of water. There is also a rose garden where the young sons of the Sultan would play and learn.

Before the exit, we visited the art gallery with portraits of the Sultans. Many of the portraits were not made from life but created later, based on descriptions of the man. A few were done with the Sultan as sitter.

That was Topkopi. At this point, it was just around noon, so we opted to eat some lunch. Hanifi took us to a lovely little restaurant near the square, where he was known, of course, and we had a traditional lunch (delicious). Our table was outside, under an arbor, and we sat on low, wide couches with a low table. We chatted about life, religion, and writing books (he is writing a novel), and we fed the cat. Hanifi tells us that the cats of Istanbul are the happiest cats in the world. This one could not decide if it wanted to be petted or fed more, so it opted for both. We also drank two cups of tea, which was included with the meal.

Hagia Sofia. So. This is a beautiful church/mosque/museum that, even with large scaffolding in the main area, provides an amazing sense of expansive space. The church was built by Justinian in the 6<sup>th</sup> Century, and covered with mosaics and gold leaf. After the Ottomans captured Constantinople, it was converted to a mosque. The story goes that the Sultan was so impressed with the mosaics, he did not want them to be destroyed. On the other hand, Islam does not permit depictions of human figures in mosques, so he ordered the mosaics to be plastered over, so that they would be preserved, even if never seen again. I think this is a lovely story. Since the time of Ataturk, some of the plaster has been removed, to show the most famous mosaics. Most of the ceiling, however, remains covered in plaster.

Other elements of the conversion from church to mosque are visible: certainly the adding of minarets. On the “marble doors” on the upper floor, the horizontal pieces of the cross were removed, but the holes that held the piece and the shadow, after being in place for 1000 years, remains. Also, a mahrib was added, but, as the church faces east, instead of Mecca, it is slightly off center. Finally, seraphim are painted on the ceiling, as faces in the center of wings. Even though angels are part of Islam, they cannot be depicted, so plaster stars were used to cover the faces. One has been uncovered to show the original art.

We started with a climb up the slippery interior ramp (with ancient paving stones) to the upper gallery. From here, the size of the leather medallions that have the names of Allah, Muhammad, the imams and sons of the prophet, is very clear: they are massive. It is difficult to get a sense of space until you look at the height of the scaffolding along one aisle – then it is clear from the number of flights of stairs that we are in a building several stories high. The mosaics are stunning as well: from the tiny tiles, shades, tone, and shape are all conveyed in the faces of the Jesus and saints. One of the mosaics was amusing: it shows the Emperor and his wife making a large donation to the Church. Very important message: help us pay for this structure, you wealthy bastards.

On the upper gallery, in one location, where some of the plaster has been removed, you see that it was almost an inch thick. The church also uses marble as a decorative element. Marble slabs about an inch thick were cut from a stone. Two slices that had been facing each other in the marble block were then set up in mirror image, like a Rorschach inkblot, providing natural symmetry. In places, some of the marble slabs are broken, and we could see that the marble was also about an inch thick.

At ground level, the space in the church is even more impressive – despite the scaffolding. Maybe there is less to see, but it is at this level that you see the space as intended by the worshipper.

Leaving the church, we had to pause in the exit and turn around to view the final mural, which depicts two rulers holding cities. On the right is Constantine, and it supposedly shows the Donation of Constantine, that old fraud. The curators have put up a large mirror, which reflects the mural, as so many tourists were missing it on their way out.

From Hagia Sophia, we visited the Basillica Cisterns, which were fascinating. We had been told they were worth a visit, and they were. There is not a lot to see: a cavernous underground room, with vaulted archways, supported by pillars of various orders and types. Most of the columns were reused from other sources, which is why they are of different orders. A small amount of water sits in the bottom of the room, and it is filled with catfish. There is low lighting, mostly coming from golden lights at the base of each column, which provides a mystical element to the room, as does the music – performed on a wind instrument called a ney (I think) – which can be heard throughout the room. After walking along boardwalks through several large spaces, one arrives at the “Medusa” heads – carved faces. One is upside down and the other is sideways. There are several explanations: the two most common are that the heads are underwater, where no one can see them, so what does it matter which way they face. The other is that it was disrespectful to the pagan. Hanifi thinks it's because they look more ugly when you take a photograph. In any case, it's odd.

Emerging from the Cisterns, Hanifi offered to take us to see the ceramics manufacture (and, full disclosure, told us that he received a commission if we bought something – well, duh.) It is a “government shop”. We watched a brief demonstration by someone who they first claimed to be a master, but, as the pot he made was a bit uneven, they then told us he was an apprentice. Well, duh. The best part of the visit was going downstairs, to where reproductions using old techniques are presented. The lights are switched off, so you can see the glow of the moonstones. Stunning. I loved two different “Noah's Ark” pieces – they depict sailing ships, not the classic “ark” – but both were definitely out of my price range.

Finally, the Blue Mosque was open to view (it is closed during prayer times and all morning on Fridays). We had to wait in a long line, and we were a bit worried that it would be closed for the next prayer before we were able to visit, but Hanifi said we would be fine (and he was right). The mosque is very open in the inside, with most of the support for the dome being done by four giant columns called “elephant legs”. The blue tiles are lovely and dark, as is the blue glass of the windows. Part of the tiles are being restored, and, in places, you can see the color difference. Visitors are not allowed to walk where people pray, so we had to stand at the back in a large crowd, but it was fine. Hanifi went to pray while we looked around. Finally, they closed it down for the next prayer time.

Our final stop was the site of the old Hippodrome, which could seat 100,000 people (which tells you the size of Byzantium during the old Roman Empire). The level of the old Hippodrome is about two meters below the current plaza. Mostly, the site is identifiable from the two columns that sit above it: an Egyptian obelisk, stolen from Karnak, and the “serpent” column, stolen from the temple at Delphi. This latter is a spiral, twisted metal column, supposedly made from the shields of Persian soldiers captured or killed during one of the Persian Wars. It is broken, and the remaining pits are in the archaeological museum in Istanbul … and in the British Museum (of course).

We said good-bye to Hanifi at the tram station, then set off for the Grand Bazaar. It is what you would expect: a warren of narrow streets, roofed, with endless stalls selling stuff, mostly to tourists. There were the rug shops, the lamp shops, the gold shops, many, many leather goods. We wandered until we were tired of being accosted, then we split. We began to follow our planned route back towards the Golden Horn, but our road was blocked by a fire truck, which was dealing with part of a wall that had fallen into the street. So we selected an alley way, found ourselves in a square, surrounded by shops, and full of cars. It felt like we had found the storeroom of the Grand Bazaar. We did manage to escape that square, then wandered through streets lined with shops selling what appeared to be more wholesale goods – sequins, tiaras, rolls of cloth – until we came to the Spice market, our next destination. The spice market was as redolent with spices as you would want, with open sacks offering colorful and fragrant spices by the weight. As we walked, I began to think … you know what would be clever: why not, for tourists, place small amounts of spices into separate plastic bags, and sell a basket or collection of them. I would buy one. But as much as I looked, I could not find something like this anywhere. And then I spotted just what I had in mind – and it was very inexpensive. So we bought it. And then I saw a number of stalls selling those baskets. (All for the same price). Wonder why there were only in one area. Probably all the stalls belong to the same owner; amazing how frequently that happens.

It was about sunset when we emerged from the spice market, near the Golden Horn. We both thought that coffee – Turkish coffee – felt like the thing, and we found a lovely place overlooking the water, on the lower level of the bridge. We had a silhouetted view of one of the many large mosques in town, and we could watch as caught fish were raised from the river to the bridge above. The coffee was thick, just like it should be.

Finally, exhausted by happy, we returned to the ship. After a brief rest, we went upstairs for a Turkish barbeque buffet. A band played Turkish music – as they played, they looked around, glared at the sound man, yawned, checked their watches, and were basically not charismatic performers. After a long song – that was clearly being dragged out until a certain time (I think when the servers had cleared up one half of the buffet) – they stopped for applause. For the next number, we were treated to a belly dancer, who circulated through the audience, practically given the men lap dances. The men seemed to enjoy it, and I'm sure their wives were entertained. One happy man was dragged on stage to perform a dance with her. After that dance, she left the stage, and the band began to perform again. They played for about two minutes until, at a signal from their manager who was on a cell phone, they wound down without fanfare, stood up, and left. The audience was left confused about whether to applaud. Fortunately, we had already decided to split so we left. We understand the performance restarted and continued for another hour or so.

But we wanted to stroll up to Galata Tower, a classic round tower on the top of a hill. It was not far from the pier, and, as a ferry was just letting out, we followed a crowd to the pedestrian street that Hanifi had described. It was a steep climb up to the tower, and almost all the shops along the street were closed. The square at the top of the hill was happening, however, with several restaurants and cafes open and full of people. In the plaza at the base of the tower, a man was playing with a remote controlled bird. It was entertaining, and it loved to make it hover over people, then fly away. So when it came to hover over us, we weren't worried, but then it dive-bombed into me, hitting me square on the chest. The man came over saying, “And, of course, that is when the battery runs out,” We laughed. We walked down a few side streets, but they were all dark and – except for one really smoky basement room full of older men – mostly abandoned.

So we returned to the ship; I worked on the journal, then went to bed.


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