Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Istanbul: Part One

The best thing about our trip to Istanbul: NO JET LAG! The flight from here is less than two hours! It was so great to get there rested and ready to go. This was especially nice since there is SO MUCH to see in this city. What a place! What a history!

We were very fortunate with the weather...chilly but sunny and dry...unusual we were told for this time in Istanbul. 

We arrived late Thursday afternoon. We were staying in the Old City so after checking into our hotel we walked around a bit to become familiar with the neighborhood. Our hotel was only two blocks from the Blue Mosque which is visible anywhere in this area so it was our "north star". It would indeed be difficult to get lost with this magnificent building so visible.

We stopped and ate at a small restaurant near the hotel. The food was traditional Turkish fare: lamb chops for Charlie and a lamb "stew" for me. The food was quite like what we get here in Kosovo but was very good. The restaurant was very cozy and the staff very friendly and welcoming. A good start.

On Friday we booked a guided walking tour of the old city. We were very fortunate to have our guide all to ourselves for the morning. In the afternoon we were joined by a couple from India. Evril, our guide, was great. She was very knowledgeable, her English was very good and she was open to answering any questions we had. There was so much to see.  I don't think my narrative or the photos Charlie took do justice to anything we saw in Istanbul. The architecture, design, workmanship and sheer opulence of the buildings is beyond description. But I will try...

If you double click on the photos they should enlarge for you. 

We began at the site of the Hippodrome which originally was a gigantic Roman stadium built in the third century. It could accommodate 100,000 people for the games and events held there. The Romans decorated the Hippodrome with many obelisks and columns but only three remain. The one pictured below was brought from Egypt and is only one-third of it's original size. No one seems to know what happened to the lower two-thirds. It's quite impressive and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are very well preserved and easy to see.

Next came the Blue Mosque. The actual name is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque since he commissioned its building in 1609 but westerners refer to it as the Blue Mosque because of the beautiful and unique blue tiles used to decorate the inside. According to our guide you can determine the importance of a mosque by the number of it's minarets. Any mosque with more than one minaret was built by royalty. The Blue Mosque has six minarets so is very important and indeed is one of the most famous religious buildings in the world. I think it may be the only mosque with six minarets.

This is a shot of the Blue Mosque taken from our hotel.

This is a view of the Blue Mosque sitting above the original wall of the city. Quite a bit of the old wall remain around the city. The walls of the old city were breached only twice in history: once by the Ottomans and once by the Crusaders. (The city was then Constantinople)

To enter the mosque we had to remove our shoes. They very thoughtfully had plastic bags for us to put them in and also benches to sit on. We women didn't have to cover our heads which surprised me. I think our guide was a "Muslim-lite" because there were scarves available for women but she said they weren't necessary.

This is one dome in the mosque. The gold is stunning. The small circles are  symbols for the sultans. Muslims do not believe that the human form should be depicted in mosques so they decorate with intricate geometric shapes and calligraphy of quotes from the Koran

Another example of the domes and intricate designs.

Hopefully you gain some perspective of the size of the mosque It is huge. The blue tiles are are in the lower horizontal strip along the walls. The are difficult to see in this photo but this was the best we could do! Click on it.

Here is Evril, our guide, answering all my many questions. This also will give you some sense of the size of the mosque.

Charlie wanted a photo of me at the entrance to the women's prayer area. Women do have a certain place in this culture. Men and women pray separately: the men in the main part of the mosque and the women sequestered behind the railing. Our guide said this was done to keep the women from "distracting" the men. My own personal bias: women have a difficult role in this religion/society. It seems as if they are not only considered subservient to the males but are also viewed as a constant sexual temptation to the men. There just seems to be a male preoccupation with female sexuality. Testosterone at it's ultimate.

Our next stop was the beautiful Haghia Sophia (Church of Divine Wisdom) which was constructed around 400 AD by Emperor Constantine. It served as a Christian church for over one thousand years until the Ottomans turned it into a mosque in the 15th century.

Again a personal bias: anywhere they conquered the Ottomans turned all Christian churches into mosques. We lost so much of the beauty and workmanship in these magnificent buildings. I do wish they could restore at least the most important to their original state.

Haghia Sophia was adorned with beautiful mosaics depicting Christian themes which the Ottomans covered with wood and plaster. When Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, took office he turned Haghia Sophia into a museum because there was so much controversy about it. The Christians wanted to turn it back into a church and restore it to the original state but the Muslims wanted to keep it a mosque. So Ataturk just settled it by turning Haghia Sophia into a museum. Some of the beautiful mosaics have been uncovered but not very many. 

Before Muslims enter the Mosque they prepare themselves for entrance by performing ablutions. They wash their hands, feet and face. This is a photo of the "washing station" in front of Haghia Sophia. We didn't see anyone washing here but we did at other mosques. I think only men perform ablutions but I am not sure.

This is a photo of a frieze from the original Haghia Sophia (415 AD). Lambs are representative of Christ as the Good Shepard or the Lamb of God. It gives one pause to think of how long these religious symbols have existed.

The entrance doors with a gorgeous golden glowing mosaic of Christ.

Once again Evril answering question after question and some perspective on the size of the building.

The main dome.

Again, the Islamic calligraphy in the disk. Hopefully you can see the marble in the walls. The marble  was just beautiful with different colors and grain.

Originally the altar was located at this place in the church. The Ottomans replaced it with this arch which marks the direction to Mecca.

If you look at the lower center of this photo you will see a marble square on the floor. Sorry it is so faint. Click on it. From 415 AD until the fall of the Empire all the emperors of the Byzantine Empire were crowned here - on this very spot! The photo is taken from the balcony where the Empress and her entourage watched the ceremony.

To get to this balcony we walked up a curving incline. I felt like I was at a sports arena but still maintained a sense of reverence for the people who had passed here before me.

Here is an example of mosaic that were uncovered. It is so beautiful. I would love to see all of them uncovered and restored. The ones you can see are just magnificent. The gold in them just glitters.

Again, more mosaics under the plaster. You can't see it very well but it reveals a ceiling of golden mosaic stones. It must have been breathtaking.

Here's one of the Virgin Mary who Christians and Muslims alike revere.

Note the arches at the base of this mosaic. The grain was naturally curving in the marble. Unbelievable workmanship everywhere in this magnificent building.

We quickly went from the religious to the secular! The bazaar! It has over 4000 shops. Yes, that is the correct number of 0's. The merchants seem to cluster together according to what they are selling so that makes navigation a little easier but it is still overwhelming.

Although the Bazaar is truly ancient it has kept up with the times: note the TV hanging from the ceiling. We didn't stay in the Bazaar too long since our time was running short but we plan to return on our next visit.

Where are we?

Our guide wanted for us to see the church-tuned-mosque below. Locals refer to it as Little Haghia Sophia. It was built before the "Big" Haghia Sophia as a sort of prototype. It was the first domed church in the world and displays many architectural features used in the much larger Haghia Sophia. It is presently a functioning mosque.

Here is the dome again decorated with geometric shapes and calligraphy.

When the church was converted into a mosque they added this marble "pulpit"  for the Imam.

Our next stop as Topkapi Palace built by Mehmet II in 1465 where the Ottoman Sultans lived and ruled. The palace is a series of pavilions with four courtyards built to resemble  a tented Ottoman encampment only the "tents" are quite impressive! Here is the first gate.

The Sultan chose a great location for his palace - just on the point where the Sea of Marmara curves into the Golden Horn. It is a very beautiful setting as well as an easily defended site. The palace housed many thousands of people including the Sultan's many wives and children and other family, soldiers, workers, craftsmen, a whole bevy of people needed to make the palace work.

The Palace also housed the seat of government for the Ottoman Empire. This pavilion is where the ministers met to govern the Empire. For many years Sultans join their ministers here  and were active in governing. But eventually one of them decided that the empire was better served if he was not visible to the ministers. So a special room was built adjacent to the minister's meeting room with a golden screen in the wall where the Sultan could sit unseen and listen to their discussions but not necessarily take part. Sometimes he wasn't even there but his ministers never knew for sure. The following Sultans kept this custom.

It was the custom of the Ottomans to take young boys from conquered lands, convert them to Islam and bring them to the palace to educate. They did this annually as a kind of "levy" for conquered countries. This pavilion is where these boys were educated. A great many of them eventually rose to high rank in both the army and the government. 

The grounds of the Palace are planted with sycamore trees. This ancient one was hollow on the inside but still alive.

This pavilion contains  the Treasure of the Ottoman's. I especially loved the jewels and jewelry. I saw the most beautiful diamond I have ever seen. Just gorgeous. And there was a dagger that had three emeralds each the size of my fist. It was spectacular.

Our day with Evril finally came to an end. We returned to the hotel with our dogs barking.  We decided to eat at a restaurant just up the block and had a very nice fish dinner. We called it a day pretty early to give our poor feet a rest.

I'll post Istanbul: Part Two soon.

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