Part 1 Part 2
Feb 24, 2008 Flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt to Istanbul
The flight here was awful: delays, crying babies and a mad rush to change planes or have to wait 24 hours. I barely made it as they closed the doors behind me when I boarded. If I had not carried all my luggage (I cannot recommend this enough!) who knows when I would have gotten clean underwear.
But I made it to Istanbul, a city of 14 million people. This is very near the cradle of civilization and was occupied about 3,000 years ago. Maybe more. It has gone by many names: Byzantium, Augusta Antonina, Nova Roma, Constantinople, and now Istanbul. The current name is a corruption of a Greek phrase meaning The City. The city has also been nicknamed The City on Seven Hills because the oldest part of the city was built on seven hills (just like Rome), each of which now bears an historic mosque. Constantinople became the new capital of The Roman Empire (the New Rome) in 330AD.
Today Istanbul is a bustling metropolis. The Bosporus Straight (leading from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and beyond to the Mediterranean) slices the city in two. It is also the dividing line of two continents. The western side of Istanbul is considered Europe, but the eastern side is Asia. It is crossed by the Galata Bridge.
Here are stats:
Founded 667BCE as Byzantium
Roman rule began AD330 as Constantinople
Area - Total 1,538.77km² (594.1 sq mi)
Elevation 100m (328 ft)
Population, 2007) - Total 11,174,257 (4th)
Density 7,262/km² (18,808.5/sq mi)
Last night we had a welcome reception with lovely kabobs of grilled lamb, a fresh salad of cucumber and tomatoes and super sweet deserts-like baklava dripping in honey. Our Tour Guide, Mehmet, also treated us to Turkish delight to start off our tour “sweetly”. This concoction is made from sugar, starch and flavoring and often sprinkled with pistachios or walnuts. Our chins were covered in the powdered sugar that coats the pieces to keep them from sticking.
First Day touring Istanbul
This morning we toured all day. I saw the Haghia Sophia (Aya Sophia), originally a 6th century Christian church, turned mosque by the Turks in the 15th, and now a museum.
Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years. This is actually the third church on this site. The first building went up in 360AD, but was destroyed by fire and rebuild in 415AD. The second building was destroyed in the Nika Revolt (where the emperor Justinian killed 30,000 people and destroyed the church and much of the city in just three weeks!). Remnants of the previous building were found during a recent renovation and we saw these before entering the church.
The current building was constructed between 532 and 537AD on the orders of Emperor Justinian and designed by two architects, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. Rome fell in 470, so Constantinople continued as the Roman empire of the east, more Greek than Roman, really. Although the church is sometimes referred to as Saint Sophia (Greek for wisdom) it was dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God rather than a specific saint named Sophia. At the time it was considered one of the Wonders of the World. It was plundered during the 4th Crusades in the 1200s, so many of its original treasures were lost then.
When the Ottoman’s took over control of the city in the mid-1500’s, this church and many other sites were protected by Mehmet II, The Conquer. The Haghia Sophia was then turned into a mosque. The original Christian iconography was plastered over, protecting the paintings and mosaics. The Islamic features – such as the mihrab (a niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca), the minbar (the pulpit from which an Imam (holy man) addresses the congregation on Fridays), and the four minarets outside – were added over the course of its history under the Ottomans. It remained as a mosque until 1935, when it was converted into a museum by the secular Republic of Turkey.
Inside, our guide, Mehmet, pointed out the “Porta Regia”, the royal door that the Emperor entered through. Two priests would stand on either side of the doorway, and you could see where their feet had worn a dent in the marble floor! He also pointed out the upper gallery, which is where the women would have worshiped.
The dome of the church is very slightly elliptical. The original dome was circular, but collapsed a few years after it was built, probably during an earthquake. This replacement allows the columns to the sides to carry most of the weight. Some of the marble columns are rumored to be from the temple of Artemes in Ephesus. The Central Dome was supposed to have an icon of Jesus, but when the plaster was removed, it was not there. The higher the interior of the church, the less likely you will find mosaics, probably also due to earthquakes. The plaster took years to remove. The scaffolding in the center has been up for 17 years and although they have been done with it for two years, it still stands presumably because they have nowhere to put it!
Inside are two large marble urns, probably 7 feet tall. These were originally from Pergamon (where me visited later) and held water and wine for the Zeus temple and probably carved in about 200BC.
Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) is located on the European side of the Bosphorus and has four courtyards. The palace complex is located on the Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. During Greek and Byzantine times, the acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium stood here. Later it was the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople. Much of the palace was demolished in the general rebuilding of Constantinople in the early years of the Ottoman era, but probably the buildings were in ruins by then anyway. The site is one of the highest points close to the sea. It is physically located between the hippodrome and the Haghia Sophia.
The Topkapi palace was the official and primary residence in the city of the Ottoman Sultans, from 1465 to 1853. Construction began immediately after the city was conquered by Mehmet II. Although the palace gradually lost important in the 17th century, it was used until the 1920s where the monarch was exiled and the secular government took over the buildings, including the treasury. The royal family was allowed to take with them all their personal possessions acquired within their lifetime. All other treasures became the property of the state and the palace soon became a museum.
Just inside the entrance of the first courtyard is a 5th century church, the Haghia Eirene (church of the Divine Peace). This church was incorporated into the palace, but never converted to a mosque. I was used as a warehouse. It is now used as a concert hall, but was not open the day we visited.
The palace is full of Ottoman architecture and contains large collections of Chinese Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain, robes, weapons, silver, as well as a display of Ottoman treasures and jewelry. We spent a considerable time in the kitchen complex where porcelain and huge cooking pots were displayed. The kitchen would have had a staff of about 100 and two meals a day were prepared. All classes ate different meals and there were perhaps 30-40 serves. The most important dinner was for the sultan. His personal menu included 10 soups, 10 beverages, 40 appetizers, 40 main courses and 10 desserts, each meal! The sultan also had professional food tasters as food poisoning was common. Many Sultans died from poison or strangling as it was not considered proper to spill the blood of a sultan.
The large Gate of Salutation (Arabic: Bâb-üs Selâm), also known as the Middle Gate (Orta Kapı), leads into the palace and the Second Courtyard. This crenellated gate has two large octagonal pointed towers and was guarded by uniformed officers. Another highlight was the Gate of Felicity. On Fridays the sultan sat outside this gate and ate with the solders (Janissaries) and ministers. While the sultan was the only one allowed to sit during this meal, he did at least share the soup from the same wooden bowls as his subjects. This was one of the few times that the sultan was exposed to the people. Lifting the caldron that held the soup was a form of civil disobedience and was used to get the sultan’s attention. The phrase has come down into the Turkish vernacular “turning the soup bowl”.
In the Imperial Reception Room, All foreign dignitaries were given explicit instructions of what to do when in the presence of the sultan: Don’t look him in the eye, don’t talk unless spoken to, keep your hands on your belly, take short steps and—most importantly—don’t come empty handed! If you are not given a gift in return, you are in trouble with the sultan! Common gifts given to the sultan: slave girls, gold, emeralds and diamonds. Common gifts given to dignitaries: carpets, caftans, isnik tile and porcelain.
Part of the reason for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was that eventually the government was no longer run by the sultans. It was run by non-Muslims, especially Christian youths and prisoners of war who were highly trained. These young Christian men were stolen from their families and converted to Islam, but they remained slaves. They worked in the arts, and business, but also ran the military, known as janissaries.
The Basilica Cistern: This was not part of the original tour, but Mehmet, our excellent guide, indulged a group of us who were interested in it. It was a real surprise as it is not a church, but a large pit that held water for the community and was dug around the same time as the Haghia Sophia was built. The water was brought to the cistern from the mountains by aqueduct. It is called the cistern of 1000 columns. Actually there are only 336 columns, and they do not match. The columns were all originally part of buildings ruined during the Nika Revolt. The water is currently only a few feet deep, but originally was filled to the top of the capitals of these 14 foot columns. This was used actively until the 1800s, and was then partially filled in by refuse and forgotten. In the 1950’s, people were lowering buckets and coming up with water and fish! This structure was used in the film From Russia with Love.
Hippodrome: All these structures are built around the old Roman hippodrome. This massive outdoor racetrack was built in 190AD and used for horse and chariot races. It seated between 40 and 60 thousand spectators and was in use until the AD400’s when some of the seating was lost in earthquakes. Today the area is officially called Sultan Ahmet Square, and is carefully maintained by the Turkish authorities. The course of the old racetrack has been indicated with paving, although the actual track is some two meters below the present surface.
The surviving monuments of the Spina (the middle barrier of the racecourse), the two obelisks and the Serpentine Column, have been dug away. They now sit in holes in a landscaped garden. Among these is an obelisk from Egypt. This was originally constructed around 1500BC, but transported here in 390AD. It took a year to ship it and somehow it was reduced to about a third of the original height, presumably the remainder lies on the bottom of the ocean. The obelisk sits atop a marble base with a carved relief of Justinian and his family watching a chariot race. My favorite was the remains of a metal Serpentine Column stolen from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, about 600 miles away. Originally know as the Tripod of Plataea, it was cast in about 500BC from bronze weapons from the Greek war with Persia. It was topped by three serpent heads supporting a golden caldron. The caldron is long gone, probably melted down during the 4th Crusade, but two of the heads are still around. Legend has it a drunken Polish nobleman hit them off. One is in a museum in Istanbul and the other the British Museum. There is a rather plain Roman obelisk that was originally covered in brass at the end of the Spina. This was constructed in the 10th century by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus and once again the bronze was destroyed during the 4th Crusade. Only the stone core remains and it also called the Walled Obelisk.
Blue Mosque: Then to the Blue Mosque, named after the more than 20,000 handmade, blue Isnik tiles inside. The actual name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, and only a tourist would call it The Blue Mosque. But then we are tourists! It was built between 1609 and 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. This was the first mosque where we had to remove our shoes, as it is an active church. The balconies were for women originally. Now they are only allowed behind a screen on the ground floor. The calligraphy is abundant, including the 99 names of God plus popular quotes from the Koran as well as the names of Mohammed and the Caliphs. Mosques never have depictions of people.
It was here that I heard my first call to prayer. Mehmet told us that the call is in Arabic: “God is Great. Mohommed is his prophet. Come to God’s House.” At a service they sing the Korean, working through the entire book in a calendar year.The Blue Mosque is one of only two in Turkey that with six minarets. It is an unwritten rule that only a sultan can build a mosque with more than two. When the number of minarets was revealed, the Sultan was criticized for presumption, since this was, at the time, the same number as at the mosque at Mecca. So the sultan paid to have a seventh built in Mecca!
Until recently the muezzin or prayer-caller had to climb a narrow spiral staircase five times a day to announce the call to prayer. Today loud speakers are used and the call can be heard across the old part of the city, echoed by other mosques in the vicinity.
This mosque was once the center of a pious complex and the core of social life and social welfare. As with other large mosques, this one contained a kitchen with free food for the poor, an orphanage and a school. There was a Turkish bath and one or two days a week this bath was free. There was a library, and a hospital. The mosque also owned the spice market and rents were paid to the church. Taxes were paid directly to the area through the church. During the 1920s, under Ataturk, these assets were “nationalized” to cut the power of religion. Unfortunately, the welfare services were not entirely replaced by the state and the social welfare system is not as strong as it once was.
Tonight is the “Istanbul at Night” optional dinner. We heard traditional music and dance in addition to belly dancing and traditional foods. There was much audience participation and jokes, so I’m not sure it was exactly what I had envisioned. It was nice, but clearly a commercial venture designed for tourists.
Feb 25, 2008 the Grand Bazaar and a cruise on the Bosphorus.
Weather is amazing. It is supposed to be winter, but we store our coats in the rack overhead on the bus. I will not need the sweaters and silk long underwear I brought. Temps in upper 60’s, sunny.
Today went to the Grand Bazaar. Bought a scarf and handbag, but the man really wanted to sell me a rug, a kilm. Price went from 500 New Turkish Lira (YNL) to 100. The later price is about 89 US dollars. (I later found that I should have bought the rug from him as this was a very fair deal) Got the whole deal with tea. The owner of the shop, Mustafa, is 73 and very fit and happy. He kissed me many times and proposed marriage constantly. “No money, no wife, no life.” he would say, “I got money! I got 6 shops. You marry me; I be happy!!” Quite a sales routine. He forced his card on me and begged me to call if I changed my mind. He was charming and I think if I had been interested in marriage, I could have done much worse. Mehmet, back on the bus mistaken my delight for desire and offered to broker the deal. According to him, my family should be given money.
Then on to a cruise that started in the Golden Horn and down the Bosphorus to the opening of the Black Sea. Our guide estimated that the single family homes along the way might sell for $15 million. A shack would go for $7 million, and I took a photo of one. But mostly we saw grand palaces that are now grand hotels. Also a huge fortress built in only 4 months to stage the over throw of Constantinople by the Mehmet II, known as The Conqueror. It is about as large as the fortress in San Juan, PR which was built over 250 years. Across the strait is a smaller fortress that his (father? grandfather?) Mehmet I, The Wise, had built. Between the two fortresses, they controlled the straight and took the city.
Then to a small early Christian church with the most spectacular mosaics I’ve seen ever. The Church of St Savior of Chora is small. As the name implies it was once outside the city, as chora means “fields” (much as St Martin in the Fields is now in the middle of London). The current church was built in early 11th century. It has what we would now call flying buttresses to support its walls, although they are not more than two stories high. The mosaics and frescos were added in the early 14th. While some of my photos are good, they don’t do justice to the gold and subtle shading of the faces. This church, as well as the Haghia Sophia, were turned into mosques when the Ottomans took over. The walls were plastered over and hence these mosaics and painting were preserved as they might not have been if the buildings had remained as Christian churches and in daily use. What impressed me most was the focus on Mary and Joseph, rather than Jesus. The mosaics told the story of Mary’s life and death. The annunciation was given to her parents. They also tell the story of how Joseph came to be chosen as her husband, quite against his desires. All the depictions of Joseph are of a dejected old man, with his head in his hands. If it were a cartoon, the text bubble would read, “Lord, what have you gotten me into!” My favorite is the mosaic showing Mary, as one of the young girls of the church, bringing the wool she has spun for the church before the elders. Joseph’s staff begins to sprout, making him the chosen husband for the pregnant girl. After Jesus’ birth, Mary is depicted as a sad woman, a mother aware and dreading her son’s fate.
The mosque of Sulleyman was next on the hidden treasures of Istanbul, but one that will remain hidden, at least to us. It has just been closed for 2 years for repairs. There has been nothing advertised about this and Mehmet was incredulous. The caretaker even allowed us to peek into the church to see it filled with scaffolding as proof. Our guide is never daunted, however! We saw Sulleyman’s tomb instead, although he is not buried there. In tradition, the room is only an empty draped box, topped by his turban. He is buried about 10 feet down, lying on his right side as befits a good Muslim.
(If I keep up with travel like this I will finally score well on history and geography during trivia games. Now that is a reason to travel!)
Wed, 27 Feb 2008 Leaving Istanbul
This morning we boarded the bus at 730a. I actually saw a sign saying “Welcome to Asia”! We took a ferry across the Sea of Marmara. Encountered our first “squatty potty”. Glad my knees are good, but would hate to face this hole in the ground first thing in morning before coffee. In the middle of the night I think I would just wet the bed! What surprised me about the toilet was that it was porcelain and had a motion sensor flush! A very nice hole in the ground.
Mostly we have been driving today. More really good food. Have had kabobs, which are ground lamb and/or beef roasted on skewers. Chunks of meat done this way are sis (shish). Yesterday had fish, sea bass, oysters, anchovies. The appetizers are very interesting and varied. Eggplant roasted or stewed, fish eggs in mayonnaise, zucchini chopped with red pepper, coated in flour and deep fried, eggplant whipped like potatoes, potato salad with olive oil, thinly flattened pastry dough that is rolled and fried. Every meal seems to be served with shredded carrot, red cabbage and lettuce coated in olive oil and lemon juice. For breakfast we have American staples, but also Turkish items: olives, white cheese, various breads and strong tea. They drink much more tea than coffee and it is served in small tulip shaped glasses that get way too hot to touch. If you order Turkish coffee, you have to tell them how sweet you want and expect to gets lots of grounds in the bottom of the tiny cup. On the street we see roasted chestnuts and simit, a type of bread, much like a bagel, which is huge and costs about 55 cents.
The New Turkish Lira, YTL, is the currency and is easy. It looks like Euros, but every piece has the denomination on one side and a picture of Ataturk on the other. It is about 1.20 TYL to 1 US dollar.
On the way we passed through Isnik, known for the blue tiles of the Blue Mosque and other fine porcelain work. It was once called Nicaea, this is the place where Constantine called for a council to discuss tenets of the church and construct the Nicene Creed that Christians say.
We stopped in Bursa for lunch and to see the Green Mosque, built by Mehmet I, known as The Wise, in 1412. Bursa is a lovely little town and was the Ottoman capital in 1326, before the fall of Constantinople. This is a center of silk and wool weaving and the shops were filled with well-priced goods.
Today we had a lunch of a Turkish style of gyros meat, mixed lamb and beef over pita bread, called iskender. It is topped with browned butter and ground sumac (Note to Mom: this is the red flowering tops to the bush that grows wild in your area by the same name). Sumac adds a tart, lemony taste. I also had the local drink, diluted yoghurt called ayran.
Tonight we stay a single night in Canakkale, which is on the Dardanelles, site of a famous WWI battle.
Tomorrow we will see Troy (although Helen is long gone). Am told that there is a large wooden horse at the gate. I REALLY hope this is not true. How do you say “tacky” in Turkish?
Feb 27, 2008
We stayed in Canakkale (ca NACK uh lay) right on the water. Air pollution here is so bad I cut my evening walk short because of shortness of breath. This morning my sinuses are full and throat burning (it was 2 full days before I was over it). There was a Trojan horse on the water front that was used in the movie Troy. Ugly. This area was once called Hellespont. In fact most of what is now Turkey was once the Roman area known as Asia Minor, the name you typically see in the New Testament Bible., where Paul spent most of his time.
We stopped at the site of Troy. Saw examples of the various levels, nine in all, of the city. After each destruction from war or earthquake, a new city was built on the ruins of the old. This from about 3000BC to 500AD when the port silted in and the city was abandoned. The Trojan War, if it occurred, was at about 1200BC.
What I found most interesting is that there have been tourists here for 2500 years. One of the most famous is Alexander the Great in about 320BCE. He felt the need to run about the city naked and sacrifice animals. Then went on to conquer the known world. What a guy!
Oh and there WAS a large, wooden horse that you could climb into, even.
From here we drive along the coast of the Aegean Sea. On one side of the bus, the water and on the other a sea of olive trees, which grow in dry rocky limestone slope. Turkey is the largest producer of edible olives and third in world olive oil exports. Trees live 200 to 300 years or more.
After some engine trouble, we were late for our visit to Pergamum, a true acropolis-a city on a hill, 1000 feet above the valley. The library was removed and rebuilt in Germany, but what remains at the site is still lovely. You can see the amphitheater and a temple to Trajan has been reconstructed from the fallen pieces of white marble. While we were atop the hill, we could hear the Muslim call to prayer at the mosque in Bergana below. Most of Turkey’s population of 71 million are members of the Sunni branch of Islam. Every community has a mosque, usually several.
From here a long drive to where we stay the night, near Ephesus, which we see tomorrow.
This has been a wonderful birthday!
From my friend David Hartgrove:
“OK, tomorrow is Ephesus, so don’t forget to see the famous statue of Artemis at Ephesus, she of the many boobs. She has so many boobs that counting them correctly entitles tourists to a prize, and that where we get the phrase, “booby prize”. Not really, but it sounded silly enough to be plausible.”
Feb 28, 2008
We stayed last night in Kusadasi, (KUSH ah da say). This morning off to Ephesus, one of the greatest ruined cities in the world. A Greek city was first built in 1000BCE, but what is on display is the city of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. The city later was Roman, then after the harbor silted in, abandoned. The ruins are amazing, and you have to keep reminding yourself that you are not in Greece. The theater will seat 25,000. The library was once the third largest in the world, till Marc Antony and Cleopatra took half of the books to Alexandria. The toilet alone is a wonder. The entire city is built of marble with wide, columned streets. I took over 100 photos, so it will be just like you were there if you are interested in seeing photos.
The famous statue of Artemis (mentioned by David above) was found here, but it is not at the site of the ruins anymore. It is now in a museum in the town of Selcuk , located at the base of a Byzantine Christian fortress. No time to see the fortress, but four of us convinced the tour bus driver to drop us off in town at the end of the day and we ran to the museum and had 30 minutes to see the statue. Artemis was the goddess of abundance and is indeed covered in breasts! We took a taxi (taki) back to the hotel.
We also got to see the famous Turkish carpets. We were given a demonstration of how they are made and what to look for in a good carpet. Then you are served tea while they start rolling them out in front of you. It’s a real production number and a Broadway agent would be proud of the performance. About 12 of our group of 37 bought carpets, some that cost the price of the entire tour. Someone is making a nice commission. Not me, although they are lovely.
After the carpets we went to a reconstructed stone house that is said to be where Mary, mother of Jesus, lived and died after his death. There is not proof, but the foundations do appear to be of the correct era and other details, like the nearby spring, fit with written evidence.
Our guide’s name is Mehmet, a popular Turkish name, and he is the best I’ve met. He speaks about 10 languages and is currently studying Greek. His knowledge of history is amazing and he has personally given the tour at every mosque/museum/ruin we have been to.
This is all wonderful, but I am getting overwhelmed. I can’t even remember what we are going to do tomorrow! On to Part 2
More photos I must share!