Saturday, August 14, 2010

Istanbul - July 2010 (Part II)

Did I mention I became a big fan of Istanbul after visiting last month?
I think I did! Part of it it’s because I went in with low expectations; I was thinking dirty, crowded, low quality (on products and services), unfriendly, so to speak. Yet I discovered a city that was vibrant, yet laid back, authentic yet cosmopolitan, a city that offered beautiful vistas from every high point, splendid scenery along the Bosporus and Marmara and a wonderful tapestry of art, culture, history and tradition. Absolutely amazing!

Istanbul does not have the “je ne sais quoi” of Paris, but there are just as many people frolicking or relaxing in the parks, sipping “chai” and playing backgammon [tawula] on the sidewalk cafés, and the history (present around every corner in one form or another) is simply overwhelming!

Am I going over the top with this? A little? The nomad in me can’t help it!

Before I go into more detail, let me stop briefly and give credit to the contributing photographer for this article; I’ve been admonished, no… castigated for a lack of disclosure in reference to the copyrighted value of the pics you saw in the first part of this blog. So here goes: full credit for capturing all images incorporated wherein goes to a little known artist (for now) by the name of Laura (last name similarity could be coincidental). So with that potentially litigious matter out of the way, we can proceed:

The first encounter with Turkey’s past and religious identity brought us bright and early (before huge lines started to form) to the famous Blue Mosque – the centerpiece of the Old City, and best known of all the religious edifices. An imposing structure from the outside it’s the only mosque with 6 minarets [the story goes that Sultan Ahmed ordered the construction to have gold minarets, but since the Turkish words for “gold” and “six” are very similar, then…]. On the inside, the breathtaking detail is enhanced by natural light flooding through the 200+ stained glass windows. Not to mention 20,000+ hand-painted ceramic tiles that give the mosque its name. No entrance fee, but the strict ‘dress code’ meant most of the female visitors had to wear… this:

Blue Mosque Interior:

the Blue Mosque at night

view of the Blue Mosque from the Hagia Sophia

Across the park, an even more imposing structure (for those of us of Christian descent): Hagia Sophia – the “epitome of Byzantine Architecture”. If the Blue Mosque is only around since the early 1,600s, the current version of the Aiya Sophia was built between 532-537 AD under emperor Justinian [there were a couple of previous churches on the site – 360 and 415 AD – first one built by Constantine the Great’s son, but they both burned down; check out the link below for more detail].

So, standing inside this historical site 1,500 years later brings all kinds of inexpressible feelings (on the inside) and goosebumps (on the outside) to a mere mortal. Yes, time (and Muslim conversion to a mosque) took its toll on the structure [scaffoldings and ongoing restoration efforts abound] but it’s still imposing and able to generate a feeling of ‘grain of sand in the infinite desert of time’ for anyone staring at its grandiose ‘floating’ dome and imposing 20-meter granite columns. There are no words to describe how overwhelmed by history and its significance I felt. The best writers could not describe it fully, the best painters could not bring out its beauty, and pictures (no matter how good a camera) can’t give it justice… It’s simply… indescribably grandiose, while exuding a complex mixture of timelessness, unrest, faith, survival, pain, salvation, and human spirit in one convoluted set of feelings. Oh, if those walls could speak…

The other major mosque in the city – Süleymaniye – built by Suleiman Pasha [defeated by our own Stephen the Great if I remember correctly] was unfortunately being renovated, so we could not get in. Only saw his imposing sarcophagus inside an adjacent building (next to the once-Russian-slave Roxelana, who graced by certain ‘qualities’ [wink-wink] rose through the harem ranks to become his official wife).

Day two carried our fatigued legs and knowledge-hungry eyes to the Topkapı Palace [Topkapı Sarayı] the Sultans’ home for over 400 years and presently a very well preserved museum. The ‘Harem’ building was exquisite, with over 400 rooms (not all open to visitors, of course) reserved for the Sultan’s wives, concubines, children, servants and …yes, eunuchs as well. The rest of the Palace contained several ‘wings’ where all the looting that occurred during Ottoman occupancy [yes, they call it ‘national treasures’] is on display for all to oooooh and aaaah over… Personally, I would not want to ‘blemish’ a ruby-emerald-and-diamond encrusted sword [yatagan] with the blod of the ‘infidels’… All kidding aside, judging from the things we saw at the Palace, the Sultans lived like… ehm…kings!

the Harem

nice Bosporus view from one of the Topkapi balconies

Other mosques of note are the Yeni Cami [New Mosque] – seen here in the background, at the foot of the Galata Bridge (near the Spike Market)

Rüstem Pasha, Bayezid II, and Eyüp Sultan (the last one listed being one of the more venerated by Muslims; it was the first built by the Ottomans after taking over Constantinople and contains some of Prophet Muhammad personal belongings).
Eyüp Sultan Mosque

From this mosque – a bit outside of the old city walls – there’s a short cable-car ride to the Pierre Loti café, with beautiful views of the Golden Horn.

Some would say that all mosques are the same, and once you’ve seen one you’ve seen ‘em all… but it’s really not quite true. Each has its own character, its own uniqueness, and for the Muslim world, its own significance.

And speaking of significance, the last religious vestige visited was Hagia Irene (or St.. Irene) – the first church built in Constantinople by Constantine the Great. It served as the Patriarchate before Hagia Sophia was built and Christian artifacts are still present (helped by the fact that they were preserved well by the plaster used by the Ottomans to cover the icons of Jesus and Mary).

This was all above ground; but on a hot day, visiting the Basilica Cistern - one of the biggest water reservoirs under the Old City, with a capacity of over 2.8M cubic feet - was a nice way to cool off. Check out the Medusa heads (sideways so that their gaze won't petrify you):

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