Thursday, November 29, 2012

Istanbul – Spirit of Sultanahmet

The Hippodrome in Istanbul at Night
When you travel as much as we do, you can size up a new place pretty quickly, and sometimes, you fall in love immediately.  On our first evening in the beautiful city of Istanbul, we walked over to the Hippodrome in the center of Sultanahmet (the Old City) to get our bearings.  The Hippodrome is a large plaza-like square with a few well-positioned historic monuments and artifacts in-and-about the open spaces. 

The Blue Mosque at night
The square was originally used for chariot races in the 4th c. when the city was known as Constantinople -- today it offers a perfect viewing spot for some of Istanbul’s top wonders.  Flanking the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque looked like a fairytale castle, fully illuminated with the delicate spires of its six minarets piercing the darkness above us.  Flocks of seagulls soared around the minarets, dazzling-white against the night sky.  And, as we stood there, the warbling and haunting Call to Prayer resounded throughout the square.  It seemed as if the muezzin (singer) at the Blue Mosque had a call and response thing going with a mosque on the other side of the Hippodrome – the two voices answered each other back and forth, filling our ears with their eerie wailing.  It was the Muslim version of “dueling banjos” magic.

Hawking snacks (similar to soft pretzels)
on the Hippodrome
During the day, the square is a focal point of activity here in the old city, where incoming tourists stroll to acquaint themselves with the area, hucksters try to sell their strange foods and trinkets like “kufes” (Muslim hats), and the curious (like us) listen to the frequent and melodic 70 decibel+ Islamic prayer chants from the towering minarets of the surrounding mosques. 

To back up for a moment, we flew 1-½ hrs. on Turkish Airways from Bucharest to Istanbul.  This was our first experience on Turkish Airways (voted the best European airline).  Since our flight was an hour late, we can’t say we were overly-wowed by Turkish Air, but we were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a light lunch enroute; the crew really had to hustle to feed the whole plane on such a short flight.  The arrival process once on the ground was lengthy – first we had to buy a Turkish sticker visa for $20 (literally a supplemental sticker placed in the passport), then wait in a long line at Passport Control, and finally hunt down our bags at baggage claim.

Outside our Sultans Royal Hotel
We stayed at the Sultan’s Royal Hotel, and it was a gem.  Our room was spacious (unusual for Europe) and spotlessly clean with a big bathroom and a comfy bed.  But the best thing about this hotel was the friendly staff.  They couldn’t do enough for us, always asking, “What can we do for you today?”  Ersin, our favorite 25-year old front desk guy, always asked us where we were headed on any particular day.  Based on our response, he would then teach us a few appropriate Turkish words/phrases, making sure we were prepared to assault the city and the day in good Turkish form, speaking the language properly, providing the proper responses, and asking the most intelligent questions.  Everyone at the hotel seemed genuinely interested in making sure we were having a good time.  This was one of those rare hotel experiences where you feel as if you are staying with friends.

Entrance to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
Topkapi Palace

Our hotel was ideally located just a short walk from all the top sights.  As youngsters, both of us had been intrigued by the 1964 movie “Topkapi,” a caper about the theft of the famous jeweled dagger held in the Topkapi Museum; so, it seemed like a good starting point, since the Topkapi Palace complex was within walking distance.  Every tourist who comes to the old city visits Topkapi, so we knew we needed to start early to avoid the hordes.  We got lucky; given that it was a Sunday in November, the crowds were not all that bad. 

Bed of the Sultan inside
the harem at Topkapi Palace
We started by touring the Harem where, to our surprise, we discovered that the Sultan’s Mother was the one in charge of “the girls.”  This powerful woman ran the harem with an iron fist, doling out women to the Sultan, usually on her terms.  The harem girls were not sex toys of the Sultan but slaves to the higher ranking women (the Sultan’s Mother and the Sultan’s four wives).  Only a few of the harem girls who were designated as “favorites” were permitted to sleep with the Sultan; and these were chosen by his mother and his wives! 

Interestingly, this society had no rule of primogeniture (where the firstborn son succeeds his father and inherits everything), so the Sultan could pick any one of his sons as his successor.  This meant that the harem was a hot spot of intrigue.  Every wife wanted her son to become Sultan, thus ensuring her position as powerful head of the harem.  Along with her unique task of sparingly divvying out the women to the Sultan, mom also owned lots of property and her own personal treasury, probably making her, in some cases, more powerful than the Sultan himself!! 

Gorgoeus tiles and windows in a courtyard
inside the harem at Topkapi Palace
It was common practice for a new Sultan to murder all of his brothers to eliminate succession battles.  However, in later years, the brothers were put under house arrest instead (called “the cage”),  rather than be murdered.   This system was actually worse because now, if the Sultan died without an appointed male heir, one of his know-nothing, “spent-my-whole-life-in-a-cage” brothers became the next Sultan.  Historians credit this practice as the primary reason for the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Famous emerald-encrusted Topkapi Dagger
The true highlight of Topkapi was the Treasury building where Anne became emotionally inebriated at the sight and size of the emeralds.  Emeralds, emeralds, everywhere – encrusted in the handle of the famous Topkapi Dagger and also just piled loosely in bowls behind glass cases.  We concluded that the need for these jewel-laden thrones, drinking cups, headpieces, weapons, and other vanities formerly owned by the sultans were a kind of “over-opulence on steroids” that could not be understood by us, or the average man.

A bit of history about Topkapi before we go any further.  In 324 AD, Constantine conquered the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, and immodestly renamed it Constantinople, transforming the city into the Eastern Capitol of the Roman Empire.  In 1453, Mehmed II conquered the city and claimed it for the Ottomans.  He built Topkapi as a fitting palace for (as he described himself) “the ruler of the two seas and the two continents.”  It was positioned on a stategic high-point overlooking the intersection of the Sea of Mamara, the Golden Horn, and the Bosporus. A sultan could see enemies coming from miles away!

The incomparable Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is only open at certain hours for non-Muslim visitors like us, but we eventually managed to get in.  The interior is impressive with lots of blue and white tile, stunning stained glass, and a light airiness resulting from some 260 windows.  It was also fascinating to watch the male worshippers in kneeling position, praying silently and touching their foreheads to the floor.  Not to be disrespectful, but Anne was somewhat distracted by the “foot smell” – reminded her of the time she and son Ben stayed overnight at the Franklin Institute with a couple hundred Boy Scouts! 

Airy opulence inside the Blue Mosque
Another interesting fact is that you can shoot pictures anywhere you want in this famous landmark.  The Muslims really don’t have a problem with that, even tho many are in the midst of prayer as you shoot.   As a former Roman Catholic, Frank, thinks it would have certainly been an “attention getter” to the priests and the congregation if hordes of non-catholic tourists poured into a Sunday Mass and started walking around the church indiscriminately taking photos anywhere they wanted. Haaaa!  The pope would probably have them beheaded!!

The incredible structure that is
Aya Sofia (St. Sophia)
Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia was our favorite of the top three sites.  This site goes under several differently spelled names, depending on which tour guide you have in front of you (Hagia Sophia, Hagia Sofia, Agia Sophia, Aya Sofia, etc). We waited in a long line to enter, but once inside, the crowds seemed to dissipate, giving lots of space to all. 

Overwelming interior of Aya Sofia
The sheer size of this worship space and the giant dome overhead are simply overwhelming.   When you see it, you understand why Aya Sofia is considered one of the greatest buildings in the world.  Aya Sofia is also special because she was once one of the most important churches in the Christian World, and even though the church was converted to a mosque, both Christian and Muslim elements remain.  Christian seraphim (angels) overlook leather wall-hangings covered with Arabic writings.  And the lacy platform where the Sultans once worshipped sits below mosaics of Jesus and Mary.  The whole effect was somewhat of a hodge-podge of "Christian meets Islam", but yet very peaceful and ecumenical.
The very colorful Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar and the Chora Church

The city of Istanbul has so much to offer, and we only scratched the surface.  Another place of note is the Grand Bazaar, a sprawling maze of 400 shops.  To be honest, we were disappointed in this shopping extravaganza.  Too many aggressive sales people and everything was frankly overpriced; you really have to haggle (and even then, you still probably get the short end!).  We much preferred the shops near the Hippodrome where the prices were actually lower (and no haggling required). 

All kinds of "bling" at the Grand Bazaar
Although you have to admire some of the sales spiels these guys come up with.  One vendor invited Frank into his jewelry shop saying, “Come in and buy something for your lovely angel!” (as he pointed to Anne).  Another guy wanted to sell Anne a rug, but she politely and firmly said, “No thank you, no rug for me.”  To which the vendor quickly responded (pointing at Frank), “Why not?  He’s the one who will be paying for it!”   We had to laugh at their tenacity and humor.

Old City Wall in background; 500-pound Cannonballs
 in foreground mark the former road to Rome
We also did a half-day tour to see the old city walls and the Chora Church.  First we visited a well-preserved portion of the city wall dating back to the time of Constantinople.  In the courtyard, actual cannonballs from the siege of Constantinople marked the Roman road that once extended from Aya Sofia all the way to Rome!

Dome inside the Chora Church
The Chora Church was another relic of Constantinople, but it was turned into a mosque and its magnificent mosaics were plastered over (the rules say that a mosque may not display pictures of any living things).  However, the Ottomans must have recognized their art value because they later removed the plaster, cleaned up the mosaics, and plastered them again.  As a result, the mosaics are in excellent condition. 

Remarkably well-preserved mosaics
in the Chora Church
The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, so most of the mosaics tell the story of her life – in fact, the church is often referred to as “the container of the uncontainable,” referring to Mary.  The most remarkable mosaic showed Mary’s parents hugging one another in a rare scene of physical contact.  The portrayal is natural and loving – and very human.    



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