So, our last full day in Istanbul. Yesterday was shopping and touring; today we’d hit the two biggest and most recognized mosques in the city and also the impressively preserved Topkapi Palace, former residence of the Ottoman Sultans.
But before I start, two lessons learned on this first major world voyage whilst maintaining my blog:
A. As much as I love my iPad, it’s a pain in the arse for blogging while traveling. I can write on it no problem, but working on the WordPress site is a major hassle: the text entry window is tiny and inserting then sizing images is cumbersome and nearly impossible.
B. Plus, I’m taking my high quality photos with my digital SLR Sony camera. To transfer those images requires a USB port, which the iPad doesn’t have, so I ended up downloading those to Nancy’s laptop anyway, which meant my typical blog-posting process sequenced as follows:
- freehand drafting and note-taking in a spiral journal,
- typing that up via iPad,
- hoping for a wireless signal to then email that document to myself,
- recovering that email on Nancy’s laptop,
- loading photos from my camera to Nancy’s laptop,
- integrating both to WordPress when an Internet signal was available,
- final drafting, then posting.
Compared to my usual process . . . this was 4-5 times more time-consuming.
Next time I’ll bring my own laptop and I’ll know better how to tap into the Net outside of the U.S.
Okay, back to Istanbul.
1. 2.5 days is not enough for this magnificent city. Just sayin’.
2. My friends of four decades, Eric and Katie Edeen, have a son named Andrew, who I’ve known since the day he was born. We missed his wedding to Emily because we were here in Turkey. Coincidentally, the newlyweds will arrive in Istanbul to honeymoon less than a week after we leave. Lucky couple!! (Istanbul, that is; not the missing us.) Congrats, Andrew, to you and your new bride, and Alkış mutlu bir gelecek.
3. We began the morning with Turkish coffee and carrot cake at a Kahve Dünyası coffee shop just around the corner from the W. They’re more common than Starbucks here and worth seeking out. But stick with the local pastries; the carrot cake was dry and not as good as that at home.
4. Then we caught a taksi, and after a day and a half of this . . . what a yawner; I barely even paid attention to the chaos. We had him drop us at the Hagia Sophia.
5. As forewarned, the queue outside this most popular mosque stretched a couple hundred people into the plaza, but the line seemed to be moving quickly. There’s a convenient shortcut, though, if you’re interested: guidebook vendors are eager to sell you a booklet with a couple of tickets jammed into the spine, then escort you to a special quick-entry line. It’ll cost you 10-20 lira and save you 20-30 minutes (or more, when the lines get excruciatingly long). We stayed in queue.
6. One of the roasted chestnut vendors finally persuaded me to try a bag, so I paid 5 lira (less than 3 bucks) for 8 nuts, 3 of which turned out to be semi-rotten, and the others tasted just like any other roasted chestnut, yet without the yuletide cheer. And I haggled with a 10-year old vendor kid for two bottles of water, talking him down from one lira each to one lira for both. Nancy pointed out that I’d paid the boy barely 28 cents each for a bottle I wouldn’t hesitate to spend two bucks for at a Mariners game. I felt like a jerk.
7. They’ll confiscate your camera tripods at the security booth; you pick ‘em up as you exit. Too convenient for whacking someone, I guess.
8. The Hagia Sophia is a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum; it was dedicated in 360 A.D. and finished construction in 537. That’s 1,475 years ago. And it’s awesome. And I mean awe-inspiring awesome. Now, I’ve been in my share of big churches and cathedrals and found them to be mouth-gaping, as well, but this was different.
First off, the structure remains today pretty much as it did 1.5 millennia ago. And it’s not like its builders had the luxury of today’s hoists and cranes and machinery to get Block A to Slot B. No, all the work was accomplished with ropes and levers and ramps and manpower. As I gazed up at the central ceiling my mind shifted from the iconic imagery painted on its undersurface and refocused on the structure itself. The dome. And suddenly, something that had been bugging me ever since our Air France jet made its descent into IST made perfect sense.
9. Istanbul has so many domes it almost makes your head spin. They’re everywhere! Whenever we found ourselves at a higher elevation than usual, we’d take a look around and wham, there was another domed mosque, and its accompanying minaret towers, of course. So, why all the domes?
Now, I took physics in high school and know about the structural strength and integrity of a circle and/or a sphere, but I’d never really seen before those principles applied architecturally at such a scale. And I learned a few new tidbits, as well. Such as this: the Hagia Sophia was the first major structure in the world to employ the use of pendentives. It’s an architecture term. See the photo of the Hagia Sophia’s main dome just above this paragraph? Well, the arrows are pointing to the pendentives, which are concave inverted triangles the top of which match the curve of the circular dome and the pointed bottom of which sit on top of a pedestal. What this accomplishes physically is to transfer all the weight of the dome down through those pillars and into the foundation of the building itself. No one had really used this technique before on such a huge structure until designers Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus did it with the Hagia Sophia, and with its diameter of 105 feet no central dome exceeded it in size until the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore of Florence, Italy, was built almost 900 years later. And it remained the largest cathedral overall until the completion of the Seville Cathedral even 100 years beyond that.
That’s a thousand years! It’s hard to even imagine it. Right now the Airbus 380 is the largest commercial airliner in the world. A thousand years would mean that the first of my family to see a plane any larger would be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchild. Which kinda sorta blows my mind.
It makes perfect sense then that many believe the Hagia Sophia changed the history of architecture and it’s been called the greatest building in the world. Hence . . . we spent a bit of time checking it out.
10. Do the audio headphone self-guided thing rather than the docent-led tour. You can wander, but still get the full rundown on everything. I won’t go into details – you can get that online or from a book, but I will say it’s a must-see. Even though a few hundred people drifted around the main cathedral floor, I still felt tiny. And to imagine the artists scaffolded way up there at the ceiling painting and gilding and glazing. The art itself is stunning and beautiful. And be sure to take the zigzagged switchback of tunnels to the upper floor. The rough cobbled hallways look and feel underfoot like a million people have trod upon them.
11. And don’t forget to look up as you exit. There’s a big mirror there which reflects a gorgeous 10th century paint-and-mosaic mural of the Virgin Mary seated on a throne with the infant Jesus in her arms. Emperor Constantine the Great is at her left, presenting them with a model representing the city and the Emperor Justinian is at the right, with a model of the Hagia Sophia. We almost missed it, so be careful. And there’s this simple faucet and basin carved into the wall right outside the exit. Way cool.
12. And then, once outside again, our thus far brilliant parade got a bit rained upon. Bottom line, I messed up.
You see, there’s an obvious geographical sequence that I’d missed – a linear path from Blue Mosque to Hagia Sophia to Topkapi Palace. We should have started with the Blue Mosque.
In my earlier conversation with Gem he’d advised me that the lines at the Blue Mosque would be long and the atmosphere inside much more reverential than the Hagia Sophia. After all, one’s a mosque and the other a former mosque turned museum. Women must cover their heads, for example. And compared to the HS, the highlight of the BM is the interior tilework, 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles in more than fifty different tulip designs. But as far as the overall impact, the HS has it beat. Or so he said. In any case, we turned north and east for the Topkapi Palace.
13. It’s a mighty incredible palace, as far as palaces go. We were both quite impressed with how well they have preserved the entire palace grounds. In the course of the next two hours it appeared that we walked through or peeked inside every grand hall, every not-as-grand hall, every chamber, every antechamber, every anteantechamber, and we would have even see the royal stables except they were closed for the day. Bummer. Each room offered a different pattern of colorful tiles and illustrated stained glass windows. All of them are striking, some of them beautiful.
We saw a vast display of jewelry fit for kings and queens, and from across the centuries. Glittering rings and broaches, jewel-encrusted thrones and sofas, scepters, crowns, necklaces, slippers. Lots of gold. And gigantic diamonds. Impressive stuff, if you’re into that.
My favorite room, though, was the featured exhibit of weapons and armor. And I’ve got to say, truly awesome! I could have spent hours in there. There was actually a sword dating back to the 9th century. And I can’t even begin to do justice to the completeness of the show. But I’ll try.
Okay, they had every imaginable sword and saber and scimitar, including a couple of two-handed gigantor blades stretching 6 or 7 feet long. It’d take a giant to wield one of those. There were axes and maces and halberds (if you don’t know those last two, then you obviously never played Dungeons and Dragons), breastplates, helms, shields, bows, arrow quivers, and a gorgeous array of early firearms, both rifles and pistols, including flintlocks, caplocks, and matchlocks (the firing mechanism of each is worth knowing, trust me).
And did I mention that nearly every piece was gilded in gold and covered in precious gems? Exquisitely beautiful and deadly. Very, very cool. For me (and maybe for Nancy) this exhibit was the highlight of the Palace.
At one point a couple of guys took our photo, looking out over the Bosphorus and the city. And then we had lunch al fresco at the Konyali Restaurant, a sprawling either cafeteria-style or order-from-the-menu cafe right there on the palace grounds. We chose to eat outside and enjoyed a scrumptious meal of tomato and eggplant (what they call aubergine) and beet salad, kebaps of lamb and chicken, and my first delightful taste of ayran.
Okay, here’s the deal. Throughout the day and the day before we’d noticed people drinking what we thought were glasses of milk. At every meal. And even between meals, like for a snack, or a refreshment. Kids and adults. Milk. And then we noticed that this “milk” seemed thicker than milk, so we figured it had to be something else. When our waiter came to give us our bill, we asked him and he told us it was ayran, then surprised us with a sample. We loved it, and continued ordering the stuff the rest of the trip. It’s basically tart yogurt thinned out with water and with a dash of salt. It’s surprisingly refreshing and tastes pretty good with anything. And it’s kind of addictive. In fact, my mouth’s watering for some right now.
14. When we left the Palace we continued north through the expansive Gülhane Park which surrounds Topkapi Palace on its north and west sides. The park is one of the more enjoyable I’ve ever been in. Fountains, statues, some of animals just large enough for children to sit on, and others of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first president of the modern Turkey. He’s a popular guy; there are statues of him all over the city. And my impression is that the people like having the statues around; that they truly appreciate what he did to create the nation they live in. As it was Sunday the park was absolutely packed with people, including many families enjoying mid-afternoon picnics. And again I was struck by the blend of religious traditions represented.
15. Upon leaving the park, we meandered our way down to the shoreline where people of all ages had settled upon the bouldery waterside to enjoy the sun and breeze, and some a brisk dip in the Bosphorus Strait. The current there runs swift, so those who indulged would walk up the coastline a ways to jump in, then float with the flow for a few hundred feet before clambering out and returning for another go.
Vendors grilled fresh fish fillets and the usual corn-on-the-cob, and one guy had set up plastic soda bottles and cans along the rocks, and for a few lira you could try your skill at plugging one or more with his pellet gun. Seriously. Right there in a public place with tons of people around. And no one seemed to care. It actually looked kinda fun.
18. And then we snagged a cab back to our hotel and fell into bed and napped and ordered room service and napped some more and packed and went upstairs for raki and came back down and called it a day. Nothing like two and a half days of walking all over Istanbul to tire my ol’ bones.
The next day we would leave Istanbul and make our way down to the striking Aegean coastline of southwest Turkey in the province of Muğla. And I’d get to see my dad and his wife, Angela. Oh my, did we ever have a good time there. That post’s coming up in a couple of days.
In saying farewell to Istanbul, I’ve got to say, I’m thrilled that we placed that city on our itinerary before heading down to see my dad. I’d heard great things, about the food and the Turkish people, and all of the places we visited, and how safe we felt just walking around. If you get a chance, I’d recommend it.
Just a thought.