This is how we began our Friday:
Breakfast consisted of hardboiled eggs, bread and jam (strawberry, apricot, and sour cherry), cheese, sausage, apple/orange/lemon/or cherry tea and coffee, cucumbers, raisins, and olives. I passed on the
flesh I mean bologna-colored meat and olives. The cheese was interesting. It was super salty. We decided it was probably cat cheese since we saw so many cats the night before.
After breakfast we walked to the Blue Mosque, the mysterious building from the night before. It was amazingly easy to get to – we were so close to our hostel the night before when we were walking in circles around it. We laughed about how it took us over an hour to find the hostel from the Blue Mosque the first time, and in reality it’s less than a 10 minute walk.
[I’m going to insert a photo gallery at the end of the post so that you don’t have to scroll through 30 images.]
BLUE MOSQUE: The Blue Mosque’s real name is Sultan Ahmet Mosque. It was built over a period of 7-10 years in the first quarter of the 17th century by Sultan Ahmet I, who died before it was completely finished. The building has four large half-domes that meet one larger central dome. Multiple other small domes are also present. Huge columns support the four corners of the biggest dome’s connections. These columns are aptly referred to as “elephant feet” because they are so large. The mosque earned its nickname from the 20,000 blue tiles that decorate its interior. *
The mosque is unique because it has 6 minarets (towers). They are used for the call to prayer, which happens 5x a day. In the olden days, I guess someone must have climbed up there to call them out. Today they have speakers wired up. Effective speakers. Very effective speakers. Let’s just say that no matter where you are in the city, you will not miss the call. But anyway, the minarets. Most mosques have 4 or less of them. When the Blue Mosque was built, the only other mosque in the world to have 6 was the one in Mecca. Apparently there was a bit of an uproar, so the Sultan sent people to add a seventh to the one in Mecca. That mosque currently has 9 minarets. *
After removing our shoes and covering our hair we wandered around the interior of the mosque for a time. The sensation of space in there is incredible. It’s easy to see why domes and high ceilings are so common in places of worship. Part of you just feels like it’s soaring up toward heaven. I also really enjoyed the light. There are hundreds of windows all over and light pours in through all of them. I didn’t much care for the low-hanging chandeliers though. I’m sure they have a purpose but to tell you the truth (I’m about to reveal my ignorance, I’m sure), I thought they were super annoying because they impeded the view of everything else. Moreover, they were so low that they halted your feeling of ascension into space. Maybe that’s the point. At any rate, I wasn’t a fan.
The interior of the mosque is covered with geometric, calligraphic, and organic motifs. They’re beautiful. I couldn’t help but pity the people who had to install all the tiles though! Setting tile on ceilings and walls is not my idea of a good time. After we finished looking around, we walked across the hippodrome to the Hagia Sophia.
HAGIA SOPHIA: The Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, is a former Byzantine church turned mosque turned museum. Its name means Divine Power or Holy Wisdom. Prepare to be educated. Here’s what the leaflets from the museum* state:
The current [there were 2 other earlier churches on the same site previously] Hagia Sophia was built by the two then prominent architects, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, by the order of Emperor Justinian I. The construction that lasted 5 years long began on Feb. 23, 532. 1000 masters and 10,000 workers were employed and the church was inaugurated on Dec. 27, 537.
The ceiling mosaics decorated with floral and geometric motifs are the original ones made in the 6th century, but other mosaics with depictions were made after the ending of the iconoclast movement.
After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 by Fatih Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. According to some historical documents, the church was in ruins. However, after the conquest, not only it has not been destroyed, but it has also been preserved in the best manner since the present day, thanks to strengthening and renovation works. Furthermore, with the addition of structures in the Ottoman style, the building continued to be a sacred space and a place for worship.
107 marbles and columns which were brought from different places of the Empire (Marmara Island, Teselya, Egypt, Iasos, Mora, France, Tunisia, Egriboz) were used the building and ornamentation. All the surfaces except marble surrounded walls are ornamented with fine mosaics.
As we walked around, I kept trying to imagine building something this size in 532AD. Pretty astonishing. The dome is so high that the Statue of Liberty could do jumping jacks inside of it. Unfortunately there’s another low chandelier hanging from the center, just like the Blue Mosque. I very much enjoyed walking around and looking at everything though. It’s really cool to think about how many other people that building has seen. One solitary person visiting it or worshiping there seems pretty insignificant, but when you add everyone up over 1500 years, it’s easy to tell that the structure has been well-loved. Worn marble clearly delineates paths through the doorways; it traces the repetitive action of doors scraping open and closed; it highlights the common places where countless humans have touched bases of columns. It’s pretty neat to wonder about all the lives that have stepped across or caressed those exact same spots.
After the Hagia Sofia we were famished. We decided to eat at Dervishes, which is just down the street. We chose a table and ordered our food. Presently, we were asked where we were from….
Before I finish this particular story, I have to tell you a different one.
The night before, we had had a discussion on Turkish men. We were trying to figure out if we were going to have problems with them being too forward and demanding. I told Beth and Rachel that they didn’t need to worry – I’d just put on my “neutral face,” which is how I look when I’m not experiencing a strong emotion of one kind or another. Just neutral. For some reason it seems to scare men away pretty easily and frequently makes people who don’t know me think I’m PO’ed. They didn’t believe me.
Okay, back to lunch. We told the waiter we were from America, telling the truth this time. His response was, “Oh, but I didn’t think so.” We asked why not, and he said, “Usually your people are so happy and smiling. But you (looking directly at me), you are not. You seem so sad. Why? You not like Istanbul?” I laughed and assured him that I did. When he left, I got to childishly remind the other two about our “neutral face” conversation. Ha! I’m going to put a picture of lunch in now. There will still be a gallery at the end!
TOPKAPI PALACE: After lunch we trekked down to Topkapi Palace. Of the three places we’d been so far that day it was my least favorite. It’s a huge complex. The architecture is beautiful, as we were coming to expect. They had some neat things to look at (lots of old metalwork, religious relics, inscriptions on stones, and clothes). However, their rooms with the ceramics were CLOSED. I was so disappointed. Jona and Janos had told me that the palace’s collection of Chinese porcelains is spectacular. Istanbul (Constantinople) was a major part of the Silk Road. Because of its location and its wealth, some truly amazing collections were built up. I was really looking forward to seeing them. I guess I’ll just have to go back, huh?
The palace has a section filled with religious relics. I thought it was curious how many of them I identified with. I didn’t know that Islam also uses the Old Testament, like Christianity and Judaism. Topkapi Palace claims to have the sword of David, a bowl used by Abraham, Moses’ staff, and a piece of St. John the Baptist’s skull.
BASILICA CISTERN: We stopped at the Basilica Cistern when we were done at the palace. You have to go down a ramp and then some stairs to get to it. Along the way are signs telling you not to stop and take pictures. I kept wondering what they were talking about. Then we went through the door. I stopped in my tracks. I distinctly recall saying, “Oh!” and then wanting to stand there for a little bit. The pre-training kicked in though, and I robotically moved forward, down the remaining steps. Here’s what the sign at the entrance says about the cistern:
Constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinianus, the most prosperous period of the East Roman Empire, the cistern Basilica is 70m in width and 140m in length. The dome, covering an area of 9800m2, is supported by 336 marble columns arranged in 12 rows each consisting of 28 columns placed at 4m 90cm from one another. The capitals of these 9m high columns are a blend of the Ionic and Corinthian styles with a few exceptions which are in the Doric style and not ornamented. The cistern is surrounded by a 4m thick wall of brick and the mortar used in construction is very special and water-proof. The water reserved in the cistern was transported from the Belgrade forest which is 19 km away from the city.
Water was brought from the forest via aqueducts, also built on the order of Emperor Justinian I. He was quite the guy, wasn’t he? The water was (as far as I know) used for all manner of things in the city.
After the palace and the cistern we scoped out the historical Cemberlitas Hamami (Turkish bath). We snagged a few fliers on their services and read them while eating supper at the Cozy Restaurant and Cafe, on the main drag of Istanbul’s historical district. Like all of our other meals, it was delicious! I had chicken shish for the second night in a row. We got dessert at a little coffee/pastry place later. It was really tasty too.
TURKISH BATH: Our last activity of the evening was going to the bath. We went to the previously mentioned Cemberlitas Hamami, which was built in 1584. We each signed up for the bath, a massage, and a facial. They gave us plastic tokens to redeem for each service. After paying, we were ushered upstairs into a changing area, where they handed us towels, black disposable swimsuit bottoms, flip flops, and a scrubby cloth that looked like an oven mitt. We weren’t quite sure what to do with the black undies at first, because they came in little pink sachets and we didn’t know what they were. (We didn’t know if we were supposed to open them or bring them with us to the bath.) If there had been a video camera on us trying to figure out this whole process (our experience lasted 2 hours) I bet the footage could have won America’s Funniest Home videos. Three clueless Americans trying to figure out the Turkish bath. Pretty funny!
When we were finally changed and wrapped up in towels we were shown back downstairs. A lady came and grabbed Rachel’s hand. She took her bath token and brought her behind a door. Steam came out and we could see that it was the bath area. Because she hadn’t taken my token or Beth’s token, we weren’t sure if we could go inside. We stood there awkwardly until a girl who was sitting on a bench waiting for her massage told us we could probably go in. We told her that a lady had taken our other friend’s token and brought her back there, but she hadn’t taken ours. The girl said something like, “She took your friend? You should go inside for sure!” So we did. They took our tokens at the door but didn’t tell us what to do. Rachel was already laying on the big central marble slab. It’s cut into an octagonal shape, and one woman lies on each segment of the octagon. We figured we should probably lie down on it too. But there weren’t any spots! So we had to stand there for a few minutes until some opened up.
I was too tall for the slab, so when the woman behind me was getting scrubbed, her washer-lady kept patting my feet and gesturing for me to scoot forward. That caused the lady in front of me to pat my head and motion for me to move backward. I ended up deciding to lie there diagonally. After getting scrubbed down, I was led to a low fountain. I sat on the edge while the lady washed my hair. She rinsed it with buckets of fairly cold water from the fountain, one after the other after the other in rapid succession. It got to a point where I didn’t have time to breathe! Thankfully she finished before I hyperventilated. I got to go to a hot tub after that and warm up. It was nice. After soaking for some time, we got out to get out massages and facials, which were in a different room. The masseuses were much kinder than the wash ladies. I hate to say it, but I think if we had been Turkish, we would have gotten treated a little bit better during the first half of our bath. It was still fun though. We were all glad we went.
When we were all finished, we wrapped up in warm dry towels and went to a sort of relaxation area, filled with couches and tables. We sat and sipped apple tea and water. Then we went back up to our lockers, dressed, and headed off to our hostel for a good night’s sleep!
If you click on one of the thumbnails below, a larger slideshow will open up – move through the pics by clicking the left and right arrows (way off to the sides).
Istanbul: Day 3. A day of marriage proposals. Galata Tower, The Spice (Egyptian) Market, Rustem Pasha Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. If you’d like to read Beth’s account or see her pictures, visit http://bethmabry.blogspot.com/.