27 September 2008

Ottoman Wonders

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

By 8:30 this morning we had dutifully followed our fellow cruisers and had been properly distributed onto the scores of waiting tour buses for our guided tour of the wonders of the Old City of Istanbul. On our agenda were the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Covered Bazaar. Although I'm not generally a fan of the big organized tours, this was the only way we could see Topkapi Palace, since it is closed on Tuesdays. Holland America has a special arrangement, so if we booked this shore excursion, we would be able to visit this palace. So here we were, playing the roles of lemmings for the day and wearing our 'Orange #7' stickers. Our guide was a personable Turkish woman named Ayshem, and of course, our bus was full.

We drove down the busy main street that we had walked along the night before, and we crossed the Golden Horn on the Galata Bridge. The pedestrian walkways on both sides of the bridge were lined with fishermen, who Ayshem told us were probably fishing for their families. Fully loaded ferry boats and lots of other boats and ships filled the inlet – it was a busy place! Just on the old side of the bridge were some familiar sights, Burger King and McDonald's, which are laughingly referred to as the American Embassies over here. We passed an Otopark, and office supply store featuring Baturays and Fotokopis, and a Pattiserie/Cafe with mouth-watering pastries filling the windows. As we neared the Blue Mosque, we passed Ayia Sofia and the Hippodrome, so let me tell you a little bit about them.

Ayia Sofia (also spelled Haghia Sophia) was once the focal point of Christian religious life in the Byzantine Empire; after the conquest of Istanbul by the Turks it served as a mosque for nearly 500 years, and since 1935 it has been one of the most popular museums in the world. Its name means 'Divine Wisdom' and it is a domed basilica consisting of a hall with a narthex and an exonarthex, a central room with three naves and a gallery, and a garden surrounding the building. Like San Marco, it is full of many beautiful mosaics – I was sorry we didn't get to go inside this building. It is the fourth largest basilica in the world, only outranked by St. Peter's in Rome, the Doumo in Milan, and St. Paul's in London. I think it is interesting that even though the building served as a mosque for so long, the Christian mosaics were not destroyed.

The Hippodrome was built in 203 AD by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, and it was later enlarged by Constantine the Great. The Hippodrome was the center of Byzantine activities – chariot races, gladiator fights, celebrations in honor of the emperor, riots, and bloody battles have all taken place on this site. It is large – about 400 m. long and 120 m. wide, and it seated 40,000 spectators. Long ago there was an arcade of columns where four bronze-gilt horses once stood, until 1204 when the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo claimed them as war trophies and took them to stand guard atop the main gate of San Marco in Venice. Today there are still several obelisks still standing in what used to be the center of the race course.

We got off the bus at one side of the Hippodrome and walked a short way to the Blue Mosque. This mosque was founded by the Sultan Ahmet I, who was only twenty years old at the time he commissioned it. It is the only mosque with six minarets in the entire world. Ayshem told us a possible reason for this – legend has it that the Sultan ordered his architects to build the minarets out of gold, but the architects found that there wasn't enough money left in the building fund to do that. Lucky for them, in Turkish, the word for gold is 'altin' and the word for six is 'alti' so they built six and claimed it was a simple misunderstanding. It could've happened!

We entered the mosque from the west, where we went through a gate where a metal chain was hanging down. Out of respect for God, the Sultan had to bow low every time he rode his horse through the gate. From here we went to the inner courtyard, which is the same size as the prayer hall (64 x 72m). The interior of the mosque was spectacular – I won't begin to be able to do it justice! There are 260 windows, many of which are stained glass with lots of deep blue glass. The predominate color of the tile work and paint inside the mosque is a blue-green color, and the prayer carpets are red. Huge chandeliers hang very low, because they used to have oil lamps in them instead of electric bulbs. Since Islam forbids the representation of God in human form, all of the interior decorations are mostly floral. I will post photos as soon as I can! We didn't get to stay here too long – you know how tours are – and before we were ready to go we were back outside, getting our shoes back on and finding our group for the walk over to Topkapi Palace.

The walk over was quite hazardous, as we got to see Turkish driving at its finest. Have you ever ridden in bumper cars? Imagine that with a few giant tour buses thrown in! It was crazy! But we all arrived at the palace in one piece, even the lady in the wheelchair. Topkapi Palace is humongous! It is considered the most extensive monument in Turkish civil architecture, as it covers 700,000 square meters! It is actually a complex of many buildings, courtyards, gates, pavilions, mosques, and fountains, and it is surrounded by a wall that goes from the Byzantine sea walls along the Golden Horn to the ones along the Marmara Sea. Trust me, it is BIG! The palace was built in 1459 by Mehmet II and it was the official residence of sultans until 1839 when they moved to the new palace, Dolmabahce. The harem portion of Topkapi Palace was added in the 16th century – we were not going to be able to see it, so the guys were upset about that.

We entered the Palace through the first court, which is a parking lot now, passed by Haghia Eirene, and went through the Gate of Salutations. This opened out into the second court, which was a huge open space. Armed Turkish guards were present – that was a little creepy. Lining the right side of this courtyard were the old kitchens, olive oil refinery, and soap factory. These now house collections of porcelains, but we did not see them, either. From here, we went through the Gate of Felicity and into the third court. We saw the Imperial Hall, where the sultan used to sit on his imperial thrones and receive state visitors. There was a fountain at the entrance here, because the sound of running water would discourage eavesdropping. and the Library of Sultan Ahmet II. In this courtyard were models of the palace, and Ayshem told us about some of the things we would want to be sure to see. Since the palace serves as a huge museum now, some of the finest treasures in the world are housed in the Treasury, which opens into this courtyard and was originally built as a summer palace for Mehmet II. We were to be on the lookout for the Topkapi dagger, which is famous because it was in the movie, Topkapi. It is heavily jeweled with three big emeralds and even has a watch at the top of it. Also on our list was the Spoonmaker's Diamond, which is the seventh largest diamond in the world at 86 carats. It was unbelievable!! It is surrounded by 49 brilliants, and it's kind of shaped like an upside-down heart. It was so beautiful and it shone like sunshine! The story behind it is very interesting, too – it was allegedly bought (in raw, uncut form) from a junk dealer for three silver spoons. A jeweler recognized it for what is was and cut it to reveal its beauty. At some point, the diamond was bought from a maharajah and taken to France, where it was bought at auction by Napoleon's mother, who then sold it to rescue her son from exile. It was purchased by Tepedelenli Ali Pasa, who cooperated in a rebellion against Sultan Mahmut II in the 19th century, so his treasure and property was confiscated by the Turks. The whole treasury was fascinating – I've never seen so many jewels and beautiful objects in one place! There were boxes overflowing with huge emeralds, a bejeweled set of armor (nothing like calling attention to yourself – let's get the guy covered in money!), jewel-crusted gold thrones, jade, feathered and jeweled turbans, jeweled crystal, and the third item on our list, a pair of gigantic gold and jewel candlesticks. We didn't really have time to take it all in – there was just SO MUCH!!

We made a quick trip to the WC in the restaurant which is in the fourth court, which also had buildings which housed the Chamber of the Head Physician and the Pharmacy. By the time we left there, it was starting to sprinkle a bit, so we brought out our rain gear. That turned out to be a good plan, because it POURED! Most people were unprepared, and lost valuable sightseeing time because they couldn't cross the open courtyards to get to other buildings. The unexpected shower didn't last too long, and by the time we were walking back to our bus, it was clearing up again. The rain wreaked havoc on the already snarled traffic, though. We were lucky to be in a big bus and we only got out of the tangle of cars and buses because we were behind a secret policeman who flashed his credentials at the traffic policeman. The cop got so flustered that he let us follow the official and we were free from the traffic jam. We were off to the covered bazaar!

On the way to the bazaar, we passed Gagaloglu Hamami, which is a 300 year old Turkish Bath. I had really wanted to try one, but no one else in the group was interested. Oh well. We started our 'bazaar' trip at Galata Carpet Weavers' Association. We were escorted up to a large room with padded benches lining the walls. We were served hot apple tea while young Turkish men rolled out carpet after carpet – cotton-on-cotton, wool-on-wool, cotton-on-wool, and silk – each one more elaborate or beautiful than the one before. On some, the reverse side of the carpet was so pretty that we thought it was the right side. Others could be flipped in a way that the colors changed – a for-real magic carpet! When the demonstration was over, most people left the room, but once again, Judy and I proved to be salesman magnets. Quickly, two men, Farouk and Mehmet (you can call me Michael) cornered us (along with John and Rex this time) and proceeded with the hard sell. We were ushered into a smaller room with a beautiful hardwood floor and the selling show began. Judy really had her eye on one carpet, and before we knew it, John was bargaining hard! An agreement was reached and in about six weeks, Judy will be finding a place for her new Turkish rug! Rex and I passed this time! Meanwhile, the Youngs were getting the same treatment (no deal) and the Smarts were downstairs buying jewelry. As we left, we passed a room where a young woman was making a rug, so we stopped for instruction. She went so fast I could not begin to keep up, but Judy actually put a few knots in the rug in progress.

Our time was almost up, but I was getting really hungry so Rex and I went in search of food. We found a small shop called Kahve Dunyasi (Chocolate World) and I bought a bagful of melt-in-your-mouth truffles. And I shared them when we got back on the bus! Then we passed a Starbucks, so I got an iced chai latte (no regular tea) and a pastry with potatoes and leeks in it, which Rex and I split. We made it back to our meeting place in time, and then we walked a few blocks to find our bus. With that, our 'bazaar' trip was over – it wasn't what most of us were expecting. We opted not to try to get to the Egyptian Spice Market on our own – we had talked to several people that morning who had been pick-pocketed there the day before.

Back at the ship by a little after 1:30, we headed upstairs for some lunch and a little poolside photo downloading and blogging, and then, you guessed it, it was naptime! It was formal night for dinner again, and I shocked the rest of the group when I appeared in a dress. We had another delightful dinner – great conversation and good food – and the ship was sailing. Time to rest up for Mykonos!

Dreaming of diamonds and jewels,


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