Sunday, November 6, 2011

Turkey, Days 7 and 8: Istanbul Part 1

Istanbul shop hat wallsteaming turikish bread

Our first afternoon's exploration of the immediate area around the Dersaadet Hotel did not take us all that far afield. We quickly discovered many small stores like the one with this fantastic wall of wool hats (top, —Photo by Jonathan Knight). We visited a pedestrian mall, a little higher-end bazaar as well as finding a pleasant restaurant for a late lunch (bottom) the steaming puffy bread seems to be something of a staple at restaurants that focus on local cuisine.

Getting to the airport and through the preliminaries of getting onboard our flight to Istanbul went quite smoothly. The only odd thing was that we went through security checkpoints twice. The first was right at the entrance to the airport. The checkpoint was rather akin to what you might find at a public building entrance with a belt x-ray machine and metal detector arch.  I wish I could say that the flight went as smoothly as everything else but that would be far from true. While the flight was the right length of time it was far from smooth: it was very bumpy. I can't recall a flight that had anywhere as much turbulence as this one had. Though I did not see it happen I understand many passengers grabbed their vomit bags and filled them. I felt a bit queasy leaving the flight but it wasn't nearly bad enough to cause me to worry that I might loose my breakfast. This was not clear air turbulence. We passed through some stormy weather and I do wish the pilot had come on and said something though to be honest I am not sure what he would say. "Yes, we are experiencing turbulence." I already know that. I'll choose to believe that he was not concerned for the plane and so had nothing to say to the sardine-packed passengers. It took a bit longer than I think any of us expected to get our luggage at Istanbul's Ataturk airport but once we retrieved our stuff it was easy to find the person from the Dersaadet Hotel who was going to drive us to our abode.The hotel doesn't look all that big from the outside but when you enter you realize that though it may be small it is well appointed. We were greeted by a lady, Gozde, who I suppose is best thought of as a guest director akin maybe to a consigliere. She provided us with a wealth of information about the hotel and about Istanbul. It may not always be the best information (we learned later that a ticket sale was overpriced for my parents who could get a senior rate - though we got reimbursed later on after she confirmed that rate did exist; way to go costumer service is top notch). We got ourselves settled in while it drizzled and then started to rain more steadily and  we donned our raincoats and picked up some clear plastic umbrellas (these seem legion around here) and went out to explore the immediate area and get a bite to eat. we are located in the old city not that far from the Blue Mosque (known to locals as Sultanahmet Mosque), Hagia Sophia, and other major places like those. We found a small pedestrian shopping street not far from here and quickly learned that shops that sell all sorts of textiles from carpets to hats were pretty common. We also found a nice little restaurant where we got some Turkish pizza (a plain and meat style) that did a pretty good job of hitting the spot. It was nice to have some fresh and hot food on this dreary wet afternoon (we went back there for dinner and found it far less good than the lunch). At first glance this area doesn't really appear all that exciting but we have learned that first impressions can be wrong and I fully expect that we will have a better feel for at least some of the city after we conclude our walking tour tomorrow.

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Blue Mosque 1Blue Mosque 2

It was rather busy in the Blue Mosque which is named, I believe, for the blue-ish tiles that are all over. Religious art is not to be found anywhere inside a mosque but that doesn't mean you can't find decoration like the tile work of the dome or the stain glassed windows.

We have found that we get a lot out of walking tours when we visit a new city. After you do a tour you have a different view of the place than you held prior to a guided exploration. That was certainly true when we visited Lisbon and we expected it to be so here in Istanbul. We met our guide from Backpackers, a fellow named Ahmed (Ahmet maybe), in the hotel lobby right on time for the start of our tour. It was just going to be the three of us with the guide during the morning and during the afternoon portion a couple of others would join us: a very small tour indeed. We began by walking down the narrow not quite quiet streets with their often non-existent sidewalks (and traffic definitely pays less attention to pedestrians than one might like) to pay a visit to the Backpackers' office to pay for the day's tour. Ahmed had things to tell us as we walked though at this late date I can't really tell you what they were. Our first major stop was at the Blue Mosque (the tourist name of the place; locals refer to it as Sultanahmet Mosque after the Sultan who built it 400 years ago). We took our shoes off before entering but Ahmed told Mom she did not have to put a scarf on over her hair (she could have). I suppose as a major tourist spot trying to really restrict what those not-devout Muslims who mostly visit are given some slack which is an eminently practical approach. When we entered we were quickly taken aback by the size and openness of the place. Like all mosques the interior design is simple. I don't know that I have ever seen an ostentatious flamboyant design which doesn't mean I haven't seen intricate art and artistry such as we saw in the great mosque and church of Cordoba.You never see religious art in a mosque but that doesn't mean you don't get a sense that a place like this is not meant for serious reflections upon the existence of god and ones place in the universe. Blue Mosque View

A view facing the Blue Mosque as seen from the Museum of Islamic Art. The bulk of the day was consistently overcast though we lucked out and it did not really drizzle any.

We then visited the Museum of Islamic (and Turkish) Art. This was once a palace though I am not quite sure for how long it was one. Today it stands as a museum which was interesting enough to check out though a lot of the stuff we saw went in one eye and out the other for me. I think I got more out of the stories we heard from our guide about intervening stopping points like just outside the Blue Mosque and why it has six minarets (a supposed mis-understanding between the architect and sultan. The Sultan wanted golden minarets and did not say how many he wanted but the word for gold and the word for the number six is pretty similar and that was where the mis-understanding occurred). We wandered through the Hippodrome which was once where chariot races took place. We strode passed an Egyptian obelisk that dates back to sometime around 400B.C. and whose hieroglyphs stand out quite stunningly well even today. And then we found ourselves with a substantial amount of free time. Our guide left us to our own devices to find lunch and kill some time before the afternoon potion of the tour would begin. We walked through some twisting little streets trying to figure out what to do and in due course we found a small place to get a bite to eat. Like so many other places it seems to us the entire staff was composed of just men. And I wonder where Turkish women eat if and when they eat out. Perhaps they take their meals upstairs (in this case) and segregate themselves from the men down below. The only people who I suspect mix genders at meals in restaurants are tourists. The lunch though not quite what we expected certainly filled our needs once it arrived. Up to this point I still can't say I have a great feeling about the city per se. Individual structures are remarkable but the feel of the city has not been all that great. I can't really put my finger on why this is. It must be some strange combination of things. But it is not a bad city. Maybe it is just different. obelisk 1istanbul afternoon

The obelisk's hieroglyphs stand out very well which I personally found rather surprising given how old it is.
Dad and I as we wander about the areas around Hagia Sophia. —Photo by Judith Knight

We started our afternoon by visiting Hagia Sophia. This is actually the third building to have that name and be on that spot. The first was built in, I think, the 4th century A.D. and was a wooden structure that eventually came down. The second building was of wood and stone and also came down (fire, I think). The third building which has been around for something like 1,500 years has been a church and then a mosque and since the 1930s a museum. I believe the Hagia Sophia (Hall of Wisdom) was a church for far longer than a mosque and as a church it had all the trappings of a major cathedral of Christianity. When it became a mosque the sultans and, I suppose, Immans did not want to destroy the frescos art works that were meant to inspire christians so they just plastered them over. I suppose that was their way of acknowledging the quality of the work even though it clearly did not fit into their beliefs. When the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum I guess part of the restoration was to strip the plaster and expose the ancient artwork once more. That really helps bring you a sense of the age and remarkable nature of the building. Entering Hagia SophiaHagia Sophia overviewHagia Sophia Art

Entering Hagia Sophia you quickly get a sense for how large the place is. I think that even if it wasn't lit by modern lighting it would be a fairly bright place overall. My recollection of the Cathedral in Seville is that it felt much more somber though it was easily as spacious. We also had a chance to climb up to a balcony that is about halfway to the roof as I recall. you can really see how the main floor spreads out from up here. And although I don't personally draw any inspiration or religious fervor from the mosaic artwork like the one here that sits above an archway leading to the main area I can understand how many people would.

Hagia Sophia is huge. At the peak of the dome it rises some 55 meters and though I do not know the size of the main floor I feel confident that it is easily as large as grand places like the Cathedral in Seville. Seville feels like it rises a bit higher but standing in the main area you know that the church is vast and meant to be impressive. What makes it all the more so is that the building was built considerably before Seville's Cathedral. We left Hagia Sophia to visit the Basilica Cistern. Nowadays the cistern is nowhere near full but back when it was in use being fed by the Eğrikapı Water Distribution about 18km north of the city through at least a couple aqueducts including the 971 meter long Valens aqueduct it would be totally full of water. From what I have gathered that means it could hold around 80,000 cubic meters of water. For comparison an olympic sized swimming pool holds about 2,500 cubic meters of water. I suppose when it was full the 336 marble columns were wholly submerged and god knows how they could have done any work on the interior structure if something started to crack. Maybe that never was an issue. But today the water is, or seems to be, less than a meter deep leaving 8 meters of open space rising around us. With the indirect lighting the feel of the cistern is really quite special. And, yes, it was used to film those scenes in From Russia With Love when Bond and his Turkish secret agent colleague pulled a gondola from their abode to the Russian embassy. Basillica Cistern 1Basillica Cistern 2

The Basilica Cistern is definitely worth a visit. The photos aren't going to show it off well because I didn't do a good job taking them. In a way it almost feels more impressive today than it would have been when in use. That's because we can actually go inside and see what they did. Sure back when it was in use I am sure it was pitch black but just to build the structure.

The cistern was the last stop on the tour for all five of us (the other two were a couple from Mexico) and we said goodbye to them when we left the cistern. Ahmed then took us to the endpoint of the tour: the Grand Bazaar. He left us there and we took a quick turn through the 4,000 plus shop filled pedestrian mall. I am not sure right now what to think of this place. Perhaps I will get a better sense when we do some extra exploring tomorrow. Suffice to say the place is huge and chock 'o block with what seems to be about a gazillion small shops that are all selling similar things. How these numerous shops can make a go of it is beyond me. We left the bazaar and walked back to our hotel quite pleased with how the day had gone.
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