Day 6: A palace and a dervish

A few days after leaving Turkey, I had a dream that I was wandering in a vast palace covered with Iznik tiles. I think this was the result of our tour of the Harem of the Topkapi Palace and Tiled Pavilion of the Archaeological Museum, both of which demonstrated an artistic obsession with these intricately painted tiles.

Tiled walls in the Sultan's room

Tiled walls featuring calligraphy surround an ornate fireplace in the Harem.

The day had already turned gray and rainy by the time we got to the palace grounds. The palace is not a single building, but rather a giant complex of buildings around four courtyards. Every sultan made his addition to the complex as new needs arose. At one point 10,000 people lived and worked in the compound, so I suppose the crush of tourists actually helped us imagine how busy this place was when it functioned.

We started with the Harem, the section of the complex where the sultan’s wives and mother lived along with the eunuchs and concubines who tended to the women. Contrary to Western notions, the harem was primarily an administrative establishment, carefully designed to ensure there would be no squabbles over succession because of heirless sultans.

The Harem is the most decorated part of the palace, with many of those Iznik tiles coating chamber after chamber. After touring that part, we began our grueling expedition through sopping courtyards to see the treasury (lots of shiny jewels), the kitchen (unfortunately foodless today), and the armory. In the armory, I found myself suddenly intrigued by a thin sword on display and desperately needing to examine it up close for several minutes, which I assure you was not at all because there was a heat vent below the vitrine. We were amused to find the weapons arranged under signs such as Stabbing, Slicing, Smashing, etc. There were a fair share of funny elements to the palace besides the weapons: the sultan’s throne in his reception chamber appeared big enough to fit ten men side-by-side, the council chamber where the ministers consulted had a window grille above it through which the sultan could listen like a literal eavesdropper, and his mom’s room was located strategically between his room and the rest of the harem. Ah, the tough life of a sultan!

"So...cold..."

“So…cold…”

Hungry and wet from the drizzle, we proceeded to our next stop, the archaeological museum, which is actually a set of three museums. The visit started on a happy note when we found coffee that didn’t cost $10 a cup, approximately the palace price. Now, the café where we lunched had a decent selection with entrees, salads, and sandwiches—but once we had decided on our picks, stomachs growling, we were informed that out of the 20 choices on the menu, they actually only had dolma and pistachio cake in stock.

I guess this was a preview of the rest of the museum, which was under—you guessed it—restoration, and the starring items, such as the famed Alexander Sarcophagus, were off display. A bit perturbed, we made the most of the remaining sarcophagi and their occasionally belligerent inscriptions (e.g. “If any man disturbs this tomb, let him be smashed and his whole family crushed”).

We love history!

Up close and personal with ancient history.

We walked over to the museum next door where we saw…more tiles! In fact, this small museum is called the “Tiled Pavilion.”

Excited to see tiles!

Or “the Tired Pavilion”

Finally, after a detour in the sculpture garden, which is where the disenfranchised statues are left to suffer the elements, we went to the last museum: the “Ancient Orient.” Upon my approaching the entrance, I was greeted by a guard clearly communicating that my entry was unwelcome. Apparently, they chase everyone out 20 minutes before the museum actually closes. I convinced her to let us in for “one minute,” and after we cruised through Babylon, the lights went off. But I could not leave without seeing at least one famous item, the Treaty of Kadesh, the world’s oldest known peace treaty. The guards relented and flicked on the lights for us to get a brief look at the tiny cuneiform tablet.

And that concluded our day of odd museums.

With only a few hours left in Istanbul, we headed to the Arasta Bazaar, where Jasmine purchased a beautiful inlaid box and Sergey and I drank the shopkeeper’s apple tea. Then we happened upon an outdoor restaurant where a trio was performing—and, most excitingly, a whirling dervish was whirling!

Dervish

Whirling dervish, Sufi dancer, your skirts are a sheltering canopy, your eyes, divine ecstasy.

Entranced, we watched from the sidewalk, and then decided it was worth eating a freezing al fresco dinner to see him whirl. While I’m always skeptical of the authenticity of “cultural” activities in a tourist district, he seemed to be legitimately meditating as he spun, eyes nearly closed, apparently unconscious of his audience, including the paparazzi in the front row seats (us).

Finally, it was time to say “good night” to Istanbul. Our journey had reached its end.

Near Divan Yolu

City of 10 million people

burqa-clad women, bohemian men,

fish sandwiches scenting thousands of fingers.

East meets West

almost

separated by the strait of the Bosphorus

marble tongue of Marmara licking the cold cup of the Black Sea

and Black Sea pouring its dark contents into Marmara’s mouth.

Day 4: Mosques galore

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Dome of the Blue Mosque, which earns its moniker from the blue tones of its interior decor.

While mosques only require a single minaret from which the muezzin can voice the call to prayer, to show off his wealth and power, the sponsoring sultan of the Blue Mosque—Sultan Ahmet, who gave his name to both the mosque and the district—built six.

We visited Istanbul in “low season” for tourism, the time when the government implements its renovations and restorations of the various historical sights before the influx of visitors begins again with the return of warm weather. Indeed, nearly everywhere we went, we found huge tarps wrapped around walls and covering entire buildings, printed with explanations of the history of the place underneath and the plans for its restoration. The Spice Market from afar looked like an enormous tent, thanks to its veiling tarp. Hagia Sofia featured massive scaffolding inside, and the Blue Mosque featured a mere 5.5 minarets. The remaining 0.5 was undergoing reconstruction.

One minaret, two minaret...scaffolded sixth minaret is outside the frame.

Minaret #6 is currently in hiding.

The Blue Mosque might be the most renowned, but I have to be a mosque snob and say that of the three we entered, it was actually the least impressive. That should give you an idea of just how many gorgeous mosques populate Turkey, thanks to the sultans’ combined religiosity and profligacy!

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. Note the giant chandeliers.

Our next mosque was the truly magnificent Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. The architect Mimar Sinan made massive and heavy structures appear buoyant and graceful. Like the heavenly ambience created by the stained glass windows and elaborate décor of Gothic cathedrals in Europe, it was clear that the beauty of these mosques was designed to lift the spirits of worshippers to paradisiacal heights.

Mosques were usually surrounded by other establishments like bazaars and kitchens. We had lunch in a restaurant housed in the mosque’s former soup kitchen. When we walked from the stone-paved courtyard into a lofty chamber filled with untenanted tables draped in crisp white linen, we saw that we were the only customers. While I appreciate the quietness of an empty restaurant, at a fancier establishment like this, I prefer having at least a few other customers to distract the flock of attentive waiters from my plebeian etiquette.

“They’re giving us water for free!” I whispered to Sergey and Jasmine after the waiters had filled our glasses before we ordered. “Drink a lot!”

Our experience at this restaurant demonstrated the heights of excellence that a meatball can attain. In Turkey, “koftecisi” or meatballs are oblong patties of ground meat mixed with spices and herbs, then grilled.

We ordered meatball soup followed by meatball dishes. The meatball soup was a creamy blend of lentils, vegetables, and bits of meatball—just what we needed to warm us up after being buffeted by the damp wind. Then came our main course: Sergey got tender cutlets, and Jasmine and I shared…kebab sushi. The filling was made with meat and finely chopped pistachio, which had apparently been formed into a roll, then wrapped with a pastry. This roll is then sliced and the slices are grilled. The end result was delectable!

Alas, our little glasses of apple tea were soon finished and the meatballs gone; we had to exit our culinary cocoon. Yet, the restaurant was not the only gem around the mosque. We found some artisans making their goods–engraved platters and other metal trinkets. Their workshop also functioned as their shop, and after watching them demonstrate their craft, we bought several dishes engraved with gleaming floral patterns.

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter,

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter.

Day 1: Hagia Sofia, Hippodrome, Cistern, and Grand Bazaar

Check out that apse!

Check out that apse!

 

The Hagia Sofia (pronounced “Eye-Ah Sofia”) exemplifies how excellent architecture and sturdy materials can last scores of generations beyond their builders—it has stood tall and proud for nearly 1,500 years. One sign of its age are its enormous front doors through which the emperor would have entered: today, they are frozen in open paralysis, their bottoms locked in place beneath ground level by the buildup of renovations. After the Byzantines fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Hagia Sofia switched over from basilica to mosque, and today it features a pastiche of Christian mosaics and seraphim and huge Islamic calligraphy medallions. All three are visible in the photo above. For many centuries, the Christian art was covered under whitewash due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative depictions in mosques. In some cases, the whitewash actually preserved the artwork underneath.

Exterior view

Exterior view

In the Hippodrome, the former stadium where Roman chariots raced and plebeians occasionally rioted, we once again saw the layers of history that characterize the Sultanahmet district. Several obelisks of various origins, including one taken from Egypt eons ago covered with beautifully clear hieroglyphics, were partially sunken into the ground a number of feet. After its glory days, the Hippodrome was demoted to a quarry/dumpsite. The accumulation of dirt raised its level many feet.

A brief side trip to Egypt. Now, who speaks hieroglyph?

A brief side trip to Egypt. Now, who speaks hieroglyph?

Speaking of glory days, I found the story of the so-called Basilica Cistern rather amusing. The great Byzantine emperor Justinian, who sponsored the construction of Hagia Sofia, also built a huge cistern under the city, supported by hundreds of columns. In later years, the Ottomans somehow forgot that this giant reservoir was there, and concluded that they were simply specially blessed because their wells were mysteriously always full. Today, the cistern is a drippy tourist trap. Just imagine a gigantic flooded basement and you’ll get the general picture!

Basilica Cistern

Or you can look at the specific picture.

Next we headed over to the Grand Bazaar. I felt a peculiar draw toward the place, because it’s half-dream, half-nightmare. Sometimes I’ll awake from wonderful dreams where I’m shopping in a splendid chocolate shop or picking out beautiful clothes from a heavenly Macy’s. Yet, in real life, malls cause me anxiety, and shopping tends to be a chore. In the Grand Bazaar, the tantalizing possibility of finding something rare and exotic meets the stressful reality of pushy merchants and thronging crowds. We found it nearly impossible to navigate so we definitely left some routes unexplored, but we did find a coffeeshop where we tried Turkish coffee (i.e. hot coffee sludge) and also salep, which we received more favorably. This hearty drink combines flour made from starchy orchid tubers with sugar and milk or water and comes dusted with cinnamon. As a winter beverage, it’s a good alternative to hot chocolate for warding off the cold.

I don't have a photo of Turkish coffee, but I think Medusa is a decent substitute.

I don’t have a photo of Turkish coffee–but here’s Medusa! She looks like she could use some salep…

Well, I’ll see you in day 2!

Turkey for three

Last month, Sergey, Jasmine, and I set off to Turkey for a whirlwind adventure. After reading Rick Steves’ guidebook nearly cover to cover, I had put together a brutal itinerary that would test anyone’s traveling mettle—there were just so many things to see in so little time! And now so much to write about! If I get a book offer, then I’ll be sure to include every single detail in the manuscript, but for now I’ll stick with the abridged version of our six days in this ancient land, starting with…

Day 0: After a two-hour flight from Tel Aviv, on which we were treated to Turkish Airline’s “gourmet” airplane food, which they even allowed us to preview by passing out menus before serving us as if we were attending a fancy wedding, we arrived in the Istanbul airport. That was when I knew we had officially entered a different country: rather than the drafty buildings of Israel, which apparently chooses to ignore winter rather than react to it, the terminal was heated to the point of discomfort.

We met a person working for the airport transfer company, which manages rides from the airport to hotels, and noticed an apparent typo in his information: we were going to be taken to “Hotel Nomade” rather than the place we’d reserved, “Noah’s Ark.”

“Maybe that’s its Turkish name?” I speculated. Turkish is all Greek to me.

So, after informing him of the mistake, we got into a big van with a silent driver. Well, he was silent aside from phlegmy coughs and wheezes. In the old city, we pulled up in front of the correct hotel, with its “Noah’s Ark” sign, but something was clearly awry as shutters covered its entrance.

Wordlessly, the driver pulled away then backed his giant van all the way down another street, where he got out and removed our luggage.

“I guess that’s our cue?”

We disembarked. No hotel was in sight, just a restaurant packed with night owls, but then a man appeared and helped us with our luggage into a small building beside the restaurant.

“Did Noah’s Ark tell you about the situation?” he asked.

“The…situation?”

“They closed. Out of business—two days ago. They rebooked you in this hotel.”

At this point it was 1:00 AM, and we weren’t about to start researching another hotel, so we accepted the room. The triple was fairly tiny and bare, and one patch of the fake wood floor felt like it was going to collapse every time we stepped on it, but at least there were beds.

Then we noticed the bathroom. It had glass doors. Right in front of the toilet.

We did some research and found that this hotel was recently renovated under the guidance of a French designer. So, apparently this designer valued classy touches like glass doors over boring orthodoxies like privacy. In my humble design opinion, glass doors are good for places where you’d like a clear view, such as a garden or yard—not, you know, the toilet.

(Also, to compound the bathroom problem, through a vent near the sink, we could clearly hear our neighbor’s conversations when they spoke in or near their own bathroom. Nothing scandalous, but still–what did they hear us talking about? …Probably about the bathroom.)

Long story short, we spent nights one and two at this hotel after redesigning the door by draping it with the closet’s curtain, then moved to a better hotel a few blocks away. Never before had we been so happy to behold a blessedly solid, opaque door to the bathroom!