[Editor’s Note: First, as I post this we are back in the USA (in St. Petersburg, Florida) & only 2 days from home. I think there are still another 13 ports yet to post, so it will still take a few weeks to finish this trip blog, but stay tuned, it will be finished! Second, it has come to my attention that some people following this blog are still not aware that if you move your mouse cursor over a picture, without clicking a button on the mouse, a caption will pop up next to the cursor. Sometimes these captions just identify what is in the picture but sometimes there is more than that, so if you are not viewing the captions you are missing some stuff. That, along with other instructions on using this blog, is available by pressing the “about” button at the top of the page. And now, back to our story . . .]
After a 24 hour sail we arrived in the port of Piraeus in the late afternoon of April 17 for another 24 hour stay. We had made ambitious plans for this port, intending to take the subway to the New Acropolis Museum that evening & see some things near there, then take the subway to the Acropolis early in the morning to beat the crowds & visit the other ruins in the neighborhood before returning for a 3:30 all-aboard deadline. But Mary had gotten a nasty cold so we decided to spend the evening in Piraeus & signed on for a Holland America Acropolis tour for April 18 (which has the benefit that the ship won’t leave before you return, thus reducing the anxiety level when there is an early departure & you are not going to be near the port). This all turned out OK, since we got to see what we most wanted & didn’t miss the ship. In 1867 Mark Twain’s plans for Athens were thwarted as well when the ship was quarantined by Greek officials (this seemed to happen to them a lot). Twain & some friends sneaked ashore at night, however, & walked to the Acropolis & back before sunrise, raiding vineyards on the way (Athens was only a small town then, however, so the police presence wasn’t as threatening as it would be today).
The weather, which had been so nasty in Istanbul, was beautiful as we sailed into Piraeus. Piraeus is a city itself, but it is only about four miles from the Acropolis & has been the port for the city of Athens since ancient times (although the modern cruise port, one of the busiest in Europe, is much bigger than the ancient port and in a different location). When they were about to start the Peloponnesian war with Sparta, Athens built walls around the entire route from Athens to Piraeus to ensure access to their navy, which was their main source of military power (it didn’t work; the Spartans won the war & Athens was never the same again).
So in the few hours we had on the 17th we decided to walk around Piraeus. It has a very good antiquities museum, so we headed for that. It turned out to be difficult to find, partly because the Greeks street signs were difficult to decipher & partly because the map given us by Holland America wasn’t accurate. But finally, after walking through several local neighborhoods, we came to the museum of antiquities. And the sign on the door said it had closed an hour before we docked! This was news to our travel guide, who told us she thought it would be open until about 8. Anyway, we snapped a few pictures through the fence & headed back. At the port we saw a very attractive Greek Orthodox church but not much else (we never did find the shopping district we had been told was there) so we headed back to the ship.
On the ship that night was a show by a Greek folk dancing group. They were pretty good & it was enjoyable.
The next morning we got up early to board the tour bus. After a (too) leisurely drive through Piraeus we went to the Acropolis, where we stood at the bottom of the hill, watching other groups go by, while our guide talked about olive trees and other interesting things that had nothing to do with the Acropolis, which is what we were anxiously waiting to see. She talked very slowly & repeated everything several times, repeatedly asking for more questions, as time passed and other groups went ahead of us. As you can tell by now, I found this very irritating, particularly since we were there at a time (10:00) when I had read that the crowds would start growing. I am as interested as the next person in the history of olive trees, but why couldn’t she give us that exposition while we were on the bus instead of at the foot of the Acropolis?
Then we climbed up the hill to the spot where our guide went to buy tickets. But this was a free day on the Acropolis (so the tour company’s profits were that much more) & that meant there were more folks than usual for this time of year, including a number of school groups. Tickets can be purchased ahead, so why didn’t our tour company do that? Anyway, there were some nice views from this spot, which overlooks a Roman era theater called the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, where they sometimes still have concerts. (Actually, an odeon was generally smaller than a theater, for musical performances rather than plays; it derives from the Greek word for “song,” the same root that gives us the English word “ode.”)
Finally we climbed up to the Acropolis (its quite a climb from the ground, by the way). The Greek word acropolis means “high city,” and many ancient Greek cities have a citadel in the center with this name. The early Athenians built temples & the king’s palace on this high hill, where you could see an approaching army from a long way off. But the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC & burned the Acropolis. Yet the Greeks won the war with the Persians thanks to the victory of the Athenian navy in the battle of Salamis & by mid-century Athens was the dominant power in the region, with great wealth from yearly tribute (oops, I mean dues) paid by its subject states (I mean, of course, its “allies” in the Athenian League). So the Athenian leader Pericles began a huge public building project to turn the still empty Acropolis into the most glorious citadel in Greece. As a result, the Acropolis we know today was entirely built within about 40 years as a coherent project, rather than an accumulation of separate buildings over time as you find in most ancient sites. Interestingly, the first stage of this project was to clear all the rubble on the Acropolis from the earlier destroyed buildings, which they buried in a big pit, which protected it (including statuary) from the ravages of the environment over the centuries until it was rediscovered and placed in the New Acropolis Museum, where we observed this early statuary later in the day.
The entrance to the Acropolis is a grand building called the Propylaea. There was a grand marble staircase leading up the last part of the hill to an impressive building at the top, all marble & columns. The ruins of this building are still there today, and they are still impressive above as you walk up (although the grand staircase is gone and you now walk up a winding path).
On the right as you walk up is the Temple of Athena Nike. Nike means victory (which is why the sports shoes have this name) & this temple contained a statue of Athena handing victory to the Athenians in the Persian war. The statue originally had wings (a winged victory), but the Athenians broke off the wings during the Peloponnesian War to ensure that Athena would stay and protect their city (as already noted, she didn’t . . . would you protect people who broke off your wings? go figure). This building was recently rebuilt after having been dismantled for cleaning and restoration of all its parts. Notice the parts that are a bright white, contrasting with the beige tint of the remainder of the building. The Greeks are restoring the buildings on the Acropolis to something like their original appearance using marble from the same quarry that the ancient Athenians used to fill in the gaps where the original stones are gone. This is very useful for the visitor since, as at Masada, it enables you to see clearly what is new and what is original. Unfortunately, we were told that it will not take very many years before the new marble develops the same beige sheen as the original marble, and then it will take a diagram to tell the new from the old.
On the left as you walk up are the Pinacoteca (“painting gallery”), which contained art works and the Monument of Agrippa. Today the monument is just an empty 25 foot high pedestal but it has held several bronze statues over the centuries: originally of a 4 horse chariot of the Olympic winner in 178 BC, then later one of Marc Antony & Cleopatra, then of Augustus Caesar’s son-in-law the Roman General Agrippa. Imagine what all this must have looked like to an ancient visitor to Athens walking up this steep stairway to this monumental edifice.
But it was very different from what you see today, even apart from the fact that the buildings are now ruins. We are used to seeing Greek temples as gleaming white marble edifices, a look we think of as “classical.” But the ancient Greeks weren’t interested in that, and they painted their beautiful buildings, friezes and statues in bright . . . one might say lurid . . . colors. The Acropolis was painted mostly in bright blue & red. Later in the day in the New Acropolis Museum we saw some of the ancient statues that still had some of their paint, along with replicas showing how the painted statue would have looked when new. And believe me, if you saw something like that in someone’s house today you would think it was in exceedingly poor taste. Yet, with the paint gone it looks like a beautifully sculpted marble classic. Anyway, I still need to show you the buildings to the left of the Propylaea.
Having reached the top we walked through the Propylaea and on toward the Parthenon. On our left was the Erechtheion and in front of it the three carved flat stones that mark the spot where a 30 foot tall bronze statue of Athena, dressed in military garb, once stood. It is said that the tip of Athena’s spear could be seen 30 miles away.
The Parthenon is huge & of course it is the #1 attraction of all ancient Greek ruins. It is 228 feet long and 101 feet wide, with 8 gigantic columns (34 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter) on each end, 17 on each side and 19 smaller ones on the inside. And it contains virtually no straight lines or right angles: the floor bulges slightly in the center, the pillars bulge and lean slightly toward the center. All of this was to make it look perfectly straight and square, because the Greeks knew that an optical illusion makes straight lines in buildings appear to sag and straight pillars appear concave. It is a pretty amazing piece of engineering and the optical illusion certainly works. The stones in the Parthenon are precisely cut and fit together to a tolerance of only 1/1,000 of an inch. Inside was a 40 foot statue of Athena covered in ivory and a ton of pure gold half an inch thick; it was carried off to Constantinople in the 5th Century and then vanished. In addition to its religious significance, the Parthenon contained the treasury of the Athenian League. In the 5th Century the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church (pagan images were removed or renamed, Christian frescoes added and an apse built on one end). About 1000 years later the Turks converted it into a mosque (a minaret was added). The Turks also used it to store explosives & during a war with Venice in 1687 the Venetians got lucky & hit it with a mortar shell, exploding the center of the building.. In the 19th Century the Greeks, after securing their independence, removed the minaret & converted the Acropolis into the archeological zone it is today.
Across from the Parthenon is the Erechthion (or Erechtheum). It had two interior spaces, one devoted to Athena & one to Poseidon, who supposedly had competed on that spot for naming rights to the city (Athena won by giving Athens the olive tree, still a mainstay of the Greek economy with more than 100 million of them in the country). The porch of the Caryatids, with its columns sculpted into women, is the most famous part of this building. The Caryatids on this porch today are replicas (really good ones); we saw 4 of the originals in the Acropolis Museum later in the day, one was sold to the British Museum by the infamous Lord Elgin & one is in France. It is smaller than the Parthenon but is quite beautiful & was at least as prestigious in its day.
The view from the Acropolis is spectacular, to say the least, & there are a lot of well known landmarks you can easily pick out. Here are Lykavittos Hill, the tallest spot in Athens, with the Chapel of St. George at the top. The marble quarries used by both ancient and modern Greeks are in the mountains behind it. Here also is Mars Hill (“Areopagus” or hill of Ares, the Greek name for the god the Romans called Mars), where Paul preached to the Athenians (with little success). Paul really got around.
Here is the Pnyx, a hill not far from the Acropolis that was the site where the citizens of Athens gathered to debate and vote in the first democracy. And the well preserved Temple of Hephaistos that sits next to the Agora, the primary marketplace of ancient Athens.
Here is the remarkably well preserved 1st Century BC Tower of the Winds, on the edge of the Roman Forum, an octagonal marble tower with reliefs on each side of what are believed to be the Greek symbols for the winds. It served as a weather vane, sundial and water clock, all in one. And on the right are four pillars, which may be what is left of the 2d Century AD Library of Hadrian, really a cultural center that included a library. I’m pretty sure the roof air conditioner in front of the pillars is of more recent vintage.
On the other side of the Acropolis one can see Hadrian’s Arch & the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Hadrian’s Arch was built as the dividing line between old Athens & a new housing project sponsored by the Emperor called Hadrianopolis. On the side of the arch facing the Acropolis is inscribed “This is Athens, ancient city of Theseus.” On the other side is inscribed “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus.” The Temple of Olympian Zeus beyond the arch was the largest temple in Ancient Greece, 360 feet by 145 feet with 104 columns 56 feet tall (15 are still standing). It was begun in the 6th Century BC, but lay uncompleted until Hadrian had it completed in 132 AD. It had a colossal statue of Zeus inside . . . and an equally large one of Hadrian. That Hadrian really got around (he’s also the guy who built Hadrian’s Wall between England & Scotland). We got a somewhat closer look at these from street level after lunch, so I will include those views here.
Before we leave the Acropolis, here are a few random pictures. There is a large & storied Greek flag at the end opposite the Propylaea on a platform; the day we were there it was extremely windy in that area, to the extent that I had to take off my hat to avoid having it blown away. And there is a remarkable amount of rubble (ie. apparently unidentified pieces of marble and of old columns) all over the place; many of these have been cleaned & identified and are waiting to be used in the renovation of the Acropolis.
So then we left the Acropolis, after much too short a stay, descending through the Propylaea and down the steep stairway. Mary was a little irritated because we were just about the last ones at the meeting place & I wouldn’t stop taking pictures.
Next we went to the New Acropolis Museum at the foot of the Acropolis. It is a marvelous glass dominated three level structure which houses most of the artifacts that have been removed from the Acropolis for protection from the elements. The Acropolis has often been looted for marble to use in other buildings (the Beule gate in front of the Propylaea, for example, was built with marble scavanged from the top of the hill), but the most famous looting was by the English Lord Elgin, who took most of the marble friezes from the Parthenon & one of the Caryatids from the Erechtheum, among other things, and sold them to the British Museum where they reside today, known as the Elgin Marbles. The British had long justified refusing to return this stuff on the grounds that they were better preserved in Britain because the pollution in Athens was deteriorating everything on the Acropolis. This justification was, in fact, true enough; we were told that most of the deterioration of the artifacts on the Acropolis has occurred over the last 50 years from pollution, and that before that it had looked well preserved. The Greeks hoped that the new museum, with its state-of-the-art environmental protections would convince the British Museum to return these artifacts, but now the English say that returning these artifacts would set a precedent that would empty all the museums in Europe (even if true, the response ought to be: so what, other things that have been stolen should be returned too).
When digging the foundation for the Museum they came across the remains of an Athenian neighborhood occupied from about 200 BC to 600 AD. That is now an active archeological site which can be viewed through the glass sidewalk over which visitors enter the building. Actually, most of the interior of the museum has glass floors as well.
Unfortunately, photography is not permitted on the first two floors of the museum, so I can’t show you all the ancient statues and other artifacts we saw from before the Parthenon period right through to Hellenic & Roman times. It is a fascinating journey through time, including history and the development of art. Even the four original Caryatids in the museum cannot be photographed. However, one of the people in our group noticed that you could see some of the Caryatids through the glass floor of the top floor, where photography is allowed. Best of all, several of the Caryatids are temporarily cut off from view while they are being cleaned using lasers, and the cleaning process could also be seen through the glass floor. So Mary stood over this spot in the floor to cast a shadow which enabled me to take some surprisingly good pictures. Since the museum closed all this off from public view, I am not sure they are aware it can be seen (& photographed) through the floor from above; it was certainly a surprise to our guide.
The top floor is devoted to the Parthenon. On one side is a massive window with a great panoramic view of the Parthenon and the Acropolis.
Inside the third floor, which is precisely aligned with the layout of the Parthenon, is a lifesize mockup with the entire frieze from the Parthenon mounted on it. The frieze was 525 feet long, went all the way around the wall inside the columns & depicted the annual Panathainic procession up to the Acropolis to pay homage to Athena for the birth of the city. Actually, its not the entire frieze, since Lord Elgin took all the best parts to England & there are a few items in other parts of Europe, but it contains all the original stones available from the Parthenon along with plaster casts of the parts in the British Museum & others. There is blank plaster where parts have completely disappeared. You can clearly distinguish the casts, which are pure white, with the original stones, which have a tan cast to them. It is hoped that one day the original stones will be obtained to replace the casts and the frieze will be completed as much as possible. Here are some photos, mostly of original pieces. As you look, remember that these were all painted in vivid. more than life-like colors.
The Parthenon also had rather famous deep reliefs in the triangular pediments on each of the shorter sides of the building. The museum has a plaster model of the original appearance of these pediments. It also has the remaining original pieces of them (not in very good condition) integrated with casts of the parts carried away by Lord Elgin (which are in much better condition). Then one last look at the Parthenon before leaving the museum.
After leaving the museum we walked to a restaurant near the Acropolis for lunch. It was a nice walk on a pretty day & the restaurant was quite colorful, full of murals, and served delicious Greeks food (the Greek yoghurt for dessert in particular). Then we walked down the hill & through a neighborhood to meet the bus. Near the meeting place, at the foot of the Acropolis & near Hadrian’s Arch is a marble bust of Melina Mercouri. You might wonder why a marble bust to a film actress known for playing racy women (Topkapi, Never On Sunday), but after her film career Melina Mercouri was a leader in the movement to oust the military dictatorship & she served for many years as Minister of Culture in the resulting democratic Greek government, so she is something of a political hero in Greece.
The bus took us to the Olympic Stadium, the only all marble stadium in the world (we were told), originally built by the ancient Athenians for their games and renovated in 1896 for the first modern Olympics.
Back in the bus, we drove past an archeological site dug from a public street (I think this might be the one where a new subway stop disclosed some ancient ruins), then we drove to the Parliament building, where we got out of the bus to see the changing of the guards in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier. There was already a crowd there & we weren’t given much time (I think the bus was parked illegally), but here are a few pictures. I have read that those pom-poms on their shoes date back to the ancient Athenians, & their skirts have 400 pleats, one for every year of Ottoman rule (these uniforms originated in the Greek war for Independence in the 1820’s).
Back in the bus we drove past, among other things, the house of Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered Troy & lived here afterward with a Greek wife he met through a contest to find a woman as interested in archeology as he was. We also saw the National Library (yay!) & Athens University, which our guide said is the best example of neoclassical architecture in Athens.
Finally, after a very full partial day indeed, we headed back to the ship for a 3:30 All Aboard deadline, and at 4:00 we sailed away under sunny skies in a deep blue sea, toward Dubrovnik.
Istanbul, Turkey (Day 2)
Early in the morning on April 16 we drove to the old town of Istanbul. First on the agenda was a brief visit to the Hippodrome, a large open area where the Romans & Byzantines used to have chariot races and other public spectacles. The stadium that used to be here is said to have held 100,000 people. The Emperor had a box that was connected to his palace, which stood where the Blue Mosque is now. Today it is essentially a large park. In it you can still see the Egyptian Obelisk, built in 1500 BC which Constantine brought from its original location in Luxor to decorate his city. What is there now is only about a third of its original height. Behind it is the Column of Constantine, which was actually built here in the 5th Century and was originally covered in copper. Between them in a hole in the ground (invisible in the picture) is the Serpentine Column, created in Delphi in the 5th Century BC to celebrate a Greek victory over the Persians. It originally had three serpents’ heads & necks extending from the top but they are gone, according to one story they were knocked off by a drunken Polish nobleman in the 18th Century.
A short walk brought us to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (also called the Blue Mosque because of the 21,000+ blue Izmir tiles that decorate its inside walls). It is on the site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors, & the marble stands from the Hippodrome were recycled into its walls. Built early in the 17th Century at the behest of the teenage Sultan Ahmet I, it was something of a scandal when built because it has 6 minarets, more than any other mosque, including the primary mosque in Mecca. As our guide explained, typical of young boys Ahmet wanted to have the biggest & best mosque anywhere, but no one would come to the new mosque because it was considered blasphemous to outdo the mosque in Mecca. So more more minarets were added to the mosque in Mecca, which made the Blue Mosque became an acceptable house of worship.
To enter the mosque you have to remove your shoes & women have to wear a head covering (someone asked if a baseball hat would do, but it wouldn’t). Mary bought a scarf on the ship & it turned out that this was the only place she had to use it. You carry your shoes around the mosque in a bag; our guide observed that if you leave your shoes at the entrance they might not be there when you return. But before all that we were admitted to the courtyard, which is the same size as the prayer hall in the mosque. Along the outside of the wall are spigots where Muslims cleanse themselves before entering the mosque. Each of the minarets surrounding the courtyard & the mosque has three balconies. Minarets have two purposes. Most people know that the call to prayer is sounded from high up on a minaret (today through loudspeakers) so that the faithful throughout the city will hear it. But the door on the balconies also face toward Mecca so that those praying outside the mosque will be able to tell which way to point their prayer rugs.
Inside the walls are covered with mostly blue tiles & the inside of the domes are painted with arabesque patterns that look like they could be tile (I actually throught they were until I found out different). There are 250 windows to let in light from outside & a number of huge circular chandeliers are relatively low above your head. altogether a stunning effect, and we were sorry we had so little time to enjoy it.
Next we walked over to the Topkapi Palace, which is a vast complex of buildings that was the home of the Sultan and the seat of government built by the Ottomans. Originally built as an administrative complex by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th Century, it was expanded to include the Sultan’s residence a century later by Suleiman I. It is built over the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, and it served as the residence of the Sultans until the mid 19th Century. We passed through the Imperial Gate into the first courtyard, largely occupied by an open & green park. We passed the Hagia Irene, a Byzantine church built during the reign of Justinian in the 6th Century, which hosted the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 AD. We also saw the Imperial Mint (which is now a museum). As mentioned earlier, Topkapi Palace was closed to the public this day, so the usual crowds were not there & we were able to walk right up and look at everything without waiting for others to move along. You will also see fewer crowds in these pictures.
After a rest stop at the gift shop we went through the Gate of Salutation, built in the 16th Century, into the second courtyard. Among the decorations over the gate was Suleiman I’s “tugra,” a stylized calligraphic monogram including the sultan’s name, title & patronymic. A wooden block with this tugra would be used to sign official documents.
We walked to a building called the Divan, which was the meeting place of the council of viziers (ministers) who administered the government. Our word “divan” derives from the sofas inside this building on which the council sat. It is also by the entrance to the Harem, where we went next. Above the Divan is the Tower of Justice which can be seen from all over the palace grounds.
The Harem is a huge complex of buildings & courtyards that housed the Sultan, his mother, his wives, his concubines & the eunuchs, who were the only men outside the Sultan’s immediate family (other than doctors) allowed to enter the Harem (which actually means “forbidden”). This area is chock full of elaborate tilework & marble columns. One can either listen carefully to the guide’s explanations or try to take pictures of as much as you can (the guided tours move along at a brisk pace) but not both. Accordingly (as with a lot in Istanbul) I am less than certain about identifying what is in some of these pictures, but I will do my best & hope I get it right. After all, it has been about 3 weeks now since we were in Istanbul, & it is shocking how quickly this stuff fades from memory, particularly when those weeks are full of other interesting places to visit. Anyway, this stuff is beautiful even when I’m not sure what it is.
The first area we came to was the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs. The eunuchs in the Harem were castrated slaves imported from North Africa. I don’t know anything else about this area, but take a look.
We walked through the courtyard of the concubines (there were several hundred of them, most of them more housekeepers than sexual slaves). Then we visited the quarters of the Valide Sultana. the mother of the Sultan, who was the real power in the Harem (& influential in the empire as well).
We went through what appears to be the Sultan’s bathroom.
Then we saw the Sultan’s bedroom, lush with golden posted beds, tile walls, stained glass windows & domed ceiling.
We went outside into an area that contained a pool, I think for the concubines (& wives, maybe) to bathe. No picture of the pool (which didn’t seem like much), but here are the buildings bordering it. Notice the pattern of six pointed stars in the grillwork of the window in the third picture. I have no idea if this is intended to be a star of David, but there is a thriving Jewish community in Istanbul with 16 active synagogues. When the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in the 15th century Turkey was the one country in Europe that welcomed them. I don’t remember the exact quote, but the Sultan at that time remarked that it seemed foolish to him for the Spanish monarchs to present him with such a gift.
Leaving the Harem we walked into the third courtyard of the Palace, past the Library of Ahmet III, built in 1719, which had a lovely water fountain in front (library fans: enjoy this, it’s the only library we found in Istanbul).
Next we visited the Treasury, which is chock full of fantastic jewelry & other items encrusted with precious stones & gold. Those of you who have seen the movie Topkapi (with Peter Ustinov & Melina Mercuri, more of whom in the next installment) will recall that the thieves who are the protagonists steal the Topkapi Dagger by entering a window in a high wall in the treasury & lowering down on a rope, then taking the dagger from a mannequin in a glass case in the center of a large gallery. Well, the Topkapi Dagger is here all right, but like all the other objects on display it is in a vault built into the wall of a room with a relatively low ceiling with no windows & nothing in the center of the room. The dagger was actually made by the Turks as a gift to the Shah of Iran, but the Shah died before it was delivered so the Sultan kept it. Another notable item in that room is the Spoonmaker Diamond, one of the largest in the world at 86 carats. As our guide observed, anyone wearing this ring would need a retinue to hold up her hand. The name comes from a story that it was found in the ground by a poor man in the 17th Century who bartered it to a spoonmaker for a package of wooden spoons. I would show you pictures of all this, but photography is not allowed inside the Treasury. Here are some pictures on the outside of the treasury, and one of a very good replica of the dagger I found in the gift shop.
Across the courtyard from the Treasury is the Hall of Holy Relics, which contains some (really) unbelievable things. Again no pictures, but among the relics were an arm bone of John the Baptist, the sword of David, Moses’s staff, Joseph’s turban & Abraham’s cookpot. More believable are keys to the Kabaa in Mecca, several locks of hair from Muhammad’s beard along with his sword, sandals & footprint. There is a golden chest said to contain his mantle in a room you cannot enter but can look into. In that room imams have been reciting verses from the Koran 24 hours a day since the 16th Century! Most of these relics were obtained when the Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim conquered Egypt, Mecca & Medina. Here are some pictures of the outside of the Hall of Holy Relics.
A few other things of note in this area include the throne room (a building we walked past but did not enter) & the royal kitchens. I think the huge chimneys on top of the kitchen must be the roof structures where the thieves in the movie Topkapi went before lowering their rope into the Treasury next door. You can see these chimneys even from the water of the Golden Horn. We were told that there is a spectacular collection of 10,000 antique Chinese porcelain inside. Walking back from the Hall of Holy Relics to our meeting place in front of the Treasury I happened to notice some flowers behind a side path & thus we had a chance to see the beautiful Ahmet III tulip garden in the fourth courtyard. This was our only glimpse of the fourth courtyard because our tour did not go there.
So ended our visit to the Topkapi Palace. On the way out we passed the Tower of Justice once more & we boarded the bus in front of the Fountain of Ahmet III. I was not able to get a very good picture as I boarded the bus, but it was built in the early 18th Century & is inscribed with a lot of poetry (which English speakers cannot read, of course).
Before having lunch we visited the Grand Bazaar or Kapali Carsi (covered market). First built in the 15th Century on the site of a Byzantine marketplace (it was expanded a lot over the following centuries), this was the first shopping mall ever built. Similar to the Spice Bazaar, but much bigger, the grand Bazaar has some 4,000 shops set out in a maze of streets all under a roof. The shops are loosely grouped in different areas by what they sell. For example, the street that starts at the main entrance has several hundred jewelry stores (it used to be the hatmaker’s district), which always makes us wonder how they can all stay in business, selling similar products to the same customers right next to each other. As you can see below, this is a very colorful & bustling place, with shopkeepers constantly approaching you as you pass by to ask you into their shops. This behavior seems strange to people living in the West, since you would go into a shop that interested you with or without someone inviting you in. But one shopkeeper we met in Marmara, who had lived in Canada for a number of years, told us that when he looked in the window of a Canadian store & no one came out to invite him inside he felt like they didn’t like him or weren’t interested in his business. So, perceptions differ according to your social upbringing I guess.
We left the Grand Bazaar after about 45 minutes without seeing most of it (way too big for that length of time) & went for lunch in a very nice Turkish restaurant. Then we went to the Hagia (aye-yah) Sofia.
Hagia Sofia started life as a church, the grandest in Constantinople (& really in the world for many years). It was built in the 6th Century by the Emperor Justinian I after a previous church had been destroyed during riots. It was converted to a mosque on the day the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 & all of its Christian frescoes and mosaics were plastered over (which is one reason why they are in such good shape today). In 1934 the building was converted into a museum.
First we entered a large entrance hallway called the interior Narthex, where the guide spent way too much time talking about the church, while I wandered around impatiently taking pictures. One large mosaic, of which I took a blurry picture (sorry) is called the Donation Mosaic. Dating from the 11th Century it depicts Mary with Jesus on her lap while Constantine on the right presents her with a model of his city & Justinian on the left presents her with a model of his church (at that time with no minarets but with a cross on top). In addition to other, simpler religious mosaics, there is an impressive painted ceiling and wall decorations of marble panels. Notice that these are butterfly panels like we saw in Ephesus, split and opened to left & right like a sandwich or a butterfly’s wings to make a symmetrical pattern from the natural marble grain.
We entered the main vestibule through the Imperial Gate, which was reserved solely for the Emperor. Here is a picture of the mosaic above it called “The Mosaic of Christ with Emperor Leo VI.” It seems that after Leo VI’s first three wives died without an heir he married his mistress, Zoe Carbonospina (“Black Eyes”), who was the mother of his son. He was excommunicated by the Patriarch and barred from Christmas services in 906 AD. Here he seems to be seeking forgiveness by prostrating himself before Jesus; Mary and the Archangel Gabriel are the figures in the circles on either side. This was whitewashed over by the Ottomans & only rediscovered in 1933.
The vast interior of this building is quite overwhelming. The inside is undergoing restoration & the entire left side was covered by scaffolding, but it was amazing nonetheless. Notre Dame cathedral would fit inside this dome, which is 185 feet height and 105 feet in diameter.
The apse has stained glass windows and a large mosaic of Mary with the infant Jesus in the semi-dome above it. On the right side is a minber, a staircase leading up to a pulpit where the imam speaks (actually he stands on the stairs, leaving the top for Muhammad). And in the back, just off center to the right, is a large door that is the mihrab, indicating the precise direction of Mecca, flanked by two giant candles. You will also notice the 24 foot wide medallions mounted on each column. There are eight in all, added in the 19th Century, bearing the names of Allah (on the right of the apse), Muhammad (on the left of the apse) & other revered early Muslim fathers. They are made of wood wrapped in leather.
One more thing to note on the ground floor is the group of eight pillars, two in each corner, that were looted from the Temple of Artemis that we looked at in Ephesus. There were actually many more pillars in that temple, & I don’t know who got the rest (although some parts of the temple were incorporated into the nearby Basilica of St. John, also now in ruins).
So then we went upstairs for a different view from above. Still spectacular.
So that was it. We returned to the ship where, because we had added a number of passengers in Istanbul, we had a lifeboat drill, so that everyone will know where their lifeboat is in case of emergency. This isn’t much fun when it is cold out. I could show some pictures from the sailaway, but the weather hadn’t changed so they don’t look much different from when we sailed in, & this episode has gotten too long anyway. So, we will see you next time in Athens.
Istanbul, Turkey (Day 1)
Istanbul is, of course, one of the great cities of the world, so it needs little introduction. It was founded by the Greeks in the 7th Century BC as the city of Byzantium. It was renamed Constantinople after the Roman Emperor Constantine, who moved his capital here in the 4th Century AD, and remained the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (known as the Byzantine Empire after the name the Romans abandoned, go figure) for more than 1000 years, long after Rome fell. In the middle of the 15th Century it was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who later changed the name to Istanbul. This is the only city that straddles the European & Asian continents, divided by the Bosporus, a waterway that connects the Sea of Marmara south of Istanbul to the Black Sea to the northeast of the city.
We entered the Dardanelles (the waterway connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara) before dawn on April 15, when all of you in the U.S. were getting ready to mail in your tax returns. We had hoped to catch a glimpse of Troy, which is now an archeological site on a hill not far from the water just before entering the Dardanelles. No such luck; we were still in bed when the ship passed that point & it was still dark then in any event, so even if Troy is visible with binoculars from a ship in daylight (which I don’t know) we couldn’t have seen it. But I was up in time to catch the lighthouses on either side of the entry to the Dardanelles.
We passed close enough to see the Turkish memorial to the battle of Gallipoli on the European side. Gallipoli was a World War I attempt by the Allies (mostly the idea of Winston Churchill, then Lord of the Admiralty) to take control of the Dardanelles, which would have given them a useful strategic inroad into Turkey. But it was a disaster for the Allies, as a huge number of ANZAC troops (Australian & New Zealander) were landed & slaughtered by the outnumbered Turks, who were dug in well on the shore. Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname Ataturk) was one of the Turkish commanders & I am told that on the monument is an unusually generous tribute from him to the allied troops who died here. The cruise through the Dardanelles in the early morning light was picturesque, with towns & ships & scenic views. We passed a 13th Century Turkish castle on the European side & another fortified point on the Asian side at a bend in the waterway. We then entered the Sea of Marmara for the remainder of the trip to Istanbul, and I went in for a shower & breakfast.
The previous night was a Turkish Dinner in the La Fontaine restaurant. The Prinsendam periodically has special nights in the restaurant, reflecting a country we are visiting or a holiday celebration, in which the restaurant is decorated, the wait staff wears costumes and sometimes the regional cuisine (or at least dishes given regional names on the menu) is served. It is a little silly but fun, so here are a couple of pictures of the Turkish dinner on April 14. Those of you acquainted with a small but adorable pooch named Ezme will be relieved to hear that she wasn’t actually on the menu.
In mid-afternoon on April 15 we finally approached Istanbul. Unfortunately it was a dreary, overcast rainy day & that weather would continue for our entire visit to Istanbul (we sailed out at about the same time on April 16). We sailed right past the Sultanahmet, which is the central part of the old town of Istanbul, so here are a few images from the ship of some of the more famous buildings, many of which we would visit later.
The most important sights in the old town of Istanbul are pretty close together & we had originally planned to walk around the city by ourselves. Then we learned that our one day in Istanbul would be the day Topkapi Palace is closed to the public each week. This was, to say the least, pretty irritating & we wondered what Holland America could have been thinking when scheduling our Istanbul stop for that day. Then we found out exactly what they were thinking. It turns out that, although it is closed to the public, Topkapi is open that day exclusively to tours sponsored by cruise ships. What a boon to cruise lines, since passengers have to pay for their excursions to get into the top sight in Istanbul! Which we did. The Istanbul tour was expensive, but it was a good tour & we saw all the most important places in just 24 hours (hard to believe, really, since there was so much). One thing we learned on this tour is that tulips originated in Turkey, and the first tulip bulbs in Holland were a diplomatic gift from the Turkish Sultan. It was Spring here, of course, and we saw a huge variety of colorful tulips all over Istanbul.
We were docked just across the Golden Horn (a large inlet that divides the European side of the city in two) from the Sultanahmet (the old town area), so it did not take too long to get there by bus (although the traffic in this city is really very bad). Our first stop was the Basilica Cistern, which you may have seen playing a prominent role in the early part of the James Bond movie “From Russia With Love.” Contrary to the movie, you enter the cistern from the street, not through a trap door in the office of British Intelligence. Built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century, its roof is supported by 336 columns 25 feet in height (although about a third of it is now walled off from view). It is a very impressive space, with eerie lighting of the columns in the darkness. Most of the pillars are in the water & visitors stand on wooden walkways.
Originally this entire space was filled to the top with water. After the Ottoman conquest it took about a century before they discovered the cistern, when they noticed people were getting water (and even fish) by dipping buckets through holes in the floors of their basements. The cistern contains some striking evidence of plundering of pagan temples for re-use. Two of the columns sit on huge recycled heads of Medusa placed here only for their structural value as large stones, one uside down and the other on its side. There are also a few pillars that look like they came from another structure.
Next we visited the Spice Bazaar, near the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn. Originally built during the 17th Century as an enhancement to the “New” Mosque, also built in the 17th Century, this is known locally as the Misir Carsisi (Egyptian Bazaar) because it was financed by duties on Egyptian imports.
The Spice Bazaar is a long L-shaped building with a curved ceiling that is lined with shops. Most sell spices and/or confections (particularly various kinds of Turkish Delight), but really there is a variety of colorful goods for sale. We had a good time exploring & tasting some of the goods.
Next we drove to the waterfront near our port for a sunset cruise on the Bosporus (although since the sun wasn’t visible there was no actual sunset involved). Pictures were difficult because the boat swayed & the windows reflected the light inside, although for a little while I could stand outside on the back. Nighttime pictures from a moving boat are bound to be less than stellar, but there were a few that may be worth looking at.
Until the 1970’s the only way to go from one shore to the other was by ferry, and there are still a number of very fast ferries crossing the Bosporus. But in 1973 they built the first of two suspension bridges over the Bosporus just above Istanbul (very necessary because the population of the city has exploded since then & the Asian side is occupied mostly by residential communities & many of these people work on the European side). The bridges are lighted at night & the lights constantly change color between red & blue, making a lovely view at night.
So that was it for April 15 & we went back to the ship for dinner, with an early morning the next day. At dinner we met our new tablemates. Istanbul was a major port for passengers disembarking and others joining the cruise. Our tablemates from almost the beginning of the cruise all left in Istanbul. Drusilla and Joyce are sisters (from New Orleans & Nebraska, respectively) who travel together each year, & we had enjoyed their company most evenings & had a very good time (even though our table for 8 usually had 4 empty seats). There was another couple assigned to our table, Jacov & Arita, who had immigrated to Toronto several decades ago from Russia, & they left the ship here to go to Odessa, where they had been born. But they ate in the Lido (buffet) restaurant most nights, so we only saw them occasionally. Our new tablemates were three couples who all boarded in Istanbul & left in Rome. Mike & Ginger are from California, Al and Sandy are from North Carolina & John & Karen are from Florida. We had a great time together. A few days after they all left in Rome another passenger told us that ours had been known in the dining room as “the fun table,” and it certainly was that. Please note that these pictures were all taken on “formal night,” of which this cruise has far too many. While these people all clean up pretty nice, this is not how any of us dressed when left to our own druthers.
Well, I was planning to cover Istanbul in one post since we were there for only 24 hours, but this one is already pretty long so I have decided to save the rest for another episode. So tune in then, since this city has some pretty unbelievable stuff.
Kusadasi & Ephesus, Turkey
We arrived in Kusadasi (pronounced Koo-zhya-da-see, with the rhythm of “Who’s your daddy”) on April 14. Yet another resort town, Kusadasi has a normal population of about 50 to 60,000, but in August it swells to a million. Fortunately for us, it wasn’t near August yet.
But the action around here is about 16 miles away at the archeological site of Ephesus (pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable). Those of you who have read the New Testament will be familiar with this name, since St. Paul spent a couple of years here trying to convert Ephesus’s large Jewish community and I believe he wrote an Epistle to the Ephesians after he left. He also wrote his first Epistle to the Corinthians here. Ephesus was the second largest city in the Roman Empire in the first 200 years AD, with a peak population of about 250,000 people. It was founded around 1000 BC, according to local lore by the Amazons (our guide assured us with a straight face that this is true). More likely it was by the Greeks, who did most of the founding in this region at that time (there is a legend about this version of the founding as well, but I won’t include it here). It was also a major port located on the Meander River (from which we derive the word, reflecting the river’s twists & turns). The river slowly silted up the harbor to the point where the city was abandoned (the decline had been helped along by a barbarian sacking in 263 AD). Today Ephesus is about 3 miles from the seacoast. Buried over the centuries by earthquakes, etc., Ephesus was not rediscovered until 1860 by British, German & Austrian archeologists (and many of its early treasures are in the British Museum and the Ephesus Museum in Vienna). Mark Twain visited 7 years later and was not impressed (at that time excavation had just begun so it was mostly pieces of marble strewn around the ground). Even today only about 15% of the city has been excavated. (Note: I have to give kudos to Rick Steves here; I would never have remembered everything in these pictures more than 2 weeks later, not to mention the official names of and information about everything, without his guide).
We had arranged for a private guide, Alex, to take us through Ephesus (no more expensive than the ship tour & much more interesting and uncrowded). Alex told us that in August Ephesus often gets 250,000 visitors a day, so we were pretty glad to be here in the off season. Ephesus is on a hill so most tours start at the top and go downhill, as ours did. At the top is the State (or Upper) Agora, a large open courtyard surrounded by covered shopping arcades. At one side was the Stoa Basilica. A basilica is a building with a large central hall and narrower side halls. Today we think of a basilica as a church, but before Christianity such buildings were meeting houses or merchant houses.
Ephesus had one of the most sophisticated waterworks systems in ancient times, with water directed from the hills to cisterns at the top of the hill, then distributed through the city with clay pipes. Next to the Basilica is the Odeon, an indoor theater (it had a wood roof) seating about 1500 for plays and concerts. It also was the meeting place for the city council. When found in 1860 all but the top seats were under ground.
The Prytaneion was the seat of city administration by a committee of six priests. The remaining pillars of this building contain a lot of ancient Greek writing which I can’t read, of course (maybe some of you can). Not far away were two pillars with reliefs on them looking in different directions. This was a directional sign in polyglot Ephesus; on the left is Hermes, god of merchants (among other things) looking toward the market, and on the right Asklepios, who symbolized medicine, facing a pharmacy. I should note here that many of the statues & reliefs here are reproductions of items that have been removed to a museum, but the copies are good enough that I couldn’t tell which were real and which were not.
Soon we came to the Temple of Domitian (a Roman Emperor in the 1st Century AD). This was a huge two story temple, but little remains today beyond the two levels of two columns with statues on the top ones, although archeological work continues in this area. Across Domitian Square from the temple is a frieze of Nike giving a wreath of victory to the Romans, which once topped a gateway. There is a restored archway that once topped a public water fountain (rich folks had indoor plumbing, but ordinary people got their water from the fountain). From this area was a dramatic overview of most of Ephesus.
We passed through the Hercules Gate, with pillars on both sides displaying relief statues of Hercules. And we saw Trajan’s Fountain, which once had a large statue of the Emperor Trajan in the center. There were a lot of cats around here, including one sitting on a pedestal as if he were part of a Roman artifact.
Near the bottom of the hill were some large and elaborate mosaics that were part of a sidewalk by an upscale shopping mall.
Nearby is the Temple of Hadrian (yet another Roman Emperor, whose works we have encountered before). It has friezes of Medusa & Hadrian’s boyfriend Antinous who died young.
Remember I mentioned that ordinary people did not have indoor plumbing? Well, this is where they gathered (yes, gathered) to eliminate their bodily wastes. It was something of a social event, like gathering at a tavern, and the men were in no hurry to leave. Water constantly flowed beneath the seats to flush the waste & also flowed in the trough in front of the seats to wash with. There was a wooden roof covering the 40(!) seats, but the courtyard was open.
Now we come to the fabulous Terrace Houses. This is an active archeological dig at a block of 7 houses of relatively wealthy citizens. You walk through on a scaffolding walkway with glass floors that enable you to look at the work being done below. We were there on Sunday and no one was working (not sure why, since this isn’t a Christian country) but we could see the work that was in progress. This area is full of mosaics, frescoes & ancient rooms. There is a separate entry fee so a lot of visitors don’t go here, but it seems to us they are missing one of the best parts of Ephesus.
I think the easiest way to do this is to look at things by category. One of the most interesting things being done here is piecing back together the small pieces of marble and stone found in the various rooms. In the first house we visited there were slabs of marble on the wall that had been pieced back together & several large tables filled with pieces currently being worked on. It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle, but with no picture of the finished product to guide you. It seems impossibly complicated, but the finished pieces prove it can be done. This room was a marble dining room, and more than 120,000 fragments of marble have been found.
We saw quite a few frescoes on walls (original I think, but perhaps restored like the marble, I’m not sure). One wall with a duck & a fish was a kitchen. I will show a bunch of them here & label them with what little I know about them.
There was a large variety of floor mosaics in decorative patterns, some of which look like something you could see in a modern rug or upscale kitchen.
Even better than the patterned mosaics were the mosaics on floors and walls with pictures. I will use the same approach with these, putting them all together with information in the captions.
There was a stone table with a game board etched in the top in one of the houses. I think the guide might have said this board was for Backgammon, but Mary doesn’t think so.
Then there were several other views of rooms I thought were interesting, even if I don’t remember their importance.
Leaving the Terrace Houses we came to another big item for library fans: the Library of Celsus. It was originally built as a mausoleum to (who else?) a guy named Celsus in 123 AD by his son. It was the third largest library in the ancient world with 12,000 volumes, after the libraries of Alexandria & Pergamon (but since we learned earlier that Marc Antony gave Cleopatra the Pergamon library, perhaps that made this one number 2). The library facade was restored in the 1970’s, mostly by piecing the rubble back together again.
The columns on the first floor are 40 feet tall. There are three large doorways & 4 statues in niches surrounding them (these are copies of the originals, which are in museums). It must have been quite beautiful in its day. On one of the top steps a crude menorah is etched into the marble, now protected by a metal box frame. Ephesus had a large Jewish community that apparently lived peacefully with the Romans.
Right next to the library on its left is a triple arch gate that was once part of the library complex & led to a lecture hall (rebuilt in 1989, you can see part of this gate on the right in the first 3 pictures of the library above). It was built by Mazaeus and Mithridates, two slaves who became wealthy after being freed by their master Emperor Augustus. Their names are inscribed in bronze on the gate.
Next we come to one of the oldest structures in Ephesus (so far, since much is yet to be uncovered), the Great Theater. Originally built by the Greeks between 300 and 100 BC (and expanded much later by the Romans), this is one of the largest amphitheaters yet found, holding about 25,000 people. The acoustics are good enough that performers don’t need microphones. Many modern concerts have been held here (Pavarotti sang without a microphone) but now work is being done to protect the theater from being damaged from vibrations. The New Testament relates a story about St. Paul that takes place here (Acts 19). Next to the bottom of the stairs into the theater on the left is a fountain where theater patrons could refresh themselves.
Finally, here is the Harbor Road. This was a wide thoroughfare lined with covered sidewalks with street lamps & shops selling goods from all over the known world. This was the main thoroughfare, where processions were held & people went to see & be seen. It ran from the theater to the harbor, which was on an inlet from the sea but is now long gone as the seacoast has receded some three miles.
Leaving Ephesus, we drove to nearby Selcuk, which is essentially the spot where the Ephesians built their new town when they abandoned Ephesus. There is a museum here that contains many of the best artifacts removed from Ephesus, but sadly it was closed for renovation. But in Selcuk we saw a ruin that Alex told us was the first bathhouse built by the Turks in Anatolia (ie. the original Turkish Bath). And we also visited what is left of the ancient Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. This temple, built by the Ephesians who worshipped Artemis before their conversion to Christianity, was the largest building erected by the ancient Greeks: five stories high and three times the size of the Parthenon in Athens. Built in 550 BC, this was a place of pilgrimage and a valuable source of tourist income for the Ephesians. But the temple was destroyed for good in 401 AD on the orders of Christians trying to eliminate paganism, and its marble parts were scavenged to build Christian buildings, including the Basilica of St. John that stood nearby. Scavenging finished marble pillars & stones from ancient buildings for Christian churches was pretty common in this period; we will see some of the pillars from the Temple of Artemis in Istanbul. All that is left of this once great temple is a single, lonely looking, reconstructed pillar in an open field.
We had time after returning to the dock for a pleasant walk through Kusadasi. As is usual in tourist ports, the area around the dock is full of touristy vendors & shops but if you walk even a few blocks into the town you can encounter a real city. We walked up a steep hill and on the other side of it was a more real shopping and restaurant district. Among the things we saw were the Caravanserai (now a hotel) and a statue of a “world famous” jazz trumpeter named Maffy Falay I had never heard of, who came from Kusadasi. As elsewhere in Turkey, water pipes were seen in local cafes.
And so we left Kusadasi & fascinating Ephesus & set sail for our last Turkish stop: Istanbul.
Our second stop on the Turquoise Coast, was the resort town of Marmaris, where we arrived on April 13.
While it has a history extending to ancient times an earthquake in 1957 destroyed most of the old town so there is little of interest to see. Herodotus says there was a fortification here in 3000 BC, and in Greek times this was the Dorian city of Physcus. When Alexander the Great invaded, the 600 townspeople piled all their valuables in their castle, set it on fire & fled for the hills. Our old friend Suleiman the Magnificent built the current castle in the 1520’s & it is really the only interesting landmark here. The legend is that Marmaris got its name when Suleiman upon viewing the castle declared “Mimar as!” which means “Hang the architect!”
We walked around the yacht harbor (one of Turkey’s largest) to the seafront boulevard, which is lined with restaurants.
The best thing there was a huge statue of an octopus. There was also a fountain of children playing. & a statue of fishermen.
We walked around the castle, although it was closed to the public so we couldn’t go in or visit the maritime museum inside. I think Suleiman was pretty much right about the architect, although the punishment he chose seems harsh.
We saw the obligatory statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (for those unacquainted with Turkey he was the founder of the modern state after World War I & is revered in this country; his statues are everywhere), & they were having a small festival nearby to celebrate the 168th anniversary of the Marmaris police force.
Then we strolled around this pleasant but not very interesting town for a while. It looks like a nice place to come on your vacation for watersports & has lots of shops & restaurants, but that’s really about it.
So, we walked back along the waterfront, where we saw some colorful boats with reflections in the very blue water, and returned to the ship, hoping for a more interesting time the next day in Kusadasi. To find out if we did, you will have to tune in to the next episode.