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.