Saturday, December 19, 2015

Flying to Byzantium

We’re in Asia. In the airport on the Asian side of Istanbul, to be exact. It looks pretty much the same as the airport on the European side (though we had to go through TWO security checks here, with just enough time to repack our toiletries and computers in between), but we’re about to fly to Cappadocia, which should be very different indeed.

In the meantime, Istanbul.
Phil was so astonished at this glorious city that, so far, he has tripped over cobblestones, fallen off curbs, and walked into a metal pole. It’s forgivable – Istanbul is quite astonishing. Our hotel had a view of the Blue Mosque from its terrace.  At night – when we arrived – seagulls circled its minarets , wheeling and flashing white in the moonlight. After settling into our room, we strolled
out and stared agog at the Mosque and, facing it on the opposite side of the square, the Hagia Sophia, built as a church in the time of Justinian and Theodora and repurposed as a mosque when Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453.

We found a seafood restaurant with a roof terrace, enticed in by the owner, who told us his seafood was the freshest and promised us free baklava. The food was good, and we fell into bed and slept for ten hours – awakened briefly, at dawn, by a very loud call to prayer from the minarets of the Blue Mosque. It went on seemingly for hours; every time we dozed off thinking surely it was over, it would start up again.

In the daylight, after a big and delicious breakfast, we visited the two mosques. The Blue Mosque, built in 1609 by Ahmet I, is still used for worship, so we had to remove our shoes (the floor is piled with enormous rugs) and I had to cover my head to enter. Its interior is massive, with the blue tiles that give it the name visible high overhead and every inch of the interior ornamented with designs in paint or colored stone.  Worshippers were visible in the front section; tourists were confined to the rear.

We walked across the square, passing a dozen dogs sleeping in the grassy sections. We’d noticed these dogs – mostly lab or shepherd mixes – the night before, and learned that Istanbul has, for hundreds of years, had a problem with large numbers of stray dogs. After the city sent a thousand or more to execution in the 1930s, outraged citizens forced officials to take a different approach. Each stray is now spayed or neutered and vaccinated, microchipped with a medical history, and adopted unofficially by a person, family, or business that keeps an eye on it and feeds it regularly. The dogs are all sweet and placid and seem not to mind their oddly indeterminate status, even in the rain.
In the Hagia Sophia, we were even more stunned. Here, sixth-century Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman art decorated the soaring edifice with friezes, tilework, mosaics, paintings, and odd shields with Arabic writing on them. On the upper tier of the mosque/church, there are wonderful views of the lower level and glorious mosaics of Christian themes from the sixth century. We wandered around for a long time, looking upward until our necks ached and our stomachs told us it was lunchtime.

Not far from the main square we found the Grand Bazaar, also created by Mehmet II. It is a maze of alleyways beneath a beautifully painted roof, filled with stalls selling rugs, jewelry, scarves, leatherwork, glass, and ceramics. Every merchant in every booth tried to convince us to buy. Some of our favorite attempts:

                “Come in my shop! I’m not Osama bin Laden!”

                “Spend some money on your honey!”

                “You dropped something – oh, it was your smile!”

                “What else will you do with all your money?”
It was far more laid-back than markets in Morocco, though the merchants were somewhat desperate – between the off-season and terrorism, their business had been very bad. A certain amount of Christmas shopping was completed. We met a fascinating Syrian silversmith whose exquisite work harkens back to Sumerian cuneiform; he lamented the plight of his country and astonished us with his ability to name our astrological signs and exact birthdates.

We stopped in a kebab house and ate a huge lunch, and then Ben talked us into smoking a hookah (the family that smokes hookah together…well, is quite decadent). It was mint flavored tobacco, and Phil declared it “very relaxing.” I impressed all with my ability, left over from a misspent youth, to blow smoke rings.

After a rest in our room, we wandered out in search of dinner, and found a restaurant where we could sit outdoors under a heat lamp (it was about 50 degrees and damp). Phil ordered a dish he’d seen in a restaurant in New York – fish baked in a carapace of rock salt. It came enflamed, and with plenty of drama the waiter cracked the shell open and removed the moist, delicious fish. (The bill also included some drama, at least for me.)

The next day, fighting colds, we again slept late, and then headed off in the rain to the Topkapi Palace, which Mehmet II built for his residence when he took the city. It was the first place we visited that was crowded, but it was so gigantic that the crowds weren’t oppressive. In the museum section, we saw Moses’ rod (which parted the Red Sea), King David’s sword, part of John the Baptist’s arm, and bits of Muhammed’s beard. We passed through tiled, painted room after room, each more beautiful and extravagant than the last, including one meant only for storing turbans, with turban-shaped openings in the wall. Finally we moved into the harem, where the
caliph and all his wives, children, concubines, and eunuchs lived.  The eunuchs were assigned the task of guarding the harem.

In the afternoon we walked along the tram line to the Spice Market, another bazaar but this time focusing on spices, candies, and coffee. More presents were achieved. The smells of cumin and roasting coffee made us realize we were starving, so we walked to Galata bridge, linking the old part of the city, Sultanahmet, with the newer part. It curves over the point in the Sea of Marmara; on one side is the Bosporus and on the other the Golden Horn. The tram and cars drive over the top part of the bridge, and the bottom part is all seafood restaurants. We chose one and had an excellent meal,
stopping in the middle to go look in horror at the – flocks? pods? murders? – of jellyfish in the water.
We had a half day left in Istanbul, and we took full advantage, rising early (for us) and going out to see the Basilica Cistern from the time of Justinian, where the water for the palace was kept. It was amazingly well-preserved, strange and spooky and beautiful, and the water was full of giant carp. The dozens of columns that support its roof include one with a marble carving of Medusa; she is placed upside-down so as not to turn viewers to stone.

We passed by the carpet museum, and I had to go in; carpets play an important role in the book I’m working on. This is a new museum, and its exhibits of carpets from the 14th to the 18th century were gorgeously displayed.

There was time for one more visit; Phil and Ben went to the Mosaic Museum, while I carried on shopping at a tiny bazaar outside it. I’m a little sorry I missed it; it featured a huge mosaic that was the beautifully preserved floor of the great palace of the Byzantine emperors, dating from just before Justinian and Theodora. It covers nearly 2000 square feet and depicts exotic animals fighting and scenes of hunting, with 150 different animal and human figures.

Now we’re headed to the town of Urgup, which promises its own beauty, mostly natural. We could have spent a lot more time in Istanbul, finding it a fascinating blend of history, myth, and legend -- perhaps manifested mostly clearly in the fourth-century Column of Constantine, built by the Christian Roman emperor and said to have buried at its base the axe that Noah used to build the ark and the oil that Mary Magdelene used to anoint the feet of Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. I've always wanted to visit Turkey. You are inspiring me.

    We've been loving your blogging (and Phil's bewitching contribution.)
    Also, we've got a pile of movies and screeners for your return. So, before you take in any more movies contact us -- I'd give you a list but it's too long.
    Can't wait to see you.

    Joe, Janet, and Fiona