Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Istanbul: The Sights

Any reservations we had about Istanbul evaporated after several revealing days of taking in the city’s sights. They were beautiful and exotic and we enjoyed each one.

First up on our agenda was a casual luncheon cruise on the Bosporus for a magnificent view of the city from sea level and an afternoon heading up to and back from the Black Sea. The day was sweltering as we were transported to our little excursion boat in a so-called “air-conditioned” van that would have been cooler had we rolled down all the windows. As we’d already learned back at the Princess Diana, Turkish AC has no resemblance to the icicle-producing jets of cold air we’re used to. It merely circulates the hot air with the goal of making you think you’re cooler as the sweat continues to trickle. Simply put, Turkish air conditioning is what is commonly known as a fan.

Our boat ride underway, the Bosporus breeze lowered the temperatures and we enjoyed a tasty paper-plated lunch of kebabs and rice and were kept company by dozens of graceful dolphins that played in our wake. The broad, critical waterway slices transcontinental Istanbul, which straddles both Europe and Asia, in two. One-third of the population lives on the larger, eastern, Asian side but the western piece is home to the bulk of the population and is the city’s cultural heart. After an hour and a half of cruising north past sumptuous palaces followed by wooden mansions and the Selimiye Barracks (where Florence Nightingale worked during the Crimean War), we disembarked in the harbor of a nondescript little fishing village, climbed up the steep hill behind it and gazed out over the vast, storied Black Sea. And all at once it hit me: we had landed on the eastern shore of the Bosporus and were now in Asia! Our gap year has taken us not only to Europe but to Africa and Asia as well.

The following day, not having done adequate Istanbul homework to venture forth effectively on our own, we joined a small tour group to take in the city’s highlights. We found ourselves under the guidance of Tahir, a delightful young man from the area, and part of a remarkable cultural stew: a French-speaking woman from Quebec who ran a relief organization in Nairobi, Kenya and lived there with her 16-year-old daughter; her husband, originally from Saskatchewan, who headed up a refugee agency in Khartoum, Sudan; a woman from Bangalore, India in town for a regional meeting of the World Economic Forum; and, a young Filipino couple who worked in Dubai. We were an impromptu set of international visitors ready for a few days in Istanbul.

Sightseers know the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, built in the early 1600s, as the Blue Mosque, so named for its exquisite interior blue tiles. With its six minarets and perfect cascade of domes, it is a magnificent piece of architecture. We passed by the ablution fountains outside the courtyard, I draped the requisite scarf over my head and we then slipped off our shoes before stepping barefoot onto the plush Turkish carpet along with the scores of other visitors. Despite the crowds, the cavernous chamber was hushed and the delicate morning light that streamed through the pastel stained glass windows added to the tranquility of the space. Every available surface was embellished with hand-painted blue, green and red tiles in graceful, flowery patterns. No human or animal images were in evidence since Islam forbids prayer in front of such since to do so would be a bit too close to idol worship. I’ve found the mosques we’ve visited generally more peaceful and conducive to contemplation than the many churches we’ve seen. They are lofty, light-filled places of prayer with no distracting statues of Saint Sebastian punctured by arrows, frescoes of bleeding, beheaded martyrs or dark paintings of souls condemned to the fires of eternal damnation.

Our next stop was the neighboring Topkapi Palace, sprawling residence of Ottoman sultans, their mothers, sisters, wives and concubines in the harem and the bejeweled, golden-hilted dagger made famous by the 1964 caper film (Topkapi) starring Peter Ustinov and Melina Mercouri. Much of the palace’s enclosed space is dedicated to the presentation of priceless treasures and Islamic artifacts sitting on sumptuous velvet cushions behind thick vitrines. Just as in Croatia, where myriad macabre Catholic relics were displayed -- shards of saints’ bones and clips of their nails housed in hollow gold coffers in the shape of arms and feet -- so the sacred relics of Islam’s holy messengers were presented. Treasures such as a hair of Mohammed’s beard, a tooth, his sword and his cloak were similarly preserved in gilded and argentine receptacles. And I wondered in Istanbul as I had in Croatia about the authenticity of all these religious artifacts: who vouches for the provenance of such things? The sultan robes on display were close replicas of the priests’ vestments we’d also seen in Croatia: royal regalia of gilded thread and the finest embroidery. Was it any wonder that citizens and kings (like those of France in centuries past) became so wary of the “bedecked like royalty” clergy? In Croatia, each room of the convent treasury was vigilantly guarded by a genial, habited nun who we were told would have no problem physically pouncing on us should we attempt to take pictures or touch anything inappropriately. In the Topkapi Palace, armed guards from the Turkish military replaced the smiling sisters but I’m not sure with whom I’d rather tangle.

What is it that compels people to buy funny hats and ridiculous shirts on vacation and to actually wear them as if they were attractive? Perhaps its make them feel like locals but in reality they stick out like sore thumbs. Over the course of our travels we’ve seen so many tourists, especially bands of merry men off cruise ships, in silly looking sailor caps and black-and-white striped sailor shirts or cheap straw panamas with coordinating ribbons. They wear their new attire enthusiastically for the length of the holiday, but I’m certain that once home, it is relegated to the already existing piles of discarded accouterments from previous excursions. I imagined their lucky children and grandchildren as they picked through the heaps of discarded bonnets and chemises with delight as they prepared for Halloween and other dress-up occasions.

As we wandered the Topkapi Palace, I spied a troupe of several dozen weathered older women draped in black and wearing navy and white baseball caps atop their headscarves. Well, that’s a unique look, I thought, and while happy to see that the women were out and about, wondered, given their hats, if they could possibly be off one of the massive cruise ships docked in the Bosporus. Tahir told me when I asked that they were actually peasant women from rural Turkey enjoying their first trip to see the top cultural and religious sights of Istanbul, paid for by a charitable foundation. Wow, I thought, their particular baseball caps are not silly at all and I was certain that once back on their farms, the women would continue to wear them proudly.

Around the corner from the palace, monumental Hagia Sofia (Holy Wisdom) rises at the end of what was the ancient Roman hippodrome. In the reverse of what took place in Cordoba where the victorious Catholic monarchs mutilated the mosque by dropping a basilica into the middle of the Islamic mezquita, the triumphant Ottoman Empire defaced the cathedral by turning it into a mosque. In both cases, the buildings should have been left alone, but alas, such is not the behavior of conquerors. In 360 Hagia Sofia was dedicated as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Constantinople, for a short time in the 13th century was a Roman Catholic Cathedral, was first transformed into a mosque in 1453 and finally was secularized as a museum in 1935. The echoing interior is a massive example of Byzantine architecture and was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years until Sevilla’s cathedral was built.

Lying beneath Istanbul are hundreds of dark cisterns that stored water for the emperors from the city’s days as Constantinople. En route to the Grand Bazaar, we left the 90-degree temperatures of the streets to descend to the refreshingly cool depths of the grandest of them all: the Basilica Cistern, so called because it lay beneath a grand Byzantine public square (the original meaning of the word). Sometimes called the Sunken Palace because that’s exactly what it appears to be, the cistern covers almost two and a half subterranean acres and includes a procession of 336 marble columns. The symmetry and grandeur of the deep, cavernous structure, illuminated by atmospheric lighting, are really quite extraordinary. We walked along the raised wooden platforms, watched the slowly moving, ghostly carp silently guarding the waters and felt and heard the drip-drip-drip of moisture from the vaulted ceiling. In addition to being a welcome relief from the aboveground heat, visiting the cistern was an eerie, entirely unexpected and fascinating stop on our guided itinerary.

There are more than 3,000 shops in Istanbul’s celebrated Grand Bazaar. While merchants are indeed anxious to make a sale, shoppers are not subjected to undue pressure à la Morocco. A retailer may ask you once if you’d like to see some beautiful belts or shawls or carpets but then smile and let you go on your way when you shake your head and say, “No thanks.” The covered marketplace was considerably more modern than I expected and while many of the stalls were tiny niches overflowing with merchandise, others were bright, roomy showrooms with plenty of space for displaying their wares.

Our stay in Istanbul ended with another van-with-two-drivers transfer to the airport. One of our chauffeurs was a young man who, when we told him we were American, enthusiastically shared that he’d always wanted to go to the US – out west to Texas and to Dallas, specifically. He was a big fan of the late ‘70s television show and wanted to see the ranches and the horses and wear cowboy boots and a cowboy hat like JR Ewing. We wished him well in his quest to reach Dallas as he dropped us at the terminal and then headed for our hour-long flight to Cappadocia – Turkey’s particular version of the American West.

Pictures of our adventures:

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