Big post coming up!
Just before I get into my day in Turkey, I want to share with you a picture of the people whom I spent Christmas with in Rome. Eddie, the guy on the right in the picture, send this to me just a few days ago. Sorry it's not very big.
Now, I got in to my hotel quite late last night after a day of travelling so was pretty tired, but was up early this morning as I had a very full day of sight-seeing in Istanbul. I was picked up from my hotel at around 8 where myself and an Indian family were taken to the main tourist area of Istanbul.
I actually don't know where to begin to explain what we saw – it is far too remarkable to describe in a blog post! I'll try to paint the picture. First of all, Istanbul is full of cats. And the cats aren't like the ones in Egypt, where I went a few years ago, where they are thin and full of wounds. No, these cats are well looked after so they lord around the place, preening their glossy coats in front of the tourists. The only thing stopping me from being a crazy old cat lady is the fact I am not old, so I was so, so, so tempted to sit in the middle of the cats and pat them all. Kind of sad, I agree!
Istanbul is also full of road works and renovations – I asked my tour guide about it and he said that every winter the city is full of work to make it better for the spring and summer, when thousands of tourists descend on the city. Indeed, I saw many gardeners and maintenance people throughout the day planting bulbs and fixing things.
I must admit here that I had imagined that Istanbul would be something like Cairo, with its crazy traffic and piles of rubble on the street and being constantly hassled to buy things. But I couldn't have been further from the truth. For starters, even with all the work going on, Istanbul is kept very clean. The gardens are meticulously cared for and to be honest, this city was far cleaner than most of the places I went to in Europe. Also, traffic is relatively calm – it's a welcome change after being in Italy, where I think because of keeping me alive as a pedestrian for 3 weeks my guardian angel is now ready to retire :)
Also, I feel far safer in Istanbul than I thought I would. In fact, again I feel safer here than I did in many European cities, particularly after nightfall. I went out to get dinner this evening and have not been treated so well by people on the street. I'm not talking about people being nice to me because they want me to buy things or eat at their restaurants, but I mean the men here make way for the women, people don't push you around and when I had to ask for directions, I had not been spoken to so courteously for many weeks.
So, it's pretty obvious that I am really impressed with this city. And I haven't even got to its history yet. Let's just say that when I get back home, all the books on Byzantine history be missing from my uni library. Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was called when it was founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD, has seen at least three distinct periods in history – the Byzantine times of the Eastern Roman Empire, The Ottoman Empire of the Middle Ages and the Republic of Turkey, founded by Ataturk in the 1920s.
So, this morning we started off by looking at some monuments that were brought to Istanbul in the times of Constantine, like obelisks from Egypt and monuments from Greece. What was interesting about these, apart from them being fascinating in their own right, was that they show how much lower the ground level was in Constantine's day. Today Istanbul is about 3 metres higher than it was back then, due to earthquakes that flattened many buildings and new foundations being laid on top.
We continued on into the Blue Mosque, which is certainly the largest mosque in Turkey and one of the largest in the world. From the outside, it kind of looks like a castle with its six minarets, from where the Imam calls the people to prayer. It looks very regal. On the inside the decorations are absolutely stunning – in Islam no icons are allowed either of Allah nor Muhammad so this is one of the reasons that the writing style of Arabic in mosques became so decorative – so it would become like a picture. Everything is symmetrical and floral – just beautiful.
The Blue Mosque functions as a mosque for Muslims today, so there were people there praying when we went in. Of course we had to remove our shoes and I had brought a scarf with me so I could cover my head.
From here we crossed the park and went to the building I was most looking forward to seeing – the Haghia Sophia (or Saint Sophia). This was built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD and was the centre for the Christian Roman Empire when it was completed. In 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by Mehmet, he turned it into a mosque and covered much of the Christian iconography and replaced it with Islamic writing. Nowadays it is a museum.
My first reaction when going in was to be awestruck by the Byzantine style mosaic decorations on the roof. The Venetians totally ripped off the Byzantine style with San Marco in Venice!! The mosaics are beautiful – and 1500 years old. Simply breathtaking.
My second reaction was a bit of a pang in my chest, to be honest. I run the risk of becoming politically incorrect here, but I want to be honest – to see the mosaics of various Christian saints and angels covered up, or the faces painted out and then giant paintings of Islamic calligraphy with the names of the Islamic Ottoman emperors placed over them, stirred a feeling of deep sadness in me. I will say no more than that I simply cannot view these actions of Mehmet and the successive Ottoman leaders with historical objectivity – my own identity is too much a part of what they attempted to destroy.
We spent quite a bit of time here. It was actually kind of funny because the Indian family I was with didn't know much about Christianity and were asking our tour guide who, bless him, not being Christian didn't know much either so I became a bit of a mini tour guide for a time. Not that I minded – I'm a microphone hog from way back.
After the Saint Sophia we went to the Topkapi Palace, which was where the Ottoman Sultans lived. This is an amazing complex. It's remarkably well preserved and still maintains all its beauty. One of the most amazing parts we saw where the jewels and precious objects of the Ottoman empire. If you've been reading for a while you'll know how much I love these kinds of things, so when we saw the famous Spoonmaker diamond, the largest diamond in the world, our tour guide laughed at my excitement. This diamond is 85 carats and is the size of a pear – I challenge anyone to look at this thing and not get excited!
We then stopped at a local art school that was founded about 500 years ago and still has lessons in traditional Turkish arts – calligraphy, mosaicking and such. They have a room there where we ate the most delicious lunch of Turkish delicacies. It was here we also had a great conversation about Turkey and its bid to become part of the European Union. I've heard a lot of Europeans' views on this on my trip – the vast majority don't want Turkey to be a part. And judging from the tour guide today, there are definitely Turks who don't like the Europeans' attitude, so there's a powder keg waiting for a spark. We also talked lots about Australia – I love my country more than ever and love to answer questions about it, but I swear if one more person remarks how humbling and unusual it must be for an Australian to be around beautiful and older (thus therefore better) cultures, I may not be so courteous in my response.
This afternoon we went to the Turkish and Ottoman Fine Arts museum where we saw beautiful Turkish carpets up to 800 years old. This museum is also known for its collection of richly decorated Korans too. So I think I saw over 200 of them in about an hour.
By this time I was feeling a little tired but was a bit skeptical when our tour guide suggested we take a break for a 'presentation' of 15 minutes and a drink before continuing. Never, never believe that there is anything such as a mere 'presentation' on these tours. Sure enough, we were shown to a luxury carpet factory where for the next hour the guys there tried to sell carpets to the Indian family in our group. They didn't bother with me – I certainly didn't look like I had $5,000 to spend on a rug. So I sat back and watched the scene unfold before me. It reminded me of that time in Egypt with the guys with the spices – my family will remember this!
As I predicted, we left with nothing but the tea they had provided us with in our bellies and a disappointed seller :) We then made our way to the Grand Bazaar, where there are over 3000 stalls of various beautiful things. We didn't have much time here but I actually have a free day tomorrow so I am going to go back to have a proper look. I can foresee that my purse may not like me for this!
So, all in all a jam-packed and fun day today, along with a huge dose of history. Tomorrow should be more relaxed – I'll go back to the bazaar for a little while and then tomorrow night I have an overnight bus to Urgup, for the next stage of this Turkish adventure!
Here's some pics.
The Blue Mosque
Inside the square of the Blue Mosque
Inside the Saint Sophia
The view from the back of the Saint Sophia