Sunday 1st June
Today we see the three main tourist attractions in Istanbul: Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia.
Before we head to Sultanahmet Square we have breakfast in the restaurant. And who do I meet in the lift on the way up? Only a couple from Palmerston North (the closest city to my folks place).
In the restaurant I am greeted by a true array of foods. I automatically gravitate towards familiar choices. I select two croissanty type things with jam and some cereal with yoghurt. Back at my table I give myself a reality check. New country, new experiences. I down the original selection (obviously) then go back to the buffet and get a little bit of every unrecognisable food. On the one plate I end up with some kind of meat that closely resembles dog roll, shredded purple cabbage (I think), some balls of cereal similar in taste to cocoa pops and in look to rabbit poo, some kind of crumbly feta-ish cheese and a kind of pea and carrot mix with dressing. Now I can’t claim to have eaten it with vigour but at least I tried it all.
Leaving the hotel it is drizzling outside. I forgot to pack a jacket and didn’t entertain the thought of bringing an umbrella. The rain gets heavier and Shaggy offers me his umbrella. I’m not about to refuse. It doesn’t do anything for my sandled feet though and they are quickly soaked through. We queue up with the rest of the world for the Blue Mosque. During Shaggy’s briefing this is what I learn:
- Built in the 17th century at the order of 14 year old Saltan Ahmet I. The building was finished deliberately in 1616 to coincide with the saltan’s 16th birthday.
- It is the only mosque in the world with six minarets, most others having four. This was more of a status symbol than anything.
- Minarets once served a functional purpose as the prayer-callers scaled the stairs five times daily to shout the message.
- Before prayer Muslims must do their ablutions in the fountain outside. Physical cleanliness is paramount but this also allows time for mental cleansing too.
- The Blue Mosque is called so because of the colour of the interior rather than the colour of the exterior which is a greyish blue.
- The interior is adorned with beautiful blue tiles. The designs are floral, particularly focusing on the tulip (native to this part of the world), carnation and rose.
- Inside, the main hall is red carpeted and every one or so metres there’s a darker red strip running the length of the hall designed so that everyone is evenly spaced for prayer.
- The main hall is where the men pray. Women pray in the rooms at the back which are much smaller. This is because many Muslim women are housewives and they pray at home.
- The direction of prayer, as for every mosque, is towards Mecca (Saudi Arabia) the most sacred and holy place in Islam.
- In all mosques there are no human images of any kind allowed. Most paintings are Arabic calligraphy.
Entering the mosque I feel a little like a sheep at the cattle yards. There are several staff in the production line continually telling us “move on, come forward, move on, don’t stop”. We must take off our shoes and cover up. I am wearing a maxi skirt and have my shoulders covered. I am given a scarf (actually just a piece of blue linen) to wear around my hair, and to my surprise also find one wrapped around my waist (literally, someonw does it for me as I am figuring out my headpeice) as it turns out the splits in my skirt are not acceptable. I would like to say I went on a spiritual excursion. I did try. But it wasn’t my day. I don’t know that anyone would have been able to get past the hum of awing travellers and the continual snapping of cameras. But this didn’t detract from it’s beauty. After Shaggy’s spiel about the interior we have about 15 minutes to get the best photos we can. The tiling is stunning and I can’t help but marvel at the talent and precision that went into constructing something so architecturally challenging and ornate all those years ago. I find it hard to take a good shot as the domes, the sheer size, the proliferation of tourists plus the fact that I am an untalented photographer mean I leave the mosque hoping the scenery stays etched clearer in my mind than it does in my photographs.
A short walk and we are at Topkapi Palace. A huge stone building that was once the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years. It is only partially open for tourists but still, it is a pretty big estate for being in the city centre. At its peak the palace was home to 4000 family and staff. Today it has been converted to a museum with relics on display from the 14-1800s. I trail the rooms truly amazed at the craftsmanship behind the pieces. I see the biggest diamond I have ever seen – 86 carats! Rubies, emeralds and diamonds are encrusted on everything from gold plated crockery to sword handles to cradles. One interesting thing I learned was that many of these items are gifted to important figures after they have died.
Next up is Hagia Sophia, the fourth biggest church in Christianity (the largest at the time of building) and the oldest in the world, built over 1500 years ago. The church was constructed during the Roman Empire and converted to a mosque after it’s collapse. It is a fascinating collision of Christianity and Islam with the huge central dome lending itself nicely to both religions. Today it is not used for anything other than a profit-churning tourism venture.
When the church was originally transformed the Muslims plastered over the Christian figures painted within. Unintentionally they preserved the artworks and during the restoration the plaster was peeled back to reveal the original paintings.
Now, in the main church hall we see these paintings as well as eight circular artworks displaying Arabic calligraphy in green and gold. Throughout the rest of Sophia, the paint work is yellow, blue and red. I admire the imperfect circular archways, a stark contrast to the symmetry at the Blue Mosque.
The main part of our day is now complete and we bus to Turkey’s capital, Ankara, about five hours drive. At our lunch stop I sample gozleme which is a Turkish pancake; a roti-like bread filled with either cheese or potato. I go with the cheese and decide I quite like it. We check into Hotel Ankara and settle in for the night.