Ottoman and Byzantine Treasures in Istanbul

Get comfortable...this is a long post.

Tuesday, June 24,2014 - addendum

The Welcome Dinner was over at 8:30, but we weren't very tired, so we decided to walk over to Istiklal Avenue, which begins just on the other side of Taksim Park (which is adjacent to our hotel). This is a 1 mile long stretch of all kinds of stores - everything from food to gold; the street is open only to pedestrians. It is brightly lit, and very loud. It had a similar vibe to the nighttime activity in Varanassi, India. And even at 9:00 it was packed and rockin'!

Chestnuts dipped in chocolate

Wednesday, June 25

The first actual day of touring with the group! Once again, perfect weather-wise. Every day has been in the mid-20s with nary a cloud in the sky.

Started out early in the morning to get to Topkapi Palace before all those darn tourists show up.  It was built in 1459 and was home to the Ottoman Sultans until the 1850s. It is the largest and oldest palace in the world to survive to this day. At some times, over 4,000 people lived there-- all to support the Sultan and the Palace.

There are many buildings (and hundreds of rooms) covering a large area.  Thus, it reminded us somewhat of the Forbidden City in Bejing. 

Of course, many rooms were expressly devoted to the harem. "Harem" comes from the same root word in Arabic that means "forbidden". The Sultan was the only male who could enter (thus the saying, "not even a male fly could get in"). At times, up to 1,000 women lived in this part of the palace.

Many of the rooms we saw were covered with beautiful tiles and/or painted scenes (which spanned several centuries and genres), and had carved wooden doors, many inlaid with mother-of-pearl and turquoise (Fun fact: "turquoise" means "Turkish stone" in French, because that is where the stones came through - the Turkish bazaars - on the way to Europe).

Much of the Palace is off limits due to restoration and renovation. Some of the rooms have been made into exhibits showing the royal jewels, clothing of some concubines, and relics - among which are Moses's staff and a sword of David. This is because Moses and David are Islamic prophets as well as Hebrew figures. Also, the Prophet Mohammed's sword, mantle, and footprint!   No photos allowed in these areas, so you'll have to take our word for it. Are these the real items? Who knows.

One end of the complex has a beautiful view as it overlooks the Bosphorus Strait.
(Note: we are wearing our "whisper" devices; they allow us to hear the tour guide even from far away.)

Next, after a short bus ride through some amazingly narrow streets, we got out at the Grand Bazaar. This has been a major market in the city since the middle of the 1400s! (It has been expanded several times since it was built.)  Today it has over 5,000 shops/stalls! Imagine Woodfield on steroids. 

And, like the old city streets themselves, the stores are, for the most part, arranged in corridors by the goods they sell. So there is the leather area, the jewelry area, the scarves area, etc.  

And plenty of tchotchkes areas. 

And this is the place where you have to haggle. The salesmen are pretty aggressive ("Lady, you like this coat, I make you a special price."), as they follow you along. Must be tough to earn a living here.  We bought one small ceramic item and got the price down from 45 TL to 30. Not bad.  It used to be the place where the locals went, but for the last few decades the tourists have taken over.  The group was free to be on their own at this point, so we walked around for about 30 minutes. At that point, even Wendy had had enough!

Time for lunch; the group tour part of the day was over. We walked back to the same area as yesterday's lunch; on the way spotted this sign in a store window:
Lost in translation? Or a paradox? 

....and ended up at another sidewalk café where we ordered "Turkish pizza".  Mozzarella, tomato sauce, peppers, onion, and pastrami!   
Quite tasty!

Then we decided to take the tram back to the hotel instead of the taxi. It was cheap, smooth...and quick (no traffic!).

The group was scheduled to meet at 4:00 for a boat ride across the Bosphorus, a visit to a family's house (complete with commentary), and then dinner at a "local" restaurant; followed by a boat ride back.  Wayne wasn't too excited about the boat rides, and we've done the "house tour" before (in Viet Nam and China; okay...we are a bit jaded), so we decided to head off on our own.  We wanted to see the Ortakoy neighborhood.  This is another waterside area with shops and a lot of kumpir (stuffed baked potato - salad-bar) stands...

 ...and stuffed waffle stands.

You select what you want (from candied fruit, fresh fruit, halvah, nuts, coconut, several kinds of sprinkles, and 9 kinds of sauces, including Nutella, chocolate, strawberry, and pistachio), and they pile it on and then roll it into a cone. Must be seen to be believed. And it's quite a cultural treat to see women in full burqas eating one of these!

We had pre-arranged a visit to the Etz Hayim Synagogue, and after asking a few people we found it in one of the narrower streets. This one had a double-man-trap door and a full body-wanding / pat-down security check. They took our passports and held them until we left.

It was built in the 1700s and has been rebuilt several times, most recently in the '90s. The Shammas only spoke Hebrew and Spanish, so we did not learn much from him.  

Next we walked over to the Büyük Mecidiye Camii Mosque, which sits right on the water's edge. It was built in 1856.

Very beautiful...and it had a soft rug that would look good in our house (too big to get into our carry-on though!).

At this point, we decided to "divide and conquer" (as we were truly in the Ottoman mode) so Wendy took an hour long Bosphorus cruise (for locals, not tourists) and Wayne hung out.  The sights were beautiful-- we cruised under two bridges, past some luxury yachts and homes, several mosques, a military high school and a fortress. 

The ride was sunny and pleasant and punctuated by families of all shapes and sizes-- most were munching on the ubiquitous seeded pretzels and other snacks (including kumpir and waffles). 

While Wendy was on the boat, Wayne took this picture of a man at a café relaxing with his hookah and iPad. Old meets new!

After the cruise (upon the recommedation of a new friend from the Topkapi Palace, transplanted Chicago yuppie Todd), we dined at Banyan--how appropriate to eat Asian Fusian in Istanbul!  The presentation and flavors were outstanding.  We started with wonderful rolls and marinated hot peppers (called Hint Turgusu), 

Next up was samosas stuffed with ground meat. Very spicy, but cooled somewhat by the cucumber ribbons that accompanied it.   

Then Wayne had Singapore noodles with vegetables and chicken....
...while Wendy opted for the wok sea bream Thai style with chili.

Both were phenomenal -- the best sea bream we've had in Turkey by far!  We finished off with the (always a hit) molten chocolate with ice cream, and headed back to the hotel and put our feet up after a long and great day of exploring.
One downer: there is clearly NOT a "No Smoking" policy in Turkish restaurants. Most of the people there (natives, we assume) were smoking heavily.

Thursday, June 26

Today's tour started at the Hippodrome.
Note: the picnic tables are not normally there. They are here now because Ramadan starts this Sunday, and people come here each day after sundown to break their fast in a community gathering.

This was where sporting contests, especially chariot races (hence the name - "hippos" - horse), were held by the Byzantines in the 4th century AD. It also contains two obelisks, one which was carved from pink granite and originally erected at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor during the reign of Tuthmosis III in about 1490 BC!!

Next we walked into the giant Blue Mosque, which is right next to the Hippodrome. The actual name of the mosque is Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but it has its nickname from the many blue tiles which cover the interior walls. Of course, proper attire was required, as demonstrated by this helpful sign and a local woman.

It was built in the early 1600s and incorporates elements of Byzantine Christian and Ottoman architecture. It is still in use today, and visiting is stopped one hour before each prayer time.  From the outside, to our untrained eyes, it looks an awful lot like the Suleymaniye Mosque we saw three days ago.

After that we walked to a café where we got to sit in the shade (it is in the upper 20s today) and were given glasses of cool raspberry juice. Aaaahhhhh!!!! They also had this placard on the table:

Our next stop was Hagia Sophia.

This huge, imposing building was originally the seat of Christianity when it was built in 537! (The prior church on this site had previously burned down.)  It served in this capacity for over 900 years, until, within the space of 3 days, it was turned into a mosque. It was used that way until the 1930s when it was repurposed as a museum. 
Note: the chandeliers, with their glass globes, are original from the 6th century. They were recently extensively cleaned (some can still be seen with the glass all blackened) thanks to a donation by Ben Afleck! This was a generous gift of thanks because much of Argo was filmed in Istanbul.

There are several amazing mosaics still visible. These, and a painting of an angel, were covered of course during the period when it was a mosque-- no human or animal images are allowed inside one.

Then, back to the café for an unnecessarily large group lunch: first, a crepe filled with veggies, then a salad with lettuce, tomato, corn, carrot slivers, and marinated red cabbage. That was followed by a grilled chicken breast over spinach with French fries, and a dessert of baklava, a candied apricot, and a candied fig. What? No chicken breast pudding? It was all very tasty, but not blog-worthy for photos.

Our final stop was the Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred cisterns that still are below the city.

It was built in the 6th century to store water piped in via the Roman aqueduct, and remained in use for hundreds of years, but then was all but forgotten until 1985 when it was cleaned and refurbished and opened as a museum. Though it still has water in it (and many huge carp) the water is not used for anything.

While we were there we were fortunate to be granted a private audience with the current Sultan and his favorite wife:

Most impressive!

That was the end of today's touring. So it was back to the hotel to rest up for dinner.

With the help of the hotel concierge we decided to go to Yakub 2 for mezze. Mezze is the same as Spanish tapas; lots of small plates. He told us it was about a 20 minute walk, but that it would be hard to find. That, plus the fact that it is so hot out made it an easy decision to take a taksi. Oy! The heavy traffic!!! The driving tactic of these cabbies seems to be a) go 40 mph for 20 feet, b) slam on the brakes, c) switch lanes narrowly missing one car and cutting off another, d) repeat.  Aiiyeeee!!!!  After about 15 minutes he turned off back into the Pera neighborhood (where we had our walking tour on Tuesday). He went down one narrow street, then turned into another narrower one, then stopped and asked for directions (we were sure he was going to say "Stop here!" and tell us to get out).  But he went up one more block and pulled up in front of the restaurant.

Whoa!  We were taken to the rooftop terrace. Very cool.  They gave us menus, but then the waiter wheeled over a cart with all of the cold mezze dishes on it, and told us (in what little English he knew) to pick what we wanted.  So we pointed and did: kuver, patlican soslu, humus, kirmizi biber, karides sogus, and patates salatasi.

We know "humus" is hummus, and "patates salatasi" is cold potato salad; the other things we ordered were roasted red peppers, shrimp, roasted eggplant salad, and some kind of sautéed beans. Maybe we were in the sun too long, or just clueless, but we thought we would get the plates we saw. But we really got much bigger plates of food!

Somehow we managed to finish almost all of it.

We opted out of dessert; thought we would start walking around the cute neighborhood and get some baklava somewhere and then catch a cab. So we walked up a block! The street was full of people! Wait....can it be?  OMG!  It was the far end of Istikal street! The same pedestrian street we walked on Tuesday night!  So we slowly walked back, stopping for ice cream on the way, and, sure enough, it was about 20 minutes back to our hotel!  But the concierge was right; we never would have found the restaurant if we had walked there.

So ends our time in Istanbul. There is a lot to see and a lot to like about this city.

Tomorrow we fly to Izmir.  See you there!

Love,  w&w.................


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