I'm away from home again. This time I'm in Mexico. I've been for over a week now, mixing work and little holiday. Last week was Easter, and this being a Roman Catholic country, meant several days off. This gave me time to visit some of the Mayan ruins. So I was in Palenque (with my friend and colleague), which is a few hours south of my base here in Ciudad del Carmen (Carmen itself is a dusty, dirty, run down oil and gas city, which was an old fishing town).
Palenque is one of the most well known of the Mayan ruins dotted around this quarter of Mexico (made up of the modern southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco, and the Yucatan peninsula states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatan), although no where near the size of other Mayan ruins like Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras. Palenque was a major city in the B'aakal state, and was developed mainly by Pakal (who, according to some notes I was given, had a club-foot, married his sister, and had sons with six thumbs). But Palenque still remains largely uncovered; it is amazing to think just 5% of the pyramids and other buildings have been uncovered when you actually see the size of the ruins which are already uncovered. The city itself was abandoned long before the Spanish invasions, perhaps due to perpetual warfare -- the city was overgrown with rainforest when the first European arrived in the 16th-century. There remains the possibility that planned excavations might undercover the largest pyramid in Mesoamerica.
Here are some views of Palenque through my digital camera.
The Temple of Inscriptions; the tomb of Pakal. This is now off limits to visitors due to damage caused by tourism.To the right of this is a fairly recently discovered tomb, which is said to belong to the Red Queen (the body found had been preserved with a chemical which had made turned the remains red). In a few years time, most of this site will be closed due to vandalism by tourists.
A table used for sacrificial rituals.
The hill in the back is potentially the largest pyramid in Mesoamerica; the two buildings to either side are the Temple of the Cross and the Temple of the Sun (I believe). The mention of 'cross' in this case should not be confused with Roman Catholic beliefs -- the cross was a Mayan symbol for a 'holy tree' Mayans believed linked the next world to this world one.
Stone work depicting Pakal's edcuation.
Stone work on the royal palace depicting Pakal. Lots of stone work is found within this complex showing the nobility (mostly of them awaiting their ritual piercings); but much of this work has been stolen.
A view from within the rainforest which surrounds the city of Palanque. The water in that stream was crystal clear -- I've never see water than clean before!
A view of the surrounding rainforest from the Temple of the Cross. The views here were breathtaking -- we drove up to a famous natural land mark through Zapatista country in the state of Chiapas (where Palenque is located) and no picture can capture some of those views (certainly not me with a digital camera!).
A view of the Temple of Inscriptions (left) and the Palace (right).
One of the good things about Istanbul is that a considerable number of the pre-Ottoman buildings still remain, especially from the Byazantine era. The Ottomans only converted a handful of churches into mosques.
One of the most recognisable structures in the world, the Hagia Sofia was built by Emperor Justinian and was the largest church in the Christian world until the conquest of the Ottomans, who converted it to a mosque. One thing that is striking about the building is its use of the dome. From afar it is a striking building. Up close, however, some might consider it an ugly building. But this is probably due to its current state -- upkeep and repairs to Turkey's national treasures seem to be low down on the list of priorities of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism (though I did notice some works taking place to one side of this building). The use of domes on churches only underlines my own opinion that there is nothing intrinsically "Islamic" about domes on places of worship (we need only see St. Paul's Cathedral in London and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome for examples of Christian domes). Maybe mosque architecture in Europe, for example, can evolve out of the seemingly slavish need to copy Indo-Pak mosques? I mean that green dome might look good in Gujranwala. It doesn't neccessarily look good next to that early-Edwardian down a street in London (unless you're doing that post-modern thing). Arab Spain developed its own style of mosques, as did sub-Saharan Africa.
The red minaret one sees to the right of the picture was built upon the initial conversion of the church into a mosque, with the other four following at a later date. When the church was converted into a mosque, the mosaics were covered up because of the total prohibition of iconagraphy in Muslim places of worship. After the creation of the secular Republic, the mosque was changed into a museum on the orders of Ataturk, and the plastering which had covered the mosaics removed. Some of the images are indeed striking, and intricate. I can only imagine the level of detail that would have gone into creating them. There are several images, most notabley: i) Mary holding the baby Jesus above where the Muslims built the mihrab (the niche which faces Makkah); ii) the image of Jesus on a throne on Judgment Day, with Mary to his right and St. John the Baptist to his left of which only about a third remains; and iii) the most famous mosaic, that of Mary holding a baby Jesus, with Emporer Constantine on one side and Emporer Justinian on the other, both giving different artefacts to show their service to Christ: Constantine giving his city, Justinian the Hagia Sofia.
The huge bronze doors on the exit themselves are somewhat of a wonder. They are said to be several hundred years old from Tarsus, the city of St. Paul, most probably from a pagan temple.
During its time as a mosque, the usual features were added: the mihrab (the niche in wall facing the direction of prayer), the minbar (the pulpit from where the imam gives the sermon), plus the usual features of Ottoman mosques: the hunkar mahfili (the private, screened, balcony from where the sultan and his family would prayer, keeping at bay any would-be assassins) and the muezzin mahfili (a raised area, usually a patform on several pillars, from where the muezzin gives the call to stand for the prayer inside the mosque, plus after the prayer reads various supplications out loud). The mihrab in the Hagia Sofia is located on the east wall, to indicate the direction of Makkah. As with most Ottoman mosques I visited, the inside of the main hall (or in the case of the Hagia Sophia what would have been the main prayer hall), is decorated with not only the names of God and the Prophet (p), but also with the Four 'Rightly-Guided' Caliphs (ra) and the grandsons of the Prophet (p), Hassan and Hussein (ra). This isn't too surprising: sympathy for the grandsons of the Prophet (p) is strong in popular Sunni sentiment, even at the expense of the Ummayds. And the Ottomans regarded themselves, and were regarded as, defenders of Sunni orthodoxy. The medallions on which the names are painted are so large, that they were built inside the Hagia Sophia; there is simply no door in the church large enough to allow entrance to these medallions from the outside. One thing was quite annoying, if totally understandable: the structural integrity of the dome is unsound, so they have erected a scaffolding to support part of it, and this obscures half of the dome ceiling. A walk up to the balcony of the church, and you can visit the famous Marble Doors, used by participants in the synods to enter and leave councils deciding religious matters.
The other churches for the tourist in you is Hagia Irene and Sen Piyer Kilisesi (Church of St. Peter and Paul). The former, a 6th-century church, stands inside the grounds of the first courtyard before the Topkapi palace, and was, somewhat surprisingly, never converted into a mosque. The latter was the new home of the Dominican monks who left their original dwelling (see about the Arap Camii in the previous part of my account) and moved to the location where this church stands. The current building, however, was built in the mid-1800s by Italian-Swiss architects. Ottoman building regulations required that church fronts could not be built directly on roads, so the entrance into the church itself, is via a courtyard. Sadly, it was closed the day we went (note: never visit Istanbul's historical sites on a Tuesday), though I did get a good look at the outside. This church is located underneath the Galata Kulesi (Galata Tower) which rises above the Beyogulu skyline and can be seen from most pther parts of the old city. More on this further down. I mention Kucuk Aya Sofya (lit. 'Little Hagia Sofia') here, even though it is now a mosque, because of its similarity to Hagia Sofia. It used to be a church, and is still sometmies called the Church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus. Sergius and Bacchus are said to be two Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity and were martyred for their religous beliefs. Then there is Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars, made totally of cast iron (don't confuse it for stone). Built in Vienna, the entire church was transferred down the Danube in 1871, to fulfill the function as a catherdal church to the newly formed Bulgarian Exarch (Bulgarian Orthodox subjects of the Ottomans complained that the Greek Orthodox patriarch favoured Greeks over them; so the Ottomans allowed them to create their own church).
The Galata Kulesi towers above the Beyogulu district. It can be seen from any good vantage point from across the Golden Horne. Standing at 62m (that's 205ft for Americans), the Tower was fisnihed in1348 and was used by the Genoese (who controlled Beyoglu) as a watchtower. The Ottomans continued this use and recently it has been converted to cater for tourists -- you can get stunning view from the balcony around the top of the tower, where there is also a restaurent. Inside the tower, however, the medieval decor has long vanished.
The Galata area of Beyogulu is also the home of Istanbul's historic Jewish sites (though most of the city's Jewish population live in more affluent parts of the city). Jews have been in the city since Byzantine times, although there was a large influx into the city as an outcome of the Reconquista. The place where Beyazit II met the first Jewish immigrants is now a tourist spot. Security is very tight around synagogues (there are several in the city, all of them in use), as one expects, so sadly we weren't allowed to get close enough to take any decent pictures.
To one side of Sultan Ahmet Camii are remanents of the old Roman Hippodrome, the old centre of the city. The Obelisk of Thothmes III, brought to the city by the emporer Thedosius, stands on a pedestal that carved at the order of the Roman Emporer. The carving depicts scences of how the obelisk was raised, and others scenes including his family. The hieroglyphic inscriptions are still clearly visible today, despite being thousands of years old. In between this and another obelisk is the Serpentine Column, donated by the Greek city-states in honour of the victory over the Persians. Originally it was said to have the heads of the three serpents and be 8m in length, with the names of the cities on the column, but now stands at 5m. Opposite the Hippodrome is a former palace of the Ottomans, converted into the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.
Across Hagia Sofia is the entrance to the huge Basilica Cistern. This was built by Emporer Justinian to hold water for the city, and is supported by 336 columns, at 8m each (26ft). The star attractions in this dark cavern are the marble Medusa heads, used to support two of the numerous columns holding up the cistern. These are thought to signify a nymphaeum, a shrine to water nymphs. Legend has it that the Ottomans did not discover this underground cavern until a century after their conquest, when city dwellers were found to be collecting water, and even fish, from their basements. Today we only see two-thirds of the Byzantine original, the other third having been bircked up by the Ottomans in the 19th-century.
Tips and overall thoughts
There's so much more I could have mentioned in my account, like the Rumeli Hisari -- the Fortress of Europe -- or the trip along the Bosphrous. And so much more I never even got to see. Leaving aside the places within the old city, Greater Istanbul is home to many mosques, churches, palaces and villages along the river. I will be returning to this city one day, insha'Allah.
Istanbul is one of the better cities I've visited (and I've visited a lot). Certainly as a holiday destination it ranks as one of my top three of four. And I can see why it is a home for pan-Islamic Romanticists. Apart from the Hijaz, which has never been a centre of Islamic administration or government since the earliest of times, few other cities can be rival Istanbul as the home of the Muslim world (Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad seem to its main rivals, though I would throw in Moghul Delhi). The Ottomans, in case we forget, ruled for six centuries, many of those from Istanbul.
The people are very friendly. And I am not just saying this. At first I did think this behaviour was the salesman's ploy to try and get you to enter their eaterie or buy their goods. But there was a geuine friendliness about the way people do approach you (or at least us). When someone would ask where I had come I would reply London. Taking a close look at my skin and hair colour people would than ask where I was really from. A reply that I am of Pakistani origin would have people heaping praise and thanks upon God that someone from their 'brother country' (their words) had visited their country; often this was accompanied with another handshake or two, even a brotherly hug. (This makes a change from having insults poured upon you when people view you as a 'Paki'.) Even the imam of Sultan Ahmet Camii, who I met after `Asr one afternoon, said he was pleased to have met someone who had come from a 'brother country' and one which was working 'for the One God'. And this imam was no older than 35.
We booked the hotel and flights through Expedia, which is my favourite travel site (but you might have your own). We travelled via Swiss Air, which made its customary stop in Zurich for an hour or two (a good opportunity to buy some real Swiss chocolate!). Our hotel was a four star owned by locals situated between Sultanahmet Camii and Hagia Sofia (the four star ranking was very dubious, but it was a clean room). This area is replete with hotels, so it's not a problem finding a good place. If you're on a very tight budget try one of the hostels in this area. You can also find five star hotels, many of them part of well-known hotel chains.
Everyone knows that when in Turkey you are automically a milyon-aire. I managed to find a decent rate of £1 for 2.6 million Turkish Lira (TL). I would advise you carry some USD or UK Sterling too. Many hotels offer sightseeing tours and will offer a reduced rate if you pay in dollars or pound sterling. You can also buy expensive goods, like Turkish carpets, for a better price if paying these currencies.
Food is very cheap, though, as one might expect, restaurents near tourist spots will be more expensive. But all good places to eat were within walking distance of our hotel (though, to me, a reasonable walking distance involves about 30 minutes of walking). I would advise checking some places before eating there, because a few did not look too clean (the same 'good advice' if eating out anywhere). A good evening meal for one seems to cost between 5m TL up to 15m TL. The most expensive meal we had was ~35m TL for two at a relatively expensive place. Lunch -- often a doner of some sort on the go -- was between 750K TL and 1.5m TL. As you're in Turkey you can expect to find a lot of meat on the menu, especially doners, kebabs and beef stews. Adana Kebap is a favourite of mine. Bottles of water (1l) and juice can be purchased from ~500K TL. I would recommend finding a supermarket and purchasing basic essentials and nibbles from there. A bottle of water from a supermarket located off one of the main streets was only 250K TL (that's ~9 pence for a 1.5l bottle of mineral water). Chocolates, crips and fresh fruit can be bought at very cheap prices too. We had a fridge in our hotel room, and made full use of this.
As I mentioned in the second part of this account, souvenirs should be purchased with some caution. You will also find that some shops are very pushy. They will try and railroad you into buying something, especially carpets, which I was surprised to find can cost anywhere from £50 to £1500 or more. In fact, almost every shop I entered, carpets were the first item I was shown! My only advice would be leave a shop if you feel pressured. If you want to buy foodstuffs, like lokum, dried fruit, nuts, spices, teas, caviar (Iranian or Russian) or honey, I would advise that you visit not only the Misri Carsisi but also Beygolu's Istiklal Caddesi.
Travelling around Istanbul can be done on foot or through public transport. The tram, costing 1m TL for a one way ticket, runs along the major tourist sites in the Sultanahmet district down to the Eminonu waterfront. A planned extention is being built to take it across the river into Beyoglu. There is also a city wide Metro and bus service, though we did not make use of this. Taxis are very cheap here, at least compared to London and Paris. When coming from Ataturk Airport to our hotel, we paid ~12m TL for a 35-40 minutes car journey. Night-time taxi rates are ~50% more expensive. You can make use of the ferry to visit the Asian side of the city or simply take a boat-trip along the river, past the boundaries of the old city and beyond Besiktas. These cost ~10m TL.
Behind Hagia Sofia the trams run towards one entrance (Gulhane tram stop) of the first courtyard before the Topkapi Sarayi (palace), opposite the Zeynap Sultan Mosque. My advice would be to walk to the Imperial Gate, which, despite its pompous sounding name, is actually hidden away somewhat. The walk from this gate to the entrance of the actual Palace is much shorter. Don't go too early -- Turkish soldiers guard this entrance and you might get scared (I wasn't, honest). Ask for the Ahmet III fountain, and the gate will be directly opposite this. Down one side past the gate you can see Sogukcesme Sokagi, which is lined with traditional 19th-century Ottoman houses. Within this courtyard there is also Hagia Irene, which was, surprisingly, never converted into a mosque.
The Topkapi Palace is split up into several courtyards, surrounding by pavilions. Some of these have been converted into museums housing various artefacts from the Ottoman kitchens, to arms and armous, minatures and manuscripts (though when we were there, an Islamic science exhibition was also on display), the imperial costumes and an exhibition of clocks and other scientific instruments. Directly in front of the entrance, across the courtyard, is the Gate of Felicity (apparently also called the Gate of White Eunuchs -- I don't know if this is what Turks called it or this name is something we get from European sources). It is the harem which inspires so much derision, enmity and even wonder in so many Orientalist accounts. The harem represents something to someone (mostly something to do with sex, it would seem): the 'abuse of women' under Muslim empires; the 'sexual hypocrisy' of the sultan; the prudish (and even hypocritical) attitudes toward sex of European Christians from a certain age. Whatever it does represent, the actual harem complex -- devoid now of any actual concubines and potential mothers to future sultans -- does seem like something out of the a 1920s black and white movie or novel about the "lustful Turk": the handiwork of the this part of the palace is almost as intricate as anything else, with its elaborate marble columns, delightful Iznik tiles and golden canvases lining the inner of the domes, and the quarters for black eunuchs, slaves who would have guarded the harem complex. The courtyard of the valide sultan (sultan's mother) is also found here.
It is the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle, where the relics of the Prophet (p) are kept, that are the real pull, at least for Turks and Muslims. We went on a Sunday morning, and the entire palace seemed full or Turks who had made trips across the country to see these artefacts. Cameras are not allowed in here (though that didn't stop people from 'secretly' trying to film the various artefacts). There are also swords on display which are said to be belong to the first four Caliphs (ra), though I am unaware if the sword attributed to Ali (ra) is the legendary Zulfiqar. An entire room is dedicated to the relics said to belong to the Prophet (p) (hairs from his beard, a letter dictated by him, his swords and an impression of his foot); the most important being the mantle, stored in a golden case, which he was said to have worn. The case itself is stored in a separate room which no one is allowed to enter; the artefacts are viewed through a glass window. I wonder what he would have made of his artefacts being displayed in this fashion, especially in expensive gold cases? I was sceptical of some of the artefacts attributed to the Prophet (p), but this might just be my cynicism (sorry, I grew up in Britain). A qari recites the Qur'an continously throughout the whole day. In this pavilion you can also see one of the older doors of the Ka'bah, plus locks and keys for the Ka'bah, sent to the various sultans throughout the ages.
The other main attraction is the recently restored Treasury, which houses precious objects and ornaments of the Ottomans. I was quite disappointed with this exhibition, not only because we had to pay to enter this section, but because the limited collection on display. Where do the various exhibits, displaying Ottoman opulence, with gold jewel-encrusted jugs and flasks, to a cradle made entirely of gold, to expensive looking emerald pieces, to the famous Topkapi dagger, fit in with "Islamic values"? This is not to deride the Ottoman sultans. They were considered an "Islamic" form of government by their subjects and the `ulema of their time; and they are rightfully regarded as defenders of Sunni orthodoxy. But one does have to wonder how far the rulers of Muslim lands became separated from the ruled. It isn't surprising, to me anyway, that a number of the more exquisite items date from 19th-century Ottoman Turkey.
The last few places of interest were the Iftariye Pavilion, said to have been built to allow the sultan to break his fast with the stunning view over the Golden Horn (and Ziauddin Sardar complains that shaykhs in the Gulf States build swimming pools just because the temperature might be too cold in morning!). This part of the Topkapi, as I observed later from the Bosphorus, overlooks one side of the entrance into the river -- giv ing the sultan a perfect view of the very hub of his empire. Just to the left of this pavilion was the Baghdat Pavilion, so called because Sultan Murat IV built it to celebrate his conquest of Baghdad (I wonder if the current incumbent in the White House has similar plans?). This was closed when we were there (due to repairs, I think), though we were allowed to walk around the pavilion and face southwards. On the other side of the palace is the chief physician's lodgings, beyond which the palace overlooks the entrance into the Bosphorus from the Sea of Marmara. The last site of interest is the divan, which was used to house (and spy on) the Sultan's viziers. It was too sickly for my tastes and reminded me of an underlying theme in William Golding's The Spire (think of faith and ugliness). But maybe someone did like it once (and so it was built).
Down Yenicerlier Caddesi, along which the tram runs down from the waterfront up into town, you will come to the tomb of Sultan Mahmut II with his family. Outside are the tombs of some of the most famous people in Turkish history, including Ziya Gokalp, the man who gave the intellectual backbone to to Kemalism (here we had a Kurd advocating the kind of Turkish nationalism which denied his felllow Kurds the chance to express their own culture; you can't get more topsy-turvey than this, Haroon). Further up is Constatine's Column (closed for repairs) opposite which is the Cemberlatis Hamami, one of the oldest Turkish baths in Istanbul. It was commissioned by Nur Banu, wife of Selim II. You can't go all the way to Istanbul and not try one of these! Sweat, exfoliate, and bathe here to feel re-born (though not born-again, hopefully). No cameras allowed here for obvious reasons... The other famous bath is the Cagaloglu Hamami, located off Yerebaten Caddesi. These baths date back to 1714, and income from them was used to sustain the sultan's library in the Aya Sofia. This is one of the few baths that allow men and women to use their facilities at the same time (men and women enter from different sides of the street). Other baths rotate the times between men and women. The Cagaloglu is a better bath for the tourist to visit, as the staff speak better English or other European languages. (As a side note, many Turkish staff on the tourist circuit were fluent or literate in several European languages, putting "Europeans" like the British to shame.) The Cagaloglu staff even let you see the baths even if you don't want to sweat it out (obviously not at the times they are being used).
A big draw is the Kapali Carsisi (lit. 'covered market, or Grand Bazaar to English speakers), which is almost as old as the Ottoman conquest of the city. This truely is a labyrinth of colour and noise, but despite the hype it isn't that easy to get lost inside the market -- if you have a map, and visit a couple of times you can generally find your way around. It has several gates, but the two main gates we used were the Karsikapi Kapisi (kapisi=gate) from the Beyazit tram stop near the Beyazit Camii, and the Nurosmaniye Kapisi next to the Nurosmaniye Camii. Some 4000 shops are underneath the roof of this complex. The hustle and bustle didn't really affect me -- I have only ever lived in a large noisey, crowded, city, and forms part of the background noise in my mind. A good map of Kapali Carsisi will display what the various sectors within the marketplace sell.
Be prepared also for the constant demands of some traders inviting you into their shops to buy everything from Turkish carpets, odd pieces being sold as antiques (keep your wits about you!), leather goods, souvenirs, to fake designer goods (so if you want that fake Louis Vutton for the Missus, you know where to go). On one of the tours we were booked onto, an American couple we met found they were unable to say 'no' without being considered rude by some traders and shopkeepers. I found just smiling and say 'no' (in English or Turkish) was good enough. I think they expect it. If you show the remotest interest in the goods on display, you will undoutedbly be invited inside to drink some Turkish tea or coffee. Of course, the next few hours were spent with the shopkeeper, and members of his family, showing us every item in the shop. Do not be tempted to buy if you don't want to and certainly don't feel sorry for the shopkeeper -- this is part of his sales pitch. Some of the items on display were overpriced (and almost always unmarked) -- but then you are expected to hagle for everything, and any tour guide or guidebook will advise you to start the 'bidding' low, about 40-50% of what you are quoted and eventually reach a mutual agreement. Personally, I found that 'bargains' were scant -- this place is heavily marketed as a tourist destination, and without a doubt you will be quoted extortionate 'tourist prices'. (But then again I wasn't really looking for any bargains.)
I also found many shops claiming to sell "authentic" Ottoman era documents and manuscripts, of which I was dubious. Everything from royal decrees, to pages from history books, to scientific writings on the anatomy of the human body. My suspicions were confirmed when I got talking to the owners of one such shop, a Muslim from Macedonia named Lutfi, who told me that most of these documents were either very good reproductions or copies. By all means the reproductions had been painstakingly handcrafted, and so might well have deserved their $20, $40 or even $60 price tag (prices aimed at tourists are always quoted in USD, but you can ask for a conversion to Sterling). But they weren't neccassrily the very ones from the vaults of the Ottoman viziers and scholars (though you can find these -- authenticity seems hard to prove). I purchased some Kufic, Naskh and Nasta'liq calligraphy for a reasonable price (~£5). Naskh was turned into an artform by the calligraphers of Ottoman Turkey, and these skills are evident even today. In some of the shops you can find people crafting the next bismillah or ayah from the Qur'an. One of these, a Kufic bismillah,now hangs near me as I type this. I also found the 'Qul Sharif' in Nasta'liq written on some leather; the leather was meant to have been bound around manuscripts of an Iraqi scholar who knew Lutfi. I wasn't interested in the age of this piece (reputedly about 100 years). It simply looks fascinating, because on such a thin piece of leather the calligrapher has managed to reproduce, in clear readable Arabic, four chapters of the Qur'an.
If we were to walk the other way down the tram route (or indeed take the tram) down to the Eminonu waterfront near the Galata Bridge, we will come to the Misri Carsisi or the Egyptian Market, also called the Spice Bazaar in English. The L-shaped building stands under the shadows of Yeni Camii, and was built at the order of the valdie sultan (Queen Mother) Hatice Turhan, a powerful woman in the harem and mother of Sultan Mehmet IV. Her mausoleum is also found near the mosque. Rents from the market were once used to pay for the upkeep of the mosque. Inside shops sell mainly spices, nuts, honey, dried fruits and lokum (Turkish delight). I have a very sweet tooth so I found myself purchasing several boxes of lokum, especially the honey variety (I regret that they are all finished). Figs are, hilariously, sold as "Turkish viagra". This is a touristy place, so prices can be inflated. It is worth walking around, but, unlike the Karpali Carcisi, traders here will not haggle as everything is marked. However, you can, if purchasing significant amounts, strike a good bargain. We had found that visiting the Beyoglu district was often cheaper (more below). The rear end of the Misri Carsisi runs directly into what I would call a real Turkish market: everything being sold here is for the Istanbuli and not the Londoner or the Parisian or the New Yorker. So if you want a real bargain this is your place.
Across the Galata Bridge, we enter the third major district of the old city, Beyoglu. This was the district that propelled the current Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, into the political spotlight (he was the chief of the Refah Party in Beyoglu during the mid 80s). Beyoglu is also the home of the city's old Jewish population (which I hope to cover in a third installment of this account). The major street in this district is Istiklal Caddesi. This is a very 'European' street, with most of the shops here the usual high street brands in any major Western capital: Gap, Nike, United Colors of Benetton etc. Along here you will also find many local shops selling designer fashion, clothes, souviners, and books. At one of the street is the Galatasaray Balik Pazari (Galatasaray Fish Market; to those of you who watch football, yes this is also the same Galatasaray area of Istanbul where the football team come from). The shops in the Balik Pazari sell many of the foodstuffs found in the Misri Carsisi, but at a much cheaper price; sometimes at almost half the price. It is also known, as the name suggests, for its fish. Restaurents in here sell fresh fish from the Golden Horn; small pieces of the fish are fried, covered in a garlic sauce, and sold as a 'fast food'.
Off one end of the Istiklal Caddesi is the Mevlevi Tekke (lodgings of the Mevelvi Sufi order in Istanbul). Sadly, it was closed the day we went, so make sure you never visit on a Tuesday. The Sufi poet Galip Dede, after who the street is named, is buried here. Galip Dede Caddesi is also the home of shops selling musical instruments. Inside the lodgings you will also find the museum of Mevlevi literature. Up the other end of Istiklal Caddesi, right up on top of the gradual ascendent of the street, is Taksim Meydani (Taskim Square). This is the home of modern Beyoglu. Taksim literally means 'water distribution centre', so its not surprising to find a water fountain marks the centre of the square. Also here is the Monument of Independence, sculpted in 1928 by an Italian artist to celebrate Ataturk's victory in creating a modern Turkey. It shows Ataturk with other founding figures of the modern Republic. One thing you must try is the delightful old red tram that serves Istiklal Caddesi.
Since Turkey is set to join the EU sometime around 2179, I thought I would visit Istanbul before the prices were hiked up (given that the Turkish economy would be judged fit enough to enter 'Euroland'). There is also the continuing theme from my last holiday of visiting the vestiges past Muslim glories. This account is quite long (for a blog anyway), so I've split it into several parts.
Istanbul, as everyone knows, is the former capital of the Byzantine Empire. I found the name itself has several possible meanings: it is the Turkic for the Greek signs which would point to the city ('Stamboul'); or according to one article I came across in JIS it could come from 'Islambol' ('Islam abounds'; there are Muslim traditions that predicted Muslims would conquer the city). The Turks also used 'Konstantiniye', which is very similar to the original name for the city (Constantinople). One Turk I met told me they refer to it as 'the City on Seven Hills'. I was surprised to find that Istanbul has a population 'officially' at the 12 million mark -- exceeding London, Paris, Berlin or Madrid. With a city that size, located where it is, it could easily become an important capital in the EU.
The city was built on the site of a fishing village; the Golden Horn is a rich source of fish, and it was only a matter of time before a well-established city was formed at this location along the river connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Mamara, the Bosphorous. After the Greeks settled in the area, they named it Byzantium. The Roman Emporer Constantine the Great transferred his capital from Rome to the rich eastern city, and subsequently the city took his name (Constantinople). After numerous failed attempts, Muslims did fulfill their own prophecy. The Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II, finally conquered the city, and the city has emerged with the name it has today. It is this Ottoman conquest that gave the city its revival, after the virtual death of the Byzantine Empire.
Without a doubt, Istanbul deserves its title of 'City of Mosques'. The entire skyline is punctuated with the classic Ottoman mosque: the large central dome, the long, thin minarets and its sharp pointing cone. And if further proof is required that you're in a Muslim city, despite however 'secularised' Turkey or Istanbul is said to be, there is always the adhaan, calling the muttaqeen to the five daily prayers (even if some of the mosques seemed to be blaring out tape-recordings of the adhaan).
The mosques in Turkey, despite their age, are still in use and not been converted into empty, bland, tourist spots. The most famous mosque is Sultan Ahmet Camii (known as the Blue Mosque to English-speakers) which was built directly opposite the Hagia Sofia, and is named after the sultan who ordered its construction, Sultan Ahmet I (who is buried close by). It was designed by the architect Sedefhar Mehmet Aga, who continued the style of the greatest architect in Ottoman history, Mimar Sinan. Work started in 1609 and took seven years to complete. The most striking features of the mosque are its six minrets and numerous domes. According to legend, the six minarets came about by mistake: the sultan had wanted a gold minaret built for his new mosque, but the architect misunderstood the word 'gold' for the number 6, because the two sound quite similar in Turkish. It is said that it was built to rival the Aya Sofia, though at the time the sultan was criticised for building a mosque which rivalled the Ka'bah for its number of minarets. The sultan overcame this problem by simply paying for a seventh at Makkah.
Visitors are allowed inside the mosque, but it is meant to be closed to visitors during prayers times; though tourists do usually stay and watch the prayer if they remain quiet at the back. It is here that a disturbing thought occured to me. I had decided to visit the mosque during mid-morning. I took the usual flurry of photos you can using a digital camera, snapping with impunity. Upon returning to perform my prayer, I found that some other tourists were still snapping away, even at the row of worshippers. I found this annoying not because they were tourists (I was one too), not because they were not people of my faith inside a place of worship (nothing particularly wrong with this), but because the whole spectacle seemed as if they were treating a living, breathing faith -- important to so many people -- as some obscure, "mystical", cultural artefact on display for their pleasure! Perhaps, I too was guilty of this, almost 'colonial', wonderment at ecountering some Other, by taking my own photographs and inviting mass tourism to violate the sanctity of the mosque? Thankfully, one of the mosque officials intervened and politely asked the people to step back behind the barrier and to refrain from using the camera until the time allocated for prayer was over.
The 30 smaller domes are supported by around the mosque by some 26 columns. Four columns support the central dome, two of them 5m in diameter, made entirely of marble. Some 20,000 tiles, from Iznik, most of them blue, adorn the lower part of the interior and this is what gives the building its name in English. The other two, larger columns, are hollow inside, which allows water to be brought into the mosque. Some 250 windows in the domes help light flood into the main prayer hall, though more modern low lying chandeliers are also used. Ostrich eggs are kept in small boxes half-way up the chandelier chains. These are used to ward off any insects from using the quiet, darkened, corners of the mosque as their home (human noses cannot detect the smell, so don't worry). The wudhu (ablution) area is still found running around the outside of the mosque. The extrerior of the mosque is badly in need of repair. When I was there the entire courtyard was filled with equipment and yellow plastic sheeting draped over the walls, perhaps in prepatation for a full-scale repair job. An interesting note: parts of the famous black stone (hajr al-aswad) found in the Ka'bah is said to be found in the mihrab here, as well as another mosque in Istanbul. I did not see it myself, but maybe someone else has seen the stones?
When one talks of Ottoman architecture, the name which will always appear at the top of any list is Mimar Koca Sinan, who was of Greek Orthodox origin. He designed and built over 400 buildings, including mosques, madrassahs, mauseleums, palaces, public baths, schools, granaries, fountains, aqueducts, and hospitals; "Great Architect Sinan" has left his mark on Turkey. His most famous work is the Suleymaniye Camii, the mosque he built for the Suleyman the Magnificant. Apart from its size (it is the largest mosque in Istanbul), its striking features such as the domes and its four minarets (it has similarities to the Sultan Ahmet Camii, but this came after the Suleymaniye Camii), the architectural ingenuity of Sinan is on the inside. The height of the mosque to its highest point, is exactly twice the diameter of the main dome. This impression one gets as you walk inside is of the dome reaching up to the heavens. The design of the mosque is such that it is claimed that if a pin were to drop (though not on the prayer rugs) the noise would reverberate around the entire prayer hall. The other ingenious design is in the way the ventilation inside the mosque; the air currents a drawn in a such away that they collect smoke from the oil candles used around the hall, avoiding damage to the wall prints. The interior of the mosque itself makes it unique: the mihrab has been carved from marble, the exceptional calligraphy, which includes the famous 'Light Verse' from the Qur'an, and the 130-or so stained glass windows.
The other major mosques include:
Yeni Camii (New Mosque) which is located on the Eminonu (a district of Istanbul) waterfront next to the Misri Carsisi (Egyptian Bazaar).
Beyazit Camii, built for Sultan Beyazit II, and one of the oldest mosques in Istanbul. The mosque is located near the old University gate.
Firuz Aga Camii built by Beyazit's head treasurer. This mosque sits quietly on a main street hidden by the trees, and by the sight of the Sultan Ahmet Camii.
Atik Ali Pasa Camii, built by the eunuch -- something of a repeating theme for the Ottomans -- vizier of the second sultan of the city, Bayazit II.
Rustem Pasa Camii, which was built to serve the Egyptian Bazaar.
Mahmut Pasa Camii, the oldest mosque in the city.
Arap Camii (Arab Mosque), a former church of Dominican monks converted into a mosque for the Hispano-Arab refugees from the Reconquista. The Gothic-like features do not resemble any mosque in Istanbul and the belfry now serves as a minaret (this mosque is also notoriously difficult to find).
Yeralti Camii (lit. 'underground mosque'), a small mosque hidden away built next to where two companions of the Prophet (p) are to buried (Abu Sufyan and Amiri Wahibi).
Nuruosmaniye Camii, which stands at the entrance to one of the gates into the Kapali Carsisi (lit. 'covered market', but usually referred to as the Grand Bazaar in English). The Nuruosmaniye Camii was the first to be built in the Baroque style that was imported by the Ottomans during the 18th-century. At times this style of architecture looks good (as in this mosque which looks unique); at other times this Ottoman-Baroque style looks horrible, artificial almost. Plastic surgey gone horribley wrong (like most late-Ottoman reforms in fact).
Other notable mosques are located in Beyoglu, including Azap Kapi Camii and Kilic Ali Pasa Camii (both built by the aged Sinan). There's nothing like mosque-building programme to celebrate defeating a rebellion: to this end Mahmut II had his Armenian architect, Kirlok Baylan, build the Nusretiye Camii (lit. 'Mosque of Victory') to celebrate the defeat of the Yeni Ceri (Jannisary corps).