Saturday, October 18, 2014

Turkey Part 4 of 4 (Istanbul)

Arrival in Istanbul involved the usual planes, trains, and automobiles approach we used with most of the other locations we visited in Turkey. On our last morning in Selcuk, we enjoyed a traditional Turkish breakfast at our hotel and were picked up by a friend of the hotel's owner in his jeep. He dropped us at a transit station, where we rode the train an hour to the airport. I was delighted again to see the vendors walking throughout the train cars with trays full of freshly baked breads to sell to the riders. Once we arrived at the airport, we hopped on a flight to Istanbul, the last of our stops in Turkey. Once were were wheels down the in city, a driver picked us up to take us to our studio apartment we were renting for the next few days.

It was such a cute, minimalist, modern apartment and I was in love with the place at first glance. However upon further inspection, nothing was very practical. It advertised as having a kitchenette, but there was only a small fridge and microwave with no dishes of any kind. The shower was a fancy, glass walk-in area, but the floor tilted away from the drain so I flooded the apartment on the first night. If not practical, at least it was cute!

Unpacking in Istanbul

The first thing we did after unpacking was head out to the streets for food in Istanbul, which is supposed to be some of the best in the world. We went into a small restaurant very near our apartment where no one spoken a word of English. There was a chef at the front shaving thin sections of meat from a rotating, slow cooked lamb. We pointed to it trying to convey to the waiter that we wanted that for dinner. He understood (or so we thought) and brought us back a plate with nothing but shaved lamb! Too embarrassed to try explaining again that we wanted something more than just a plate of meat we started chowing into what we were served. It was good, but we watched and laughed as the chef prepared plates full of delicious-looking ingredients like lamb, yogurt, rice, and tomatoes for all the other guests. Eventually we were able to ask for the additional sides and he brought some over so we did finally get a complete dish--even if it was piecemeal.

After dinner we walked to Takism Square, where massive protests were held in 2013. Initially, these protests were held in opposition with plans to remove the park, one of the last green spaces left in the city. Eventually the protests evolved into demonstrations for civil unrest when police reacted violently to the peaceful sit-in protests over the planned park demolition. It was plain to see why the public was outraged over plans to convert the beautiful park to an urban mall area. It is highly utilized as a green space with lots of children running around while their parents enjoy tea and talk with each other at open-air cafe areas.

Monument of the Republic in Takism Square. This statue commemorates the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

That evening, we also walked down to Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), one of the most famous streets in Istanbul. Closed to traffic, this street is now packed with pedestrians (as many as 3 million per day!) at nearly all hours.  It was like a constant street party lined with shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars. Numerous alleys lined with equal amounts of entrainment also branched off the main street. Most of these alleys are also filled with people trying to convince you to come into their restaurant or shop. It was a little intimidating at first because I didn't want to be rude, but eventually, they became so commonplace we barely noticed them. 

View of the Istiklal

The following morning, we set out to see the normal tourist sites: Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sophia, while not impressive from the decor outside, was full of history and astounding art pieces inside. The main room inside is massive with a perfect golden dome 182 feet overhead; it is mind-boggling to think about how it would have been built and decorated so long ago. Also dominating the scene were large, chandeliers hanging by chains from the very high ceiling. Unfortunately, construction was going on while we were there so the chandelier lights weren't on.

Originally constructed as a Greek Orthodox church, it was an important location for Eastern Orthodox Christians at the time. Immaculate, detailed paintings of holy relics and depictions of significant Christian scenes donned the walls of many of its rooms. It existed under Christian rule (and was re-built several times due to earthquake damages) for a thousand years until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.

Following the capture of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was raided and looted until the arrival of Sultan Mehmet II. Upon entering the church, he was immediately moved by the great structure and announced that it would be transformed into a mosque.

In 1935, Turkey's most famous leader, Ataturk, forbid use of the Hagia Sophia as a place of worship and led another transformation of the building into a museum. Persian carpets and plastering on the walls were removed, revealing elaborate decorations that were covered for centuries. 

It is common to see signs of both Christianity and Islam donning the walls of the the Hagia Sophia. Here is a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus alongside these giant medallions with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the first four caliphs, and two grandchildren of Muhammad. Half of the large dome is shown in the top half of the photo. 

Dr. Dre's Beats were used during the audio tour.

The Omphalion, a group of circular slabs of marble where the coronation of all Byzantine emperors would be crowned.

Looking up at the main golden dome at the center of the Hagia Sophia.

The view of the interior from the second floor balcony.

The Deesis mosaic, 1261. This is often considered the finest mosaic in Hagia Sophia, despite its damage. It shows the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist pleading for Jesus to be merciful on Judgement Day.

A view from one of the windows. The impressive structure in the background is the Blue Mosque. 

After leaving the Hagia Sophia, we walked across the street to the Basilica Cistern, the largest of the cisterns to be found lying beneath Istanbul. Upon entering the underground area, I was surprised at the preservation of the forest of 30 feet high, detailed columns supporting the ceiling in such a damp climate. It wasn't musty or humid, but the floor was covered in water deep enough for fish to swim around (and there really were fish!). Historical texts say that this 105,000 sq foot area was built by ~7000 slaves to hold water reserves for Constantinople. The place is now romantically lit and soft classical music plays in the background, which is complemented by the periodic dripping noise of water seeping through the ground above.

At the far corner of the room are two strange statues of a Medusa head at the base of two separate columns; one head is rotated on its side and the other is upside down. There were no texts found for where these two pieces came from. Some believe they are simply reused materials from a palace in Constantinople used for shortage of column blocks. Others think there is a significance to their presence and their rotation was done intentionally to negate the power of Medusa. 

  View of the symmetrical columns supporting this subterranean aquifer.

The upside down Medusa head looking stern

...and the other Medusa head...looking quite happy.

Our last stop for the day was the Blue Mosque. This is both a functioning mosque and one of the biggest tourist attractions in Istanbul, which I found a little uncomfortable. The line to see the inside of this impressive piece of architecture wrapped around the building and because we put it off until the end of the day, we were at risk of not getting inside before the final call to prayer when visitors were not allowed inside.We waited in the slowly moving line and watched women walking around and handing out pieces of cloth to some of the females. The pieces of cloth were headscarves and another garment to cover women who had exposed arms, legs or heads. Even though I had on leggings under my dress, it wasn't conservative enough and I had to wear the extra coverage. Of course, I had no idea how to wear it and it took all of my attention once inside to keep it from falling off. Because shoes are not allowed inside, I also had to manage carrying them, which only added to my fiasco.

My more conservative outfit.

The Blue Mosque is certainly a work of art. Outside, it is a lovely periwinkle shade with minarets springing up around the main body of the mosque. It almost resembles the Walt Disney castle. haha! Inside, floral tilings of blue, red, whites, and golds are arranged in beautiful, complex patterns, covering the ceilings and walls. As with the Hagia Sophia, many large metal chandeliers hang from the ceilings by chains, creating a soft glow throughout the main room. While the back of the mosque was full of tourists snapping photos of this awe-inspiring room, locals were starting to file in to the front of the room (where tourists weren't allowed to enter) to begin readying for the final prayer of the day; it was a very strange setting.

After leaving the mosque, we heard the call to prayer begin. Normally in Turkey, I found the call to prayer to be a beautiful reminder of this culturally rich country we were in. However, in Istanbul, there are many mosques in close proximity and they were all playing different prayer calls. It sounded like a ruckus that was almost comical. I'm not sure why they don't sync the soundings...

View of the tiling work on the ceiling of the Blue Mosque

 lots of visitors inside

More views of the ceiling and walls

We spent the rest of the day walking around the city. I bought some salep, a popular creamy tea made from the tubers of orchids, from a street vendor. He warned me that it was extremely hot and of course, I immediately dumped it all over my hand by accident. The thickness of the tea caused it to stick to my hand and fingers like oil. The vendor was not lying about the temperature of the me, it felt on par with lava. 
That evening, we strolled along the water front on the way back to our apartment and had dinner at a fish restaurant. While crossing the foot bridge to return to where we were staying that night, we found it to be full of locals (mostly men) fishing in the Bosphorus. Several vendors were walking around with trays of tea or breads, which I continued to find wonderfully commonplace.

Me eating again

Recreational fishing in the Bosphorus Strait

On our final day in Istanbul, we had three goals: take a boat ride on the Bosphorus Strait, walk through the Grand Bazaar, and experience a Turkish bath.We awoke in the morning and immediately headed down to the waterfront to buy a ticket for a boat ride up. The Bosphorus Straight connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and forms part of the boundary between the Asia and Europe continents. It is heavily traveled by boats, causing the water surface to continuously slosh back and forth with rather large waves. The ride lasted several hours and took us past some impressive structures built during the Ottoman Empire. Of course, there were also people selling Turkish tea from trays. Even on the boat, tea was served in a traditional glass cup rather than the Styrofoam and disposable plastics that are commonplace in the U.S..

View from the Bosphorus

Craig, Turkish tea, and Bosphorus

The popular Ortakoy mosque, built in 1854 with the Bosphorus Bridge in the background.

After making landfall again, we grabbed lunch at a dockside fish sandwich shop. The sandwiches were actually made on one of several boats tied to the dock area. Because the waters are always so rough, the boats were constantly rolling back and forth. How the workers on board did not have perpetual sea sickness is beyond me. 

Enjoying a fish sandwich

We also strolled to the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, both of which were supposed to be must-see locations in Istanbul. Because I'm not much into bartering, I didn't find these stops all that interesting. The Grand Bazaar is certainly impressive for the amount of local shops crammed into a small maze and the amount of colors and smells was fantastic. It was packed with people trying to haggle for prices of scarves, spices and jewelry. I think Craig was much more into the haggling Turkish tradition and ended up getting a decent deal on a backgammon set. I tried my hand at it and ended up getting a few lyra off a couple of scarves, but probably not as much as I could have gotten if I knew what I was doing. 

On our final evening in Turkey, we decided to get a Turkish bath. It was an experience unlike anything I've ever done before! The process is just like it really was someone giving you a  naked scrub-down with a room full of other people doing the same thing! Craig and I had to split up, as the building was segregated based on gender, and agreed to meet back out front once we were finished.

The bath starts with a sauna-like relaxation room, where eventually someone comes back into and starts pouring hot water over you from a golden bowl. Afterward, they take you into another room where you receive a full body scrub-down with an exfoliating cloth. When all the dead skin is rubbed off, they splash you with more hot water (which I thought was actually kind of painful). The pain was quickly made up for when they massage you literally with buckets full of bubbles. Oh, and you also get a full body massage and Turkish candies and tea before you leave! It was admittedly a bit awkward, especially since I wasn't able to communicate with the person performing the bath/massage, but somehow the experience turned out to be simultaneously hilarious and relaxing.

 View of the Hagia Sophia at sunset--post Turkish bath. I think Craig took this as he was waiting for me to come out of the bath.

Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami, where we had a Turkish bath

We spent the last few hours in Istanbul at a hookah cafe playing backgammon and drinking tea. I love cafes in Turkey. There are games on nearly every table (mostly backgammon) and the experience is centered around the company and conversation rather than the drinks. It is not uncommon for groups of patrons to stay late into the night chatting over tea and eating mezzes (which are basically Turkish tapas). 

Enjoying a game of backgammon and hookah during our final hours in Istanbul (and Turkey)

 As with most of our trips, they are too short. There are so many more things to see that Turkey has to offer such as the Black Sea, Lake Van, Mount Nemrut to name a few. I also consistently felt each time we left for a new location in Turkey that I needed more time where I already was to really experience it. I guess the only positive side to this predicament is that now we have to come back!