Sunday, August 31, 2003

Istanbul – Part VI

Now, I could have easily fit this, the morning of our very last day in Istanbul, in my last post. But you know what? This city is really special. And it took me a wait of four years to finally visit it. So I wanted to have a post just for that early morning, after our very simply breakfast of cheese and honey and olives and tomatoes, looking at the Blue Mosque and the Bosphorus as day broke, grateful to have finally visited and to have experienced this with my partner.

Teşekkürler ve güle güle, İstanbul*.

*Thank you and good-bye, Istanbul.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Istanbul – Part V

Our next to last day was a little less intense than the rest, as it was time to have a more relaxed look at the city, and maybe go back to some favourite places before saying good-bye.

Hippodrome of Constantinople (Sultanahmet Meydanı)   

Like many Roman and Greek cities, Byzantium had a place for horse racing and socializing, a hippodrome. It remained a sporting and mingling area when the city became Constantinople. Different emperors, in a bid to outdo their predecessors and make the space an even more impressive one, would bring art from all four corners of the empire to embellish it. One of these was the Obelisk of Theodosius (Dikilitaş in Turkish), which was originally the ancient Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Tutmoses III.

This pink granite beauty was originally located at nowhere else than the Temple of Karnak, in Luxor, making it some 3500 years old. Stunning, right?  

more Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia...

But, like I said, we also felt like re-visiting some favourites. You know, just finding a nice calm place, sitting down, admiring the imposing Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)... Beautiful, elegant, infused with history... You can sit and look and ponder for hours!

Remember we saw Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı) on our boat tour? We sort of started going to it, but we were just not quite in the mood for another palace, so we stopped at the gate, appreciated it...  

And went back to our hotel for a break and for some sunset views from the rooftop. Our hotel was most definitely not fancy at all. On the contrary, it was rather basic. But the views from the rooftop? Wonderful!

Ortakoy (Ortaköy)  

Refreshed after that break and those fantastic views, we decided to visit one last place on our list – the neighbourhood of Ortaköy. Like many places, this started as a separate village before being engulfed by the city of Istanbul. 

I really regret not having more time to spend here. This used to be an incredibly cosmpolitan area, with Greeks, Armenians, Jews... The first muslim Turks settled here in the 16th century by order of Suleyman the Magnificent. And the gorgeous Ortaköy Mosque was built only in the 18th century, and remodeled in the 19th. 

This was the perfect place to see the sun set for the last time in this most amazing of cities, with golden light bathing the Ortaköy Mosque (Ortaköy Camii), the Bosphorus, and the Ataturk Bridge (Atatürk Köprüsü)...

Friday, August 29, 2003

Istanbul – Part IV

Nearing the end of this story – our fourth day! If there is one place that can make you feel no time is long enough to understand, explore, see and do in this city, it's Istiklal Avenue (İstiklâl Caddesi, Grande Rue de Péra). 

Istiklal Avenue (İstiklâl Caddesi, Grande Rue de Péra)

It's not that long, just about 1.4km. But it's packed with architecture, shops, restaurants, endless people-watching opportunities... Going up and down this street was one of our biggest pleasures, and I feel I could have spent a whole week just exploring and enjoying this part of the city in detail... 

We didn't hop on one, but historic trams ply the street. Such a delight to look at! 

Then there are passages with shops and restaurants, which kind of remind me of some in Mexico City, like the Flower Passage (Çiçek Pasajı, Cité de Péra)...

It is a bit crowded, I have to admit. But it's still a very nice experience and a place that leaves you knowing that there's still way more to explore.

After being in such a cosmpolitan and busy place, it was time for some quiet at...

Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Kariye Kilisesi)  

This is a medieval Byzantine Greek Orthodox which, of course, was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman era, and then into a museum in this century. This makes the building about one thousand years old.

Also, when it was turned into a mosque, all the iconography was covered in plaster, which I believe must have served to preserve it. It may be a small church/mosque/museum, but it packs so many beautiful medieval mosaics!

Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Sarayı)  

Since we were more or less in the area, we visited this place, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Sarayı), a Byzantine palace from the 13th century, and the bets preserved Byzantine palace in the city. Once Constaninople fell, this place was used for just about everything, including holding animals, a brothel, producing pottery and tiles, serving as a poorhouse for Jews... Which is why it's basically the exterior what survived.

Tunnel square (Tünel)

We had to go back to Istiklal Avenue, if only for a late afternoon stroll. And also to visit the world's second oldest subway station! The Tünel! Calling it a subway is a little bit of a stretch, as it works more like a kind of funicular with two stops. But still. It connects the neighbourhoods of Karaköy and Beyoğlu, was inaugurated in 1875, and of course we had a ride in it!

And that ride landed us near the Galata Bridge (Galata Köprüsü) again, for some more views of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn...

Whirling Dervish show

I know. I definitely know that these are just shows. That the real thing happens in religious settings. But we were not going to simply walk into one of those, right? So we had to do with a night show of whirling dervishes in the centre of the city.

I had never seen any live. Such mastery! Sure, the setting did subtract a bit from the majesty of the ritual, but we still enjoyed it greatly! Plus, we ran into two friends from Beirut as well! A small world...

I promise, just one more longish post, and then a tiny one, and we're done with Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul!

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Istanbul – Part III

Much of our time in Istanbul was spent enjoying wandering the streets between the different sites we were visiting, like these near the Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) on our way to the Basilica Cistern:

Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı)  

Our first stop on our third day day was the Basilica Cistern. Which actually almost didn't happen, because my partner for some reason didn't understand where I wanted to go and we were this close to deciding not to visit! Fortunately, my stubbornness won and, when he realized where we actually were, of course he was like "why didn't you tell me before!". Ah, the bliss of having incredibly different communication styles...

But I diverge. Back to the Basilica Cistern! There are apparently hundreds in Istanbul, but this one is the largest. Also, it's ancient as most things here – it dates from Emperor Justinian's reign, in the 6th century. It's quite an impressive sight, because of the depth, the size, and the quiet. And then, on top of that, a couple of columns have Medusa heads as bases! One of them is upside down, one of them is sideways. You could say it was done to counter Medusa's deadly gaze. But you could also say that whoever placed them didn't really care which way they were facing? Anyhow, impressive.   

Boat tour around the Bosphorus (Boğaziçi)

Now, there's another word that conjures images of adventure, antiquity, Europe and Asia... the Bosphorus. And, in fact, it does separate the Asian part of Turkey from the European one. It was a sunny, beautiful day. And we decided to take a bout tour of this most famous of straights...

Being as strategic as it is, and heavily settled, ther are palaces and villas everywhere, like the Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı):  

We also saw the Ataturk Bridge (Atatürk Köprüsü) and the Kuleli Military High School, Turkey's oldest military high school.

All in all, a wonderful, relaxed tour. And for those of us that impart a sort of supernatural allure to places and this because of their history, it's an almost magical experience gliding on the waters of the Bosphorus with Istanbul at both sides...

After such a nice time outsude, it was time for the Istanbul Archaeology Museums (İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri), and specifically...

the Museum of the Ancient Orient (Eski Şark Eserleri Müzesi)  

Let me point just two beauties we saw here. The first one were glazed tiles from none other than the Gate of Ishtar, from Babylon! I mean, can you imagine? The Gate of Ishtar from Babylon! How crazier can it get! This is part of one of the eight gates of Babylon and is some 25000 years old! Wow, wow, and wow.

And then, as a reminder of the connectedness of our current home, Beirut, this Lycian sarcophagus from Paros marble, from the ruins of Sidon. Like the gate, a  nice 2500 years old. By the way, there is a much more important tomb in this museum – the tomb of Alexander the great! Why I don't have a photo of it beats me. But still, the Sidon one is still nice, right?


Last, but most definitely not least, we visited two famous mosques. First we went to the New Mosque (Yeni Cami), an imperial mosque whose construction started at the very end of the 16th century, in the area known as Eminönü. Interestingly, it was set precisely there because there was an important and influential Jewish population in the area, and this was sopposed to be a symbol of the importance of Islam. Although it does have an ablution fountain, ritual ablutions are actually carried out by one of the walls instead.

After the New Mosque, we went to the Suleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii), the second largest mosque in the city, built by Süleyman the Magnificent in the mid 16th century. Süleyman had the definite intention of building something magnificent, as per his nickname, and as you approach the gate and look up at the domes and minarets (four of them, a number only allowed to mosques endowed by the sultan), you'd be hard-pressed to disagree.

The interior follows an elegant, simple, sober design, offering an enormous and bright space...

After that, we spent some more time around the streets, enjoying the sounds and colours of this city so incredibly different from our Beirut...