(written by Nancy)
First night in our pension went well so I think we have landed a decent spot to rest for a few days. We heard a bit of excitement on the streets about 10:30 last night and suspected it was a result of the big football (soccer) match finishing up. Sure enough, this morning the news had stories about some overzealous fans taking to the field and then to the streets, causing a bit of havoc. Nothing around us other than a few fans (presumably the winning side) parading around and yelling a bit.
Breakfast is okay here at the pension, nothing stellar but enough to get us through the morning (or at least until we can get out and find a patisserie for morning tea…)! The pension is relatively full, which is a change from what we have experienced so far in Turkey. It is a nice change to have people around to chat with – we even met a gal from NE Portland who did a 2-week supported bicycle tour along many of the same roads that we were on (see her journal at http://travelinwithkt.blogspot.com/). If you are interested in a supported tour in Turkey check out www.tourtk.com.
Today we braved the crowds and hit some of the big tourist spots. After a relaxing breakfast with several cups of coffee (it’s a worrying sign that instant coffee is now becoming acceptable to us) we headed out to see the Aya Sofya, which is just a few minutes from our pension. This building is known as the Sancta Sophia in Latin, Haghia Sofia in Greek and the Church of the Divine Wisdom in English. It was built at the request of Emperor Justinian as part of an effort to reinvent the Roman empire in Constantinople and was finished in 537. It was used as a church for almost 1000 years but was converted to a mosque after being taken over in 1437. It continued to be a mosque until 1935, when the great Ataturk declared it a museum.
It is a very extraordinary building, with a huge domed ceiling, grand pillars, wide aisles along the sides and impressive marble clad walls, painted ceilings and mosaics throughout. We were there not long after it opened but it was already filled with people. The use of the building as both a church and a mosque makes for an interesting mix of Christian and Islamic symbols. There are large wooden medallions hanging from the walls with gold Arabic script, which are apparently the work of a master calligrapher. There are also several mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, the angel Gabriel and other angels and saints. There are mosaics of various emperors, and one of an empress that had three husbands and had the mosaic modified to reflect each husband. It certainly lived up to its reputation as being Istanbul’s most famous monument.
There was an exhibition in the Aya Sofya of works of calligraphy known as hilye and is, according to the flyer we found, the largest hilye exhibition with 114 works. These panels describe the physical and personal attributes of the Prophet Muhammad in a generally agreed way – that is, the panels apparently all use generally the same words but the presentation of the words are modified by each artist. Apparently the Islamic culture does not approve of drawings or pictures of the Muhammad – instead words were used to describe him and his personality. The panels were very striking, with both calligraphy and artwork, generally flowers of some type being worked into or around the text. Beautiful to look at even though we could not read the words. These were all modern works but they are in the style of ancient Ottoman calligraphic traditions.
We took a break for lunch (gozleme and hummus) and then continued our wandering about the streets. We stopped at Starbuck’s for a decent coffee, which cost half of what the same coffee cost me yesterday at the café around the corner (and which didn’t taste as good). I am all for supporting the local businesses but paying double is a bit too much to stomach.
We then headed toward the Grand Bazaar, which turned out to be closed on Sundays (oops, didn’t read the guide book closely enough). So, we wandered about the Hippodrome, an arena space where chariot races and other activities were held and which apparently was an important spot for gatherings to cheer on the relevant chariot teams. It now looks much like a large courtyard area and at one point apparently had many statues lining the sides and the ends, though only a few of them remain. One, the pink granite Obelisk of Theodosius, is the oldest monument in Istanbul. It was carved sometime before 1503BC in Egypt and was brought to Istanbul in AD 390 by Emperor Theodosius.
While we were in the Hippodrome we saw several young boys all dressed up in what looked like little sultan costumes, complete with hat, cape and scepter. Dave took a few discreet photos of the “junior sultans” – they were pretty cute but we don’t know what the story was with the dress code.
The Hippodrome is right next to the Blue Mosque so that was our next stop. Another impressive building which still functions as a mosque. It has six minarets and a huge courtyard which is apparently the same size as the inside of the interior of the mosque. Inside the mosque the walls are lined with blue tiles of many different designs. Candelabras hang from very long chains that run from the high domed ceilings. There are some beautiful stained glass windows in the mosque – apparently the current ones are replacements of the original windows, which came from Venice. Because the mosque is still used for prayer about half of it is blocked off (unless you want to pray) so it is not as easy to move around to see all its alcoves and areas. It does not seem quite as grand as the Aya Sofya though the blue tiled walls are certainly very impressive.
After all that sightseeing we were a bit tired so made our way back to the pension after first stopping to pick up some bread, tomatoes, cucumber, cheese, sausage and wine for dinner. A glass of wine on the terrace overlooking Istanbul seems appropriate after a good day’s sightseeing. Tomorrow we will hit a few more of the tourist things to do on our list.
Happy Mother’s Day to our moms Jan and Alice – hope that you had a nice day and know that we missed you and were thinking of you! We were going to send you some Turkish delight but I’m afraid we might have eaten it already….
And finally, big congratulations to our nephew Mats who graduated from the College of Idaho today.