Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Istanbul - a Turkish delight

Every fall my girlfriends from university and I take a trip together to a new city in the world. This was the 11th year in a row since we started so it’s really become a tradition that neither of us want to miss. Several of the girls are now married and have families but still take the time for the fall long-weekend with the girls. I have missed a few trips over the years but was glad I could make this one. In fact, this was the first time all eight of us could join.

Istanbul turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. I had somehow imagined it to be a lot more “Turkish”, i.e. more Middle Eastern, old-fashioned, with a hustle and bustle of street mongers and such. But the capital of Turkey was very modern and European – well, perhaps that was after all not so strange since Istanbul stretches over both Europe and Asia, and we spent our 3.5 days only on the European side. People were really friendly and relaxed, were fashion-conscious and dressed well.

Istanbul is the former capital and center of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. The city boasts 2700 years of history and as such is blessed with lots of beautiful, historical architecture and Oriental cultural treasures. The river Bosphorus unites the two continents and two seas, the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea.

We stayed at the Hotel Armada Istanbul on Ahirkapi Sokak No. 24 in the old city on the historical peninsula of Istanbul, at convenient walking distance from everything we wanted to see, and only 100 meters or so from the Marmara Sea. Situated alongside Byzantine city walls, the hotel is decorated in Ottoman style, has a large lobby with examples of Ottoman art and a little water fountain with turtles. Every morning we enjoyed a fabulous breakfast buffet on the top floor. The hotel has a roof terrace with a magnificent view of the old city and the Marmara Sea. See pictures below.

Turtles in the Armada lobby

Armada hotel roof terrace

Mimmis at the Marmara Sea

On Thursday night when we arrived we went for dinner at Mozaik Restaurant, located right in the center of the historical peninsula, on a small street called İncili Çavuş off of the bigger Divanyolu Caddesi and close to both the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia. We got a table in a room on the second floor. The building is an old Ottoman house which was renovated in 1996, and the restaurant serves Ottoman and Turkish cuisine. It was a quaint place and the food and wine decent but not memorable. It felt a little too touristy. We were all tired from the trip and got to bed before midnight.

Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque
Friday started with a walk to the close-by Blue Mosque. This mosque is a beautiful and impressive building with six minarets, built 1610-1617 under the reign of Sultan Ahmet I by Sedefkar Mehmet Ağa, a student of Sinan (the architect of the Turkish bath further down in this blog post). You had to take off your shoes before entering. The whole floor of the huge mosque was covered by the biggest Oriental rug I’ve ever seen, all in a red and light blue pattern.

With the light playing through 260 different windows on the 20,000 Iznik tiles decorated in plant and flower motifs, predominantly in blue and turquoise colors, which covered the walls, ceiling and supportive pillars of the mosque, I understood why the mosque had received its name.

Blue Mosque ceiling

There were also some surrounding and near-by buildings for public use, such as the Arasta Bazaar, a theological school, a clock tower and the largest double Turkish bath in Istanbul, Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamman, situated beside the park between Sultanahmet and Hagia Sophia, the latter which was next on our itinerary.

Blue Mosque and the park

The Blue Mosque is also beautifully lit at night.

Ayasofya – Hagia Sophia – St. Sophia Cathedral
The huge dome Hagia Sophia is today a museum and not used for worship. It has a very old history. First built on a circular plan by Emperor Constantine in 60 A.D., Hagia Sophia was burned in an uprising in 404 and later destroyed in riots in 532. Emperor Justinian I rebuilt it as a rectangular basilica in 532-537 with a dome supported by 107 pillars as a symbol of “renewed unity” between the divided Roman Empire.

In 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror converted the church into a mosque. It has had repairs done over the centuries, among others in 1573 by the already mentioned legendary architect Sinan.

Park between Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

We had coffee at an outdoor cafe before heading to Istanbul’s old underground water system.

The Basilica Cistern
Located just southwest of Hagia Sophia, the 8,970 m² underground Byzantine water cistern named the Basilica Cistern, was built by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century – the age of glory for Eastern Rome – to supply the city with water. The 4.80-meter thick firebrick walls and the brick floor of the cistern were plastered with a thick layer of Horasan mortar and made water-resistant. This cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water.

It is called “the Sinking Palace” by the public due to 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high, rising out of the water. Arranged in 12 rows of 28 pillars each, these are holding up the ceiling vaults of the 140 meters long and 70 meters wide water cistern, providing a spectacular effect in the dimly lit, huge rectangular underground area. As you walk around in the cistern on walking platforms you can hear the slight dripping of water and voices from other tourists echo among the columns and even see fish swim in the water.

My camera phone did not manage the darkness in the underground water cistern very well, so the pictures below are from a brochure and a postcard.

The cistern's water was provided from the Belgrade woods, which lie 19km north of the city, via aqueducts built by Emperor Justinian. The Basilica Cistern was used to supply water to the Byzantine palaces and later for watering the sultan’s palace gardens for a short time after the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans in 1453. However, the Ottomans who preferred flowing water to stagnant one, constructed their own water system in the city and the water from the Basilica Cistern was no longer used. Rediscovered by a Dutch traveller in the 16th century, P. Gyllius, who came to Istanbul for research work on Byzantine remains, the cistern got explored, measured and introduced to the west as an impressive work of art.

The vast majority of the columns in the Basilica Cistern are cylinder-shaped, but there are two columns found in the northwest corner of the cistern which have two Medusa’s heads as their base, one tilted on the side and one upside down. The Medusa’s heads have snakes instead of hair. These are Roman Age art sculptures surrounded by mythological stories. The mythological history of Medusa has a few different angles:
  1. According to one story, Medusa was one of three sisters of the underground giant Gorgona. Out of these three sisters only Medusa, who had the head of a snake, was mortal and she had the power of transforming people who looked at her into stone.

  2. According to another story, Medusa was a pretty girl who was very proud of her black eyes, long hair and beautiful body. She was in love with Perseus, the son of the Greek god Zeus. Goddess Athene, who was also in love with him, became jealous and turned Medusa’s hair into horrible snakes, and whoever looked at her from then on turned into stone. When Perseus discovered that Medusa was bewitched, he cut her head off and won many wars by showing his beloved’s head to enemies, thereby turning them into stone. It is said that this is the reason why Byzantine swords’ handles from then onwards were stylized with Medusa’s head.

  3. A third story says that Medusa looked into the mirror and turned herself into stone.

These stories are said to be the reason why the Medusa’s heads are placed on the side or upside down – in order that people looking at them will not become stones. In the old times statues and pictures of Medusa were placed in very important buildings and private homes to protect against bad omens.

After the visit to the impressive Basilica Cistern, it was time for lunch. I had Turkish meatballs with a form of garlic yoghurt sauce similar to Greek tzatziki.

Topkapi Palace
After bargaining over the price for a 2-3 hour guided tour of the palace grounds with a local guide, we set off to learn and see as much as possible in the remaining opening hours that day.

The guide was well-versed in history and politics through times. I wish I could remember a fraction of all the things he told us about the Byzantine and Ottoman history and culture, but I will have to cheat by reading a couple of tourist leaflets. One of the interesting points he brought up during our tour, though, was that Turkey has applied for membership in the European Union. If accepted, it would be the first Muslim country in the EU. Turkey has set out to modernize and make its economy more progressive, but it has many barriers to overcome before an EU membership can be accepted, including Turkish recognition of Cyprus. All else aside, having a Muslim membership state in the EU might help bring some cultural awareness and increased understanding between the Western and Muslim worlds which would be very positive.

The Topkapi Palace was the Ottomans’ second palace in Istanbul. Built in the 15th century on the ruins of the former Byzantine Acropolis by Mehmet the Conqueror, and later added to by various sultans as needed, its construction includes several courtyards, many buildings and surrounding walls. The Topkapi Palace, covering an area of 70 hectares, was once a city palace with a population of approx 4,000 people. It has housed all the Ottoman sultans from Sultan Mehmet II to Sultan Abdulmecit – nearly four centuries and 25 sultans. It was turned into a museum in 1924.

Topkapi Palace

The palace has four courtyards. The first one was open to the public and used to be the service area of the palace consisting of a hospital, a bakery, an arsenal, the mint (where coins were made) etc. In its time, this courtyard was like the city square where the court and people met. You can also see the Byzantine church of Hagia Eirene (St. Irene) in the first courtyard, built before Hagia Sophia and renovated by Constantine in the 4th century.

Hagia Eirene

In addition to being the imperial residence of the sultan, his court and harem, the Topkapi Palace was also the center of the state administration. The second courtyard was the seat of the Divan, the Imperial Council, and was open to anyone who had business with the Divan.

Imperial Council Hall

In addition to the Divan, the second courtyard also housed the kitchens and stables. The kitchen buildings today has great samples of huge cooking utensils, a collection of fine porcelain from Turkey, Japan and China (the Chinese porcelain collection is apparently the third most valuable in the world), buildings with an impressive collection of Ottoman silverware, armoury and much more.

Cooking utensils in the kitchens
Ewer from the Ming Dynasty (16th century)
Ottoman silverware

In the second courtyard you could also find the entrance to the Harem. The harem in general was a part of a Muslim house that was dedicated to the family and closed to the outside world. It was also the special quarters of the Ottoman palace in which the dynasty lived. Non-Muslim concubines were accepted to the harem in the palace and they sometimes had the chance to become part of the dynasty as Sultans’ wives and became the Queen Mother, but most of them married Ottoman bureaucrats.

Harem’s buildings
Eunuchs working in the harems

Typical blue tile pattern

The Sultan’s reception hall where he was entertained. Whenever the Sultan wanted to talk, the water fountains / taps along the wall were started so as to drown what was being said.

View over Istanbul from the palace

Harem’s buildings

The third courtyard housed the Audience Hall where foreign ambassadors and the results of Divan meetings were presented to the sultan. It also had a library, an exhibition of Sultans’ costumes and some holy relics of Islam as well as the Treasury where a number of precious objects and jewellery, including the famous 86-carat, drop-shaped Kaşikçi Elmasi (the “Spoonmaker’s Diamond”) and the Topkapi Emerald Dagger, were on display.

By the time we reached the fourth courtyard, the palace grounds were closing and we did not have time to look at any of the summer pavilions located there, only have a quick view over the Golden Horn (horn-shaped river mouth and natural harbor, dividing the European Istanbul in a southern and northern part) and the Bosphorus.

Fountain of Ahmet III, at the entrance of Topkapi Palace

On Friday night we went to a nightclub & restaurant in the modern city center of Istanbul with Umut, a Turkish colleague of Jessica’s, and his friend Cuneyt.

Jessica & Umut

The place was called 360 based on its 360-degree view over Istanbul on the top floor of a skyscraper in the Beyoğlu area. It had a roof-top terrace for those who wanted to go out and smoke but it was extremely windy and chilly that night so after a quick look at the view we returned to the crowd and warmth inside.

After a great meal with good wine, we had drinks at the bar waiting for the “clubbing” to start at midnight. Most of the girls, Umut and Cuneyt were tired and therefore left around midnight. Jessica and I were the last remaining at the club. She and I had a great time drinking gin & tonic, dancing to a female DJ duo – DJ Leigh & DJ lLgln – and watching some odd dance performance by a whip-lashing, modestly latex-clad woman, crawling around and doing high-kicks on a catwalk. A photographer from took our pictures (see below), and if you’re interested in seeing the pictures from that night, check out the Partipix website>>

Kapali Çarşi – the Grand Bazaar
Saturday was a day of heavy rain. We started with an excursion to the Grand Bazaar. This bazaar was huge with hundreds of shops under one roof with a myriad of aisles and side-streets with everything you can think of from decorated plates, glassware and ornate lamps to Turkish coffee, teas, water pipes, shoes, leather bags and clothes. In a moment of weakness (I’d like to call it spontaneity), I bought a sort of belly dancing costume with golden embroidery and dangling spangles, something I thought that I might use at some salsa congress when I feel daring enough.
Gabriella, Eva & Jessica at Grand Bazaar

Spice Bazaar
Close to the over 370-year-old (considered “new” in this historical city) Yeni Mosque on the northern side of the historical peninsula, there is a big Spice Bazaar. This is open Monday to Saturday 8:30-19:00 and has not only colourful spices, but herbs, dried nuts and fruit, Turkish delight and citrus plants.

The girls spent a good 40 minutes in one of the spice shops, smelling and selecting among a great number of spices. The salesman was good at his job. By being charming, funny and patient, he managed to convince the girls to smell this and that spice, sample some Turkish delight and various nuts, and they eventually ended up buying a lot more than they probably had originally planned.

Turkish bath house
On Saturday afternoon, we decided to try a Turkish tradition, a historical Turkish bath. Built by the Turkish architect Mimar Sinan in 1584, the Çemberlitaş Hamam (“hamam” means bath”) situated on Vezirhan Caddesi No.8 in the old city, is a still-functioning and well-attended public bath house. Commissioned by Nurbânu Sultan, the wife of Sultan Selim II and the mother of Sultan Murat III, this bath house is one of the most important works of 16th century Ottoman architecture.

Open from 6am to midnight every day of the year, the Turkish bath offers a very interesting experience… We paid an entrance fee, extra for full-body massage, and walked in, not quite knowing what to expect. There are two separate bath sections for men and women. You undress and store your belongings in a dressing room / locker area. Equipped only with the “peştemal”, a traditional thin cotton bath towel, slippers and a small washing-cloth, we entered the female bath chamber.

This consisted of a large heated central marble platform where you lined up for your individual bathing service by lying down on your towel, starting from the middle and skidding closer to the edges as the “washing matrons” expedited the service. Lying on the marble platform looking up at the circular ceiling of the bath chamber and slowly starting to perspire in the humid room, helped you relax before your bathing session. Lined up like beached whales on the platform, there were women in all sizes and shapes, buck-naked and revealing their flabby tummies, cellulite thighs and enormous or skinny but mostly hanging breasts. Quite scary picture, if you ask me. ;-)

When it was my turn, a big, fat Turkish woman with dangling breasts, naked apart from a tiny thong, gestured for me to lie down in front of her at the edge of the marble platform. In a very impersonal manner she then started washing me using my clean washing-cloth, scrubbing every part of my body, massaging my scalp and giving my shoulders a light rub massage. Slightly uncomfortable at first, you soon realized she had done this a thousand times before and couldn’t care less about your particular breasts and buttocks. There were also several individual skin-rubbing and washing areas situated along the walls around the platform, which is where my washing matron led me to wash my hair and poor cleansing water over me as a finishing touch.

You were free to stay as long as you wanted in the bathing chamber, rest on the heated marble platform or use any of the individual wash basins along the circular wall. I sat down in an adjoined room between the locker area and the bath chamber, waiting for my full-body massage. For 10 YTL you could get a quick wax while you waited. Lying down on a bench in plain view of anyone walking by or sitting in the same room, spreading your legs, and 5 minutes and a number of “ouch!” later you were done. No false modesty there!

Ortaköy pleasures
On Saturday evening half of the girls decided to go all the way to the Asian side of Istanbul while half of us had lingered too long at the Turkish bath, decided to chill and instead visit the closer situated Ortaköy area. Umut had recommended a fish and seafood restaurant called Park Fora on the western bank of the Bosphorus.

As you walked in, all the fresh fish and seafood for the evening were on display by the entrance. It was a quite busy night and there were many large tables with big families or groups of friends who enjoyed course after course. The food was great, but unfortunately the service was quite slow and the waiter misunderstood one of our orders so we were a little irritated. They made it up to us by complimentary baklava (a kind of sweet pastry) with the coffee. Normally, I’m not particularly fond of baklava but this was the best baklava I’ve ever had and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

After dinner we decided to try a nightclub a few hundred meters from the restaurant. Blackk was a trendy place (and rather dark, so I suppose the name of the club was rather fitting) with lots of young, fashion-conscious and beautiful people. The music was really good, a mix of old-school and new pop, rock, hip hop, R&B and disco. Eva, Gabriella, Jessica and I found a spot at the back of the club, next to one of the bars and the restrooms, were there was a little space for us to set down our drinks and dance. We had a good time and stayed for 1.5-2 hours.

On Sunday morning, the girls headed out early to go back to Sweden, while I took the opportunity to sleep in and check out at noon before heading for the airport to go back to London. It felt a little odd not going back to my home country with my girlfriends.

This has been a fabulous trip and Istanbul is perfect for a long-weekend get-away. If you haven’t been there, I can truly recommend it.

My Flickr album from Istanbul>>
Some photos are restricted to friends and family only. Those of you who are counted among these, can view all 239 photos.


sultanahmet said...

Sultanahmet is my dream destination.
Monuments in Sultanahmet are great.

Joe said...

sultanahmet , Grand Bazaar , Basilica Cistern and historic peninsule

I will return...