Istanbul – Days 1 to 5

Saturday 8 September

It’s frustrating that even though we leave for Istanbul early in the morning and the flight there is less than two hours, it still seems to take the whole day to get there.

We arrive at our hotel in Istanbul at about 4.30pm. There are a few steps to the ground floor where our room is but the rooftop terrace is on the third floor, 56 steps to climb for a glorious view over Istanbul, the Bosphorus, and the Marmara Sea. I’m so glad I can climb steps!

From the rooftop I can see that houses are tightly packed in. As the sun sets we go for a walk to see where everything is in relation to the hostel. We go to the Blue Mosque and look at it from the outside. It is lit up like fairyland. We go into the courtyard and I ask about using crutches in the mosque. Near the mosque is a lovely fountain around which local families and tourists congregate. The sunset call to prayer rebounds through the city on loudspeakers. All the hawkers stop and wait til the call is finished.

We return to the hotel for dinner on the rooftop. Lovely.

Sunday 9 September

Now that we know where the hotel is relative to the Blue Mosque, the Basilca Cistern and the Topkaki Palace, we decide to visit the palace first. I didn’t realise how big it is! The harem is within the palace but it has a separate entry fee – It seems that I gain free entry to attractions in Istanbul, so that’s ok by me.

The harem is actually the private quarters of the sultan, the Queen Mother and the concubines as well as the guards and eunuchs. And the princes too, at least until they are sent away to other countries to learn about affairs of state (I wonder if that’s at the age of puberty?)
The harem is very interesting,as well as very beautiful, because it explains a great deal about how the Sultan and his family lived, how the household functioned, and the roles of the women in the household.

I am amused to see that in the middle of paths between rooms are pebbled strips with patterns formed from different shades of grey pebbles. I am not surprised to learn that these are the paths on which the sultan rode his horse. There are mounting blocks at strategic points.

The first rooms are those of the eunuchs, and behind these, with views over the sea, the chief eunuchs. The walls are tiled with frescoed ceilings. As we progress though the rooms they become progressively ornate. The rooms of the concubines have baths and open to a courtyard. The rooms of the Queen Mother are being restored but I can see glimpses through the temporary walls and ceiling … They have high ceilings and the walls are tiled floor to ceiling with various elaborate designs. 

The bathhouses (hamams) of the Sultan and Queen Mother separate the Sultan’s apartments from the women’s quarters. They are built of marble and lots of gold.

The Sultan’s rooms are large and covered with tiles of various and beautiful designs. The effect is astonishing.bThere are also tiles with inscriptions from the Qu’ran. Some rooms have delicately intricate mother of pearl inlays. And plenty of gold.  Windows have stained glass.

The chamberlain’s courtyard overlooks a large pool (empty). One of the sultans rooms also overlooks the pool so he could watch his children play in the pool.

The portrait room is interesting because many were done by Italian renaissance artists. One, particularly notable, was done by Veronase.

The Treasury is extraordinary! So much wealth! There are three rooms. All contain priceless treasured. The first holds the sultans seal, items made of pearls, and golden thrones.

The second holds gifts from other rulers, including some sumptuous thrones. One from India has thousands of pearls and diamonds, another is made of ebony with mother of pearl inlay.There is the Topkapi dagger, made of gold and diamonds with three emeralds each more than four cm in diameter – as big as golf balls! There is a Faberge vessel with the faberge seal and the signature of the chief designer. A ewer and basin is made of 22ct gold and Chinese jade. 

The third has the most precious items including jewellery, decorative weapons, and sultans headgear with huge diamonds, emeralds and rubies, but most spectacular is the spoon makers diamond, a cut and polished 86ct diamond surrounded by 49 smaller, but still big, brilliant cut diamonds. Also there are sultans’ rings made of gems, including one made of a sapphire 1cm in diameter. There are two matching solid 22ct gold candlestick holders each weighing 48kg, sultans headgear with a square cut emerald 4cm across with huge ruby and many pearls,  a baby’s cradle, a box about 15 x 30 cm filled with emeralds, a solid emerald box, and more …

We have lunch at the only restaurant near the palace. The palace consists of many small individual rooms and pavilions built on terraces leading down towards the sea. The restaurant is near the sea, has wonderful views, and even though it is very busy it is quite peaceful. 

The fourth courtyard has the sophia mosque. It is small and simple … Peter’s first visit inside a mosque. The chamber of the chief physician is nearby but is closed. Next is the Revan pavilion and Baghdad pavilion both built to celebrate the conquest of cities. They are beautifully tiled. Baghdad has a dome, Revan a flat, beamed ceiling. Both are simply furnished and have recessed cupboards with delicate mother of pearl insets. The main furniture are low sofas under windows along all the walls. Both are octagonal, built in the 1660s. Outside the Baghdad pavilion is an Iftar pergola with gold roof. This is where sultans broke their fast for Ramadam.

The Circumcision chamber has fabulous tiles inside and outside, and is the last of the pavilions to have classical Ottoman designs before a strong western influence in the eighteenth century.

There is a Library pavilion with recessed bookshelves with mesh doors. It is tiled and domed. It no longer contains books, they are held elsewhere to protect them.

We had entered the palace through the harem, but we leave through the gates of Facility (the actual entry and where the sultan was crowned, and where major events were held)

It has taken us most of the day to see Topkaki Palace, despite not having to queue. The  Basilica cistern is still open so we take the opportunity to visit. I would like to descend by the steps, but staff insist that i use the stairclimber. I can hardly refuse, they want so much to be helpful! The cistern was built in the sixth century as a holding tank for water and is connected by a viaduct to a nearby forest.There are huge tall columns laid out in a grid pattern. Fish swim in the water, about 30cm deep. There are brick arches to give strength to the cistern, and the Romans built walls 4metres thick, coated with waterproof cement. Two columns in a far corner of this vast cavern have medusa heads carved into their bases. One head is upside down, the other is on its side. There presence cannot be explained.

We wander through the square, and sit in front of the fountain again. There is a man blowing his whistle trying to keep kids from the edge of the fountain, without much success. All sorts of people gather to sit around the fountain. Old people, very old people, young couples, tourists, families …

The Sunset Prayer call is at 7.40pm. There is something romantic about the sound of a single voice chanting, calling to the city.

Monday 10 September

Today we are shown such great kindness and generosity that i begin today’s story at this point. It is about 3pm and Peter and I cross the Galata Bridge from where we can see the Bosphorus on one side and the Golden Horn on the other. It has been straightforward to get onto the bridge, then to leave it, however, it now seems impossible to cross the road toward the hill on which the Galata Tower stands. Everybody climbs over barriers and chains but that is not possible for me. Peter also wants an espresso coffee but cafes only sell American or Instant coffee. It’s altogether frustrating …

Eventually we find the road that will take us to the tower but it is very, very steep. Peter begins to push my chair up the uneven cobblestone road while I wheel as well. I suggest that I walk up the shallow steps beside the road while Peter carries the chair. We have often done this. After a few metres an elderly gentleman stops us to suggest we use a small metro that goes up the hill past the tower and I can walk more easily down to it. He speaks excellent English and i think his accent is French, but no, he is Turkish, he says, aTurkish Jew. He explains that first we must backtrack to the metro station. The gentleman suggests we use a taxi, after all it will only cost about 10 TL – what a GOOD idea! He offers to organise it for us so the taxi driver will understand. He goes on ahead to get a taxi and have it waiting for me! So kind and thoughtful! 

But there’s more. As the taxi leaves, this very kind man thrusts a 20 TL note into the driver’s hand. He smiles and says it is his pleasure. 

The universe really is smiling today. As I step out of the taxi I see a sign “espresso”. Peter is happy. We are truly blessed.

Which brings me back to the beginning of the day when we visit the Blue Mosque (called so because there are so many blue patterned tiles inside that a blue light seems to glow from them). As we arrive, a very nice young man offers to help us. He tells us he is not a tour guide and we do not pay him. Peter suspects there will be some hook,but we don’t mind because he leads me through the process of entering the mosque clean. He explains to the guard that I will use my crutches, and he helps me to get the wheelchair to the area where I must take my shoes off, and how I will do this. An alternative is to transfer from my wheelchair to the mosque wheelchair which is kept in the clean area. He has told us that he will give us VIP treatment, and he has … We have not had to queue (an hour at least), he has arranged for me to walk barefoot with crutches inside the mosque, and now he explains the meaning of the various tiles, the minarets, the domes, the meaning of the Arabic plaques on the walls, and pointed out some important features. ( there are so many people! And the smell of feet is almost unbearable, I don’t understand how people can pray with the noise and the bad smell!)

Turkish people love cats. They are everywhere … Dozens and dozens, sleeping, playing, wandering … They ignore people, not even a twitch if someone comes near or there’s a sudden movement. They are all fat and well fed. There are many at the Blue mosque, and we see a guard shooing away a dog as it comes near. Cats rule here!

As we leave, he takes control of my wheelchair and tells us he will lead us to his family’s shops…. ! We meet his uncle at the carpet shop. We’re sorry but we don’t want to buy carpets … We hear a good story though about how he is good friends with Jim Bolger and Helen Clark because he was the guide for NZ prime ministers at Gallipoli celebrations for nine years and he has stayed with Jim Bolger … We are treated to apple tea at his cousin’s shop where ceramics are sold, and we are shown his store where he sells scarves. His family’s shops are in the sultan’s old stables, now the Arasta Bazaar. It’s all good fun and I feel a bit sorry for him so I ask to buy a tile with Arabic on it that apparently means something like “I am very fortunate, don’t be jealous of my fortune” . I nearly keel over when he tells me how much. I don’t mean to haggle, I simply tell him that it’s too expensive for me to buy. Down comes the price. I don’t want to lead him on, but the price comes down again, and again. It’s still too much, but we’ve had a good time and it will be a good memory, especially as we fell for his “trick”, and I feel bad for him, so I buy it. Anyway, he showed me how to enter a mosque with my crutches, so i’m very happy. As we leave and pass near the mosque we see one of his cousins telling another couple exactly the same things he told us. I laugh, it’s been fun. (Later we meet a couple to whom the same thing happened, except they had to pay for their “tour” as well as go shopping!)

We hop on a tram to Eminonu, so we can wander through the Egyptian spice bazaar, mmm yum, the smell spices is strong and so good.

We stumble on the New Mosque (Yeni camii) built in 1556, so it is older than the Blue mosque. The columns are tiled using similar tiles to those in the Blue mosque. It is very serene, quiet, there are few tourists, men are praying.

We cross the Galata Bridge, the Bosphorus to our right, the Golden Horn to our left. The view toward the palace and Sultanahmet is spectacular.

We can see the Galata Tower and we decide to walk/wheel to it, but the streets are very steep, and the roads difficult to cross … And that’s when that very kind gentleman from the beginning of my story, steps in to help. He says he wants to help because he admires my strength … Both Peter and I have previously commented on the friendliness of the Turkish people. There are always offers to help -to carry the wheelchair, to hold my arm, to give us directions, to make way for my wheelchair, to talk about kiwis (so many know kiwi slang, like “no worries” ), we were offered some cookies that a young girl was sharing with a friend …  So this very kind gentleman facilitates our journey to the Galata Tower.

The Galata tower was built at about the same time as the Basilica Cistern, the 6th century, under orders of the same Roman. I wait while Peter climbs it, but when he comes back he tells me that there is a lift and only 66 steps to climb to the top from there. Easy, so I wait in line and as soon as I am near the entrance a man clears the way for me, puts me and Peter in a lift and up I go! The view over Europe and Asia Istanbul is fantastic. The skyline over Old Istanbul is all minarets and domes. It’s beautiful. I can see so much;  the Marmaret Sea, the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the skyscrapers in New Istanbul and Asia Istanbul … This would have been a great watch tower for the Romans. We walk slowly round the outside. There are many people here with us but Peter says it is not as crowded as when he first went up. 

Going downhill is much easier, until we come to some steps. They are a lovely double staircase but tricky for me. Some workmen are nearby. They fall over themselves offering to carry me, in the wheelchair, down the steps. They are so nice! And they are disappointed when I insist on walking down the steps with crutches. One man gallantly carries my chair to the bottom while Peter helps me down. The man waits at the bottom with my chair. He is delighted when Peter says”Tea sugar dairy” (the man who met us at the airport told us to say that when we wanted to say thank you – not quite like that, but to remember it that way.)

We make our way back to the tram station, but to get there we have to cross a very busy four lane road. We walk some distance away from the tram to find a controlled crossing, then walk all the back again. Istanbul traffic is crazy. If you mix Florence with Rome, add in motor bikes that drive on pedestrian strips, cars and buses that seem to drive wherever they please – we saw a bus being given a ticket by a policemen – roads that are much narrower than those in Italy … You have chaos. And that chaos is Istanbul.

Riding on trams is just as crazy. Everybody squeezes on board, then squeeze around bodies to get off again, and it seems to work. Trams come every few minutes, and every tram is full. The first time we used a tram we didn’t think we could fit in the carriage so we didn’t get on but waited fir the next one. Now we know that in Istanbul space just appears like magic. I wheel in through the doors even when people are blocking my way … And, snap, the space opens and my chair is in!

The trams are completely wheelchair accessible. I could roll on and off on my own, if I dared. Going home, I squeeze into a full carriage and Peter follows. And we’re back to the hotel. The end of another day.

Tuesday 11 September

I’m not sure what the Hagia Sophya is. I had thought that it is a mosque, but, no, it was a mosque, but originally it was a Christian Cathedral built in the sixth century. Now it is a museum where some Islamic features have been left in place, and some Christian art has been restored. 

There is a long queue when we arrive but a security guard lets us in, saying”welcome to Miami”. He takes our bags to be xrayed and jokes with Peter,”you have a bomb?” Peter tells him he has two. The guard  roars with laughter. Incidentally, he has a pistol in a gun holder on his hip.

From this visit, and with what we learnt from our visit to the Topkapi Palace, we learn a lot about the history of Istanbul. Now a lot of what we have seen makes sense. The Byzantine Empire seems to have begun in the sixth century when Julianius expanded Constantinople. Or perhaps it began when Constantine moved the centre of the Roman Empire here. Whatever, museums and churches here talk about  the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and I now realise that Byzantine has its roots in the Roman Empire. Julianus  ordered the building of the Basilica Cistern, the Galata Tower, the cathedral we have just visited, and other monuments. The Cathedral seems to have been the centre of Constantinopal. In the sixteenth century the Ottomans conquered the city and it became Istanbul.

Ataturk,  in 1935, restored the Christian aspects of the church, stripping tiles and exposing mosaics of the madonna and child, Jesus and Saints, all from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Some of the original Roman architecture from the sixth century was also exposed – the red brick vaults, barrel arches and archways, as well as corinthian columns, marble floors and raised altar. It is now a museum that shows the coming together of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Christian and Muslim icons sit side by side. In the sixteenth century intricate marble lacework was added to the column capitals, walls were tiled, elaborately carved marble preaching platforms added, and on the outside are minarets. All these features can be seen now. We spend nearly two hours there searching out the Christian features that were revealed and the Muslem features that remain, trying to visualise each stage of the church, as well as appreciate the unique view of a madonnas and child mosaic between two Islamic discs with Arabic writing. Amazing!

A cat sits near the altar, smiling at the thousands of tourists passing by. It is completely at ease, and enjoys every scratch or pat offered. When a woman comes near and opens her handbag the cat is suddenly alert, standing at attention, then jumping on to a pillar to get close to her. When the woman gives the cat some food it quickly eats it, then reaches out to the woman for more. It pats her hand, puts her paw in the bag, and after eating more, jumps up again and puts her head in the bag, just about climbing in and disappearing. The cat is obviously healthy, well fed, happy and very tame enjoying the company of people. I have never seen a cat in a museum before, but I think that in Istanbul they can go wherever they want!

Peter has only one pair of long pants with him and he needs to wear them each time we enter a mosque. Everywhere we go there is a mosque. So we head to the Old Bazaar to buy more long pants. I have read that time and patience is required here, so we prepare ourselves for a frantic, crowded place where vendors are persistent, even pestering. In fact, the Bazaar is a really interesting place. It is probably the world’s first indoor mall. It is walled and there are a number of stone gates through which to enter. The ceilings are arched and decorated. It is airy and there are not a lot of people … Yet. The vendors are persistent, but it’s a bit of a game really. I smile a lot and thank the men, they are all men, and wish them a good day as I keep wheeling. The few times I stop the vendors work hard to find what I want, but if I clearly describe what I am looking for they apologise if they do not have it. I learn to look discretely … The worst thing is to be vague, because you’re sure to buy something you don’t want! The best thing is to be friendly. But if you show any interest in goods, it’s impossible to get away!

There are also shops on the streets immediately outside each gate, and that’s where we find Peter’s pants. There’s no hard sell in these shops so it’s easy to look at different places.

It’s getting busy now and I’m feeling hemmed in. We look for the mosque  expecting it to be quieter. And it is. We sit on the steps to eat lunch, then go inside. It’s so peaceful! A few men are saying prayers and there are a couple of other tourists. Other than that we are on our own – with the security guard. The inside is very light, and there is a gentle flow of air through it. The marble is very pale blue, the inside of the dome is white with the usual lacy designs, but there is little tiling. Only the arches have stripes and these are alternating pale and dark blue. It is a very beautiful place.

We wander through the bazaar for a little longer but soon leave and catch the tram back to Sultanahmet where we sit in front of the fountain eating ice cream, two ice creams – each!

We are too tired to go far for dinner, so eat at the hostel. There is always music being played, and suddenly we realise that there have been at least two NZ songs, April Sun in Cuba by Dragon, and Wandering Eye by Fat Freddys Drop. A couple of nights previously we had heard How Bizarre by OMC.! Apparently backpackers give them music and the workers play what they like of it. They like kiwi music!

Wednesday 12 September

We book the Whirling Dervish show for tonight, and a cruise on the Bosphorus and Black Sea for all day Friday. Sorted!

We start out a little later than usual because we have to wait to book these activities. First we want to visit the Dolmabalche Palace then, if there’s time, visit the Rustem Pasha and Suleymaniye Mosques, or if not, the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

The Palace is very, very opulent. It was built in the mid nineteenth century as a grand gesture to demonstrate the power of the Ottoman empire at a time when it was in decline. The sultan wanted to modernise and westernise the empire so the palace is of Italian and French 
design. For one thing this means that the Ottoman style of having many stand alone pavilions making up one palace is abandoned for the western style of putting all rooms under one roof. For another, rather than building in marble it is built of interlocking wooden beams, and the pillars and columns, apart from those in the grandest rooms, are wooden, painted to look like either marble or tufo. The palace is decorated and furnished with European fittings. Because of its construction the number of people who can be in the palace at any one time is limited, and we must visit in groups and with a tour guide.  

The interior is the most decorative, opulent, expensive, expansive I have ever seen. We start at the entrance room. It is very impressive. There are two large crystal chandeliers, two standing chandeliers, the floors are beautiful wooden mosaics partly covered with red carpet runners, and the ceilings are cleverly painted with creamy lacework to appear three dimensional. The wooden ceiling beams are also painted in the same way. In the corners there are ornate fireplaces with crystals that match the chandeliers and that reach the ceiling. (All the crystal objects were made in Britain.)

Then, wham, we see the crystal staircase. The balustrades are all made of delicately twisted and ornate crystal! It is a grand central staircase that splits at the centre into two. Above this is a huge chandelier. It weighs two and a half tons … But is apparently the smallest of three large chandeliers!

Every reception room has ceilings that are gilded with gold, have huge crystal chandeliers in the four corners, contain priceless porcelain vases, hand made carpets, intricate parquet floors and Louis 1V style chairs. Rooms have floor to ceiling windows that let in plenty of light, and have sea views not obscured by the heavy brocade drapes. The Ambassadors Lounge, where official visitors were first taken, includes a white- bear rug. the Acceptance Lounge, where the Sultan received these visitors, has the second largest crystal chandelier, gilt wallpapers, enamelled and bejewelled tables, a matching pair of two metre high porcelain vases, the largest handmade carpet in the world … Smaller rooms are as richly decorated and also have huge gilt framed mirrors. The richly decorated lounges go on and on. Finally, the Exhibition Hall, still used today for state receptions, is the grandest room of all and has a crystal chandelier that weighs nearly five tons.

Our official guide leaves us to make our own way to the harem, or family quarters.

We take our time, then wait outside the harem for the next guided tour in English. The family living quarters are lavish. There are six hammams (Turkish Baths). The walls, floors, columns and basins are  made of a special translucent Egyptian marble carved with beautiful designs. Guest and family rooms are gold ornamented and furnished with marble tables, and drawers and cupboards with pearl inlay. The fireplaces in every room are made of decorated porcelain and gold. Every bedroom has an adjacent salon. Less ornate is the room used by Ataturk, the first President.

Peter rescues my wheelchair from the front entrance, comes back to me and we look for a nice quiet spot to have lunch. We sit in front of the Palace by the sea. 

We return to the Egyptian Spice bazaar. Its easier than the Old Bazaar to find our way around and the aromas are so nice. I buy three scarves, one very lightweight white, an even lighter deep purple and a turquoise one. It’s difficult to resist looking through the scarves because the colours, patterns, weights, fabrics and variety is so great.

We’ve booked to see the Whirling Dervish show tonight. We’re early so we walk through a few nearby alleys. We see old men, two per checked tableclothed table, playing backgammomn. Another group of three men have three cell phones on the table and they appear to be gambling on whose will ring first! 
The show is in an old hammam and is limited to one hundred seats. It is essential to book, it is so popular.  Traditional music is followed by the Whirling Dervishes, a ceremony that consists of men twirling for 25 minutes.Although it provides entertainment, it is a form of spiritual discipline that requires years of training, beginning when boys are very young.  The movement is graceful and mesmerising. The image of the flowing skirts, the rotating movement stays with me and seems to grow stronger. 

We catch a tram then walk back to the hostel, passing the Four Seasons Hotel. We are stopped and introduced to the Four Seasons cat. He is big, white and orange, and neutered to keep healthy. Tje staff member holds him on his back in the crook of his elbow, just the way Amy hold Superfudge. The cat is completely relaxed and smiling. The man explains that the hotel has adopted the cat and that all cats in Sultanahmet are sleek and healthy because they are fed good restaurant food, but cats in poor areas must feed from garbage. Dogs were tagged about five years ago and neutered, so in another five years there should be no homeless dogs roaming the streets. We see only old dogs.

We don’t get to see the mosques, so we will go tomorrow. 

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