Istanbul – Days 6 to 8

Thursday 13 September

Today we want to visit the Rustem Pasha and Suleymaniye Mosques, but first we will stop at the Great Palace Mosaic Museum. As we wheel/walk down the road towards the museum we notice what seems to be the remains of a large ancient Roman building. The elderly Turkish man sitting by his shop tells us that it is a fourteen hundred year old Roman Palace, Magnaura. Some Australians walk past and are also interested because they have seen these rooms from inside a restaurant on the other side of the block. I have been surprised by how little of Constantinople seems to remain, so I am very curious to know more about it. We have seen what appears to be the remains of Roman walls beside the sea, and occasional brick ruins that also seem to be Roman, but no one seems to take any notice of this amazing history.

All is explained at the Mosaic museum! It is not a mosaic museum related to the ottoman Empire as I had thought. It is the excavation of a fabulous courtyard that was built as part of a huge Byzantine palace complex built from what is now Sultanahmet all the way down to the sea! Constantine had made Constantinople the centre of the Empire in the fourth century, beginning the Byzantine era, but some big battle had destroyed large parts of the city and Justinian had ordered its rebuilding and expansion. Archaeolologists are still uncovering the Roman remains which have been buried under metres of rubble as the city was built and rebuilt. In particular, the Ottomans destroyed most of the Roman buildings when they conquered the area, only leaving constructions that were useful to them – the Aya Sophia, the city walls.

The courtyard is extraordinary. Mosaics, like most art, reveal a lot about the culture and society of the time when they were made. Mosaics depict animals, scenes from everyday lives, heroic actions, ideals and myths which tell us how the people lived, worshipped, dressed and what was important to them. The decorative patterns, shapes, colours, materials used and the execution of the mosaics tell us more.  These mosaics would once have covered a huge area and indicate how vast the palace was. Much of the mosaic courtyard has been broken under the rubble of later building, but it is remarkable how much there is, because it had to be put back together like a jigsaw puzzle.They show mythical beasts, like the griffin, as well as real animals like the lion, tiger and snake. They show hunting scenes. They are exquisite, beautifully executed with wonderful colours.

There are few visitors here, and we almost have the place to ourselves. Most of the mosaics are underground and extend under the Arasta Market (where we were taken after our “guide” showed us the Blue Mosque). The Blue Mosque was built over the top of one of the palaces, as was the Topkapi Palace. With all this tourist activity around the mosaic museum I’m left wondering why  this attraction is not more popular – as we approach the museum six huge coaches pass us (millimetres from either side of the Roman walls that border the road), then another five, and as we leave more stream past. All on the way to the Topkapi Palace  and the Blue Mosque, all unaware that they are passing through the extraordinary history of an Istanbul that was Constantinopal. Many will stop at the hippodrome or Basilica Cistern unaware that they are part of Constantinopal, capital of the Byzentine Empire from around 350AD to 1550AD

We move on so we can visit the Rustem Pasha mosque. It was built around 1560 and was the first octagonal mosque, with the large central dome supported on four smaller domes. It is A small mosque with lots of narrow steps to reach The courtyard.There are tiles not only in the courtyard but throughout the inside of the mosque covering the columns, walls, minbar and mihrab. There are geometric and floral designs in beautiful shades of blue, purple, green and red. There are so many different designs  it’s hard to keep count. There are large designs made up of tiles of different designs. The domes have many small round glass windows that let in lots of light. The windows are “double Glazed” with about a metre depth within the two layers of glass. All the mosques and buildings seem to use walls that are at least a metre deep.

I am eager to see Suleymaniye mosque  because it can be seen easily on the skyline from anywhere in Istanbul. From a distance it appears large with many domes and seems to made from brilliant white marble. It is also on top of a steep hill. With Peter’s help I wheel up the steep winding narrow road that is not much wider than a path. As usual pedestrians compete with cars and trucks for space, and scooters and motor bikes weave through everything. Men with carts loaded with goods complicate the “flow” of traffic. I’ve learnt to squeeze through narrow spaces and claim my place. Peter is more cautious … But I make better progress. And it’s safer too because everyone around me can see where I am going.

We arrive as prayers begin so we wait where there is a fabulous view over Istanbul and the Bosphorus. We can also see how extensive Suleymaniye really is. There are many surrounding buildings, a hospital, hospice, school …

Inside the mosque everything seems very simple. A white stone interior with very little tiling, columns made of marble, painted Arabic symbols on painted discs, and the inside of the domes are painted with simple patterns. The central dome is astonishing. The mosque was built around 1550 yet the painting inside the central dome is very European. There are roses and other flowers painted in detail within painted arches and against a deep cream background. It looks very French! There are Intricately patterned stained glass windows including two rose windows, just as you’d find in a medieval Christian church

I buy yet another scarf from a market outside the mosque. Market and mosque always together. It turns out that markets were built beside mosques so that the rents would pay for the upkeep of the mosque.

We realise that we’re not far from another mosque, Sokullu Mehmet Pasa. A tram ride, a short but steep walk, and a few directions from friendly locals and we’re there.

It’s a small mosque but very interesting. There are a few boys of about fourteen who are rocking back and forth on their haunches reciting the Quran. A few boys of about seven or eight are running around playing noisily. There is a cemetery around two sides of the mosque and there appears to be a single large building annexed to it, rather than a number of smaller buildings. I think this is a Qur’an school.

The outside seems simple and is made of granite. There are very high columns and arches in front. I saw only one minaret. In the centre of the courtyard is a very pretty ten sided fountain made of marble and with a zinc roof with wide brim and peaked top. 

Initially the inside also seems simple with mostly granite walls. However, there are large blue tiles with white arabic writing, one wall with extensive tiling, and the “pulpit” is white marble capped with turquoise tiles. The main dome is painted with a red and blue design on cream and has very lovely blue tiling at six points. There are eighteen arched windows with small glass holes so there is plenty of light.There are four small domes around the central dome. Every window has coloured glass, the most ornate around the windows on the main wall. Under some of the arches around the outside are mosaic tiles in mostly irregular but repeated patterns in white, red and black. The grouting is “raised” by a few centimetres.  Once again, this mosque is very different from others, the main similarity being the way the inside of the domes are painted.

The official shoos off the few of us that are there, ourselves and one other couple, then shuts the doors. The older boys go in. It seems that a lesson is about to begin.

Friday 14 September

I have swum in the Black Sea! Off the back of a boat!

Today we are cruising up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea.

We’re picked up from the hotel. The pictures advertising the trip has lots of young people jumping off the boat and swimming in the water. Turns out most of the people are about our age! 

The boat is not very glamourous but that’s ok, they’re not phased by my wheelchair (Turkish people call it a car!). We move away from the wharf but the boat idles for about twenty minutes then returns to the jetty to pick up more people.

First stop is a bit of a dud. There is a mosque here that is usually the attraction, but it’s closed for renovation – and has been for a year … I’m not sure why the itinerary remains the same, because there really isn’t much here other than Starbucks, a few market stalls, a Greek orthodox church that’s closed, and a derelict looking building that might be some Roman ruins – or not. 

However, I have my own little adventure. I am the last to leave the boat. Peter is waiting to help me over the bow, onto the steps and off the boat, when a worker grabs my arm, blocks the way and says “is dangerous”. Sure enough, the boat has been pushed off the wharf by waves and the distance between me and the shore grows. The boat motors backwards. As long as I can grip the rail with one hand I’m surprisingly ok as the boat rocks and heaves. Every time the boat attempts to dock,the waves crash against the wharf. I’m quite proud of myself as I stand solid on the pitching boat. Peter probably feels worse. He’s standing alone on the wharf(with my chair) the other tourists having moved on. Eventually the boat docks and I’m off.  

The Bosphorous cruise is brilliant. I’d recommend it any day over the option we had been advised to take, that is, to use the public ferry that takes an hour and a half to go up the Bosphorus, you spend three hours at the end of the ride, then return by the public ferry. The good thing about the public ferry is it costs only 25TL, but you don’t see much and you don’t know what you are seeing. The IBO cruise is expensive, 75euro, but you get a personal tour of the Ottoman summer Palace, a tour and explanation of the fort Romlio, a commentary of real estate, properties and landmarks we pass, and we go all the way to the Black Sea where we swim off the back of the boat. And a really good history lesson about the layers of history here, going back eight thousand years to the Samarians.

The summer palace is on the Asian side of Istanbul, and was one of four palaces built by the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. The luxurious lifestyle broke them financially and politically. The summer palace is smaller than Dolmabalche but is still extravagant, and is also European in style. Ninety tons of gold was used in building the four palaces. This one has gold on the top of all its columns and all the ceilings have frescoes that are heavily gilded. The central staircase is cantilevered. It leads to an entrance hall that includes a large fountain! The crystal chandeliers here were made in France. There are numerous large handmade Turkish carpets. The furniture and furnishings are French. The Sultans prayer room, instead of being simple, has a large crystal chandelier and lavish furnishings. There are no kitchens because all food was prepared at Dolmabalche and sent across by boat, then dishes etc returned there by boat!

The lavishness of the palace has been overtaken by more modern real estate. We see numerous mansions with private jetties, elaborate boathouses, mosques, gardens and swimming pools. A house set back from the water, up the hill, recently sold for US 120 million.

I climb up to the fort, Romlio, because the tour guide organises another crew member to accompany Peter and me at my very slow pace. The view is great and the history very interesting. It was built by the Turks in the fifteenth century to successfully lay siege to Constantinopal.

Then the swim!

And all the while the day is glorious … Blue sky, warm, no wind … Perfect

We finish the day by having dinner on the hostel rooftop terrace. The night is warm and still,  the lights across the water are twinkling, and when the sunset prayers are called, the moment is magical.

Saturday 15 September

We haven’t seen the Archaeology Museum yet and it’s on my ” must do” list. Now I see why it’s so highly rated!

The Ottoman Empire spread throughout Asia Minor, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and parts of Russia. In the eighteenth century the Sultan ordered the governors of these regions to send all archaeological finds to Istanbul. These are in the Archaeology Museum – items from 4000BC!
The Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great from fourth century BC.  Carved from a single block of stone the marble relief sculpture rivals anything from the Renaissance, including work by Michaelangel. 

Numerous sarcophagi and temple freizes with detailed marble relief, and in excellent condition. Other sarcophagi in the style of Greek and Egyptian … All amazing …the Pergammon Museum  in Berlin may have stolen the Pergammon altar, but Istanbul has the best examples of this type. I wonder how vigourously Turkey has lobbied Germany for the return of the altar.

The Gezer calendar, a tenth century gardening guide written in Hebrew on stone!

An inscription on the side of a tunnel linking Jerusalum to a spring in case of siege.the inscription explains the purpose of the tunnel. Seventh century BC

Within the Archaeological Museum complex are the Tile Pavilion and the Ancient Orient Museum.

In the Tile Pavilion are examples of ceramics made during the Ottoman rule. There are ceramic bowls, plates and wall tiles. There is a tiled niche, built in1432 and consisting of mostly colourful blue tiles laid together to make different designs.  There is also the Fountain of Life featuring a peacock made from tiles of which the outstanding colour is gold.

The Ancient Orient Museum is absolutely mind blowing. It contains archaeological treasures found within the Ottoman Empire,  areas of the Near East originally known as Babylon, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Sumaria and so on.

Pre- cuneiform and cuneiform tablets made 3000 to 4000 years ago. My eyes are opened to the obvious and I really see the similarities between what we do now and what and has been done for thousands of years. We buy and sell property, we marry and divorce, we have school books for our children, multiplication tables, bookkeeping, we write poetry …  One tablet is a hymn describing sacred marriage, said to be the oldest love poem. It was written around 1900 BC. Another clay tablet is the first written treaty between two independent empire/countries. It is a formal declaration between the Hittites and the Egyptians to maintain peace between each other, to defend each other against invasion, and contains an extradition clause … The first piece of International Law! A copy hangs in the United Nations! Another tablet is a written record of the sale of a house … There are  more examples of commerce and everyday living.

A 4000 year old measuring stick to standardise for trade the lengths of a foot, a finger, fourteen fingers, a yard and so on. 

Standardised weights such as a talent and a shekel.

The Ishtar Gate from Babylon! We have seen part of this in the Pergammon Museum, but here are tiles depicting not only the lion, but also the donkey, the camel and other animals. 

We spend over five hours at the museums … It is overwhelming, unexpected, delightful, awe inspiring, exhausting, unbelievable and absolutely unmissable. 

As we leave we spot the Guilhane Park. It’s shade by trees , has a fountain and pool, and we will probably come back another time to chill out here.

To ease our brains we catch a tram to Kabatas to see the Dolmabalche Mosque. We missed it on our visit to the palace. I’m so glad we came back! It is decorated in the same way as the palace, with the same style of giant crystal chandelier, European style painting of flowers on the ceiling, stuccoed marble columns, marble pulpit,  large arched windows that open onto the Bosphorus … And no tiles! And no tourists! We hear the prayer call, so we quickly leave as many local hurry into the mosque. 

We take the nearby funicular up to Taksim Square which is touted as something worth seeing. It’s not. The Independance monument celebrating Turkey becoming a republic, provides a good photo opportunity, but there seems to be nothing else. There is a street that steeply slopes down to the Golden Horn, and is said to have many quirky shops and cafes, but Istanbul is full of those! We head back down to the tram, stop off at Eminonu to buy some cheese and fruit, then call it a day.

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