Istanbul – Days 9 to 11

Sunday 16 September

We have no specific plans for today. Peter wants to visit the Turkey and Istanbul Arts museum, and there is a “little” Aya Sofya we would like to see, both within walking distance.

The Arts Museum is a real gem! It’s not a great start for me though, because the security guards insist on taking me up the two flights of stairs using the stair climber. Stair climbers are impossibly slow, but I appreciate the guards’ concern.

Turkish art revolves around calligraphy, tiles and carpets. I am fascinated by pages from the Qu’ran. Although the illustration is not as elaborate as those on the bible pages slaved over by Christian monks, the calligraphy is beautiful, often forming shapes which add even more art to the text. 

State documents are art. These documents were written out by famous calligraphers who were considered great artists. They are written on scrolls and the elaborate calligraphy with shaped text makes beautiful art. There are legal documents transferring land title, and we are amused to see one legal document about water rights, indicating how much water could be drawn off at various points on a river! 

While we are looking at calligraphy pages we start talking to a woman who is visiting Istanbul because it is the setting for historical novels written by someone who has become her favourite author. The novels sound interesting, I’ll look up the author and her books. We have turkish coffee at the museum cafe with her and her husband. The cafe is not only a place to drink coffee but provides its history and education into how Turkish coffee is made. Peter is delighted, and he buys a fabulous coffee set. All we need is the Turkish Delight to go with it.

We take a tram to Little  Aya Sofya, Kucuk Aya Sofya. As I make my usual preparations to enter a mosque i am welcomed by a very kind elderly man who stops vacuuming the floor to greet me. He has a lovely smile and kind eyes. He smiles and talks to me in Turkish and that would be a problem except that his son is nearby and he speaks good English. 

Surprisingly, we are able to walk anywhere. Even the mens prayer area is not roped off, and we are allowed to walk there. Kucuk Aya Sofyis was built at the same time as Aya asofya, and has been restored. It has been plastered and repainted but interestingly some pieces of the original building have been deliberately and carefully left in place. An original grey marble column, a  piece of cornice, bits of wall. Its great to be able to imagine how the mosque would have looked originally.

The prayer niche faces east so is off centre because the original christian church altar did not. 

It’s prayer time and we prepare to leave but we are invited to go upstairs to watch. 

There are only three other tourists here and the mosque seems “untouristy” so I am surprised to se a small tour group as we leave. 

The son of the man who met us, walks up the street to get a taxi for us to go to the Imperial FatihMosque. This is very kind, and very helpful because he asks about the fare in Turkish. Also, there is no public transport near the mosque and having checked the map, we are not sure we could find our way there through the maze of steep winding narrow streets. 

The crazy taxi driver gets us there in ten minutes! He speeds, weaving and threading his way around moving cars and pedestrians. He drives us through back streets that take us past where the ordinary local people live. The buildings are three or four storeys high, neglected, dirty and close together. The area appears squalid.

The taxi driver drops us somewhere near some steps that lead toward the mosque. Taxis don’t take you to a specific place, they drop you off somewhere close by – usually in the middle of the road. They simply stop in the lane near where they decide they will drop you off …. There seems to be no enforcement of road rules. Cars go down one way streets the wrong way, turn two landed roads into three lanes, thread their way through intersections that are always blocked …

We have our lunch sitting on a ledge beside a park in front of the mosque. There are many, many, many cats. They are scrawnier than other cats we have seen, and are foraging for food. I think this area is poorer than other areas we have visited. There is a park outside the courtyard with trees and benches outside. Families sit here but it seems dirty and grubby with rubbish strewn about.

There are very few tourists here but many local families. We watch the locals as they pass by. I notice that a lot of women, especially young women, are wearing black burkha. It is not full burkha, but seems unusual to me because the head piece is pinned under the nose so that only the eyes and nose are visible. Women are wearing full burkha, most wear burkha that shows the face, and as elsewhere, some wear a head scarf with an odd looking trench coat over a dress. Almost every woman is wearing one of these types of dress. Women around this mosque seem more strictly dressed than elsewhere.

Peter watches an interesting little by-play. He sees three men, one of whom is wearing a suit, and two of whom are wearing Saudi style of dress (flowing white head scarf held in place by a ring around the top of the head, and flowing long white skirt). Two women dressed in full black burkha, with a young boy, approaches one of the men and speaks to him. He pulls out of his pocket some paper that Peter soon realises is a wad of money, peels off a note and hands it to her. The women leave.

Imperial Fatih Mosque is not what I expected (I didn’t really know what to expect). It was built in the fourteenth century but restored in the eighteenth. Consequently the walls are plastered and painted, there are no tiles and little remains of the original other than the fountain outside, part of the old wall and the original mihrab. The mosque is very big. it has four domes around  the central dome, a popular design. 

There are many families who are there to pray. Young boys run around and play noisily in the men’s praying area. Nobody minds. There are many more women here to pray than i have seen in other mosques, perhaps because it this seems primarily to be a place for families. 

The fountain in the courtyard is elegant with brass taps and made of the same pale grey marble as the walls.

There are no trams or buses near the Chora Museum, the next attraction we want to visit so we hail a taxi, which is Not difficult to do here. 

Byzantine art is supposed to be main attraction at the Chora Museum but for us it is the roman construction. Chora means outside, and the christian church was known as such because it was originally outside the city boundaries.  The church became a museum in 1948 and shows off beautiful mosaics and frescoes telling stories about the life of Jesus. We have seen so much wonderful art like this in Italy, particularly at Orvietto and Siena, that we are more interested in the building itself. It was built in the fifth century and is wonderfully Romanesque. It is a small church so there is something particularly attractive about the rounded vaults and arches.

Because there is no public transport we have to leave by taxi. The taxis have us over a barrel so we pay a small fortune. But at least we are able to establish the fare before we leave.

We go to Platinum to drink apple tea and have a snack. This is the restaurant with the entrance to the excavated palace! We are able to look at the roman ruins. And they’re amazing! Definitely on the must do list. We go downstairs from the restaurant and we are immediately in the Roman Magneum Palace, built in the fourth century AD.  We are surrounded by brick vaults and arches leading in different directions. The area extends under the restaurant and probably those on either side.  Part of one arch is propped up by a piece of wood jammed into a corner, and I can’t see any supports so I try not to think about the weight above us. These brick arches have been here for 1800 years so the chances of them collapsing right now are slim. I briefly wonder what safety requirements Turkey has for developments like this. The restaurant has trucked out 600 truckloads of dirt and rubble to excavate. I’m glad they have, and we can stroll around something that would normally be roped off. Even in Tivoli we couldn’t walk inside the ruins. This is great!

What an end to a day!

Monday 17 September

Over breakfast we chat with a charming young French woman who is a professional photographer. When she travels she likes to people watch and photograph locals. We exchange plans and where we have been. It is interesting how many “odd” things we have both been interested in, for example, in the Old Bazaar we made as much of the architecture and friezes as we did of the merchandise.

We have visited almost all the attractions that we had planned. The couple we met yesterday had suggested we visit the Beyazit Mosque, near the Old Bazaar, because it has not been restored since  it was built in the early 1500 s.

On the way to the tram station I overhear a tour guide talking about a column that is the remains of an arch built by Constantine in the 300s. This was used as the reference point to measure all distances throughout the zero man Empire!! I love how Istanbul has  little historical gems  like this, everywhere! 

The tram turnstiles have been disabled – trams are free this morning! Til 1pm. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is a holiday because even though it is a Monday, many men are out with their girlfriends or wives and children. The trams will be busy! But we have become very good at getting on and off trams at peak hour. The first time we tried, we missed the tram because we were too timid to push our way on. Now we simply move forward and know that somehow space will appear! That is the Istanbul way, whether you are driving like a madman, walking through a crowd or getting on a tram. Also, when you get out of a taxi in the middle of the road you know that somehow traffic will continue to flow around you, so you barely check to see if the way is clear. The same when crossing a road. Wellingtonians are not the best jaywalkers in the world, people in Istanbul have turned it into an art! The difference between the two cities is that pedestrians here are accountable for their actions. They take the evasive action, not the drivers who ignore them. And unlike in Wellington, pedestrians don’t thump the bonnets of cars who have every right to be on the road. Surprisingly, we have not seen any collisions …

First we look near the Old Bazaar for some shorts that will fit the slimmed down version of Peter, before we check out how far the ferries travel up the Golden Horn. Surprisingly we find short sleeved shirts (all mens shirts are long sleeved), then look for shorts. We find some nice longs and as i suggest to Peter that we cut them down, the shopkeeper suggests the same … Done! 

We walk/wheel a few hundred metres to the Beyazit Mosque. It’s very big and has not been modified or restored since it was built around 1500, although there have been some repairs. It is in the same style as the Aya Sofya. We have discovered that this Roman structure has influenced the style of mosques all over the world. The Ottomans based most of their mosques on this design and given how far their empire spread they had enormous influence on the architecture of mosques. 

After seeing the Beyazit Mosque I realise that the painted interior design of restored mosques is true to the original, but that the art of painting friezes seemsvto have declined since the 1600s. The patterns in the friezes here are intricate, detailed and colours are well balanced. Although pieces of friezes are missing, plaster is chipped and there are bits that are broken, it is splendid as it is because of the beautiful painted designs. 

The fountain is very large, made of pale grey marble, has a flattened dome of zinc, and has a magnificently gleaming golden crescent at the top. The courtyard is lovely too, with it’s painted domes, peacock feather details, and detailed column capitals. I like it very much.

We leave just as prayer time begins. Young men and women keep coming, they are running in. The young women are dressed in ordinary clothes and as they rush in they grab a scarf from a box – not tourist scarves – they obviously do this all the time. The mosque is near the university (and the Old Bazaar) and I wonder if they are students.

We are hoping to visit Pierre Loti Hill and a nearby mosque. We need to use a ferry.  Buses go there but they have three steps to climb and we are reluctant to use them. 

I have read that work is being done on the ferry terminals and we are not sure if they go as far as Eyup, where the Pierre Loti Hill is, or even Feron which is closer. We walk/wheel toward Eminonu where the ferries leave from. We see the most extraordinary sight on the way!  Police are supervising the towing away of a parked car … The car is swinging in mid air as the tow truck uses a crane to lift the car up and over the adjacent parked cars, swinging perilously close to one. The car is attached somehow by chains to the crane, so up and over and onto the back of the truck it goes, swinging all the way! 

We check to see if the ferries go as far as Feron where we can see a Greek Orthodox church and a mosque. They don’t. There is a park like strip alongside the Golden Horn so we try to find a way on to it, but it is blocked by construction work on a new bridge across the Golden Horn. We continue to walk hoping that at some point the green belt will open up. We come to a major traffic interchange where cars travel very quickly. A few people play chicken but its more dangerous than anything I’ve seen here in Istanbul. 

Its frustrating. We consider getting a taxi to Feron but we are both feeling too relaxed to attempt anything that requires thinking. 

Instead we catch a tram to Eminonu, where can look again at the Rusten Pasha Mosque. After having seen so many Mosques that are decorated with painted designs, i want to remind myself how the mosques that are decorated with tiles compare. The tiles and tile patterns are individually superb works of art, but surrounded by so many different designs i find it difficult to relax and feel the peace that the mosques offer….Interesting.

Returning through the Spice Market, we buy some Turkish delight to bring back home with us. We are offered various flavours to sample first. Mmm. I didn’t think i liked Turkish Delight – til now!Then we catch the tram to Guilhane to chill out in the park there. 

Dinner is interesting. I share my chair with my new friend, a little white and ginger spotted kitten.on my other side sitting on a ledge is another kitten. They like my chicken …. But as a reward for my generosity my little friend washes himself and sits tight against me for over ten minutes … And then goes looking for another friend to feed him good restaurant food. And compete with all the other cats roaming the restaurant. 

Nasty thought … I ask our waiter if anyone ever puts cat on the menu.  He offers to Have one cooked for me, and asks which portion I would prefer … Fortunately he’s joking … 

Tuesday 18 September

We wake to pouring rain and a thunder storm. It rained a little yesterday morning but the shower quickly cleared. This rain is heavy! 

It is our last day here, we must be at the airport by 6.30 this evening.
We decide to head to the Old Bazaar simply because it will enable us to keep dry … 

We wander through the maze of covered streets. Surprisingly there aren’t many people so we can see the decorated ceilings and arches more easily. It is amazing to think that this bazaar has been here for over five hundred years. I watch people from all over the world go by. I see some young women dressed in vibrantly coloured matching headscarves and burka – one in pink, the other in yellow -with some older women in burka, and they are taking photos of each other. 

With no particular direction to go in we enter the antique bazaar, the oldest part. The alley is just wide enough for my chair. There are antique swords and daggers, antique jewellery … I hear a voice. I turn and an elderly gentleman places a beautiful opal bracelet on my arm and says he has some beautiful things for me. I’ve been joking with the vendors and I’m confident now that I can enjoy their banter and leave without buying something and not offending them. There is something compelling about this soft spoken man. I am sure his technique has beguiled many, many women who have ended up buying something from him in the same way I do! I really like the turquoise and marquasite bracelet and we agree on a price. It is a wonderful way to remember Istanbul. I ask him if he has some earrings that might match the bracelet. Of course! When I explain that I want something finer, he sends his assistant to get something. I like what he brings but we are running out of lira. I can only offer much less than the price he offers, but he accepts. His is his first sale of the day, my purchase is the last of our holiday!

It has stopped raining so we leave the bazaar and head for the Findikli tram stop where we have seen a park beside the Bosphorus. It is cloudy but pleasant and we can watch the boats or read.

It’s time to return to the hostel to pick up our luggage and head to the airport.

The people in Istanbul are amongst the friendliest, kindest and most generous I have ever met. They are always offering to help. If I stand waiting for Peter, someone will ask if I am all right. The men are outgoing and smile and joke and chat. The women are quiet, but when I smile they always smile in return. One of the ladies who worked in the breakfast cafetaria at the hostel kissed us on both cheeks when we said goodbye.

Farewell Istanbul. I’ve enjoyed the history, the entertainment, the mosques, the art, the food, the bazaars and the people.

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