(Istanbul: Part One)
Our ten days in Turkey were nothing short of extraordinary. I will not dally: We loved Turkey. We loved the people, the food, the history, the architecture, the culture, the climate. We will never forget the things we saw, tasted, learned; the people we met and old friends with whom we spent quality time.
We were stricken by the beautiful sounds of the “call to prayer”, which occurs five times a day from the Minaret Towers of every mosque in the city. This was the kids, and my, favorite time of day. Sophia described it as “…intimidating yet beautiful. I liked the sounds and looked forward to hearing it everyday.”
As guests of the Imres, we were thoroughly well-looked after. Our guide for the week in Istanbul was thoughtful, insightful and full of local knowledge. Canan (pronounced “Jhonnan”) knew we were ‘travel-schooling’ the kids, so she started our tour by taking us to the oldest parts of Istanbul and worked her way around the city in progressive-date order.
The history was fascinating to us, so I have to relay a bit of what we learned…
We first saw the Hippodrome which is dated to 203 BC and which started out to be a horse-racing track by order of Emperor Septimius Severus. During the Byzantine Empire, the hippodrome was not only used for chariot races, parades, and community ceremonies it was the sporting and social center of Byzantine life for over 1,000 years.
Emperor Constantine the Great (in 324) gave the hippodrome its final u-shape – the track being about 450 meters long and 130 meters wide and was surrounded by a stone stadium with seating for approximately 100,000 people (now called the Hippodrome of Constantinople). More here: Hippodrome of Constantinople.
The Egyptian Obelisk has carvings dated to 1500 BC but was erected in this place at 390AD. Currently the Hippodrome is not much more than a public garden. But thankfully it was never built-over like most of the ancient parts of the city!
We toured the Hagia Sophia Mosque – now a museum – (re-built post fire in 500 AD) which was enormous and extraordinary and was once a Christian church. It was a surprise to find Christian artwork and relics inside a mosque, which were either covered up or ignored as the typical low-mosque lighting takes over the giant space.
Tony and I found this artwork comically unique in that it is a tiled mozaic of a wealthy contributor to the church (complete with bag of money) and his wife (holding contract) each flanking Jesus Christ signifying their intimate relationship with him, on account of their fiscal generosity.
Oliver standing in front of a partial 13th century Christian mosaic. It was notable that it had not been deliberately destroyed over time possibly signifying the acceptance of multiple religions within this space: Hagia (Holy) Sophia (Wisdom) as the name suggests, may have been more tolerant of religion in general, than some would think.
Next we toured the below-ground Cistern, which includes recycled Roman ruins from the Roman Empire. The Basilica Cistern, constructed in 476 AD is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. It is beautiful down there …the columns are striking and the low water is filled with slow-moving, fat fish. The cisterne was designed as part of a complex water system which provided filtered water for the Palaces, mosques and people of Constantinople.
The Medusa heads (there are two) were incredible! So beautiful. They are recycled from the Roman Empire and placed sideways and upside down as if they were just put there because of their function, without any regard to art or beauty. Here is a website with more great info on the Cistern. The Basilica Cistern, the Coolest Spot in Town. There is a neat article about the Medusa Heads in the Smithsonian…
The Blue Mosque. We were mesmerized to see the inside of a working Mosque. Sophia and I were careful to dress appropriately, cover our hair, and we all removed our shoes. The area of the mosque for men’s prayer was vastly different to the space allowed women. We found it odd and honestly, unsettling to see the segregation-era divisiveness between genders.
This is the mens praying area. Large and beautiful.
This is a view of the women’s praying area. Small, in the back. about 30′ in width, blocked by doors and tall wood partitions.
The Blue Mosque (called Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) is the largest, active historical mosque in Istanbul. It is known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls of interior design. It is enormous and beautifully maintained. Built between 1609 and 1616.
Family photo outside of the Blue Mosque taken by our friend, Nezhi.
It will not surprise, that we left all the school-books at the Hotel during our time in Istanbul. We all learned so much this week about a culture completely unknown to us. Experiencing Istanbul was powerful, educational and meaningful on many levels.