Tuesday, April 7, 2009
A Presidential Visit Disrupts our Sightseeing Plans:
After another huge breakfast on the sea-facing terrace of Deniz Konark Hotel in which we slept very well last night, we set out to discover the Ayasofya—once a Byzantine church, then a mosque and now a museum. Only, we discovered, to our utter disappointment, that the entire area surrounding Sultanahmet Square had been shut down as President Barrack Obama was touring the area that morning in his intention to meet with senior leaders of Turkey’s Islamic community and students at the university. While proud of the fact that our new President was remaining true to his agenda of making peace with the Islamic world after the horrid chasms that had engulfed our world during the Bush years, I was disappointed that he chose the very week we were in Istanbul to plan his visit as we had only limited time at our disposal and wanted to cover the city’s main sights.
Since the tram station at Sultanahmet was shut, we began walking around the Ayasofya hoping to reach the Archaeological Museum which we had learned yesterday would remain open. However, on arriving at the access point to the museum, we found the entire area barricaded by armed foot police. Unable to reach the museum, we had to made sudden changes in plan and decided to visit the Dolmabahce Palace which was far away from all the political action of Sultanahmet Square. Since we were told that Ayasofya would remain closed all day, we had no choice but to plan to see it tomorrow early in the morning just before our departure for the airport. We knew we would be cutting it fine but there was no way we could leave Istanbul without seeing the famous Ayasofya Museum!
It was with some difficulty, mainly linguistic ones, that we understood that we could take a local train that ran along the waterfront past the old stone walls of the city that was then called Byzantium to the last stop called Sirkeci. However, when we arrived there, we found that the Sirkeci tram station was closed too. We were instructed to walk through busy streets lined with shops to the Eminonu waterfront and take a metro from there to Kalabas from where the Palace was only a short ten minute walk away! All along the route, both Llew and I felt as if we were back home on the Indian sub-continent. Indeed so many parts of the city were so reminsicent of Bombay to me and Karachi to Llew that we thought we were transported back in tome to our childhood years! It was all rather uncanny and we wondered what it is about the environment of the East that so blots out national borders and makes locations merge in our memories.
Needless to say, we took a lemon and made lemonade for these rather unexpected detours took us into nooks and crannies of Istanbul that were never on our agenda. Indeed, upon arriving at the Eminonu waterfront, I realized that we were very close to the Rustam Pasa Mosque which a British fellow-traveler at our hotel that told us that morning was his wife’s favorite mosque in Istanbul. It was irresistible to me and I suggested to Llew that we should try to see it. This meant walking very close by the Spice Bazaar with its gunny sacks full of ground and whole spices that presented marvelously indigenous sights.
Inside the Rustam Pasa Mosque:
The Rustam Pasa Mosque is approached by a rather novel entry—past a courtyard filled with friendly vendors. You climb a staircase and find yourself at the entrance where you take your shoes off and enter one of the most exquisite Islamic interiors with amazingly beautiful Iznik tile work and evocative mood lighting. Indeed, we found the space quite enchanting and were very glad we made the effort to see it. Best of all, we had a chance to see the local Turks go about their daily routines—praying, shopping, sipping tea in the bazaars, bustling about as they went from one location to the next.
On to the Asian Side of Istanbul:
It was with some difficulty that we found the metro station that allowed us to cross the Golden Horn and take us to the Asian part of Istanbul. For truly, Istanbul is the bridge between the Western and Eastern hemispheres, between Europe on the one hand and Asia on the other. The Dolmabahce Place lies in the Asian side of the city and in the metro we were carried deep into its heart until we arrived at the last stop called Kalabas where we hopped out. On asking for directions, we started our short walk to the palace passing the Dolmabahce Mosque en route.
Llew kept hoping that after all the time, trouble and expense we had undertaken to get to the Palace it was not closed as well. So, it was with some relief that we discovered visitors hurrying to and from it—a clear indication that it was, in fact, open. On arriving at the Palace Gates, we paid our entry fee of 16 lira (I chose not to pay extra to take my camera inside as I was running short of memory card space anyway) and joined a guided tour in English that was scheduled to begin in just a few minutes.
Exploring the Dolmabahce Palace:
The walk to the main doors of the palace took us past the most beautifully landscaped gardens that were a rainbow of early spring colors in the multitude of primroses and tulips that were everywhere. A beautiful swan fountain was the centerpiece of these formal gardens and it created a lovely setting that reminded both Llew and me of the Saheliyon Ki Bari Gardens in Jaipur, India, that we had seen last year.
Then, we were joining a vast throng of people who awaited the introduction to the Palace by a very pretty Turkish guide who took us through the paces and informed us that the palace was built in 1856 by Sultan Abdul Mecit when the Ottoman Empire was in its declining years—a fact belied by the grandeur and opulence of the palace and its décor. Three successive sultans lived in the palace which also served as a place in which Mustapha Kemal Pasha known as Attaturk, founder of the moder nRepublic of Turkey, breathed his last. In fact, all the clocks in the place are stopped at 9.05 am, the exact moment of his death.
Nothing I could say to describe the palace would ever possibly do it justice for the interior truly beggars description. It is one of the most ostentatious royal spaces I have ever seen and some might, cynically, even describe it as OTT (Over The Top). All I can say is that Buckingham Palace which Llew and I had visited many years ago when it was first opened to visitors quite pales into insignificance besides the lavish accoutrements of this place which actually contains a winding dual crystal staircase made of sparkling Baccarat crystal. The palace has a stupendous collection of English and Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers that throw wonderful pools of light over the entire collections of art works and antiques with which each room is filled. These state room not only housed the private apartments of the rulers (who certainly knew a thing or two about living in luxury) but served as banqueting halls and reception rooms for visiting heads of state.
Among the highlights of the Palace were the Red Room where the sultan met his guests, the private reception rooms that form a part of the harem (in which, the guide informed me when I asked, that there were about 150 girls), the Rose colored Salon , the spectacular alabaster bathroom fully carved and superbly fitted. It was very difficult for my eye to find a single focal point in any of these rooms that were decorated in purely Western Victorian style with its emphasis on excess. In fact, far from believing that Less is More, these decorators believed that More was never ever Enough! Ever so frequently, from the many little windows that were sprinkled around the rooms to let in light and air, we caught marvelous glimpses of the glittering Bosphorus and the many boats that plied its waters carrying people and cargo from the European to the Asian worlds! This was all very evocative indeed and I realized that a vast part of the appeal of this royal palace is its unique location for which other palace in the world can boast the fact that it bridges two continents?
We finally arrived at the piece de resistance of the palace, the Ceremonial Hall which contains the palace’s largest crystal chandelier, a monumental piece that hangs almost to the floor and spreads its radius wide along the ceiling. While we were admiring the interior and taking in the sight of the magnificent domed ceiling, the guide gave us what I am sure she knew would be the most surprisingly piece of information—the ceiling was not domed at all! In fact, it is flat as a pancake and it is only by the brilliant use of trompe l’oeil painting that it appears to be concave! Truly a masterpiece of decorative painting, we simply could not fathom how that effect was created so convincingly to fool the eye. In fact, even the DK Eye Witness Guide to Turkey describes the Ceremonial Hall as having a domed ceiling!
It was about 2pm when we left the palace precincts and walked to the tram stop at Kalabas to return to Sultanahmet Square. We discovered, by this point, that the trams had started running normally and we hoped very much that we would still be able to return to the Archaeological Museum. Our journey took about half an hour and since our big breakfast still kept us going, we decided to forego lunch, nibbling instead on the biscuits I had carried for snacking.
Upon getting off at Sultanahmet, we saw, to our enormous surprise, a line outside the Ayasofya Museum and we were delighted to discover that the museum had been reopened—which probably mean that Obama’s visit had ended. Indeed, by the time we bought ourselves roasted corn cobs that we sat on a bench and ate with enjoyment, Obama was probably already on his surprise flight to meet the American troops in Iraq.
Inside the Ayasofya—finally!
This allowed us to join the line to purchase tickets to the museum (10 liras each) and within no time at all, we were entering the ancient building that has stood on this site for over a millennium! Indeed, the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sofia in Greek and Sancta Sofiya in Latin) was inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD. The Christian iconography seen inside in the form of glittering golden mosaics portraying Christ, the Madonna and a bevy of saints, all date from these Roman-Byzantine times. They were plastered when the church was taken over by the Islamic Caliphs and turned into a mosque under the Ottomans in the 15th century. Fortunately, they did not destroy these ancient mosaics…they only plastered over them. Recent attempts to scrape off this plaster has resulted in the unearthing of remnants of the mosaics some of which are so beautifully executed that they quite took my breath away.
What is most striking about Ayasofya, however, are the vast dimensions of the space. This strikes the visitor right away upon first entry. The walls and domed ceiling stretch out majestically overhead towering above for what seems eternity. The 15th century additions of giant calligraphic rondels that portray the names of Prophet Mohamed, his two nephews and the various caliphs of the time were fascinating especially as I have never seen anything quite like these anywhere else.
On encircling the interior of the church, we took in the main artistic and architectural features of the place that is now a museum—not used for worship of any kind. In fact, it is a completely secular place of archaeological interest alone. We saw the Loge of the Sultan (a grilled space created by marble jalis or screens that allowed him to pray without being seen), the Mihrab that faces Mecca, the minber from which the priest leads the faithful in prayer, the miraculous healing pillar of St. Gregory that stands behind the giant marble urns used to store water that assisted in the ablutions that were necessary before Muslims entered the mosque, etc. The place was rather dimly lit throughout and was teeming with visitors all of whom paused frequently in deep contemplation of the features of the space—whether Christian or Islamic.
Then we were climbing up the winding pathway (not a staircase) that led to the upper floor. This seemed to go on forever, which is understandable, I suppose, when you consider the great height of the first storey. It was here that we saw the bulk of the Christian mosaics and were also able to marvel at the main floor of the mosque from another higher perspective. The effects were all very stirring indeed and we realized how fortunate we were to have been able to visit this museum today. There was just too much to see and there was no way that we could have seen and done it all on a hurried hour-long visit as we had intended to do just before boarding the mini bus that would take us to the airport tomorrow morning. Indeed the Ayasofya which I had seen in so many architectural drawings and paintings of the 20th century and which still overwhelmed me is one of the greatest buildings in the world and we could easily understand why.
Time for last-minute shopping:
With about an hour or two left before the shops closed for the day, we walked along Sultanahmet Square to buy baklava (one of my favorite Eastern desserts) and boxes of Turkish delight for Llew to take home to his colleagues in the States. They come in a variety of colors and flavors from pomegranate and other tropical fruit to varieties studded with pistachios and almonds and flavored with honey. We also had the chance to taste a few of the sample goodies in the various shops and as we walked along the busy streets, we munched on our sweet snacks.
Last Dinner at Ayasofya Restaurant:
Indeed, we remained faithful to the food offerings at Ayasofya Restaurant returning there once more to enjoy the best of Turkish cooking. This evening, we found it rather packed with tourists as its family-friendly atmosphere attracted many patrons. Over more delicious mezzes and grilled kebabs and Efes pilsner beer, we truly enjoyed our meal as much as we enjoyed gabbing with Hassan who sat with us at our table and talked about his carpet trade. It was fun to chat with a local and to get his perspective on Obama’s visit to Turkey. Overall, the Turks are delighted to host the American president whom Hassan described as a “man with a smiling face from which we can get a lot of positive energy”. He was of the opinion that “Obama will be good not just for America but for the whole world”.
It was time for us to take our leave of our new friend and return to our Deniz Konark Hotel where we spent our last night knowing that the next morning we would board a flight to return to London. Istanbul had been a fabulous experience in every sense of the word and we were so full of exotic multiple images as we fell asleep.