Log of the Eclipse (13)

by wjw on September 14, 2006

Cool! I’ve found this totally nifty virtual model of Constantinople, circa 1200, before the Crusaders screwed it up. Check it out! It’s got everything but that damned mechanical bird!

Now back to our travelogue:

5 April 2006

The Prophet’s Beard

The Hotel Divan’s restaurant seemed unprepared for the number of visitors who descended on it that morning. We could all visit the excellent buffet, but getting coffee, tea, or juice took forever. The wait staff seemed stunned.

I didn’t care one way or another. My sore throat of the day before had turned into a miserable cold, and I spent the day dragging myself around in a cloud of wretchedness, phlegm, and virii.

After breakfast came the bus, to descend Beyoglu’s long, steep hill to the bridge across the Golden Horn. Along the way, we passed the old, deluxe railroad hotel where Agatha Christie is supposed to have penned Murder on the Orient Express. Her room has been preserved as she left it.

Once across the Horn we turned left for Seraglio Point and the Topkapi Palace. (Topkapi, remember, is pronounced “Topkapeu,” because the i at the end does not have a dot, at least if you’re working in the Turkish alphabet, which I can’t here.)

Topkapi is not a Westerner’s idea of a palace, and it’s not exactly Eastern, either. Instead of a huge building with an imposing edifice placed behind a parade ground, it’s a shambolic, mazelike series of buildings constructed around a series of four courtyards. The buildings get progressively more impressive as you get father into the complex, but most were not built to look magnificent from the outside. The interior of the palace proper was something else again.

The palace was begun by Mehmet the Conqueror, on the site of olive groves. (By the time of the conquest, only 40,000 inhabitants remained in Byzantium, and most of the land inside the great Walls of Theodosius had been given up to agriculture.)

The First Courtyard, also known as the Court of the Janissaries because it was their rallying point in the event of trouble, is a pleasant parklike place, full of shady, tree-lined walks. We’d already passed through it several times without realizing it was part of the palace complex. It contains the old Mint, which we never visited, and the church of Hagia Eirene, Holy Peace. It’s a little surprising to see a domed Byzantine church in the middle of a Muslim palace, particularly a church that was never transformed into a mosque. Instead it became the armory, and because of its excellent acoustics is now used as a concert hall. The doors were closed and we never had a chance to examine the place.

You enter the Second Court through the twinkly-medieval-looking Gate of Salutation, which is guarded by soldiers. Once again, we passed through metal detectors, and our belongings x-rayed. Inside, while waiting for our tickets, we enjoyed the company of a pack of Istanbul’s many feral cats, who were munching on kibble provided by the guards.

The Second Court features the kitchens, where the meals for the thousands of palace inmates and officials were prepared. They are appropriately vast and occupy just about all of the east side of the court. Architecturally they are very plain though very distinctive, a series of small domes pierced by tall chimneys. Inside is an exhibit of ceramics, glass, and silverware, all of the highest quality. Topkapi has the largest and most splendid collection of Chinese porcelain outside of China itself, and features plates and pots carries down the Silk Road from the China of the Sung, Yuan, Ming, and Ch’ing Dynasties. Particularly prized by the sultans was celadon, which was believed to neutralize poison.

There is also an exhibition of arms and armor, which alas was closed. Today we concentrated on the arts of peace.

Through the Gate of the White Eunuchs, also called the Gate of Felicity, we entered the Third Courtyard. Centered in this court was a pavilion built in a style reminiscent of Japan, where the Sultan met foreign dignitaries. In the old days foreigners never entered the palace at all, but the Sultan was eventually persuaded to make this gracious concession, and had to build a special building for visitors because he didn’t want them in his actual home. The pavilion, also called the Throne Room, was magnificently outfitted, though we didn’t see the magnificence because the building was closed. When the sultan still ruled from Topkapi, this is as far into the palace complex as any foreigner got.

Foreigners entered through a gate called the Sublime Porte, and were thus accredited “Ambassadors to the Sublime Porte.” The classical Porte no longer exists, having been torn down in the 19th Century and replaced by a rococo-looking substitute. The gate is no longer in use, and we never saw it.

In the Third Court is the treasury, where the astoundingly magnificent jewels and thrones of the sultan are now kept. Among these are the famous emerald-hilted Topkapi Dagger, which is far from the most magnificent item in the place. (I think it’s in garishly bad taste, myself.) The dagger was originally intended as a thank-you gift for the Persian shah, who had presented the sultan with a magnificent throne— actually a divan— which is also on exhibit. The shah died before the dagger could be delivered, and the thrifty sultan decided to keep it.

In the Treasury are a selection of aigrettes, the artificial, gem-incrusted plumes worn by the sultans on their turbans. These are all dazzling. We also saw jewelry, normal household items (like this coffee-cup holder) that had been plastered with jewels, weapons, and the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, which was found in a rubbish heap in the 17th century and sold by a scrap merchant in exchange for three spoons.

Next to the Treasury is the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle, which contains many of the greatest holy relics of Islam, collected by various sultans (who were, of course, also caliphs, heads of the Islamic faith). After entering through a magnificently tiled gateway, I was a little startled to discover a muezzin in a glass booth, singing verses from, I presume, the Koran.

The holiest treasure in the room is the gold casket containing the Prophet’s jacket. This was not on direct view, but was in another room and had to be gazed at through a doorway. In another casket is the Banner of Muhammad, which was carried into battle by the sultans until it became too threadbare to use. Also on display were three of Muhammad’s swords, the blades of which were very plain and businesslike, but whose scabbards and hilts had been much ornamented by sultans in the past. (I don’t believe the Prophet ever engaged personally in combat, being instead more of a strategic thinker, though I may be wrong.)

Also on display are the Prophet’s footprint, locks that had at one time been on the Kaaba, a reliquary containing the Prophet’s tooth, a letter written in the Prophet’s own hand, reliquaries holding dirt from the Kaaba and from the Prophet’s grave, and— most interesting to me— tiny glass reliquaries holding individual hairs from the Prophet’s beard.

This all adds up to more physical evidence for the existence of Muhammad than for the founders of all other major faiths put together. (Admittedly, he lived a lot later, after people had invented history.) There’s no physical evidence at all for Moses, David, Solomon, Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Jesus (unless one credits the Shroud of Turin, which I don’t, or the 100-odd authentic Circumcisions of Christ to be found in reliquaries throughout Europe). I believe the Buddha’s bones, and other relics, were planted in the structures of various stupas throughout northern India, but were all lost during various invasions from Afghanistan.

Still, it would be interesting to scope the DNA in those hairs and see if they belong to the same person, or whether the Muslim world had the equivalent of Chaucer’s relic salesman, who substituted “pigges bones” for those of the saints.

Also in the Third Court are the Circumcision Pavilion, where the sultan’s son would recuperate after the operation (which took place in early adolescence), a clock museum (closed), and a museum of imperial costumes (also closed). It was frustrating to be so near so much cool stuff without being able to view it.

You can view much of the Topkapi on your own, but for the Harem you need a guide and a special ticket. Fortunately we had both.

The Harem didn’t consist only of concubines and servants, but was the sultan’s home when he wasn’t off subduing provinces. This is where he lived among his wives, concubines, children, and sisters, all under the thorough supervision of the sultan’s mother, who really ran the place. (The sultan’s brothers were not in evidence, because within hours of taking the throne the sultan would have had them all strangled in accordance with a law of Mehmet the Conqueror.) The sultan’s mother supervised the education of the concubines and chose the sultan’s sexual partners for him. In his own household, the sultan was Number Two.

The concubines were all technically slaves, mostly born Christian, but they didn’t work for free, and were paid a salary. They were also the most highly educated and accomplished women in the empire, possibly in the world. Great pains were taken with their education, because the sultan didn’t want to share his quarters were a pack of ignoramii. The majority never had relations with the sultan— there could be over a thousand of them, after all— and normally the concubines were retired around age 25-30, having acted only as servants to higher-ranked concubines or to members of the royal family. After retirement, many successfully went into business with their education and savings, and others were given as wives to the sultan’s favorites. Those who bore the sultan male children must have had an agonizing life, since they knew their offspring would die horribly unless he was somehow made crown prince and given the authority to kill his brothers or half-brothers.

The harem was guarded by the Black Eunuchs, slaves imported from Africa. If any of the eunuchs managed to survive the operation with their parts intact (unlikely), and got involved with any of the concubines, the African features of their offspring would be a dead giveaway, and result in the deaths of both parents and the child. The Black Eunuchs were sandali, subjected to a particularly nasty form of the operation in which the genitalia were removed completely, and which made their fathering children even more unlikely. Nevertheless they were accorded great prestige: the head of the Black Eunuchs, the Kislar Agasi, was second-in-command after the Grand Vizier.

The White Eunuchs, who retained at least some of their genitals, ran the imperial bureaucracy and the palace outside the Harem under their own chief, the Kapi Agha.

Some eunuchs were known to have fathered children, even the sandali, so it’s assumed that the operations weren’t as efficient as believed, or that some bribed the surgeon to leave their parts largely intact.

The Harem features galleries with the concubines’ apartments, all ornamented with lovely tile work. The sultan’s living room has a rather chill beauty now, but it should properly be pictured full of concubines, children, servants, music, and poetry.

The two most magnificent apartments belonged to the sultan and his mother. These included running water, flush toilets (squatters, not sitters), lovely ornamented fountains everywhere, and absolutely magnificent tilework, even in what would otherwise be ordinary corridors. The young slave girls from foreign nations or the provinces who came to this place to be educated and converted to Islam must have been dazzled by their surroundings.

From a terrace behind the Harem, the sultan and his household would have had a beautiful view of the Golden Horn and the Bosporus.

The Fourth Court is entered through the Gate of the Black Eunuchs. It’s a series of courtyards dotted with pavilions.

We were peckish after the visit to the palace, and so were taken around the corner to a restaurant tucked under the old Byzantine sea wall, facing the Sea of Marmara. I don’t recall the name of the place, but the food was very good, and we were seated on trestle tables overlooking the sea. Topkapi’s kitchens, with their distinctive domes and chimneys, loomed above us on the hill.

Next we were taken to what was described as a “tour of a leather factory,” though it was in fact a tour of a leather goods showroom (which was good, since nobody really wants to see how leather goods are made). The showroom was in Sultanahmet, just down the street from the Hotel Poem, where Kathy and I stayed during our first few days in Istanbul. We got a fashion show, and then were given many opportunities to spend money. The jackets were very nice, but I was already wearing a swank Danier leather jacket I’d bought in Toronto, and had no need for another one.

My cold had me feeling wretched, so I went back to the bus, reclined my seat, and took a nap.

From thence we were taken to the Grand Bazaar, a name the Turks wouldn’t recognize. They call it the Covered Market. The bazaar was begun by Mehmet the Conqueror and grew over the centuries— it now contains over 4000 shops on something like sixty streets and alleys, all beneath painted arches of more or less ancient vintage. The shops sell rugs and other textiles, leather goods, brass works, “pashmina,” food, perfumes, coffee, souvenirs, turkish delight and other sweets, ceramics, and more souvenirs. Many of the shops are old and small, but are grandly done up.

And they all have hucksters and touts. Being in a place like the Covered Bazaar means you can’t escape them, even by going straight up. I was at a considerable disadvantage in that I was wearing my swank Danier jacket, which meant that every leather goods salesman figured I was a patsy. I don’t know why they thought I’d want another swank jacket, but they all did. I couldn’t have kept them off with a flamethrower.

Kathy had gone off on her own, since when it comes to shopping I merely cramp her style. I wandered around with Pat and Paul for a while, but the hucksters wouldn’t stop, and I was feeling ill and considerably oppressed by the relentless salesmen. I returned to the bus, only to find that the driver had locked it and gone off somewhere. So I returned to the bazaar, found a bar, and hid in the back to drink a succession of beers until it was time to leave.

Back at the hotel, I collapsed on the bed until it was time for dinner. Pat and Paul joined us for a short walk down the street to an Italian place, much favored by young students. The food was adequate, not that I could properly taste it.

Next day we would take to the water.

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