Log of the Eclipse (14)

by wjw on December 19, 2006

I’ve had a very busy few months. This month is no less busy. But if recovering from a virus isn’t a sufficient excuse for self-indulgence, then what is? Time for another reverie . . .

Cast your mind back to April last, and Day 14 of our Turkish Expedition . . .

6 April, 2006

The Cow Ford

This morning the wait staff at the Hotel Divan were somewhat better prepared for the huge wave of breakfast customers all arriving at the same time, and I got my pot of tea before I had actually finished my meal. I tipped according to the amount of sweat on the bustling waiter’s forehead, substantial in this case.

This was our last day on the actual Sky and Telescope tour. We had enjoyed it, as frustrating and harassing as it sometimes was, but we were ready to be on our own for a few days.

Our last official visit was to be a Bosporus boating trip. I was a little leery of it, because the day was cool and blustery and because I was still suffering from my cold. I dressed up as warmly as possible, wrapped one of Kathy’s scarves around my neck, and provided myself with a wool hat. I figured that at last resort I could take refuge in the cabin. In the event the day was warm and sunny enough so that I hardly suffered at all.

The buses wound down from Beyoglu past the Inonu Stadium complex, then stopped in the busy suburb of Ortakoy. Ferryboats were packed three-deep at the quay, cars and buses and pedestrians were all thick on the ground, and swarms of hawkers offered us tours, guide books, and genuine $30 Rolex watches. We were in the shadow of the very large and magnificent Mecidiye Mosque, and in the shadow of the enormous Bosporus Bridge, which amazingly enough seems not to be named after Ataturk.

The Mecidiye Mosque, by the way, is not on any of the standard tours because its architecture is a 19th Century mishmash of Oriental and European motifs. The guides wish to show us only pure Turkish designs. The bridge was, I guess, the first over the Bosporus, and therefore the most famous. Its span is over 200 feet above the water, and the bridge is the 9th largest in the world. It’s no longer alone: there are several other bridges now.

We got on the ferryboat and chugged off onto what the Greeks for some reason called the “Cow Ford” (try to ford any cow across, and you’d end up with a drowned cow). After leaving the mosque and the bridge behind, we found on the European side a great many 19th Century Ottoman mansions, some sagging in disrepair, others beautifully restored. So valuable is the real estate on the Bosporus that even the broken-down mansions are worth $3-4 million. One of the mansions boasted a wonderfully restored 19th Century steam yacht parked on its private quay.

Then we encountered the huge Dolmabahçe Palace, built in the European style in the 19th Century to replace the Topkapi, which by that point was seeming terribly rustic and old-fashioned. “The sultan,” the guide said, “had the choice of fixing the economy or building a new palace, so he built the palace.” The palace cost the equivalent of 25 tons of gold, 14 tons of which were used for ornamentation. It occupies half a kilometer of the waterfront.

We visited the Dolmabahçe later, so I’ll reserve detailed descriptions for a later post.

Just north of Dolmabahçe was another palace, the name of which escapes me. Our guide explained that the place was used as storage for unwanted or redundant members of the royal family. (The buildings were unheated in winter, and it could always be hoped that the excess princes would succumb to a consumption. Doubtless Elizabeth II wishes she had such an institution.)

Farther up the shore was the Fortress of Europe, built by Mehmet the Conqueror prior to his conquest of Constantinople. This enormous castle was built in only 4 months, and is a testament to the efficiency of Ottoman military organization. In combination with the older Fortress of Asia across the straits, the castle succeeded in cutting off Constantinople from any aid from Venetian and Genoese colonies in the Black Sea. It also isolated these colonies from their homeland, and allowed the Ottomans to gobble them up at a later date.

We turned around before we actually caught a glimpse of the Black Sea, and headed south down the Asian side.

There are more palaces on the Asian shore, among them the Beylerbeyi Palace, built just after Dolmabahçe by the same family of builders, and for the same sultan. It was built on the site of an earlier, ruined palace, and was intended as a summer residence. Its design is modest only in comparison with Dolmabahçe. The deposed sultan Abdul Hamit II, after being overthrown by the Young Turks in 1909, was kept here in an anteroom until he died after six long winters.

Also on the Asian shore is the stately hospital in Uskudar where Florence Nightingale labored on behalf of British soldiers during the Crimean War. Poor Florence believed that the soldiers’ mortality rate from cholera and typhoid was based on poor nutrition rather than bad sanitation, and the Uskudar hospital had by far the highest death rate of all British war hospitals until a sanitary commission took charge and flushed the sewers clean. (Not exactly a feather in Miss Nightingale’s cap, what?) Near the hospital is the equally stately Turkish naval college— or perhaps they were the same building, my memory is vague.

Motoring south, we encountered a pod of dolphins heading north. Dolphins always raise my spirits, and I began quoting Yeats’ lines about the “dolphin-torn, gong-tormented sea,” which had my neighbors convinced of my pomposity whether they recognized the quote or not.

Ahead of us was the romantic skyline of Istanbul, unfortunately obscured by mist.

We came ashore at Ortakoy once again, and were taken to the Spice Market, called the Egyptian Market by the Turks. There was the usual din of hucksters, but the displays of spices were colorful and fragrant, and the snacks and sweets— Turkish delight and others— were tempting for hungry tourists. We wanted to buy saffron, available at a fraction of the price in the States. (The stigma of the crocus flower is the world’s most expensive spice, and has been for a long time.) You could either get the raw saffron stigma or the ground type, and I insisted on the former, as the ground saffron could have been adulterated with anything and we’d never have known until we tried to cook with it. So we ended up with 18 ounces of finest-quality Persian saffron, some of which we will present as gifts, and the rest of which we will consume in elegant dishes. For once I didn’t mind a trip to the bazaar.

This was the end of our official 12-day tour. Our guides announced they were willing to continue with an afternoon’s unofficial tour, of the Chora Church and the Mosque of Suleiman, for a mere $49 per head. This struck me as a bit pricey, but we went ahead anyway. Once we got on the tour, we realized that nearly half the money was just our admission costs to the sites, so the price ended up being quite reasonable.

“Chora” means “Country,” and the church (with attached monastery) was originally in a rural district outside the city walls of Constantine the Great, though it was later enclosed by the Walls of Theodosius. The building is accordingly some distance from the more historically significant parts of town, and took us through less fashionable, less wealthy districts of the city. Afternoon prayers were about to start, which might account for all the women in the streets with headscarves. In the middle of this unexceptional urban setting is the domed church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. It looks much like a rather ordinary mosque, complete with minarets.

The official name of the church was the Church of the Holy Savior in the Country. The building dates from the 5th century, but has been much reconstructed in the years since, and its present form dates from the early 14th Century, when the building was reconstructed by Theodore Metochites, who served Andronicus II Paleologus in the office of Grand Logothete (“Grand Guardian of the Word”), the head of the Byzantine bureaucracy and effectively the prime minister.

Theodore Metochites was also a poet, writer, and intellectual, and kept a circle of hard-partying literary types around him who he intended to keep near in the afterlife. Accordingly he added a long gallery (“esonarthex”) to the outside of the church, which included sarcophagi intended for himself and his buddies. Above his own sarcophagus he optimistically placed a mosaic of the Resurrection. Through most of the rest of the gallery are scenes from the Life of Mary, as revealed in the Gospel According to St. James, the influence of which I kept encountering all throughout old Turkish monuments.

Parallel to the esonarthex is the exonarthex, with pictures from the life of Christ, concentrating on his infancy. The church proper features a dome with an image of Christ Pantokrator.

The colors are still brilliant after all the centuries, though some mosaics are heavily damaged by earthquake. A very fine photo gallery of the art can be found here.

Our next stop was at the Mosque of Suleiman, who is known in the West as Suleiman the Magnificent and in the Islamic world as the Lawgiver. The mosque is in a fairly built-up area, and our bus got stuck trying to negotiate the narrow streets. We ended up having to walk several blocks, not that this was a hardship.

The mosque was built over seven years beginning in 1550, and was designed by Suleiman’s most famous architect Sinan. Sinan was born a Christian, but conscripted as a youth by the Janissaries, where he was converted to Islam and rose as a military engineer. During his 80 years, stretching over the height of the Ottoman empire, he is said to have built 94 great mosques (cami), 57 universities, 52 smaller mosques (mescit), 41 bath_houses (hamam), 35 palaces (saray), 22 mausoleums (türbe), 20 caravanserai, 17 public kitchens (imaret), 8 bridges, 8 store houses, 7 religious schools (medrese), 6 aqueducts, and 3 hospitals. A crater on Mercury is named after him.

More than a few of these are to be found in the complex of buildings in the Mosque of Suleiman, which includes five religious schools, a caravanserai, a kitchen that served food to the poor, a bath house, a hospital, a medical school, a School of Tradition (??), various cells and shops, and two tombs. (Sinan’s own tomb is just across the street.) In the main building were the quarters of the court astronomer, who determined prayer times. Sinan also did a bit of recycling: the marble columns supporting the arches of the courtyard were said to have come from the Emperor’s box at the Hippodrome.

Suleiman’s mosque is considered one of the city’s masterpieces. Clearly inspired by Hagia Sofia, the dome is supported by two half-domes and two tympani, and the result is a magnificent clear space beneath the dome for the main prayer hall. (Contrast the Blue Mosque’s dome, supported by four massive pillars.) Despite the many years in which Sinan tried to outdo the Hagia Sofia, most notably in the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Sinan never succeeded in quite equaling the height and breadth of Justinian’s dome.

The prayer hall had the vast space and silence reserved for places of worship. It was wonderfully ornamented with Ottoman tile work in geometrical patterns, and it was a pity that the inside was so dim, because it made the ornament difficult to appreciate. Enormous iron wheel-shaped chandeliers hung from the dome, each providing dozens of lanterns whose yellow light supplemented the sunlight coming in the stained glass windows. Marble and gold had been laid on with a lavish hand.

Outside, in a pleasant garden, are the tombs of Suleiman and his Russian-born wife, Roxalana (known to the Turks as “Khourrem,” the Cheerful One). Suleiman broke with hundreds of years of tradition to marry Roxalana in a formal ceremony, in which she became a wife, not a concubine. He lived with her in a palace across the Bosporus from Topkapi, where his hundreds of concubines idled away their time waiting for his call. Roxalana repaid this favor by engaging in a successful conspiracy to kill Suleiman’s son and heir (by another woman), and later securing the succession for her own drunken son Selim, known as Selim the Sot, whose chief success was a campaign to capture the island of Cyprus in order to possess its wine grapes. He shared his father’s weakness for Christian women, marrying Nur-Banu (née Cecilia Venier-Baffo), who successfully conspired on behalf of her own son, Murad III, whose lust for beautiful women equaled his father’s lust for wine, and who had 103 children by 1200 slave girls. His favorite was an Albanian named Safiya, whose son Mehmet III gained the throne through having his sixteen brothers strangled. Mehmet was an idle ruler who let his mother run the empire. (She ran it very well, though.)

All this harem intrigue produced several generations of inept, dissolute, or incapable sultans who were tools of their mothers, wives, or ministers. The empire had peaked with Suleiman, and began its decline with Roxalana’s son.

I visited Suleiman’s tomb, outside the mosque walls in a pleasant park, where he lies with a couple of his successors and his mother, sister, and daughter. The sultan’s huge turban sits on a post at the head of his peak-roofed coffin. The walls are covered with ceramics and gilt.

I didn’t actually go into Roxalana’s tomb— you had to pay extra— but I peered in and it seemed as magnificent as Suleiman’s. It was interesting, I thought, that she insisted on being buried separately after they had spent their lives together.

Afterwards, strolling back to the bus, I stopped by one of the shops in the arcade and restocked slide film. I was very pleased to find that slide film was available in Turkey, if not exactly common. It’s becoming very rare in the States.

Our driver had managed to unstick his bus, so we piled in and returned to the Hotel Divan. As this was the last time we’d see our driver, I gave him a hefty tip on leaving.

That night the group had our farewell dinner, which was first-rate. As a battle-scarred veteran of many banquets at science fiction conventions—- a man who tends to cringe at the very term “banquet”— I would like to compliment the Divan on its banquet food. Mehmet received a generous gratuity, and huge were exchanged.

Afterward I went into the hotel lobby with various of our guides and ordered the margarita off the bar menu. I wondered what a Turkish idea of a margarita would be like, especially one that costs $16.

It was tequila mixed with unsweetened lemon juice.

After that there was no point in staying up, so I went to bed.

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