Log of the Eclipse (2)

by wjw on May 6, 2006

March 25

The Day of Excess

Thanks to jet lag and the sleeping pill I’d taken before bed, I got about ten hours’ sleep, and woke as fresh and ready to meet the day as ever I am. Which is not saying much, actually.

I walked out onto our terrace for another look at the Sea of Marmara and Asia beyond. It must be admitted that our view of Asia was not of the best, being of an area full of cranes, warehouses, dockyards, and storage tanks. Given twilight, sufficient mist, or a sunrise, however, it could a;; be romantic.

Kathy was already awake and slurping down coffee. I joined her in the breakfast room (Turkish hotels generally offer free breakfast) and had a large Turkish breakfast of tea, cucumbers, tomatoes, yogurt, olives (black, green, and blond), bread with butter and jam, and a hard-boiled egg. The tomatoes were picked while ripe, so they actually tasted good, unlike those of the U.S. The bread was also very nice, if not as memorably wonderful as that of France. In any case, it was enough to set me up for a day of walking about Istanbul.

The day was cloudy, cold, and blustery. As we were later to indulge in the novelty of joining a tour sponsored by Sky and Telescope Magazine, which would include the major sights of Istanbul as well as the solar eclipse and much else, we decided to start with a few less-known sights. We began simply by walking around the neighborhood of the hotel, which includes a large number of old Ottoman mansions. These almost always have a ground floor of stone or brick, with a wooden second and third floor that overhang the street like Western buildings of the Middle Ages. The mansions of the 19th century tend to be very eclectic, with mixtures of native and Western architectural styles. A whole street of them presents a cheerful, eccentric façade to the world, each building different from the next. (Most in our neighborhood, though, were not in particularly good repair, unless they’d been turned into hotels like the Poem.)

Afterwards we hiked uphill through the Cavalry Bazaar— so-called because it occupies the onetime mews of a cavalry unit. The shops here are posh and the salesmanship low-key (for Turkey). They actually understand when you’re not interested.

Up the stairs from the bazaar and we were in the complex of gardens and major streets between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. People swarmed around trying to sell us things. (“10 postcards 1 Euro!” “Istanbul guide!” “Ayasofia guide!” “Tour of Blue Mosque. Come now, before time of pray!”)

A word about our hosts. The Turks are the most mellow and accommodating people that I’ve met. They are unfailingly polite, unfailingly helpful. I think we were in the country a couple weeks before we encountered a surly Turk.

Just about whatever you want to do is fine with the Turks. If you come into a restaurant at five o’clock and want to eat dinner, they’ll happily cook you dinner when you want it, and they won’t sneer at you like the French for eating at the wrong hour. They’ll let you split a plate of food if you so desire. If the kitchen is closed, they’ll open it. If you’re looking for just the right whatsit, they’ll spend hours digging through huge piles of whatsits to find the one you want. Then they’ll dig through more piles of whatsits to find whatsits that are sort-of like the one you want, only maybe better, just so you can compare. If you’re looking for something in a store and they don’t have it, they’ll personally guide you to the store you want (and probably collect a commission, but never mind). If you need a taxi, they’ll run several blocks in the pouring rain to get you one (this impressed me— and he was elderly, too).

This relentless politeness is sometimes oppressive, particularly when it’s combined with a sales pitch. Every shop has its tout out front to attract customers. (“Excuse me, sir, would you like a carpet?” “My store has everything but customers, please come inside.”) It’s impossible to window-shop— if you stop for even a micro-second to look at something in the window, the salesman is right there by your side, guiding you into the store.

You will be asked where you come from. No matter what you answer, the salesman has been there— or his brother, or his wife. In a shop, you will be made to feel at home. You will be offered apple tea. If you’ve expressed even the remotest idea that you may have at any point in your life owned or even walked upon a carpet, the carpets will come out. The sales force will unroll dozens of them hoping that one might catch your eye.

None of this obliges you to buy. You may drink their tea with a clear conscience. You may step on the dozens of carpets on the way to the exit, saying “No thanks.” The only thing that compels you to buy is when you actually make an offer on something. In that case you’re morally obliged to come to some kind of agreement with the salesman. (Start with about 60% of the asking price, then haggle)

The absolute best tactic is to leave without actually making an offer. They’ll come down to their base price quickly. We got over 20% off our carpet when Kathy left (actually to visit the WC), at which point the salesman called in his manager to punch numbers into a hand calculator and offer a special deal. (It was like buying a car— “I’ve got to call the manager.” To my surprise, they also gave us a good break on currency exchange.)

Always carry lots of small bills and change. Getting change out of a Turk can sometimes be difficult. Rather than give you change, they’ll just give you more stuff. Or they won’t give you anything at all. Many have developed the superpower of making large bills disappear.

The sad result of this relentless salesmanship is that you end up distrusting everybody. It’s hard to encounter ordinary Turks, because the ones you meet always have an angle. The nice student who offers to guide you over the mosque turns out also to have pictures for sale (15 Turkish lira), and because he doesn’t have change for your twenty, he’ll donate the extra fiver to the imam. The gent who kindly guides you to his favorite restaurant collects a commission from the chef. The pleasant fellow who starts chatting with you over lunch might wait twenty minutes (which I appreciated), but he will eventually get around to mentioning his uncle’s carpet shop.

Kathy’s answer to all this was eventually to plod straight ahead without looking left or right, pretending not to speak any known language. I just said “Maybe tomorrow” and walked on.

We moved through the hucksters, the Blue Mosque on our left, and Hagia Sofia on the right. The Blue Mosque is more impressive at first sight, even though the other is larger, because it’s more architecturally unified. Hagia Sofia has been so heavily buttressed over the centuries that it’s difficult to work out its original appearance, and it’s currently painted a faded, greyish, uneven red. (It was a brighter red twenty years ago, and before that it was yellow.)

We collected lira from a money machine and went for a walk down the old Hippodrome. The old chariot-racing venue is a pleasant oval park these days, with trees, many fountains, and flowering shrugs— like the Piazza Navona in Rome only far larger, four hundred meters long and a hundred and fifty wide. Aside from the buttressing on the south end, there’s nothing much left of the huge facility that could once hold 100,000 spectators, and which was used not just for chariot and horse races but for spectacles glorifying the imperial family. The original race course still exists, but it’s a couple meters below the current level of the pavement.

Like the Piazza Navona, Sultanahmet Square (to give it the current name) has an obelisk imported from Egypt, one of the decorations that ornamented the spina, the island that ran down the middle of the race course. The obelisk, which was raised by Thutmose III, transported to New Rome by Theodosius I, and celebrates the sun god Ra, was originally three times as tall, but the lower two-thirds went missing. The obelisk sites on four bronze feet, which are placed on a base depicting Theodosius, his family, and horse races.

Near it is another obelisk raised by Constantine Porphyrogenitus, the emperor who had it restored in the 10th Century. This one isn’t from Egypt, but made locally of masonry. It was originally covered with bronze plates, but these were looted and melted down by Crusaders. Because of the stolen plating the Obelisk of Constantine is in bad shape, and also because the Sultan’s Yeniçeris, the Janissary soldiers, used to climb it to prove their courage.

Another relic of the spina is a bronze column of three intertwined serpents. This dates from the 5th Century BC and was originally at Delphi, but was brought to Constantinople as a trophy by its Christian emperors. This pagan monument sat undisturbed until the 1700s, when its three heads were knocked off by a drunken Polish nobleman. One head is in the Archaeological Museum, another is in the British Museum, and the third has been lost to the ages.

All three of these monuments are in deep pits. The city has risen around them, about a foot every century, which means the bases of the monuments are now about five meters down.

Another, rather odd monument on the old Hippodrome is the Fountain of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which he donated to the city. Architecturally it’s a wild mixture of East and West. On the underside of the green bronze dome is a gold mosaic that features Wilhelm’s blazon (in Gothic script) next to that of the then-sultan, Abdulhamit II, whose name is gorgeously rendered in Arabic calligraphy.

We then stepped across the Hippodrome to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, housed in the onetime palace of Ibrahim Pasha, the greatest vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent. The museum begins with exhibits devoted to nomadic Turkish life, showing life in yurts, the types of portable looms that were used to weave rugs, etc. There are rooms devoted to ceramics, starting from Seljuk times, other rooms of stonework, others of wooden furniture inlaid with precious woods, ivory, and mother-of-pearl. These include Koran holders, designed to display hand-calligraphed Korans open to whatever page was under study.

The illuminated and calligraphed Korans (and other books) are present in another section of the museum. The gorgeousness and detail rival anything produced in Western monasteries.

There are displays of metal and stonework, and of course carpets. There aren’t a lot of Seljuk rugs left— most of them were walked on, after all— but at least a few have survived from mosques, tombs, or old palaces. Through lurking in a corridor where a guide was talking to some English-speaking tourists, I learned about different sorts of motifs to be found on the carpets. Prayer rugs generally have a boat-shaped design in the center, with the prow of the boat pointing toward Mecca. Also common are warding designs such as scorpions or spiders. (Spiders wove a web across the entrance to a cave in which Mohammed was hiding from his enemies; I’m not sure where the scorpion fits in.) Because the designs are geometric, the spiders and scorpions are highly stylized, so it takes a certain amount of knowledge (or imagination) to recognize them.

After touring this large museum we were starving, so we found a small kebap shop and settled in for another dose of excessive Turkish hospitality. I ordered a chicken stew, Kathy some lamb kebaps on skewers. An enormous slab of warm, freshly-cooked flat bread appeared, taking up about a third of our little table. We made a mistake of ordering salad, which opened the floodgates— many salad plates made their appearance, including the standard Mediterranean tomato-and-cucumber salad, a yogurt-and-cucumber salad, and a fiery, palate-searing Turkish pimento salad. My chicken stew was hearty and filling. The kebaps arrived on skewers the length of swords, clearly intended for the table of Jabba the Hut. We did our best, wrapping the lamb chunks in the flat bread and adding bits of salad.

We declined dessert.

Bloated, we staggered out to view the Mosaic Museum. The mosaics once belonged to the enormous old Byzantine Imperial Palace, which stretched from the highest point of the city down to the wall on the Sea of Marmara. After the Ottoman conquest, the sultans built their own Topkap2 Palace, and the Blue Mosque was built on the city’s highest point. The mosaics, which had apparently been placed on the floor of a long hallway or walkway, were buried under rubble, and only uncovered in the 1930s. Since they are now fully a storey below the current ground level, the museum has built balconies overlooking the mosaics. You can also take a stair down to a wooden walkway that will get you closer.

The mosaics are beautiful examples of naturalistic scenes of people and animals. There are bucolic scenes of people milking or herding domestic animals as well as violent hunting scenes. There are scenes of animals romping in nature as well as scenes of animals fighting or hunting each other. There is also a really strange scene of people using an odd two-wheeled vehicle, or maybe a pair of single-wheeled vehicles, and wrestling a large, peculiar-looking vase-shaped object. (Any archaeologists out there got a clue?)

Everything is beautifully detailed, and gives an example of how much artistic glory was lost in Europe when the Western Empire fell. Also, following a much earlier tradition, the mosaics have a border that is much like that on a Turkish rug. (The earliest Roman mosaics were meant to look like rugs, by the way.)

After this Kathy announced she was done for the day and went back to the hotel for a nap. I was still wired, and so went in search of further adventure.

I decided to go visit the Cistern of 1001 Columns, but on my way there I encountered the Tomb of Mahmut II Turbesi, so I paid it a visit. It dates from the 1830s and looks very much like the tomb that Napoleon might have built for himself if he didn’t have the Hôtel des Invalides lying around handy. The architecture features Corinthian pilasters and windows with romanesque arches and a dome plastered with symbols of prosperity and victory.

Unlike most of the Sultans’ tombs, there is no mosque or religious school attached, but the protocols of the mosque still obtain. You have to take your shoes off, but the tomb is very pleasantly carpeted so your feet won’t get cold. Mahmut shares the tomb with his two successors Abdul Aziz and Abdulhamit II and various members of his family. Turkish coffins have a sharply tented lid— perhaps it’s supposed to look like a tent, a visual memory of the Turks’ nomadic past— and the coffins are covered with carpets or tapestries. There is a post at one end of the coffin on which each sultan had perched his personal fez. (I later saw Suleiman’s tomb, which had his enormous ceremonial turban stuck on the post.)

Something that surprised me was that people— entire families— came to the tomb to pray in front of the coffins of the sultans. They were pious families, as demonstrated by headscarves on the women and girls. What were they praying for, I wonder?

Outside the tomb is a very attractive cemetery. The traditional Turkish gravestone isn’t flat, but cylindrical and pillar-shaped, a little wider at the top than at the bottom, and features rolls of Arabic script. Some had fezes carved on them. Other tombs were more in the Western style, including one with nautical motifs, carved anchors and so on. I can only assume it was the grave of an Ottoman admiral.

There was an attractive-looking café attached to the cemetery, but I was still stuffed, so I didn’t investigate.

Off I went onto the streets of Sultanahmet again, looking for the Cistern of 1001 Columns. I wound up and down and left and right, fending off carpet-sellers every step of the way, until I eventually had to ask one of the merchants where it was. I didn’t understand the instructions and got lost again. It wasn’t until I gave up and headed down the hill again that I realized that the cistern was holding up the hill I’d been walking on.

The cistern (also known as the Cistern of Philoxenus, or the Binbirdirek Cistern) was lost after the Ottoman conquest, and rediscovered in the 19th century when European visitors wondered how it was that local residents were getting their water by dropping buckets down holes in the street. Sometimes they also caught fish that way. When the place was excavated in the 20th Century they also had to remove about a century’s worth of rubbish that was dumped in after the cistern was drained.

The young woman at the ticket counter let me in for half-price because something was going on. When I entered, I discovered that the cistern was being set up for a formal banquet, with tables being set between the pillars. A sound system and a stage was being constructed, and alcoves on the side of the structure were being converted into displays for as-yet-to-be-revealed merchandise.

To my amazement, the cistern turns out to be the only architectural treasure in Istanbul that is privately owned. The owner rents it out as a convention center and meeting space.

Go figure.

The hall is vast, 64m x 56m, propped up by an array of around 250 (not 1001) columns. The columns for the cisterns of Constantinople were scavenged from all over the empire, mainly from the pagan temples that the Christian emperors so disapproved of. The columns are in all styles, and were cemented rather perfunctorily into place, with herringbone brickwork holding up the roof between the pillars. When the cistern was in use, it would have been filled to the top, and would have held a 10-day supply of water for 350,000 people. It is now perfectly dry.

After this, I headed back through swarms of carpet-sellers and postcard merchants back to the hotel. Because of our vast lunch we had a modest dinner, at the rooftop restaurant of the Acropole Hotel, across the street from the previous night’s Metropolis Café. We’d heard a lot about the how wonderful the seafood was in Turkey, so we split a calamari appetizer and each ordered the sea bass. The food was okay but not glorious, so we decided to seek out a seafood restaurant for the following night.

The Acropole later turned out to be an excellent restaurant, it’s just that seafood is not their specialty. Especially enjoyable was the head waiter, who fell firmly within the tradition of eccentric Turkish waiters. (The other tradition is for the very formal, very correct waiter, which I also appreciated.)

The view from the Acropole is also recommended. In one direction you have a gorgeous view of Asia, and the other gives you the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. We chose the latter, and watched the swarms of birds that floated around the spotlight mosque (and largely ignored Hagia Sofia). We couldn’t figure out whether they were birds or bats, but eventually realized they were seagulls.

After that a walk through the neighborhood, dodging carpet-sellers, and then bed.

(Wow. 3300 words to describe just one day. This may take a while.)

Foxessa May 7, 2006 at 8:56 pm

Now, that’s what you call a cistern!

Thank you. Looking forward to the next installment.

Love, C.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.