Log of the Eclipse (3)

by wjw on May 9, 2006

March 26, 2006

The Day of Marvelous Things

Since we’re dealing with history in this post, a note on the founding of Byzantium. Byzantium was founded by Prince Byzas of Megara, who was himself a son of Poseidon, and by his mother Keroessa a grandson of Zeus and Io. In founding the colony, Byzas consulted the Delphic oracle, who told him to found a city “across the water from the blind.” Byzas was puzzled by all this, but led his band of intrepid pioneers to the Bosporus (“cow ford” in Greek), where his granny Io had swum the strait after being transformed into a cow (don’t ask).

There, Byzas encountered the perfect site for a city at what is now Seraglio Point, a peninsula with the Sea of Marmara on one side and the Golden Horn on the other. He looked across the strait at the city of Chalcedon, which seemed to have a less favorable site, and said to himself, “Those people must have been blind not to have settled here. He thus considered the Delphic prophecy fulfilled and set up his city, which he named after himself. Which, as the son and grandson of major members of the Greek pantheon, he was perfectly entitled to do.

(The Chalcedonians, by the way, weren’t blind after all. The strong current of the Bosporus tended to sweep the primitive ships of the day away from Byzantium and toward Chalcedon, where the locals could tax them, and also charge the ship for transiting the canal that the Chalcedonians dug across the peninsula on which their city was sited. The Byzantines were at a disadvantage, and were a less wealthy, less strong city than Chalcedon until Constantine picked Byzantium for the New Rome. He was the Emperor and he got the taxes no matter where they were collected.)

On Sunday morning we trotted off to the Archaeological Museum, which holds a truly astounding array of world-class treasures. (And no food or drink.) The museum is actually several museums in one, and deserves a whole day. (Bring your own lunch.)

The museum is very large and is tucked away under the walls of the even larger Topkap2 Palace. The oldest and some of the most astounding artifacts are found in the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which is in a separate building, on your left as you go through the entrance.

The entrance to this building is flanked by two six-foot-high lion sculptures. They were unlabelled, but I’d guess they were Hittite, since the Hittites seem to made a particular fetish of gate-guardians in the shape of lions, notably in their capital of Hattusas.

We were charmed by the sight of a whole tribe of Istanbul’s feral cats bounding around the feet of the giant lions, like kittens playing around the feet of their mother.

The building holds finds from Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Sumer, and the Hittites, all sites contained within the former Ottoman Empire. There are monumental statues of Babylonian and Assyrian gods and kings, Egyptian mummies, more Hittite lions, and most amazingly a vast collection of the astounding tiles from the Ishtar Gate in Babylon. These feature dragons, bulls, and more abstract designs. Seeing so many of them together was truly croggling. And to think that even more are in Berlin at the Pergamon Museum.

(It occurs to me, by the way, that I’m fast running out of superlatives to describe things we saw on this trip. In just the above paragraph I’ve already used “amazing,” “astounding,” and “croggling.” All I can say at this point is, Get used to it. There’s more to come.)

Also in this building is a copy of the Treaty of Kadesh, the world’s oldest surviving peace treaty, signed by Rameses II of Egypt and Hattusilis III of the Hittites in 1269 BCE, following the Second Battle of Kadesh in 1274. (The battle itself was sort of a draw, but the Hittites came out ahead in the treaty.) Rameses planted copies of the his own version of the treaty (and descriptions of his own heroism in the battle) all over Egypt, but this tablet confirms the original text of the treaty, which favored the Hittites more than Rameses’ published version.

We left this first building and proceeded to the U-shaped, four-storey main building. Stepping inside, we were greeted by an enormously priapic statue of the Egyptian god Bes.

From here on, I’m just going to hit the highlights.

From the Necropolis of Sidon are the sarcophagi of Sidon’s royal family. The earlier coffins are strongly influenced by Egyptian burial practices, and feature large coffins with a painted effigy of the departed on top. After the arrival of Alexander the Great, the sarcophagi are in the Greek style.

King Tabnit of Sidon, who ruled his city on behalf of the Persian Empire, hailed Alexander as a liberator, and basically proclaimed himself Alexander’s New Best Friend. His large sarcophagus shows him in hunting scenes with Alexander, and also fighting Persians alongside Alexander— Alexander’s in the corner, in a lion headdress, with Tabnit himself heroically at center stage.

The “Alexander sarcophagus,” along with others found in the necropolis, are stupendous examples of Hellenic art. (There goes another superlative . . . ) Seeing them together is stunning. (Another one down.)

From Troy. One very large display is given over to objects from Troy. Nothing in the exhibit is particularly spectacular, especially since Schliemann stole the good stuff, but the exhibit does a good job of sorting out Troy I-VII for those who don’t know one Bronze Age epoch from another.

Cool Stuff from Thrace. The Thracians come off in everyone else’s histories as barbarians, but this exhibit shows that, judging from the quality of their goods, they were about as civilized as anyone else. Unfortunately the Thracians never got around to adopting a writing system, and all we otherwise know about them was written by their rivals or enemies.

Greek and Roman Statues. The selection is not huge, compared with say the British Museum or the Louvre, but what we saw was high quality. There’s a bust and a statue of Alexander that stand out, and another of Marsyas hanging by his arms from a tree, about to be flayed by Apollo. There is a well-known statue of an athlete, a bust of Sappho, and busts and statues of various Roman emperors.

And much, much more. There are exhibits devoted to Cyprus, to the history of Istanbul, to Bithynia, to Syria. There are large porphyry sarcophagi in which Byzantime emperors are thought to have been buried. There are lots and lots of pots.

At some point, wandering around this cavernous space, we began to feel a mite hungry. We searched the museum looking for a cafeteria, but there wasn’t one to be found. There was a garden outside where there had once been an open-air café, but nothing was there now. (Maybe it’s open in the summer.) We wandered around and found a room where employees were drinking coffee, but there seemed no options for visitors acquiring food. We went back to the entrance and asked if we could get back in if we left the grounds in search of lunch. We couldn’t: if we wanted back in, we’ve have to buy another round of tickets.

So we decided to tough it out for a while. I went back into the main building, while Kathy went into another building that held an exhibition of ceramics. She got to see gorgeous tiles and platters, and I saw the Greek and Roman statues mentioned above.

Eventually we couldn’t stand it any more and went in search of a place to eat. By now it was mid-afternoon, but we stopped in an open-air kebap place right near the Cistern of 1001 Columns and had doner kebaps, tender spiced lamb carved off one of those rotisserie rolls and plopped down on bread. I made the mistake once more of mentioning “salad,” and no less than seven different salad plates appeared before us (each one costing three lira, the total coming to something like sixteen dollars US).

A note on fast food. Turkish fast food is so tasty and so nourishing that I saw hardly any American fast food joints anywhere in Turkey during our entire trip of nearly three weeks. The sum total was two Burger Kings and one McDonald’s. Now if only we could have lots of kebap places in the States.

We decided to walk to the Golden Horn. I had planned a pleasant stroll through Gülhane Park down to Seraglio Point, but unfortunately Kathy ended up asking directions of our waiter, and he directed us down several busy, noisy streets, including what we decided to call “Kodak Street,” because aside from fast food joints (including one of the Burger Kings), the entire street was devoted to camera stores. Kodak Street took us to the ferry terminal, where we were immediately surrounded by touts wanting us to rent their boat or take their Bosporus cruise. Parked ferries were literally lined up three-deep next to the quay. It was hard to see the Golden Horn or, indeed, anything. We tried to walk down the shoreline to Gülhane Park, but the streets were crowded and noisy, and there was a whole railway station in the way. Eventually we took a cab back to our hotel, cost 15 lira. (We were completely robbed. It should have cost no more than five. Travelers to Istanbul be warned: insist your drivers turn on their meters.)

The Golden Horn, by the way, is a long bay that separates the peninsula of Istanbul from the other peninsula that has Beyolu. It’s called the “Horn” for one of two reasons.

1. It sorta looks like a horn if you view it from a height, or

2. Some other damn reason.

Presumably the “Golden” comes from the commerce that poured through the port.

Kathy went down for a nap. I walked around the corner to the Acropole bar and restaurant and sat quietly on their open-air rooftop balcony, where I enjoyed sun and fresh air, gazed at Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and made notes in my journal and expense log. Filled with nostalgia for a summery time when I would sit in a little square in Athens, sip ouzo, write letters, and stare at the Parthenon, I ordered rak2, the Turkish national liquor. It’s liquorice-flavored like ouzo, and like ouzo turns cloudy when you put water in it, and if there’s a difference I don’t know what it is.

The day was far from summery, but perhaps I succeeded in recapturing a bit of that golden time.

(Rak2, by the way, is not pronounced “raki” but “rakeu.” That’s because there are two i’s in Turkish, the i with the dot and the 2 without the dot. The i with the dot is pronounced like you’d expect an i to be pronounced, but the 2 without the dot is pronounced “eu.” Thus, Topkap2 is pronounced “Topkapeu.”

(I hope, by the way, that this alien 2 comes through when this is published to the Net. I suspect it won’t.)

Not far from our hotel were the docks where the fishermen tied up, and on the other side of the city wall from the docks is a whole district of seafood restaurants. Our hotel told us about one place that would pay for a cab to deliver us to their door, so there we went, rather late after our late lunch.

The restaurant was called Fener, and it was rollicking as we came in. There was a Gypsy band playing, and there were many visitors drinking, chowing down, and having a good time. The band left about halfway through our meal, and the place started emptying out.

I continued my exploration of classic Turkish cuisine with an appetizer of anchovies and olives, which tasted about as you’d expect an appetizer of anchovies and olives to taste. I then ordered fried turbot, because I’d always heard of turbot and never had one. It was good but not exceptional. We finished with Turkish baklava, which is different from Greek baklava in that pistachios are added. I can’t complain of any dessert that drips honey, and I didn’t complain of this one, but we left the restaurant still craving the ultimate Turkish seafood experience.

We went to bed happy, not knowing that the next day our lives would turn to Traveler Hell.

Foxessa May 10, 2006 at 9:30 pm

Wonder if we’ll ever get to Byzantium / Istanbul / Constantinople.

Back in the day, when I was a mere tadling, ‘Constantinople’ was what the most popular boy among the 1st, 2nd & 3rd grade girls called me. My mom would tell me that it was a way to get my attention and show that he liked me. But, naif that I was, I couldn’t believe it, until our Senior H.S. Banquet, when he told me, that was exactly it.


Lovely, that you’ve had the experience, even if I haven’t.

Thank you!

Love, C.

dubjay May 11, 2006 at 11:21 pm

Foxy Lady, I hope you get to Istanbul, with or without your 3rd grade sweetie.

I had a hard time wandering around Istanbul without humming that Four Lads song to myself. It was getting pretty desperate for a while, because as soon as I’d forget the song, someone else in our group would start singing it.

Why did Constantinople get the works?
It’s nobody’s business but the Turks.

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