A Day to Remember in Istanbul - Sultanahmet

On the morning of our second day in Istanbul, we wasted little time moving forward with our revised plans from the night before.  With the protests showing little signs of subsiding, we decided it would be best to  relocate from our original accommodations in Taksim Square to a hotel in Sultanahmet.  We therefore packed our things, rolled out through the back alleys, and caught a cab to the Sebnem Hotel.  While scrambling to find a new place to stay, Sebnem came up as the only hotel that had promising reviews and an affordable open room.  Upon checking in, we found it be a small but cute hotel with a crazy network of stairways and hallways, in the way that only very old houses possess.   Our room was very small but clean with a window facing the water.  For a last second find, I thought we did exceedingly well.

Shortly after checking in, we headed out for a day of sightseeing and came to enjoy the best perk of our new hotel: it's location.  As it turned out, it was within a 5 to 10 minute walking distance from all of the major sites we hoped to see in the next two days.  We needed nothing more than our own two feet to get us where we wanted, whenever we wanted.  Not having to worry about figuring out public transportation was kind of liberating and made me even more excited to start our day. 

First on our "to see" list was the monumental Aya Sofya (also referred to as the Hagia Sophia).  In an effort to beat the imminent hoards of tourists, we had originally planned to arrive at the Aya Sofya as soon as it opened at 9am.  But with having to relocate to our new hotel, we were delayed and arrived closer to 11am.  As we approached the entrance, we passed an already terrifyingly long line for the ticket box.  Because we had bought our museum passes the day before however, we were able to skip to the much shorter line of people waiting to enter the museum.  As we went through security, I mentally pat myself on the back for prudently planning to buy our museum passes from the much less crowded Chora Church the day before. 

We entered the Aya Sofya through the Inner Narthex and turned right through the impressive Imperial Door which opened into the moodily lit main space.  To say that the Aya Sofya is impressive is a bit of an understatement especially when considering that its been around since 537, which makes one wonder how any part of it is still standing at all.  In so many ways it seems to defy logic.  Not only is it well over a thousand years old, it is incredibly massive.  With it's soaring vaulted ceilings as well as an expansive second floor, I imagine that it would be a formidable engineering feat even by today's standards.  Add to that, its exquisitely detailed decorations and you practically have a miracle of a masterpiece.  From stained glass windows to gilded calligraphy to intricate mosaics, it boasts the best in craftsmanship in practically every possible medium.  

As the Aya Sofya was originally consecrated as a church in 537 and later converted into a mosque in 1453, it was interesting to see ancient Christian motifs juxtaposed to more haphazardly placed Islamic features such as the off center mihrab, minbar (both pictured above), and four minarets.  Another feature of note was the omphalion, a section of inlaid marble under the dome where Byzantine emperors were once crowned on the throne.  Also interesting was the Weeping Column located in the northeastern corner of the first floor.  It is a strange sight to behold as it is embedded with a copper disc pierced by a hole.  According to legend, this blessed pillar can heal all ailments as long as you put your finger into the hole and it emerges moist.   

After exploring the main floor, we then ventured up to the second floor by climbing a winding set of ramps located near the Weeping Column.  As instructed by our guidebook, we followed the halls to the southern gallery and came to admire the three major mosaics showcased on this floor.  The first was the remnants of what must have been a much larger depiction of the Last Judgement, starring fragments of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist.  Then proceeding to the eastern wall, we saw what became one of my favorite mosaics which features the Virgin Mary, Emperor John Comnenus II, Empress Irene and their son Alexius (below).  I especially like the intricately embellished clothes worn by the Byzantine royalty and am also intrigued/puzzled by what appears to be wrinkles on Empress Irene's face.  Adjacent to this mosaic, is another picturing Christ Enthroned with Empress Zoe and Constantine IX Monomakhos who are also adorned in splendid costume. 

The fact that any part of these mosaics still exists is nothing short of staggeringly remarkable.  There is of course the factor of age.  Being several hundreds of years old, it's a wonder to me that these mosaics haven't completely crumbled to dust by now.  But add to that the fact that the Aya Sofya was converted from a church to a mosque, a process by which all of the Christian mosaics were either removed or plastered over.  To bear witness to anything that has persevered through this relentless erosion of time and the deliberate destruction of man is an experience I have yet to fully wrap my brain around. 

We had been cautioned by our guidebook not to miss the tombs of the Aya Sofya, which is apparently overlooked by tourists frequently because of it's separate entrance.  And so, after exiting the Aya Sofya, we obediently turned onto Kabasakal Caddesi and sought the entrance to the Ottoman tombs.  As the guidebook had suggested, there was no line to enter and we encountered only a tiny fraction of the crowds we faced at the Aya Sofya. 

The tombs total to five, each serving as the final resting place for five Ottoman sultans and their families.  Out of respect for the deceased and because there were fewer crowds, our visit through the tombs was a quiet one.  In hushed voices, we gasped at the formidable display of human craftsmanship in each of the tombs.  It was as if every possible surface had been masterfully painted and/or carved with impossibly ornate designs. Among the highlights were the brilliant arrangements of hand painted Iznik tiles.  Aside from their vibrant colors, it was fascinating to observe how Chinese artistry so obviously influenced their designs.   

After lunch we pressed on to the sprawling Topkapi Palace, the entrance to which was conveniently located next door to the Aya Sofya.  As we walked across the expansive lawns of the palace, I began to realize that to be in Istanbul was to be constantly overwhelmed.  Since landing at Ataturk airport, I don't think we'd been to any site where I hadn't been awestruck by the sheer size and/or beauty I was witnessing.  Topkapi Palace was of course no exception and if anything, proved to be a little too overwhelming.  T, who I had mentioned was fighting of a suspected infection, started to feel his energy quickly waning.  We therefore had to be very selective about what parts of the palace we were going to see.  Here is the route we took:

The First Court
We entered the park-like First Court through the Imperial Gate and continued straight through to the middle gate in front of which stands the ticket office.  Once again, I was thankful for our museum pass that prevented us from having to wait in any long lines.  

The Second Court
We entered into the Second Court through the middle gate and had a peek into the Imperial Council Chamber where the Divan (or Council) once made laws, citizens were allowed to present their petitions, and foreign dignitaries were presented to the court.  Here we also noted the golden grill through which the sultan was said to have occasionally eavesdropped on proceedings.

The Third Court
We then entered through the Gate of Felicity and exited out through the Audience Chamber into the third court where we were met with demoralizingly long lines for the Treasury and the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms.  Luckily, there was a short line for the Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force which I especially wanted to see anyways as it housed the costume collection.  Despite his increasingly delirious state, even T found the energy to marvel at the beautiful robes, kaftans, and uniforms worn by various sultans of the past.  Particularly remarkable were the talismanic shirts which were believed to provide the wearer with protection from enemies and misfortunes. After the costume collection, we decided to forgo exploring the Fourth and final court in favor of double backing into the Second Court so that we might see the Harem, the Outer Treasury, and the Palace Kitchens before calling it a day.  

The Harem
Luckily our museum passes included entrance into the Harem which otherwise requires a separate ticket.  Inside, we found a labyrinthine, almost haphazard string of chambers all lavishly decorated with stained glass windows, ornate tiles, and intricately painted designs.  While the standard of decor was somewhat similar to that of the Aya Sofya tombs, it was hard to imagine that these were the everyday dwellings of the Sultan, his mother, and up to 300 of his concubines.  Being something of a feminist, the idea of a harem tends to inspire some discomfort  and despair.  But I was interested to learn that concubines were not chosen solely for their looks or familial status.  Rather they were highly trained and educated through a complicated meritocracy.  Their training usually began from a very young age and candidates were not discriminated against based on their social or political status.    

The Outer Treasury
Tucked away behind an unassuming doorway next to the Imperial Council Chamber is the Outer Treasury which we found to house an impressive collection of Ottoman and European weapons.  I daresay every single item on display exemplified a colossal level of both ingenuity and artistry simultaneously.  It was often hard to accept that the purpose of something so beautiful was to inflict maximum destruction, a point that seemed to be made all the more poignant by the especially dramatic lighting of the exhibit.  
We emerged from the Outer Treasury, blinking in the sunlit court which we crossed towards the direction of the Palace Kitchens.  Unfortunately, the kitchens appeared to be closed and so we somewhat thankfully found ourselves headed for the hotel sooner than we had bargained for.  Back at our room, we crawled into bed and quickly fell into a very well deserved nap.   


Post a Comment




Follow by Email

Be sure to get the latest and greatest of oinge by signing up for email updates!