You thought that if we bought tickets to go home, we’re really going? And skip this beautiful city? No, no, no, no... too many ties to my country’s and the world’s history. Nope, we had to visit, even if is just for four days.
Leaving the warm Egypt, we prepared for a thermic shock: Istanbul is with ten degrees latitude North of Cairo that translates in a difference of almost 40 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature. We layered all our clothes and hoped for the best.
|These ladies are not playing, they're cleaning!|
Merhaba (mare-hub-ah)! Hello from Turkey! From the airport we take the metro to the center and from there we want to take a taxi to our hotel. Too bad they are asking for an exorbitant price, apparently they have to drive longer from this side of the road. OK, we’ll cross the road on foot. A nice gentleman shows us an underground passage and takes us to the tram station. Did I say nice? Scratch that, he did it for a baksheesh. We’re not taking the tram because from this point the tickets are the same price as a taxi (and this one can take us to our hotel, we don’t have to search for it). It’s dark and we’re driving on one-way streets, round and round, visiting two more hotels to find ours. It looks like a house! That’s why the taxi driver couldn’t find it! There is no reception at this hour, just the guardians for the night, but this is no problem, they knew we were coming, and now that we are here, let’s go to our room. They are talking in Russian, we in English and Romanian. The room, supposedly for five people, has a double bed, a twin and a love seat. With us and our luggage there is no more walking space. We can’t fit! No problem, let’s look at another room: this one had a little bit more space, the furniture was the same. “Take both rooms!” And that’s what we did, and paid just for one, as the beautiful Turkish receptionist told us the next morning.
We sleep in, almost miss the breakfast, and get out in the drizzling rain to visit. First we stop the old hippodrome, now a pedestrian area. They used to have horse-races here, turning around Constantine’s column (a brick and mortar square prism, stripped of its former bronze sheets). A few steps further, a column made of entwined serpents (that lost their heads in the seventeen century) was brought here in 324 AD by Constantine the Great from Delphi. There it had the role of reminding people of the Greeks who fought and defeated the Persian Empire in 479 BC, here it helped in building a city, Constantinople, worthy of the new capital of the Roman Empire. And some distance off, an obelisk, a true Egyptian one, taken from its temple in Karnak, Luxor. It was raised there in 1490 BC by Tuthmosis the Third (probably as an offering so that he finally could reign after his stepmother Hatshepsut) and brought here by Theodosius the Great in 390 AD (his people didn’t have the same skills, so he had it cut in three, just the top part survives).
|Constantine's column (with Ioan), the Obelisk, the Blue Mosque|
We enter in the courtyard of the Blue Mosque and while we wait in line to enter (the mosque is closed several times a day for services) we start talking with an Ethiopian woman who lives in Washington DC. To hear American English, even with an accent! This is a sign that we start missing home.
|The model of the Blue Mosque|
We take off our shoes and enter: a vast penumbral space, cupolas, walls covered in blue glazed arabesque tiles, a wall to wall red carpet, an imam explaining the Faith in English over the sound system, huge candelabras hanging from a drape of wires.
|The dome seen through the candelabra.|
On a column there is a faucet that used to drip water in the marble basin below; on the entrance wall there is a wooden screen, separating the women worship area. The majority of men left, but they, young women, older ones, children, are still here prostrating, praying.
|Hagia Sophia seen from the Blue Mosque|
Passing through the exit gates we see in the distance Hagia Sophia, the church built by Justinian in 532 AD. It was one of the marvels of architecture in that time, and surpassed only by Brunelleschi’s dome, almost 900 years later. That was the time when it was transformed into a mosque (after Constantinople’s fall in the hands of Ottomans in 1453), had its gold mosaics covered with painted plaster, added four minarets and became the inspiration for the Blue and Suleymanyie Mosque. It’s darker in here, the windows are way up high, under the dome, giving the impression that it floats on light. There are round candelabras on which U-shaped glass coverings hang down, each protecting a huge fluorescent bulb. They remind me of the oil lamps in the oldest synagogue in Goa, India. I used to regret its transformation into a museum—my Christian mind telling me it should be a church once more—but now, seeing Allah’s name in that beautiful calligraphy next to a mosaic of the Mother of God and cherubs, it feels normal.
As we walk through its columns and arches, we see two huge round vessels, made from one piece of marble, brought from Pergamon by the Muslims to hold the water for cleansing. Held open by the raised floor, the bronze doors from Tarsus were brought by the Christians. Upstairs there is a marble door, that has an erased cross on it (don’t do unto others as you would not have them do unto you: Christians erased Egyptian gods, Muslims erased the cross).
For one day we had quite enough. We eat grilled corn and look at the people making pomegranate juice.
|Steamed or grilled corn, grilled chestnuts and a fez seller.|
|Sahlep with cinnamon|
|Sahlep, the healthy drink with orchid buds and several other ingredients|
We pass several buildings, which are, believe it or not, water fountains! They each have an inscription saying who made it and why, and in the old times people would come and fill their vessels. Now they don’t seem to work, either because it’s winter or they are transformed in monuments.
The next day just the parents brave the elements. It’s raining cats and dogs, the staired street is transformed into a waterfall and we’re headed for the Bazaar.
Arcades, one after another, the jewels’ side, the shawls’ side, the souvenirs’ side, the potteries’ side, like a colorful maze. Sometimes they end with a simple food stall, where they serve chorba, a soup with vegetables, sometimes with meat.
We return to the streets and stumble on another mosque, the Suleymanyie. Part of a complex, it used to be in the vicinity of a hospital and a college for medical arts, schools for Qu’ran and for the hadith (sayings of the Prophet used for the understanding of the Qu’ran and in jurisprudence), a primary school and a kitchen for the poor, Caravanserai (inn) and public bath. We enjoy the beautifully restored mosque and a traditional desert, ashure.
|Getting ready for the prayers.|
|He is right there, third fountain from the right|
On my bucket list was a hamam, a Turkish bath. And because of Suleiman the Magnificent (who ordered the above bath) and of the intrepid people in the tourism business, I can share this experience with Mihai. We enter a large hall with seating areas on pillows around low tables, its walls covered in changing rooms.
They give us towels (I get a two piece covering), wooden sandals, show us the bathroom and then ... the hamam. The octagonal domed room is covered in white marble. Light filters through small round windows onto an octagonal heated slab.
There are some Russians hogging the place for themselves, but we find a little bit of room. The masseurs are coming from time to time, asking us if we are ready, taking the others in the massage corners. Loud slaps, water sloshing, tepid drips from the ceiling on my body, heat melting my frozen muscles (as it is my turn now to hog the hottest spot). After almost an hour, when I start feeling that I don’t have enough air, I concede to the massage. I get the sultan’s favorite spot, next to a shell-sink with no drainage, with brass spigots one on top of the other. Mihai is right in front of me, seated on a minuscule chair. I am ashamed, but I forgot my masseur’s name, was it Yadir? With a towel over his middle, skin taught over muscles, he drenches me with bowls of water, then takes a loofah mitt and starts peeling my skin. From time to time he cups his hand and slaps my body, enhancing the relaxation. Then drenches me some more, over my head, my hands, my legs. He pours water over himself. Dirty water drains through channels in the floor. He tells me that I should move on the marble table and helps me get up. He holds my hand firmly, lest I should slip. Face down, I keep my head turned toward the room, to see Mihai and what’s going to happen next. From a bucket with soapy water he takes a pillowcase, opens it up, then makes it like a bag filled with air and squishes all the air out of it, making mounds of foam in which he covers me. It smells like laundry soap from my childhood. Then the best massage I’ve ever had in my life, better then the Thai one or the Balinese with hot stones. Iron fingers and grips knead my muscles, my knots, my bones, finding all the painful points and dissolving them. He moves my limbs with ease, never approaching “personal” areas. After this, back to the tiny chair, washing my hair, massaging my scalp, water, water, water. I feel so light, so carefree! Teșekkürle (tesh-eh-koor-leh)! Thank you! Yadir’s part is done, but the experience is not. We return into a little hallway where we are air-dried, a man blowing air by snapping a towel toward us, then he wraps it around our waist and another over our shoulders, a kerchief over our heads.
|My Lawrence of Arabia!|
He motions us toward a stone bench, where we cool down, while sipping an apple tea. It is quiet now and we just sit, no thoughts, enjoying the moment.
We have a different spring in our step as we go home, buying doner kebab and another kind, like the kokoritzi from Greece. The children have several reasons to be happy: they had their own schedule, in bed, in front of the computers; they get to know about our experiences, they don’t have to try them, they get food and two happy parents.
|Yarim and his wife, making doner kebab on the spot.|
|Fistik (pistacchio), chocolate, walnut baklava, and several kinds of Turkish delight.|
On the last day we visit the Basilica Cistern, a water-proof columned space that held water for the city’s needs in Justinian’s times (6th century). Again there are slender marble columns brought from all over the known world, for centuries doing their duty of holding multiple brick domes and the weight above them. In one corner some of the damaged ones were replaced with four times their dimensions of reinforced concrete.
|An unique model, reminding of the Hindu lingam.|
|If the column was too short, they used a Medusa head. Hayden was here too! (see his blue chair)|
A quick detour to the Archeological Museum to admire the craftsmanship of the Alexander Sarcophagus, named for the war scenes of Alexander the Great against the Persians. Besides other things like treasures from Troy, we found an inscription from Jerusalem, about the Siloam tunnel, built in the king Hezekiah’s time (8th-7th century BC) to bring water to the city in siege times.
|The same motion as in the Pompeii's mosaic|
|Why did it have a bird head?|
La piece de resistance is Topkapi palace. We move through the courtyards and the buildings that surround them, visit the Imperial Treasures, admiring jewels, daggers, thrones. One of them was from an Iranian shah, who invaded the Mughal empire, an intricate and elaborate precious gold inlaid with enamel, pearls and emeralds. “You have what you give” is a Romanian saying, in this case what was taken from you. In all our visits through India we’ve never seen such a thing, I’m glad that this survived. We enter to see the Holy Relics and this is the only place where we stay in line. I doubt that Aaron’s staff or Jacob’s head cover are the original ones (especially the head cover, it’s so white and complete) and tend to scoff at the reverence with which the Muslim regard the tooth and hairs from Muhammed’s beard. Then a thought humbles me back, I do the same for the Holy Relics of the saints. Faith makes miracles possible!
|Bosphorus and another continent.|
|People in the countryside still wear the traditional outfit.|
|Iznik tiles decorated with gold.|
We walk through the gardens and enter different kiosks, mother of pearl inlaid in ebony, marble and semiprecious stones. I wonder how many of the people sat here admiring the Bosphorus blue waters were fed with wheat brought as a tax from my country or how many children, taken from their families, forgot their language in this palace, and grew to be the perfect Janissery (a soldier)? How many decorations in here and in places long disappeared were paid with the gold transformed labor, hunger and the suffering of simple people, by contenders to the throne of Walachia or Moldavia?
This is the story of every empire and while we admire the progress and the crafts of that time, the treasures hoarded from their known world, we tend to forget the political and economical print on the conquered territories.
Done... We’re done! We get to go home now! Home, to our country, to our families, to friends and relatives, to places close to our hearts...
Elveda, Turkey! Good bye!
|The Gate of Salutation (only officials and foreign dignitaries allowed in the old times).|
|Hagia Sofia seen from the Topkapi Palace|