Wednesday, April 11, 2007

April fool in Istanbul – Day 1

Pamuk's 'Istanbul'
Istanbul has a book it deserves in Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk. An interwoven autobiography and biography of the city he’s never left, is an ideal read before, during or after a visit. Chapter 10 on ‘huzan’, a sort of melancholy is a masterpiece and throughout the book he nails the concept with details such as the little children in the streets selling the same packetof tissues, the over and underpasses in which every step is broken in a different way and the fact that its past is everywhere visible, the detritus of several empires. The city knows that it will never rise again and gets on with life among the ruins, a city of defeat, destruction, depravation, melancholy and poverty. The neglected, unpainted, ramshackle, wooden houses, gulls flying above the mosques at night.

Flight delayed from dreadful T1 at Heathrow but respite came in the Bus. Lounge. After a short queue for visas (£10 each) we were glad to be picked up at airport and whisked to our Hotel. The Hotel Niles has extremely attentive owners who give you an introduction to Istanbul on arrival. Cheap, clean and with a beautiful terrace on the roof overlooking the Bosphorus. We had lunch in a restaurant round the corner; bean soup sprinkled with paprika, chicken with potatoes, baclava and a couple of Efes beers; meal for four at £10. Forget the tourist restaurants, just head up a side street, look for Turkish people eating and pop in.

Beyazik Mosque (1506) and Aqueduct of Valens (Roman)
A long walk in the sun past the Beyazik Mosque, university (scene of many a demo and hence a permanent police presence) and up through the student area (mostly internet cafes) to the aqueduct of Valens. You can still spot Roman and Byzantine structures but it’s the Ottoman monuments that now dominate, mostly beautiful mosque complexes can be seen all over the city. These are usually dominated by the spaciously domed mosque but medressahs, bath complexes, sultan’s tombs, soup kitchens and other structures usually surround the main building.

From the aqueduct we walked back through a slum area north west of the Süleymaniye Mosque. The backstreets of Istanbul are often poor with delapidated wooden houses, many in a state of disrepair, some beyond repair. These Ottoman houses stand shoulder to shoulder with concrete monstrosities and ancient mosques.

Süleymaniye Mosque (1550-1557)
The Süleymaniye Mosque was built between 1550 and 1557 and I think the most beautiful I’ve seen. It’s high on one of Isytanbul’s seven hills and has spacious surroundingsaway from any main roads. It includes 6 madrasas, a poor house-tabhane, an imaret-soup kitchens, a caravanserai, mental hospital, baths, a school and shops, as well as the mausoleums of Süleyman I, the Sultana Hürrem Sultan and the architect, Sinan. When you draw back the heavy cloth at the door the domed interior is breathtaking. The interior is a vast space and the dome really does float above the lower half domes. Entering a mosque of this size is similar to entering one of Europe’s great cathedrals but as there’s rarely a pronounced longitudinal nave and little in the way of decorative adornment, the feeling is very different. A mosque rises up, around and away from you in every direction. Its domes seem to be expanding upwards and outwards. A cathedral, by comparison, is claustrophobic. Not for the first time did I see children run about the mosque without being told off. Despite the ever-present old men praying, they were left to run free. This may be because there’s no real open spaces in central Istanbul.

1 April 2007

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