Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Istanbul Day 5 – City Walls of Byzantium

Pakup’s Istanbul refracts the city through his own eyes as well as those of other Istanbul and foreign writers such as Flaubert, Nerval, Gautier and Twain. This is what makes this book such a powerful testimony. It’s not an over-romaticised view of the author’s city but an honest account of many perspectives. He sees that foreign visitors can see the picturesque in a way that is difficult for its residents, as they harbour too many memories. He also sees how western art managed to capture the city in a way that Islamic art did not. On the other hand he praises the journalism and historians of his own city.

Grand Bazaar
A walk through Bazaar is no real hassle and there’s much to see, and buy. It’s a riot of colour, but really aimed at foreign tourists, therefore full of tat. The entrances, however, I loved. Just outside of these the city springs into real life. Inside, it’s all a show.

Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque (1609)
Returned to step inside the famous blue interior. The interior has scale but not the elegance of the Suliymaniye. Its tile covered walls are certainly impressive - it nearly exhausted the Iznic kilns but I prefer the exterior with its six minarets.The cube is topped by an ascending system of domes and semi-domes, culminating in the central dome, which is 33 meters in diameter and 43 meters high at its central point. The overall effect is one of perfect visual harmony, leading the eye up to the peak of the dome. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the only mosque in Turkey that has six minarets. When the number of minarets was revealed, the Sultan was criticized for presumption, since this was, at the time, the same number as at the mosque of the Ka'aba in Mecca. He overcame this problem by paying for a seventh minaret at the Mecca mosque. At its lower levels the interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, made at Iznik (the ancient Nicaea). Its upper levels are painted. More than 200 stained glass windows with intricate designs admit natural light, today assisted by chandeliers. On the chandeliers, ostrich eggs are found that were meant to avoid cobwebs inside the mosque by repelling spiders. The decorations include verses from the Qur'an, many of them made by Seyyid Kasim Gubari, regarded as the greatest calligrapher of his time.

Roxene’s Hamman (1556)
Suleyman’s wife’s bath complex. Now a carpet museum/shop this is well worth a visit. Completely symmetrical (men and women entered at opposite sides), you wander trough rooms littered with wonderful carpets. Extensively restored, it was a working hamman until 1910.

Archaeological Museum
This was a real surprise. One room contains a chronological history of Istanbul with full explanations for all of its major Roman and Byzantine buildings, gone or still standing. This is an ideal introduction to the history and architecture of the city. There’s a full floor of exhibits from Schlieman’s Troy, displayed layer by layer. Then there’s a beautiful pavilion dedicated to the history of tiles and ceramics. But the masterpiece is the Alexander Sarcophogus, not his tomb, but that of a Lydian King who decorated his tomb with deeds of his hero. The workmanship is astounding. The treaty of Kadesh, which we had seen written at Abu Simbel in Egypt a few months ago was seen written from the other Hittite side in cruciform on baked clay in the museum.

Lunch at an excellent little kebab restaurant in Emindou – a spicy lamb stew roasted in a metal dish with onions, peppers and tomatoes and superb baclava.

City Walls
After lunch we took the tram to Topaki, a poor area but bang on the middle of the city walls. It felt a little dangerous, and indeed someone did warn us about ‘bad men’, so Gil headed back with Carl to the hotel but Callum and I persevered and walked the couple of miles down the outside of the walls to the Golden gate, almost on the Bosphorus. Earthquakes, especially in 1894, have caused more damage than cannons ever did but these walls are fairly intact with their octagonal towers, main curtain wall, second front wall and moat and ditch in front, now used as a series of market gardens. At various points, the original gates, one can see the width and structure of the walls in cross section. The Golden gate was an original Byzantine structure topped with a statue of a chariot drawn by an elephant. The Ottomans build a castle facing inwards to the city behind the gate after they captured the city in 1453. We walked along its walls and inside its huge towers. Sure enough, on top of the Golden gate, we found the hollowed out footprints of the now missing elephant. The areas directly behind the walls are dirt poor but everywhere is brightened up with pastry shops and small restaurants. E had a look at the Byzantine Church then headed back to the Hotel by taxi.

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