Ottoman dreams in Istanbul

I was in Istanbul for a 3-day work-related convention with Provention Consortium (now dissolved) in 2009, and stayed an extra day just to see the city properly.  The convention hosts organized a dinner and riverside boat trip along the Bosphorus by night for the whole group.  I saw Galata Tower and Dolmabache Palace lit up from the riverbank.  But I wanted to see more of the historic city. The quickest way to do this was to sign up for a tour based on a hotel leaflet.  The small mini-van consisted of me, a good-looking Asian girl in her early twenties and an older American gentleman with broad shoulders and a bit of a gut on him.

The girl turned out to be a niece of the owner of the Harvey Nicols department store empire.  She was a spoiled, entitled, cliché staying at the Four Seasons hotel.  The man turned out to be a contracted security agent working for the US military in Iraq, on R&R.  He was cagey about who he was and where he was posted, and for good reasons.  Security forces in Afghanistan or Iraq were required to take R&R and they often deployed themselves to Dubai, North India or Istanbul for short weekends for general drink and debauchery to let off steam.  Home was too far away for a short visit, in most cases.

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The Aghia Sophia

The guide was an archaeology student at the university.  He knew good English and relied on tips.  We visited the Aghia Sophia church, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace.  I also stood about 100 metres from the Blue Mosque, but on that day outside visitors weren’t allowed in so didn’t get to visit it properly. I bought a couple of Iznik bowls from Grand Bazaar that I absolutely love.  A blue one and a Red-orange-white one.

Aghia Sophia blew me away.  The church has large black discs suspended from the ceiling with golden Allahs inscribed on it.  The original church structure is believed to date back to 325 AD during Emperor Constantine’s time and the current structure was rebuilt by Justinian.  The church is made of white Marmara marble, yellow marble from Africa, gold and silver from Ephesus Greece and red porphyry columns that some speculate have their provenance in the Temple of the Sun at Baalbek Egypt.

In the 15th century, Mehmet the conqueror took over the church and its surrounds and converted it into a mosque, adding a brick minaret to the church.  Later, 3 more minarets were added.  The grand cavernous interiors strike you immediately as you enter and you can imagine the place once lit up in gold with the reflection of candlelight reflecting off of golden mosaics and silver candelabra.

Topkapi Palace was a sprawling set of buildings across landscaped lawns.  Buildings included the Court of the Janissaries, Court of the Divan, the Harem, the Imperial kitchens, Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, Apartments of the Sultan’s mother (the most important woman in the Harem) and Apartments of the Sultan himself.  Of course, it’s the Harem that most captured the imagination and fantasy of the Western world once they became familiar with the term and adapted it into textual and visual representations that reflected their own perceptions of the Orient and the Other.

The Topkapi museums are interesting and include relics of St John the Baptist (part of his hand and skull!) and the infamous Topkapi dagger which has four huge emeralds embedded in the hilt and in a hidden part of the dagger.  The Pavilion of the Holy mantle has relics of Prophet Mohammed (hairs of his beard) and is considered a place of pilgrimage.

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Topkapi Dagger on display

As we walk briefly around the Old city, we are shown a few  reminders of the Hippodrome that once existed here including the Egyptian Obelisk.  The Hippodrome itself was built during Emperor Constantine’s time, modeled after the Roman circus and could seat 100,000 people.  It was destroyed during the Sack of Istanbul during the fourth crusade and was stripped of its marble statues and seats.  In the 17th century, it was quarried for stone that was used to build the Blue Mosque.

Next was the Grand Bazaar.  I entered through a small, narrow, unassuming gate into the bowels of a rambling series of stalls and cafes.  Lanterns, ethnic designed bowls and sacks of spice powders surrounded me.  Men called out to tourists, begging for their custom.  One doesn’t realize the size of the sprawling extensive maze that forms this bazaar.  It has over 4000 stalls, cafes and restaurants under its series of roofs and rambles through a grid of 66 narrow streets all protected from the hot sun.  Jewellery, copperware, brassware, carpets, silver, ceramics, bargain clothing, antiques and curios are all on sale.  Try not to get creeped out by the thousands of evil eye motif curios following you wherever you go!

I understand why so many students of archaeology have to visit Turkey and Greece as a part of their basic training and understanding.  Istanbul is just one city littered with archaeological gems and steeped in such a rich historic background of crusades and wars.  One can understand why its still a geo-political hotbed of strife and unrest even today.  Riots were threatening to break out as civilians striked in 2009 and bombs are going off across the country even today.  Izmir has bad a bomb explosion only two days ago.  Hard to imagine things were any better under the Ottoman empire which lasted well into the 20th century before the Sultanate was abolished in 1922 and Attaturk was elected President.  There was a time when I would have considered another visit to Istanbul, at least to see the Blue Mosque close up and get to the insides of Dolmabache palace.  Then maybe visited Capadoccia and Izmir.  But the truth is Istanbul, though considered more modern and Westernized than the rest of Turkey, was still a city of men and for men.  Sure, women walked around freely, smoked, wore what they wanted and walked confidently on their way to work but everywhere I went, I was still filled with the unease of a woman being stared at, sized up, evaluated and summarily dismissed.  Women moved around, but felt absent from engaging with society.  It was a Middle Eastern city after all.  And I have no niggling urge to return to that rich, interesting city especially considering the long bucket-list of travel to other places I have yet to visit.  My once in a life-time visit there is officially done.

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