Istanbul (2010)

Topkapı and Hagia Sophia

We visit the Topkapı Palace in the morning, the Hagia Sophia in the afternoon and the rain just keeps on coming.

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We rise early this morning in order to be at the Topkapı Palace in time. As it was rather late yesterday evening before we returned to the hotel, the night has been fairly short. So we enjoy the by now usual breakfast in zombie mode and get ready for today. After having been to the palace, we might just get around to visiting the Hagia Sophia as well.

Guests of the sultan

Since we have already been to the Archaeological Museum, we know where to go for a change, and it is not long before the walls of the Topkapı complex rise before us. We queue up in the already lengthy line of umbrellas—the rain has made its return. This time we purchase a ticket at the desk and enter the palace grounds through the second portcullis. We go through the turnstiles, our bags through the x-ray scanner and we are now guests at the court of the Ottoman sultans!

The palace complex contains a series of buildings in what is essentially a large garden, including the waiting room for the viziers, the sultan’s reception room, the harem and various pavillions that the sultans had constructed through the centuries. There is a mosque with a small minaret—essentially a minoret—and of course the treasuries. The first one of those contains a variety of treasures of the Ottoman rulers: gem-encrusted rings, cups, water bottles, dishes, swords, thrones and such amenities. Highlights are two huge golden candelabras, sultan Mustafa III’s chainmail armour inlaid with gold and gems, the Topkapı Dagger intended as a gift to Shah Nadir of Persia, and the so-called Spoonmaker’s Diamond. It is an enormous 86-carat diamond that is said to have been found in a pile of rubbish, was bought for three spoons and found its way to court where the sultan had it cut into the current glinting jewel.

A next series of chambers, which are considerably more richly adorned with blue Ottoman tiles, showcases various Islamic relics. There are quite a few swords and garments having belonged to the prophets and their friends, but there are also the gold-plated drainage pipes from the Kaaba in Mecca, alongside the ancient door and locks of the islamic sanctuary. But there are also less convential relics on display: the staff of Moses and Abraham’s cooking pot. Such a collection is of course never complete without the usual holy body parts, so there are the arm and skull of John the Baptist, several jars—and when I irreverently say “jars” I mean highly adorned golden receptacles as are appropriate for these holy heirlooms—with pieces of Mohamed’s beard and a piece of his tooth that chipped off during a battle.

After we have witnessed these miraculous objects, our journey takes us along the different terraces and pavillions of the palace, which are generally beautifully adorned with tilework and calligraphy. Especially the domes are spectacular from within. Having wandered about for some time, we start to get hungry. But before we have lunch, there is a decision to be made about viewing the harem, which requires the purchase of a seperate ticket. Since our guidebook promises some great architecture and decoration, and because I have little objection to visiting rooms filled with the sultan’s most beautiful women—a privilege that once required a rather painful and permanent price of entry for any man aside from the sultan—we decide to get the extra ticket.

We quickly discover that this has not been a waste. Granted, there is a definite lack of harem ladies (once, my heart starts beating in anticipation as I see slender figures appear, but it turns out they are merely traditionally clothed dolls), but this part of the palace does feel like an actual living area. Here too, the rooms are richly decorated, but there is also furniture, there are canopies, benches and pillows and, equally important, bathrooms. It gives you the idea that people actually lived here. You can just imagine the sultan’s wives sitting, talking, bathing and doing their make-up in these luxurious surroundings. Additionally, several sultans had their private rooms in this part of the palace, with a stunning view of the Golden Horn. After we have explored the entire complex, we leave the palace and return to the wet reality of modern day Istanbul.

Into the Hagia Sophia

As we are right next to the Ayasofya mosque, the ancient Hagia Sophia basilica, we decide to pay a visit to that as well. First, however, we get two simit bread rolls and drinks at one of the stands, as well as stamps for the postcards we bought yesterday on the Istiklal Caddesi. Having had lunch underneath the umbrella, we once again queue up for access tickets. The Hagia Sophia staff are apparently extremely wary of professional photographers, because despite both of us only carrying point and shoot cameras, Vonne has to part with her miniature tripod. Fortunately, they do not appear to be very well informed of the latest developments in the field of camera stabilisation, because my Manfrotto Modopocket™ is not recognised and goes inside with us.

And what an inside it is! Of course, you know the stories. You have seen the pictures in the brochures and standing in front of the building you definitely notice that it is, in fact, a very large building. But setting foot inside for the first time is still absolutely overwhelming. You step through the colossal doors into a cavernous space where a gigantic dome hangs overhead, the space lit by huge candelabras floating only 2.5 metres above the floor. The worn decorations on the walls, the galleries of columns and the later added calligraphy in the dome give the building an odd sense of confusion: the interior seems islamic, but the building itself most definitely is not. Especially when you find the christian mosaics on the upper floor, the blend of religions is complete.

Having gaped and stared at this imposing construction, we head back downstairs. We set ourselves down on a maqsura, a low wooden platform installed to give the elderly the chance to sit down, listen to the prayers and read the Quran, next to a Turkish class of school children who clearly have been assigned to produce a map of the Hagia Sophia, as they are very busy on the floor with paper, crayons and rulers. This seems like an excellent time to write our postcards home, and that is what we do: with greetings from the Ayasofya.

Dinner time

Before having dinner, we decide to pick up some fresh clothing from the hotel, where the receptionist informs us that today’s weather is forecasted to last all week. Bummer!

Neither of us wants to go very far dinner tonight, so we decide to head into Kumkapı; only one block away from our hotel, there is a street full of small fish restaurants. Here too, the proprietors try to lure you into their restaurants and we end up picking one with a view of an illuminated fountain on a small square. We go for the salmon and a mixed grill. Unfortunately little is served to accompany the portions, but the atmosphere is wonderful, especially when a group of musicians playing Turkish music come in, accompanied by a belly dancer. When we walk through the area later and pass several restaurants, there appear to be many of these groups everywhere. Whether this is a Friday thing, or whether Kumkapı is just that touristic we cannot tell, but between the music and the well filled terraces makes it a very enjoyable area for dinner and a stroll afterwards.

Since we had dinner fairly late and would like to relax some in our room, we head back to the hotel. Plans for tomorrow: Saturday, Mosque day!

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