Istanbul (2010)

The Sülemaniye and Blue Mosque

We search for the Süleymaniye Mosque and a boat, visit the Blue Mosque and purchase Turkish delicacies.

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After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast—we start getting used to having bread with honey, accompanied by cucumber—we decide to go out. First target of the day is the Süleymaniye Mosque, the largest mosque in Istanbul. It seems we will be able to enjoy the weather after all: when Vonne opends the hotel room curtains, she suddenly turns around and starts talking enthusiastically about blue skies. The sceptic in me refuses to believe this, several earlier conversations having contributed to my disbelief: “Hey, the sun is shining!”“Really?” “No, it is grey and raining.”“Oh.”. But once we get outside, I have no choice but to agree that the sky is, in fact, most definitely a shade of blue.

Where is that Süleymaniye Mosque?

Across a square we had previously seen as we made our way back through an abandoned bazaar earlier, we head towards the Süleymaniye Mosque. The square features a gateway, a mosque and a thousand-and-one pigeons. And, naturally, a simit salesman, but they are on just about every street corner. And one in the middle for when the other two get hungry. As usual, we are pretty clueless as to where we are actually heading, but when we approach a sizeable mosque I proudly start to declare that I knew exactly where we were all this time. Our map, however, tends to disagree as it tells us this is the Princes’ Mosque. It would appear that the Turkish are not particularly troublesome about their mosques, and when the contractor asks how it should be built, the default answer is: “make it large”.

The actual Süleymaniye Mosque is not far off, however, and a short walk later we arrive at the entrance. We do not have to buy tickets, but donations towards the mosque’s restoration funds are welcome. In order to do my small part in the preservation of cultural heritage I give the old man at the entrance 5 TL and enter. Through this entrance we arrive at the cemetary behind the mosque, featuring the tombs of Suleyman and Roxelana. The former, bearing the epithet “the Magnificent” and, more informally “the Lawgiver”, was one of the greatest Ottoman sultans. His large casket, weaved in green and white cloth, is flanked by those of the sultans Suleyman II and Ahmed (the very one whom the borough Sultanahmet is named after, if I am not mistaken), as well as by several smaller caskets of sons who did not achieve sultanhood. The caskets of the sultans themselves are additionally surrounded by a wooden balustrade with gold-painted ornaments.

The second tomb is the final resting place of Haseki Hürrem Sultan, Roxelana the "Laughing One". According to the information sign she was of Ukrainian–Russian descent and as the daughter of a priest destined for a simple marriage. For a woman in that time, that would have entailed a position as housewife–slave. But she ended up in the harem and in suprisingly short order became sultan Suleyman’s favourite woman, leading to the banishment of the sultan’s first wife and her son Mustafa, until then the heir apparent, followed by the execution of the Grand Vizier who was not overly fond of Roxelana, and not long after that the execution of Mustafa who had decided to rebel during his banishment. And to top it all off, she married Suleyman, which shocked people both nationally as internationally, as that made Suleyman the first sultan to get married. It may be clear that instead of the “Laughing One”, she might also have been called “the Pro-active”. She was at any rate very influential and to this day is an inspiration and example to women. The tombs, with all the colourful decorations, an adorned dome and windows, carpet on the floor (shoes off!), are not tombs as we are used to them. Several Turks even came to Suleyman’s tomb for prayer.

We decide to visit the mosque itself as well, but all the doors in the wall surrounding its garden appear locked. A glance through the fence in front provides the asnwer: the scaffolding surrounding the building indicates that restorations are currently taking place and the mosque is not currently open to visitors.

A harbour expedition, some tumbling and a Blue Mosque

With the Süleymaniye Mosque closed, we decide to head towards the harbour at Eminönü, from whence the ferries depart. We want to check at what time they head towards the Prince Islands and Büyükada in particular. According to our guidebook, the boats in that direction sail off from the harbour furthest away from the Galata bridge, so we decide to get a döner dürüm near the exit of the Grand Bazaar and are provided with a free language course on how to properly pronounce “teşekkür ederim” (“thank you”) and a cup of milk from an animal that says “not moo”, but “beeeeeeh”, which should make it goat milk. it is rather sour and tastes more like yoghurt, which does not remain unappreciated by Vonne.

After having passed the departure quays with various destinations in Istanbul itself, we should get to the one with departures for Büyükada, but it is nowhere to be found. There is a single empty quay near a parking lot, but there is no indication of it being in use. Since we are now close to Gülhane Park, we decide to put the ferry conundrum behind us for now, and take a shortcut through the park towards the Blue Mosque. As the weather is now rather nice, we enjoy the park for a bit and head towards Sultanahmet Meydanı. On the way, I manage to fall over after bumping my shin into a tiny pole along the edge of the sidewalk, which apart from nearly breaking my leg (imagine me shaking my fist at this) sends me flying into Vonne’s backside in a futile attempt to remain upright. She would later describe the experience as simultaneously being jumped from a rooftop, being the victim of a robbery attempt and having a cat jump into and hold onto her shirt. I still appear to be able to walk and after a short break with a candybar on Sultanahmet Square, we head into the mosque whose name now resembles the colour of my leg.

We head into the mosque whose name now resembles the colour of my leg.

We were already aware that this mosque too was a complex in the “just carry on building” category, having no less than six minarets, but the inner square is huge and even more massive than expected. As this mosque, unlike the opposite Hagia Sophia, is still in use, we are not allowed to enter through the main entrance. We have to go into the side entrance, which leads us into the back of the mosque, divided from the praying visitors by small wooden fences. Here too, we have to take off our shoes, although after all the walking we have been doing, I cannot help but wonder if even the Islamic god would not prefer me keeping them on. With our shoes in plastic bags, we enter into the colossal space. The in Ottoman motives decorated dome rests on four gigantic columns, high above the chandeliers which here too seem to float in mid-air over soft red carpets. The carpets carry dark lines indicating placement for the visitors when the mosque fills up, and feel very pleasant to the touch. Especially Vonne is enthousiastic about them and is ready for churches to adopt this practice right away.

On that note, visiting a mosque is quite a different experience from visiting a church. The latter is usually richly decorated with statues, golden altars, ostentatious tombs and filled with benches, while the light falls through detailed stained glass windows. It is a sharp contrast to the mosque, which is pretty much free of all this fluff: it is basically just a large open area with no frills. The only decorations are the patterns painted on the ceiling and dome, the glazed tiles and Quran verses covering the pillars. It is majestic in its simplicity, only expecting the believers to wash their feet before entering to keep the room clean. The Blue Mosque too has a row of small faucets underneath the column gallery outside for that purpose.

Once outside we once again make a donation for the maintenance and receive several receipts in return for tax purposes. As we would like to record the call to prayer, we sit ourselves down on the inner square in the afternoon sun. During the wait a phonecall comes in from home checking on whether we are having a good time or not, which is pretty well timed, because as soon as I hang up, one of the minarets starts singing, alternating with that of another nearby mosque.

Dinner with Pierre van Hooijdonk

For dinner we head back to Eminönü and find ourselves a nice place (ie. here too, someone had taken a correspondence course in Dutch and introduced himself as Pierre van Hooijdonk, which was good for a laugh) to eat. As Vonne and I devour respectively a plate of Tavuk-wings and a plate of Tavuk Abdelaziz (Tavuk apparently being an unfortunate chicken), we enjoy the exquisitely British voice of a man at a neighbouring table—in my opinion he should have been doing voice-overs for nature documentaries: I could have listened to this man talking for hours about the attempts of a ring-tailed lemur to crack open a walnut—and a local specialty that has been ordered at another table nearby. Meat is prepared in a clay vase in an oven, after which the waiter dramatically taps the vase with a large knife until it falls apart, shards go flying everywhere and he is able to serve the meat onto the plates. We are less fortunate with our after-dinner apple tea—the water boiler has boiled its last that very evening.

To compensate for the lack of tea, Vonne buys herself a package of Said Baba Turkish Delight on the way back to the hotel. They are basically gelatinous blocks one cubic inch in size that taste very sweet. I had never heard of it before. Back in our room we turn on some Turkish TV (did you know the Turkish Deal or No Deal has like 6 times 500,000 TL listed? No wonder they always end up with one!) and then get some sleep. Another day tomorrow!

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