Istanbul (2010)

The Wall of Theodosius

Day seven already! We get a boat to Büyükada, where a horror story takes place and a palace is close to collapse.

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One last time we had breakfast in the hotel and prepared for our final day in Istanbul; a week goes by so fast! Once more uphill and once more on the tram: today is goodbye to everything.

The Wall of Theodosius and the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora

In the morning we want to visit the Wall of Theodosius and the nearby Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (try saying that ten times fast!), so we buy a whole stack of jetons and end up feeling more like we are heading into a casino than into public transportation. We manage to overcome some confusion when switching lines, as it turns out that the tram stop Aksaray is not actually the same place as the metro stop Aksaray, which is much closer to tramstop Yusufpaşa. When we alight there, there is also no sign of the metro stop Aksaray, but a quick check of the map tells us that it is likely situated two blocks further, which turns out to be the case. Strange fellows, those Turks. As full as the tram line is, so quiet is the metro. Two stops down the line we arrive at Topkapı Ulubatlı, a station named after the borough Topkapı it is situated in. Not to be confused with the Topkapı Palace, which is on the other side of the peninsula. Right.

We get off and find ourselves at the Wall of Theodosius. Built from the Golden Horn coast all the way to the Sea of Marmara to protect Constantinople from invasion across land, they served that purpose for about 800 years until the city fell to the Ottoman armies in 1453, long after Constantinople itself was the only remnant of the Byzantine Empire. Despite being somewhat eroded, the walls are still quite formidable, with a guard tower built into them every so often. Especially when walking north and the ground level drops, the walls towering high above, it is not difficult to imagine the feeling of protection they once gave the city while granting an equal sense of indomitability to its enemies.

“Wall of Theodosius claims first two victims in six hundred years.”

As the church we want to visit is a while further north, we follow the wall in that direction and come upon a stone stairway along the wall leading up. Just as we are discussing whether we should go up, a nearby van driver starts emphatically gesturing that we should indeed go up there. Well, either that or he is trying to tell us that by going up there we are facing inevitable doom, but we start the climb nevertheless. The stairs are in good state and it does not take long before we are a good bit higher up facing another section of the wall. I start wondering why anyone would even want to climb up here, when Vonne discovers that some bushes are cloaking the remains of a second stairway further up, appreciably narrower and in much worse condition.

We are of course not deterred by the stairway and climb further up. As we rise along the abyss, I can already see the Istanbul Timess headlines: “Wall of Theodosius claims first two victims in six hundred years”. However, we reach the top of the wall/half-restored guard tower unharmed and enjoy a spectacular view of Istanbul in both directions. Oh, what must it have been like for a Byzantine soldier with on one side the rolling green hills and farmland and on the other side the city of Constantinople with columns rising, the obelisk of the hippodrome and rising majestically above all, the dome of the Hagia Sophia! Which, incidentally, we cannot see because a mosque adjacent to the wall blocks the view. We have to satisfy ourselves with a game of guess-the-mosque: “If that is the New Mosque over there, then that is the Süleymaniye Mosque… wait, does that not have four minarets? Does that mean it is the Princes’ Mosque? But which one is over there then?” A short while later, we descend again and continue our search for the church.

It turns out easy to find, as she is located on a noticeably touristic square in what our guide calls a working class neighbourhood. The former church, which now also has a minaret attached, is a museuem these days and two entrance tickets get us inside. The small basilica was once built by a Byzantine who returned from exile and its interior is still richly decorated with reasonably well preserved mosaics. Although it is now filled with elderly tourists, loudly speaking tour guides and bored-looking employees shouting “no flash, please” every two minutes, it is still an impressive building. It is also unusual for us to see so many Greek inscriptions on christian imagery, especially as it is not classical Greek and sometimes hard to decipher.

Shopping in the Bazaar

Early in the afternoon we return to the city center, as we have reserved the final afternoon for souvenir-shopping at the Bazaar. For most of the week we have been admiring the tapestries, lamps, bed covers, harem dresses, pashminas, pillows, tea sets and all the other items on sale. But before we get to that, we have to experience the earlier mentioned authentic pickle-in-a-jar feeling for ourselves. We skip the first tram as there is absolutely no possible way of jamming ourselves into it, but the second has something resembling space for two bodies, so in we go. Three stops later, a Turkish public transport employee comes to forcibly push the doors closed from the outside.

At Sultanahmet square we somehow manage to wrestle our way out of the tram and after drawing breath for the first time in fifteen minutes we slowly inflate back to our normal size. We have one of the local calligraphists calligraph our names and stroll towards the Bazaar. We are once again quickly lost in the many small streets behind the Bazaar until we recognise an alleyway and make our way to the Spice Bazaar, from where I know the exact route to my destination: at the end of one of the streets are several stores carrying hookahs, one of which shall soon be mine! After viewing the selection and the favourable prices, I choose one and manage to haggle my way to a fair price, including charcoal and tobacco.

We head back to the Spice Bazaar as Vonne wants to buy a tea set for ourselves and for her parents, and the nicest ones were there. Negotiation starts soon and despite the theatrics of the salesman who turns his eyes towards heaven multiple times to show my offers are unacceptable (“Is it possible? It is not possible! It is impossible!”) we manage to bring the price down and include a box of tea in the price as well. I manage to find a snowglobe with the Hagia Sophia in it for my mother (also a good excuse for a further discount, by the way) and as we pass a tapestry shop, we see several beautiful tablecloths on display.

As we have already realised that the nicest Turkish lamps are quite expensive and large bedcloths also do not come cheap (at least not without finding a market well outside of city center), we decide to inform about the tablecloths. It is still somewhat expensive, so we discuss for a moment whether we want to haggle for it—this turns out to be the right strategy, because before we have even made a single counter-offer, the price has already repeatedly gone down. We decide that we do want it, so I make an offer below the current one and it is accepted. We choose the one we want and carry on as proud owners of a Turkish tablecloth. Vonne also buys a pashmina at a store just outside the Bazaar and have another calligraphist make a nice print for Vonne’s sister. Tired of all the walking, we trek back to the hotel.

The Last Supper

We do not want to travel far for our last supper, so we ask the hotel manager where his restaurant is located, which should be nearby. We are immediately brought there by one of the hotel employees, as it turns out to be a fish restaurant a few streets down from the hotel, near where we had eaten before. Once again, it is very lively on the streets with bands playing music and singing in the restaurants, and all the lights hanging from the balconies.

The restaurant is slightly pricier than the previous ones, but it more than compensates for this by the excellent salmon and swordfish. The waiters are deeply impressed by my travel report and my handwriting, because they all immediately have to show each other; soon, a handwritten note from one of the waiters is brought to demonstrate his lack of skill in handwriting and I am immediately promoted to the rank of “artist”. After dinner, we return to the hotel to start the sad business of packing our bags. One very short night, and Istanbul will be over for us! Iyi akşamlar!

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