Traveling to Istanbul (I)

Dome, The New Mosque

Dome, The New Mosque

This is farther east and still in Europe than I’ve ever been, outside of Moscow—farther than Bucharest, farther than Athens. A lot like both, though—even though the place has been Islamic for five hundred years, it still feels pretty Orthodox as well—you can’t just disappear that 1,300 years of Christianity. What it mainly feels like, though, is bustling. This is one busy city. Thank god for the excellent tram system. I’m a big fan of cities with trams anyway, and this one is superb. It makes Boston’s system look like the medieval relic it really is. And the traffic makes Boston’s look positively care-free.

Our hotel, though, is nicely located, a couple of blocks from just about everything, right in the middle of the Eminönü area. So we’re a block from the train station, the relevant tram stop, the ferries up the Bosporus and into the Golden Horn, and no more than a fifteen minute walk to the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. Lots of good restaurants nearby as well, with the only thing lacking being a place to get recent (i.e., since last Wednesday) English newspapers. But we’re fully wired—isn’t everyone these days, including what appears to be every resident of Istanbul, each and every one of whom apparently has a mobile phone? Packing for trips these days has become an exercise in wire management—we have the iPad charger, the laptop charger, the charger for the phone, which fortunately is the same as for my Blackberry from work, the battery chargers for the two cameras, the little box for uploading photos from cameras and phones and iPads onto laptops…what could I possibly have left off this list?

And, since it’s Easter, I had to bring along The Book of Common Prayer, to compensate for the fact that we haven’t been to an Easter service for years, and here we are, in a country where the Orthodox Easter won’t come around until May. Plus we spent the entirety of Easter visiting mosques. These cultural markers do mean something after all.

The mosques are quite neat, and not quite what I expected, at least the larger ones. These are large palaces of light, really, designed to be as open and as bright as possible. I’m still trying to sort out Islamic aesthetics, which I imagine will tell me why many of the interiors we’ve seen—especially at Topkapi—seem designed to not blend with each other—to just be, as Mrs. W put it, bright and shiny, with no sense of overall room design. Well, that’s probably just us—and it certainly isn’t a criticism that could be made of the mosques that we’ve been in. These are big and airy, with high domes (every one literally trying to outdo Hagia Sophia, apparently), lots of windows, and sublimely tasteful settings of verses from the Koran.

So far we’ve done most of the major mosques, including some designed by the master architect of mosques, Koca Mimar Sinan (“Great Architect Sinan”). Sinan was appointed Chief Imperial Architect by Suleyman and held the post for more than half a century. His output was astonishing, including 81 large mosques, more than half of which were in Istanbul. The major ones are the Süleymaniye, probably the largest and best known of Istanbul’s mosque complexes, and the Şehzade Camii (“Camii” is Turkish for “mosque”), which Suleyman had built in memory of his son, who died at 21. These are grand constructions. I would have to say that if I had a favorite, it was this one—the nicest balance of light and space of all of them. But this is subjective, obviously.

They are also interesting socially. This is a patriarchal culture and religion, so no surprise that there is a separate prayer area for women. Still, people are wandering around everywhere—except at our last mosque, where they asked visitors to stay in the back. But this wasn’t the case at other mosques, and people were just wandering around at most of them. Men were praying, yes. But men were also chatting up a storm, talking on their mobiles, and taking pictures of each other. Families were sitting around talking—not loudly, but certainly not whispering either. Children were running around all over the place. Maybe it’s because it was Sunday, and that’s a social day—you meet the neighbors at the mosque, have a nice chat, and move on. But what it most reminded me of is what medieval cathedrals were supposed to be like—large spaces where everyone got together regularly, and lots of stuff happened, not just services.

And Turkey is certainly a family place. There are kids everywhere. When we were visiting Topkapi Palace on Friday, it seemed as if every school group in Istanbul was there as well, not to mention about ten thousand mothers with strollers. What is lacking is lots of Disney stuff—we haven’t exactly been looking for it, but so far no kids in Little Princess outfits. However, there do seem to be LOTS of Burger Kings and McDonalds, which I suppose is inescapable these days. Still, plenty of good food pretty much everywhere. We’ve already had some excellent real meals, and some terrific light fare from the kebab shop down the street. This a city of 12 million people or however many it is, so you can get pretty much whatever you want here, so long as it’s lamb. But not just the lamb—Turkish cuisine is full of nuts and seeds, and not only do they spice everything up nicely, it’s also good for you. Forget all that crap about the Mediterranean diet. It’s what they eat here that’s good for you—olive oil, dates, figs, olives, and lots of seeds and nuts. I could eat this stuff forever.

Anyway, according to David Macaulay’s excellent <em>Mosque, the ideal proportions for a mosque are a perfect cube, covered by a half hemisphere. The perfect cube comes from the Kaaba at Mecca. The dome comes from, of all things, Hagia Sophia: when Mehmed II finally conquered Constantinople in 1453, he began a mosque building campaign. Hagia Sophia itself was turned into a mosque (it is no longer a mosque—it was turned into a museum in 1935). But it was also the impetus for a new model of mosque—one that emulated the Sophia, and, in particular, one that outdid its magnificent dome. It became a model for a number of mosques designed by Sinan, including Süleymaniye and Şehzade.

Hagia Sophia, from the Gallery

Hagia Sophia, from the Gallery

So one of the first things you do here is head over to Hagia Sophia, which is what we did on Thursday, along with, apparently, everyone who happened to be in Istanbul that day. And it’s worth it—it’s one of the most impressive buildings ever. It’s very large, and yes, the dome is gigantic—that’s 182 feet straight up. There was scaffolding along one of the walls in the nave, and some complaints on TripAdvisor about that, but really, you’re going to complain because your fifteen minutes in this marvelous building was ruined by scaffolding? Americans, go home. There is some great mosaic work throughout, especially in the narthex, and upstairs in the Gallery. The columns are magnificent, carved from marble, and supporting a U-shaped first-floor gallery that itself can obviously hold thousands. It is filled, just filled, with light—Byzantine architecture made some amazing innovations in this regard. But then you realize that this is simply what was left following two ruinous sackings—by the Fourth Crusaders in 1204, and by the Conqueror’s troops in 1453. Some of the Sophia’s treasures can still be seen in Venice, interestingly enough.

Dome, Hagia Sophia

Dome, Hagia Sophia

It was an inspiring visit. I felt sort of the way I felt after my first visit to The Baptistry in Florence: here was a building that not only encapsulated an age—the entire history of Byzantium—but it also provided a foundation for much of what followed. It’s a trip everyone should make. It’s not until you’re here, really, that you start to appreciate what the Byzantines did—they kept it all going when Rome collapsed and was overrun by Vandals, and when what eventually became Europe disappeared into several centuries of fear, suppression and constant warfare. For ages this was the Roman empire, extended—except run by Greeks. The Turks didn’t get here until the 15th century, an Islamic tribe coming out of the steppes.

Mosaics, Hagia Sophia

Mosaics, Hagia Sophia

It’s theoretically a secular culture now—this is Atatürk’s legacy. But it doesn’t feel that way. Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, which is basically an autobiography, reminds us that this is a city of ruins from many different civilizations and periods, and it still has that flavor of mixed failed empires, from which a new one has yet to take shape. But the ingredients are all here.

6 replies »

  1. What a lovely post, your observations about Istanbul really hit the mark. I especially loved the comparison to how medieval cathedrals were supposed to be.

    The lack of unity can be attributed to the nomadic culture of the Turks. All the kiosk or pavilions built in the Topkapi palace are erected like tents on the field. But each reflects the taste and culture of their time period. You can find unity in the 19th c. European influenced palace, Dolmabahce. I will take Topkapi over any of the others any day.

    Enjoy the rest of your stay,


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