August 18th, Day 17, Istanbul, Turkey
This morning we got up early to see our kids off to the airport. They were leaving for Samos, Greece. Next we met up with our new group and new guide, Nedine, for a walking tour of Istanbul. I didn’t even pay attention to the weather because everyday has been just perfect! T-shirt and shorts weather. We would have been shocked if it wasn’t perfect out even though Nedine told us Istanbul got more rain each year than London! This didn’t compute with our experience of warm, sometimes even hot sunshine.
Our first stop was the Hippodrome which translated from Greek means the square of horses. This was the spot where all the people were eating their dinners last night on picnic benches or the grass after sunset during Ramadan. There were many kiosks selling crafts and food as well. Our guide said that this would all be cleared out in September when Ramadan ended.
Originally the Hippodrome was used for chariot races and public gatherings. During the Greek era, it had seats for 30,000 spectators but the seats were no longer in existence today. It was first built in 203 AD and was still being used as a public gathering place today in 2011! Amazing!
In the middle of the square was a large water fountain called the German Fountain. It was donated to Istanbul by the German Kaizer, William 11, in 1901 after he visited this city. The fountain was a huge urn filled with fresh water each day. At the bottom were taps for the public to access the water in the urn. The German Fountain was still being used today.
In the square we visited an Obelisque taken from Egypt in the year 390 BC which still looked new! This amazing column is said to be from the 15th century BC, so it was 3,500 years old! There was also a monument taken from Delphi, Greece. This monument was made from weapons taken after a battle with the Persians in 479 BC. The Greeks melted down the metal and made a large column of three serpents twisting together. The Roman Byzatine Empire took monuments from countries they conquered and brought them here to Constantinople to show off.
Much later when the Ottoman conquered Constantinople and changed the city’s name to Istanbul, the Ottoman Emperor Ahmed 1, built the infamous Blue Mosque on top of the site of the former Byzantine emperor’s palace. They also converted the Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s church the Basilica of St. Sophia into a Mosque! Now called Hagia Sophia.
We visited the inside of the Blue Mosque. It was amazing, this mosque was the greatest and most beautiful Mosque in Istanbul. It was constructed by the Sultan Ahmet I, who ruled between 1603 – 1617 and it took 7 years to complete. (I know, less time to build than our house but they had thousands of laborers working day and night)!
There was a chain hanging down from the main entrance to the Mosque and according to legend this was so the Sultan could ride on his horse up to the door and dismount with respect to walk into the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque was the only mosque with 6 minarets in all of Turkey! The legend about why there were 6 minarets was that the architect was hard of hearing. When the Sultan had asked for a golden minaret (altan), in the Turkish language the word for gold is very similar to the word for 6 (alta). The architect thought the Sultan had asked for Alta not alt an! So 6 minarets was what he built! Regular mosques were allowed one minaret. Royal Mosques liked symmetry and built either two or four minarets, never six!
We had to take off our shoes and carry them. Any person, man or woman, wearing shorts with their knees showing had to cover up with a skirt. We did not have to cover our heads because we were not visiting to pray. There were taps outside below the north portico of the front courtyard of the Mosque where people washed themselves (ablutions) before entering the Mosque. There was also a fountain in the middle of the courtyard used for ablutions.
Denied from creating human images, Muslims put their artistic talents in their architecture and the building of mosques and tombs. Inside the Blue Mosque were porcelain tiles with decorations of flowers, leaves and geometric designs. Beautiful Arabic writings in calligraphy also decorated the walls. Two colours of dark and a lighter blue were used in the Blue Mosque. A dark blue which was called an Iznik Blue and a light blue which was called Turk Blue. The name of this colour, Turk blue, has now morphed into the name of turquoise blue. These blue tiles were the reason the mosque was called the Blue Mosque.
Women prayed behind the men or in a covered area, so the men would not get distracted by women when they prayed. (Proof in my opinion, that men are the weaker sex if they cannot focus on their prayers with God, just kidding).
The Islamic people pray five times each day but the most important prayer is every Friday at noon. It is my understanding that each prayer is between 5 to 15 minutes long. All the prayers are memorized and are in Arabic. People saying the prayer may not know the meaning of the prayer. There was a specific prayer for all 5 prayer calls each day. I believe it was more of a mantra, used to clear your head of thoughts and to relax you. It allows each person praying to have a break and it gives them an opportunity to stretch when they kneel down to pray. Much like combining meditation with yoga.
Many people today only participate in the Friday noon prayer because they are not as religious or maybe they are just too busy with life or their careers. After the prayer there is a sermon by the Imam in the Mosque. It is my understanding that every Imam gives the same topic during their sermon at the same time. The subject was faxed to all the Imams by the head Imam the day before the sermon.
Our next stop was The Hagia Sophia, which was a museum today. Originally it was constructed as a Christian Church during the Roman Byzantine period in 537 AD and was used for 916 years as a Christian Orthodox Church! The top of this church had a beautiful dome, this was the first design using a dome of this kind. The Muslims saw the dome and were so impressed that they copied this dome for all their future Mosques. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and changed the city’s name to Istanbul they converted this church into a mosque. Minarets were added, the mosaics were covered up with thin lime, and a niche was constructed in the direction of Kaaba (Mecca). It was an Islamic Mosque for 481 years.
Hagia translates into Divine or Holy and Sophia translates into Wisdom, so the church was named Divine Wisdom. An interesting story about The Hagia Sophia and it’s construction involved Justinian one of the Christian Orthodox Emperors.
The Emperor Justinian went to a circus and fell in love with one of the acrobats Theodora. He wanted to marry her but no one approved because she was from the lowest class. There was not a circus everyday so she worked as a prostitute part time to supplement her income. But he was in love so they got married anyway.
Theodora was not only beautiful, she was also greedy. She encouraged her husband to raise taxes and their people were starving while the royal couple were having parties in the palace. One historian wrote that Theodora was a physico who treated her husband like a puppy, she was dominant and he was submissive to her. He would sit in a corner watching her party and be involved in orgies.
Eventually in 532 AD, the people started a riot called the Nika (Victory) revolt and burnt down the church. After this revolt Emperor Justinian raised the taxes again and rebuilt the church using the finest materials available to prove that he was a powerful Emperor.
Today the mosaics once covered up by the Muslims are being uncovered in the church. Several mosaics have been uncovered. One interesting mosaic was of the Empress Zoe with her husband.
As legend tells us, The people of Turkey were not happy about being ruled by a woman, Zoe and everyone wanted her to get married. Finally when she was 42 she fell in love and got married in The Hagia Sophia church. The artists made a golden mosaic of Zoe and her husband on the wall of the church to celebrate this momentous occasion. After a year or so, the bloom was off the rose and she was not happy with her husband. One day her husband died suddenly, he had been poisoned.
A couple of years later Zoe fell in love a second time, again a big wedding in this same church. Because mosaics were very difficult to make the artists just changed the face of her husband rather than make a whole new one. Seven months later he died, suddenly.
When Zoe was 47 she fell in love again for the third and last time, with a 19 year old. They got married, the mosaic face was changed again for the last time but he did not live more than 90 days. Poison??
Exiting the church we saw another huge golden mosaic of Mary and Jesus with a Byzantine Emperor on each side of them. One represented the first Byzatine Emperor, Constantine holding a model of the city of Constantinople and the other was The Emperor Justinian holding a model of Hagia Sophia, this church.
Our last tour the day was the cistern also built by the Emperor Justinian. This was fantastic and all underground it looked and felt mystical. The pool was built as a water reservoir that could hold 21 million gallons of water (80,000 tons of cubic water). It was 140 meters long and 70 meters wide.
Justinian built this cistern in case of a siege. His city would still have water. The cistern was divided by a wall so if half the water got poisoned or went bad, they would still have the other half to drink. In 1984 the Turkish government opened the cistern up for public viewing. But only one-third of it, the rest is being preserved for the future. It was amazing! They even rent it out for weddings and banquets.
There were fish in the water when we toured the cistern, which surprised me. One of the James Bond movies was filmed here, To Russia With Love. With 336 columns holding up the roof, we walked along a platform above the water, which was very clean and clear. Many of columns were recycled from other buildings so the patterns did not match. In one section there were two Medusa heads placed at the bottom of columns as support pieces but one head was placed upside down and the other sideways. The Orthodox Emperor and his workers did not respect Greek mythology.
Medusa in Greek mythology had hair of snakes and was used to keep away evil spirits. If anyone looked directly into her eyes they would turn to stone. When the Ottomans came here they were impressed with the story of Medusa keeping away evil spirits and not being able to look in her eyes. But their religion forbids idols and they did not worship people. So they took her eye and made a folklore of the evil eye. They took the eye and made it blue because blue is a precious colour for the Turkish people. It was called the evil eye or apple of my eye and used to ward off evil spirits. These trinkets of the evil eye were sold everywhere in Turkey as jewelery or wall hangings.
Istanbul was a dynamic city full of life and excitement. As we walked along the streets we noticed university students wearing T-shirts saying “Ask Me”. They were answering tourists questions in many different languages. They were practicing their language skills by helping tourists. It was an amazing and an unforgettable experience visiting Istanbul!