Saturday, January 31, 2009

mosque, palace and cistern

Just about every morning I start the day with a little beyaz peynir (white cheese) on olive açma bread sprinkled with olive oil, black pepper and hot pepper flakes. It's oddly addictive. Once I finished my tea and breakfast, I headed out to meet an old friend of mine who happened to be in town this week. It took a dolmuş, cab and a tram to get us to Eminönü, the district of Istanbul that was once the centre of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople. Eminönü is the main tourist attraction in Istanbul as it's where the Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque and Topkapı Palace are.

Aya Sofya in the background.

I stood outside to draw the Sultan Ahmet Camii, known as The Blue Mosque for all the magnificent blue tiles in its interior. My sketching drew a crowd of both tourists and Turks, curious to see what I was drawing. I had my picture taken by just about everyone with a camera that passed by, and was met with smiling faces and hellos in all sorts of languages.

Without getting into too much history— I'd like to save that for a future post specifically on this impressive building— I came across a few numbers on Wikipedia that I found interesting. The Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616, has over 20,000 ceramic tiles with more than fifty different tulip designs, more than 200 stained glass windows and six minarets. It is enormous, you cannot help but feel humbled. It is a favourite of mine, and like the Aya Sofya, the camii needs a post of its own.

Topkapı's Gate of Salutation

After my fingers froze, we moved onward to Topkapı Sarayı— saray is Turkish for palace. Sadly the weather did not allow for a lot of sketching, and I was yelled at for taking pictures of the Ottoman kaftans in one of the exhibits, so I will have to come back when it's warmer and sketch out all the beautiful items that were once owned by the Sultans. There are slippers and cooking vessels, daggers and bejewelled thrones, holy relics and miniature paintings. And more bejewelled thrones. Bejewelled everything. Topkapı was the main residence of the Sultans from 1465 to 1853, and housed about 4000 other people— and yes, that includes the harem. There's so much to see that it really should take the bigger part of a day, so we'll save all the jewels, daggers and the harem for another day.

There's an often-overlooked site that can be hard to miss with such grand buildings nearby— it's known by several names: Yerebatan Sarayı or "Sunken Palace," Yerebatan Sarnıcı or "Sunken Cistern" and simply, The Basilica Cistern. I love this place. The Yerebatan Sarayı is one of the city's largest underground cisterns and was built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian. Aqueducts filled the massive chamber with water for Constantinople. If you've ever seen From Russia with Love, you might recognise the 300-something columns that rise out of a dark pool of water.

Two columns have Medusa heads at their bases, one is upside-down and the other is on her side. So far no one has figured out their significance. Sometimes you can catch a classical concert on a stage built above the water. If you get there in time, you might be able to grab a table in the café to watch the performance from, or you can listen to the music echo in the darkness as you walk down the platforms and watch the fish swim by glittering coins.

After the cistern I indulged in my favourite winter snack, roasted chestnuts. Nothing warms your hands faster than a little paper bag full of hot sweet chestnuts. We decided the evening would be best ended in Ortaköy over some tea and a nargile, a waterpipe with which you smoke flavoured tobacco. I had been watching this couple playing backgammon for a while before I decided to draw them. He seemed really into the game whereas she looked cold and tired.


Anna Denise said...

OOoh yes, the Aia Sofia and the Blue mosk are beautiful, but I was also most impressed by the underground 'palace', one of my most favorite memories of Istanbul. So beautiful!!!

szaza said...

Aren't they wonderful places?