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After a traditional leisurely Sunday breakfast, similar to our brunch but without the lunch items, I was treated to a cruise on the Bosphorus. As you see, the shoreline has many uber premiere properties in various stages of renovation. Interesting was to see the Russian freighters going by, reminding me that the Ukraine and Russia are only a few hundred miles away. Far…but not too!
Of course, Istanbul is all about its long complicated and multi-layered history beginning in 300 CE when Emperor Constantine (the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity) named it “New Rome.” He later decided that, since he was king, it’d be okay to name it after himself: hence, Constantinople.
**EDITOR’S NOTE: For all you 80s kids, cue They Might Be Giants’ song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”…”It’s nobody’s business but the Turks!”*
It was the Byzantine (Christian) capital through the 1400s and then the center of the sultan-ruled Islamic Ottoman Empire (which at its peak stretched from North Africa and Egypt to Venice and Bulgaria and most of the Arabian peninsula) from 1450 to 1922 when the Ottoman parliament was dissolved by the Allies after WWI. Turkey declared independence in 1923, at which time the last sultan went into exile.
Istanbul’s shifting religious orientation through the centuries is reflected in its buildings, which are amazingly well preserved.
One of the oldest structures is the 6th century cistern, built by 7000 slaves. You may have seen it in a scene in the Bond film, From Russia with Love! It is supported by over 300 marble columns which supposedly were “re-purposed” from other building across the empire.
I thought the history of the Hague Sophia fascinating. First, it was built in about 500 CE as a Byzantine cathedral. Actually, good ole Constantine had a church here first, but today’s building is essentially the one from the sixth century. After the Crusades, it became a Catholic cathedral. Then, when the Turks conquered Constantinople around 1450, it was turned into a mosque, and so it was for nearly the next 500 years. But after independence, in the 1930s, with Turkey’s new secular government, the president converted the mosque to a museum. Christian images that had been painted over were uncovered and restored. That iteration lasted until just two years ago when the current President converted it back to a mosque.
The following pictures show adornments at the mosque with both Christian and Islamic symbols. Some are clearly on top of each other as, through the centuries, one would be painted over by religion of the moment.
It is pretty amazing to me to think this one building has been an important place of worship for 2000 years for different religions. But the conversion back to a mosque has not been uniformly applauded. Some who believed The Hague Sophia was a place of universal worship for both Christians and Muslims felt this would mark it as a place for only Muslims. The Greek Orthodox Church and the Pope were against it. Criticism also came from Russia, UNESCO, and Secretary of State Pompeo.
interestingly, it has created “issues” in the line to get in. Some Muslims, it seems visiting Arabs (not those from Turkey, I’m told) feel it is their church and they’ve come to pray and that they shouldn’t have to wait in line to pray. Meanwhile, there’s a gazillion folks standing in line to see this incredible place. It leads to some “line cutting” scuffles.
To be clear: this observation does not refer to the 3.5 million registered Syrians in Turkey, whom I referred to as refugees, but who I was told are immigrants. Same thing, I guess, but a nuanceicle difference perhaps?? I did not know that Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world—and we all understand the challenges that can pose.
Istanbul does seem to have many tourists from other Arab countries. And there is some resentment. Perhaps it comes from those in Istanbul who are not happy with Erdogan’s increasing openness to Islam in the country. Perhaps it’s because some tourists flaunt wealth. You may hear “I can’t get a seat in my favorite restaurant,” or “They like sweets and now all the desserts are sweeter than they used to be.” Perhaps this type of resentment toward tourists due to changes in our home or favorite places to accommodate more visitors or cater to their tastes is a sentiment that many of us are also familiar with on St. Simons Island.
Istanbul has many complex layers, some historical, some contemporary.
Unfortunately the famous Blue Mosque is essentially closed for renovation. Outside, the structure with its detailed minarets controls the skyline. Many ancient mosques were an entire complex: a hospital, a food bank (yup!), and a school, as well as a place for worship.
While I couldn’t go inside the Blue Mosque, another temple had beautiful examples of the intricate tile and mosaic work done in the Middle Ages by the Ottoman craftsmen. The close ups below show inlaid mother-of-pearl and the famous blue Iznik quartz tiles. This tile is still made in the town of the same name. Unlike ceramic, this tile is incredibly fragile. It is only used for tiles and platters and shallow bowls, no urns or tall shaped objects. It is also quite porous, so that any paint can easily be absorbed outside the desired area. Designs are all hand painted with natural dyes, never stamped, even today. The tile and mosaics I saw in Istanbul made me even more excited to see the buildings of Uzbekistan!
I definitely am not expecting great food in Uzbekistan, but I was surprised by the lively foodie scene in Istanbul. The world is filled with great restaurants, but some of the street food in Istanbul was a first for me!
Grilled lamb intestines, anyone?
Steamed mussels stuffed with rice. I love mussels, but no way could you convince me to eat them from a street cart!
We know craft beers. But Turkey has craft soda. Different regions make their own carbonated flavored waters. Some are obvious with flavors like Dr. Pepper, coconut, or lime. My favorite was lavender and rose! Many were combo fruit and herb flavors.
**EDITOR’S NOTE; I’m not sure why Janice hasn’t discovered crafts sodas before now, but I’ll let her know where she can get some on SSI when she returns.**
Not street food, but a ubiquitous aperitif (and my post hamam refresher), is this drink they call sherbet. It is not frozen or even cold. Sherbet is served as room temperature tiny drinks that are some combo of fruit and spice. Mine was pomegranate and cardamom.
LAST: (and this is for Kathi!): Coffee everywhere! In the Grand Bazaar in tiny delicate glasses, in a book store, and even served to me as I shopped for carpet! I’m not a caffeine girl, so I don’t know if all the coffee has helped or hurt my jet lag.
**EDITOR’S NOTE; The woman knows I love my coffee!**
Farewell to Istanbul.
So as I finish this post, I am already in Uzbekistan’s capital: Tashkent. Heavily damaged by an earthquake in the ‘60s and rebuilt by the Soviets, the central business area is really well-designed with broad tree-lined boulevards, spectacular metro stops that are works of art; alas, most of the older buildings are gone. Tomorrow, I fly by Uzbekistan Air to Khiva. Perhaps some of you read Carpet Ride to Khiva a few years back? This town still has the famous madrasa and master carpet weavers.
This last picture was actually taken in Istanbul, which—of course—also has terrific carpet-makers. I loved meeting this young woman. She has been making the same design for 16 years!!! Different sizes or colors, but always the same design. Her daughter recently told her that she was going to med school and the mother cried because her daughter would not be carrying on the talent and knowledge. She let me tie a knot….it’s harder than it looks and the Silk threads are rather sharp!
On to UZB,
OTRWJ Istanbul-Uzbekistan Part 2: A Sunday Cruise on thé Bosphorus originally posted on by Elegant Island Living magazine.
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