Saturday, December 19, 2015

Istanbul: City on Two Continents

December 3-6, 2015

Where does one begin about one of the most amazing cities in the world? I had the privilege of visiting the New York of Turkey this past weekend: Istanbul. While I only saw a very small portion of what the city has to offer, it was enough to take my breath away. I know I will be returning here again to explore more of the city. Here are the highlights of our experience.

Airbnb Rental
Airbnb is an online service through which people all over the world put up their houses/apartments for short-term rentals to visitors. We found a cozy and cheap place near the city center. The room was warm and toasty, and our host was very hospitable. He served us herbal tea, dates, and cookies upon arrival. While the accommodation was just what we wanted, it did have interesting décor. For example, stuffed elephants and chained dolls hung from the ceiling. No doubt the host was a hoarder.

Juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam inside Ayasofya.
On our first day in Istanbul, Friday, we waited for our friend Elizabeth to fly in from Antalya. When she arrived at noon, we all hit the city together. Our first stop was the magnificent Ayasofya. Also known as Hagia Sophia, which means “Holy Wisdom,” this museum was once a Christian patriarchal basilica and converted to an imperial mosque when Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II conquered the city of Constantinople in 1453. This is a very important date in Turkish history, as it symbolizes the start of Ottoman rule in Anatolia. According to Wikipedia, the Ayasofya is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture.” Indeed, the beauty of this structure lies in the juxtaposition of both Christian and Islamic art, Byzantine and Ottoman designs. When staring directly at the dome for example, I saw a painting of Jesus Christ as well as Allah and Muhammad’s names written in large, golden calligraphy. In the photo of Alex, myself, and Liz, you can this beautiful juxtaposition.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque/Blue Mosque
Situated across from the Ayasofya (about a 3-minute walk) in the Sultanahmet Square, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is an equal gem. It has one main dome, six minarets, and eight secondary domes, all of which have a light blue color. Its overwhelming size, majesty and splendor can be attributed to the fact that this structure was more than a mosque: it housed a madrasah (religious school) and served as a hospice. While open to tourists from around the world, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is still popularly used as a mosque today. It also houses the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I, who purposefully built this mosque on top of the vaults of the old Grand Palace (Great Palace of Constantinople built by Byzantine emperors).

I think the true beauty of the mosque lies in the interior. The stained glass windows with intricate designs admit natural light while the large glass chandeliers further reflect the light, making the inside truly a place of noor. The wall and column decorations include verses from the Quran, many of them made by Seyyid Kasim Gubari, regarded as the greatest calligrapher of his time. Above all, the interior of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the “Blue Mosque” for this reason, is lined with more than 20,000 handmade İznik style ceramic tiles, made at Iznik (the ancient Nicaea) in more than fifty different tulip designs. Did you know that the cultivation of tulips began in Persia and was introduced to Anatolia via the Seljuk Turks? My host mother Wanda, who is widely read on a number of interesting topics, told me about this before I left for Turkey. I find this to be very interesting; my research on this topic led me to find this on Wikipedia: “Tulips are called lale in Turkish (from Persian word "lale" لاله). When written in Arabic letters, "lale" has the same letters as Allah, which is why the flower became a holy symbol. It was also associated with the House of Osman, resulting in tulips being widely used in decorative motifs on tiles, mosques, fabrics, crockery, etc. in the Ottoman Empire.”

Topkapı Palace Museum
The Topkapı Palace was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. We roamed through the royal study rooms, imperial kitchens, treasury offices, courtyards, imperial stables, dormitories, baths, harems, and many chambers, among other special rooms. Alex, Liz, and I explored as many rooms as possible before meeting our Fulbright friends Anand and Sarah in the Grand Bazar. We saw a lot of artifacts such as swords, clothing, jewelry and documents. Almost everything was dazzled with jewels like diamonds, emeralds, and rubies—boy did the sultans live a luxurious life!

Dazzling Spoonmaker's Diamond!

My favorite parts of exploring the Topkapı Palace, however, were seeing the eye-catching Spoonmaker’s Diamond (Kaşıkçı Elması) and Prophet Muhammad’s holy sword. Since we were not allowed to take pictures of these items, I took a picture of the Spoonmaker’s Diamond from a bookseller in the courtyard, and encourage you to look up images of Prophet Muhammad’s sword on Google. I was awe-struck when I saw both of these items in person; I couldn’t believe my eyes. Legend has it that a poor man found the Spoonmaker’s Diamond in the rubble, and then sold it to a jeweler for a small sum of money. When it was later discovered that the rock was in fact a diamond, a dispute arose and both the commoner and the jeweler were brought to the sultan’s palace. The resolution? The sultan kept the jewel for himself and paid the two off! Ha!

Grand Bazaar & Rooftop City View
We met our friends Sarah and Anand at the Grand Bazaar, which truly is grandiose. Before walking around this Bazaar, Sarah took us to some rooftops where we saw the breathtaking, panoramic city view of Istanbul, both the east and west sides with the glittering Bosporus in the middle! It was almost sunset time, so we were able to take only a few noteworthy photos. There was a long line for one particular rooftop dome, where people posed against the brightly-lit city backdrop—I’m sure many of those photos will become people’s Facebook profile pictures soon! After sunset, we walked around the colorful and bustling bazar, which everything you can image—scarves, board games, jewelry, pottery, clothes, home goods, trinkets, kitchenware, etc. Tourists flock to this inside bazaar and enjoy coffee and meals in between their shopping. Shopkeepers murmur “hello, how are you?” to lure you into their stores and you have to be strong not to make eye contact with every shopkeeper. Later that Saturday night, we had Indian food, which was amazing! I had been craving chicken curry, vegetable biryani, and samosas, since there is no ethnic food available in Antalya. The night before, we had eaten Chinese food to satisfy our noodles and spring rolls’ craving.

Süleymaniye Mosque
So, while the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque were both spectacular, I have to admit that Süleymaniye Mosque was my favorite mosque. It is located on the Third Hill of Istanbul, is the largest mosque in the city, and one of the best-known sights of Istanbul. Built by chief Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan at the order of Sultan Süleyman, this mosque blends Islamic and Byzantine architectural elements. For example, it combines tall, slender minarets with large domed buildings supported by half domes in the style of Hagia Sophia. It is my favorite because upon entering the tall gates, I was awe-struck by its splendor and holiness. It is located away from the city center, and therefore draws pious worshippers. The red and beige color scheme of the interior felt more like a church than a mosque. Check out striped semi-arcs, it’s so unique.

Galata Kulesi
Before catching our flight on Sunday afternoon, we met Sarah at the Galata Kulesi ("Tower"). It is a high, blue cone-capped cylinder that dominates the skyline and offers a panoramic view of Istanbul’s historic peninsula. We had breakfast at a rooftop restaurant next to the Galata Tower, and enjoyed the gorgeous view of the Bosporus and the peninsula. We then sipped some cappuccino and taxied to the Havataş bus stop, where we caught our bus to the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. We got home around dinnertime. It was a fabulous first trip to Istanbul!

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