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July 29, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 9

This is the ninth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Merhaba from Turkey again!

In the afternoon I left Goreme for Istanbul, I began to get the first inkling that I might have eaten something I shouldn't have. Sure enough, before the bus left that night, I started feeling sick in my bowels. I arrived early the next morning after sleeping throughout the 12-hour bus ride, and thought only of sleeping more. The next two days were particularly uncomfortable between my bowels being a war zone and the oppressive heat-wave that had come into town with me, as I tried to sleep as best I could in the busy hostel. During the two days that I was particularly unwell, I made only brief journeys outside the hostel to see sights very nearby. Fortunately, by the third day I started feeling more normal again, and during my fourth and fifth days in Istanbul I felt largely back to my active self (although subject still to the occasional stomach-growl).

Istanbul teems with life in a way very much like Paris, London, Rome and Barcelona. During the day, there's the busy bustle of people coming and going, shopping and selling. I made the neighborhood of Sultanahmet my home base, in much the same way most tourists do. They do this because that's where the two most well known mosques (the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofia Mosque) are and the Grand Bazaar is very nearby. Istanbul itself is split first into two sections, the Asian and the European sides, and the European side is again split into two sections, north and south of the Golden Horn. Running north-to-south is the Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (which then pours into the Mediterranean Sea). As far as I could tell, in Istanbul itself, there's only one bridge that crosses the Bosphorus - it's a giant suspension bridge much like the Golden Gate in San Francisco, across which flows an immense amount of traffic between the two continents.

My first day in Istanbul, armed with plenty of water to keep myself upright and hydrated, I ventured out to see the Topkapi Palace, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire for more than 500 years. (Throughout my stay in Istanbul, I learned a little about the Ottoman Empire. It wasn't really much considering how much history there was to learn, but it was enough for me to feel shamefully ignorant of such and important Empire given my woefully small education on this part of the world in grade school). The Palace is divided into four walled courts, the first of which is more precisely a giant garden where locals would come to trade wares, soak up the glory of the Empire and where occasionally the sultan would make an appearance to view his subjects. Passing through another wall and gate, one enters the Third Court, where the Palace's kitchens, another garden, the entrance to the Harem (living quarters of the Sultan), entrance to the Inner Treasury and another gate that leads to the Second Court. The Harem is only accessible by a guided tour, so I bought my ticket and spent the remaining time until the next tour poking around the kitchens. In one part of the kitchens is a collection of some very ornately shaped silver statues, dishes and models. The other is the more important though, as it houses a small piece of one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese pottery in the world (something like 12,000 pieces in all! Less than a hundred were on display). These were truly beautiful pieces - the rich blues of the pottery in detailed images of nature and dragons decorated plates, vases, pots, etc. Some of the vases were four or five feet tall and exquisite. The pieces that really caught my eye were the ones with polychromatic coloring, since they stood out from the blue and white coloring of the majority of the pieces.

The Harem area of the Palace was occupied by the Sultan, his eunuchs and the various women that were either his current wives or candidates to become his wives. Here's how the system worked: young girls, usually around the age of five, were brought to the Harem and put into the service of the Sultan. While in service, they were educated in things like logic, philosophy, history, and literature, and provided with extremely good accommodations. If, over the next ten years or so, the Sultan slept with one of the girls, she became one of his wives. The Sultan usually had between four and eight wives, and I'm not sure what might have happened if he slept with a ninth. Anyway, being one of the Sultan's wives elevated the girl to a significantly higher status. If she bore him a child, she was elevated again. If she bore him his heir, then she was elevated to the highest possible position in the Harem and was an extremely powerful/influential person in her own right. There were some other details in how all this worked, but it was a little hard to understand our guide at some points because her voice was easily lost in the depths of the huge echoing rooms that we were moving through. The Harem area itself is a complex of rooms, hallways, bathing chambers (he even had a very large outdoor pool) and courtyards, mostly covered in beautiful blue Iznik tiles, with white plaster and timber making up the rest of it. Plus the gold detailing. Interestingly enough, the Sultan's Harem was served by a hot and cold water system, a few rooms had heated floors and there were the squat-and-aim style toilets in use as early as 1600, which was well before the kings and queens of Europe had such luxuries. Many of the rooms in the Harem had huge domed ceilings, many of which were painted. Two rooms in particular stick out in my mind as being memorable - they had giant stain glass windows in them. The individual pieces of the windows were all very small, and the designs intricate geometric ones, given the overall effect that the window was more like a giant mosaic with an inner light than a Western-style stain glass window. The Harem reminded me quite a bit of the papal apartments in the Vatican museum, for their endless splendor. At the gateway between the Third and Second Court is a small covered square where the Sultan would have ceremonies. Stuck in the middle of the square is a small marble half-dome (perhaps 15cm high) where the Sultan's standard would be placed during the ceremonies. The Second and First courts were where the Sultan would entertain important dignitaries, go for walks on his own, and they housed the Treasury Museum and another set of rooms with interesting artifacts like the Prophet Muhammad's sandals, swords, bits of his beard, hair, etc. The Treasury was really interesting, as along the walls were illuminated boxes containing wondrous treasures of gold, emerald, mother-of-pearl + tortoise shell inlaid stuff (this combination seemed to be a favorite of Sultans'), rock crystal, etc. Incredible beautiful. In one of the four rooms was a bit of St. Paul's skull and I think St. John's forearm and hand. (It still strikes me as being a bit odd to preserve people piece-wise in this manner) The First Court looks out over the Bosphorus, and far across the water, you can see the Asian side of Istanbul spreading out into the distance. (Interesting Factoid: only three percent of Turkey's landmass is on the European continent)

My second day in Istanbul, I again armed myself with water and ventured out to see the Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, I didn't quite make it all the way there as I had planned. As I was sitting in the Sultan Ahmet Park, three young Turks came up to me. I immediately slightly tightened my grip on my bag and steeled myself for some kind of scam. Turns out such precautions were needless this time, as they just wanted to practice English. So I met Ceyhan (who did most of the speaking, as his English was the best), Ahmet and Hulusi. We chatted for a long time about things such as where I'd traveled, Islam, Turkey, euphemisms (both Turkish and English), etc. Here are a few of the Turkish sayings I learned (translated into English): meaning the same as our saying 'Rules are made to be broken', the Turkish saying is 'Rules are made for chewing.' Meaning something along the lines of saving money will make you wealthy, a common Turkish saying goes something like 'Drip. Drip. And soon a lake will be there.' After a while, I started feeling less well, we were after all sitting out in the sun while we were chatting, I bade my new friends goodbye and went to see the Blue Mosque.

More properly called the Sultan Ahmet Camii (mosque), the Blue Mosque is, I think, what most people would call the symbol of Istanbul. It's many domes cascade upward from the hulking base to culminate in the triumphant grand dome that rises above the ground at almost 50m. Surrounding the mosque structure are six minarets from which the daily calls to prayer are made. Apparently, at the time of its construction, it was preposterous to build a mosque with six minarets, as that's how many the mosque in Mecca has. Sultan Ahmet circumvented this little snag by financing the construction of a seventh minaret in Mecca. Four of the minarets stand at each of the four corners of the mosque itself, while the remaining two stand at the corners of an attached large courtyard (of equal area as the mosque, and adjoining the mosque on one side). The tourist entrance and exits are on the north and south sides of the mosque. I'd worn long trousers that day since my guide book had advised that shorts are disrespectful in a mosque, but it turns out I would have been alright anyway. At the tourist entrance, there were shawls that some men wrapped around themselves, forming a makeshift skirt, while women wrapped it around their shoulders if they were bare. Either way, the tourists stood out inside the mosque because of their silly garb. Inside the Blue Mosque is a single cavernous, vaulting interior space for worship. Covering almost every surface were more blue and sometimes polychromatic Iznik tiles (Iznik is a place (in Turkey, I think) known for its world-class pottery for many years). Four massive pillars supported the main dome's corners far above. These pillars were swathed in tiles and a band of gold-on-black Arabic writing. Covering every inch of the floor were carpets, which were quite comfortable to pad around on in my socks (no shoes inside the mosque). It was really quite an awesome place to be. I relished the beauty of the interior as I slowly wandered toward the tourist exit; this was the first mosque I'd ever been inside, and I definitely picked a good one to start with!

By my third day in Istanbul, I was beginning to feel somewhat better, although I was still sleeping throughout most of the day. Mirroring my rise in health and spirit, the heat wave also relaxed and temperatures cooled off a bit. I started the day by trying to unsuccessfully find the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art; so instead, I visited the Underground Cistern and went for a walking tour. I'm not quite sure what the Underground Cistern was used for - I would guess it was a water reserve - but it was such a neat place to visit. It lies just a few meters beneath the frantic hustle of Sultanahmet's main street and as you descend the short flight of steps into the cistern, all sound from above fades and is replaced by the eerie drip-drop of water and a faint Turkish flute (soundtrack) playing from hidden speakers. This place is eerie, and fascinating in a way nothing else I've seen on this trip has been. The cistern is a giant chamber supported by a grid work of 340 columns each of which sits at the crotch of a brick barrel vault. Covering the floor is a clear pool of perhaps 15cm of water. A slightly elevated walkway allows terrestrial tourists to walk around dimly, and eerily, illuminated sections of the cistern while inky blackness plays tricks on the mind in the distance. (Can you tell I liked this place? :)) The walkway does a long loop through the main part of the cistern, taking you by the only two atypical areas in the largely uniform room. In Turkey and on some of the Greek isles, I often would see blue glass disks with a white eye painted on them. These are the evil-eye charms. They were ubiquitous in Turkey, with almost every vendor selling them and almost every Turk carrying one somewhere. One of the columns in the Cistern was carved with the same, I think, eyes, and was called the Tear Column. Interestingly, around each of the large eyes on the column were lines making the shape of a large inverted tear. The walkway then wandered over to a pair of shorter columns. Shorter because they were standing on top of large blocks, each of which had carved on it the face of Medusa. One face was upside-down and the other was on its side. Supposedly, these two and another pair (which lie at the base of the Bosphorus Bridge and are at opposite 45-degree angles) were taken from a Roman building somewhere or other. How they made their way to the Cistern and why there were there, I have no idea. They added to the eeriness of the whole place. Oh, another interesting factoid I learned: there's a chase scene in some James Bond movie filmed in the Underground Cistern. Any Bond buffs know which one it might be?

The rest of my day was spent wandering up toward to the Grand Bazaar and to the Suleymanye Mosque. The tight and stuffy quarters of the Bazaar was a little much for my still unwell body, even though I was only cutting through it, but the Mosque was a pleasant respite. This mosque looked very similar to the Blue Mosque from the outside, but the inside had its own personality. I could see how looking at a lot of these mosques, one could start to think they all looked the same, but I think that Christian cathedrals are kind of similar - they start to look the same after you've seen a lot of them as well.

My fourth day in Istanbul, I did manage to finally find the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum (it was in a completely different place than I had first thought!). Christian art is largely focused on representations of scenes and people from the Bible. Islamic art doesn't permit the representation of people, so it focuses on geometric and floral patterns projected onto objects. Objects like boxes, Koran stands (which can be exquisitely beautiful objects), Koran boxes, the beautiful script of Arabic, tiles, various bronze objects, etc. It's a whole different way of being artistic, and I can see why the Humanist Revolution came through Western art rather than Arabic art - it's a little more difficult to identify human emotions with a beautiful piece of Arabic script than it is with the extremely human face of David in the Accademia Museum in Florence. That doesn't make the Islamic art any less beautiful, but it was still one of the distinctions that I sought to understand a little more about by going to a museum specifically about Turkish and Islamic art. Another thing I learned a little about was how to look at carpets - I haven't talked much about them, but there are carpet dealers everywhere in the areas of Turkey that I've visited. I've been accosted by no less than a dozen carpet dealers, and was I more easily parted with my money, I might have been coming back to the US with one or more carpet in tow.

My last day in Istanbul, I finally visited the sister of the Blue Mosque's spot in the Istanbul skyline, the Ayasofia (or St. Sophia, as it was originally a Christian basilica). Ataturk turned this mosque into a museum when he established the Republic of Turkey. This mosque was an entirely different experience from the other three that I'd visited. Where the other mosques were swirls of blue and white with accents of black and gold, the interior of the Ayasofia was a wash of different greys with gold ceilings and black details. The blue and white tiles in a few places seemed out of place. The interior here was even more cavernous than the two other big mosques I'd seen, and its dome reaches higher than any other in the city (53m). The really interesting thing about the Ayasofia is that as it was originally a Christian basilica, there were frescoes on the ceilings. When it was converted into a mosque, the builders simply plastered over the frescoes rather than destroying them. Now, in several places, those frescoes have been uncovered, and the ghostly outlines of crosses adorn many of the arches and ceilings where they had been painted over with floral patterns, while pinned against the walls, high up in several places are huge black disks with gold Arabic script and trim - all together, it's an odd mixture of iconography from both religions. When you walk into the main area, you immediately get the impression of overwhelming age. The entire place looks like it's covered in a not-so-thin layer of dust, although that's perhaps because the marble isn't polished and has a dull luster to it rather than the shine one usually sees. Unaligned with the main cross of the old basilica floor-plan are structures aligned to Mecca for the mosque's functioning - this adds to the weirdness of the place, as these structures are quite obviously additions made after the original structure was built.

I also spent a bit longer poking around the Grand Bazaar, and even stopped by the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. The word 'bazaar' conjures up images from movies, stories and antiquity of men wearing robes standing under cloth awnings hawking various goods like bronze objects, bags of grain, etc. This is a foolish imagery as it has very little in relation to the labyrinthine market that is the modern-day Grand Bazaar. The whole area is covered by barrel vault roofs, and each shopkeeper has a box-like shop of various proportions out of which he bases his sales. Usually, his goods (shirts, lamps, jewelry (lots and lots of these), wooden crafts, etc.) were arrayed on the outside of his shop so that passers-by can easy see what he has to see. This year apparently, tourism is down and the Bazaar wasn't as crowded as it usually gets. Still, there was definitely a crowd, and at times, it was more of a slow shuffling movement than a stroll as I wandered among the shops. The Bazaar itself is loosely organized by type of goods, so the leather dealers are mostly grouped together, the t-shirt dealers, the jewelry row and the carpet dealers all have their own areas. But sometimes you'll find a leather dealer in the t-shirt/clothing section, etc. Just outside the Grand Bazaar, nearer to the Suleymanye Mosque is another market, this one more like a Home Depot split up and distributed among a hundred small merchants. The Spice Bazaar is more food related. The one thing all these places have in common is the fact that they're all selling stuff in the very Turkish manner - that means that the shop keeper will try to get you, the innocent passer-by, to come into his shop by hook or crook. This usually entails his starting a conversation with you, and then drawing you in to look at a few things. I have to admit though, the best salesmen I encountered in my trip in Turkey were at the pottery workshop in Avanos in Cappadocia - with them, it was very difficult to be polite and not inadvertently purchase something!

With my trip winding down, my last real stop was in Selchuk, near the ancient city of Ephesus. Ephesus was the capital of the Asian province of the Roman Empire, and a city of more than 200,000 people. That's big, especially for those times. Ephesus today, however, is a tourist trap of first class. It's also a ruin, and reminded me a lot of the agora area around the Acropolis in Athens, as there are bits and pieces of carved marble laying everywhere, and very few structures intact. The structures are intact are ones that have been pieced back together by jigsaw-crazed archaeologists (the facade of the Library in Ephesus is said to have been composed of three million pieces) from Austria. Ephesus used to be a seaport with a natural inland harbor, but the river than fed that harbor slowly filled it with silt, which helped to seal Ephesus's fate as a doomed city. It was inhabited for something like 600+ years, and had several revivals. There were a series of terrace houses that were extravagantly decorated, probably housing the local officials/politicians. The Library held 12,000 scrolls (a lot, I suppose), and nearby was the Temple of Artemis. At four times the size of the Parthenon, it was a Wonder of the Ancient World. All that remains of it now is a single reconstructed pillar and a vague outline of the enormous girth of the building amid family gardens that occupy the surrounding land. Comically, there's a bird's nest of what I guessed are Ibises (they looked like long-legged, thin pelicans with a long thin beak no oversized sack underneath) on top of the column as well. The theatre in Ephesus has been mostly reconstructed and supposedly seats 25,000 (historians use the theatre's capacity to estimate a city's population: so 25,000 x 10 = city population of 250,000ish). I overhead a tour guide saying that pop stars like to give concerts in the theater, although I can't imagine that the massive vibrations from the amplified sound is good for the surrounding ruins. Ephesus itself wraps itself around a hill, with the main avenues running along the base of the hill, and away from the theatre (carved into the hillside) toward the flat former marsh where the old inland harbor was. Carved into a flagstone on one of the avenues leading from the harbor are a few symbols that archaeologists claim are the first advertisement... for the local brothel!

I'm now back in Athens, biding my time until my flight leaves (tomorrow) for the States. I'm spending time thinking back over this amazing trip I've had, and the myriad of experiences that I'm bringing back with me (something no Customs agent will be able to hinder my bringing into the country). I'm just marveling at how many interesting people I've met (just the other night, I met a high school history teacher who's traveling for several months in Turkey (his second time doing this)), how many interesting things I've seen, and all the interesting places that I'm hoping to visit again before my time is done. If you're able to, I strongly urge you to travel! And not via a tour bus or tour group, but as an independent traveler - you see and experience so much more of a place this way. Turkey was such an amazing experience for those two weeks, and such a different one from what life is like in truly industrialized countries, that even coming back to Athens was a bit of a shock. Athens seems incredibly advanced compared to much of Turkey, so this was perhaps a good stepping-stone on my way back to America. :)

A part of me is very sad to be done with traveling (especially to be done with Turkey... I spent two weeks there and feel like I've only scratched the surface; I could easily go back and spend four months and still have more to see) as I've really settled in to a rhythm now. There's a small part of me that's excited to be done, because it means that I'll soon have nice luxuries again like showering in the same place for more than just a few days, having my own bed, etc. Then there's the part of me that's looking forward to the next adventure, which is graduate school.

I'd like to thank all of you who have written to me while I've been traveling - it's made checking my email something I look forward to, and it's allowed me to maintain a sense of contact even while traveling alone (which can and does get lonely every now and then). To all of you whom I've sent postcards to (I estimate that I've sent over 100 postcards in the past two months), I hope you'll reciprocate when you travel to interesting places! I'd also like to thank all of you who've trudged through my ever-lengthening email updates. I hope that I've been able to convey a part of the wonder and excitement that I've felt in visiting these places, and if I can inspire a few of you to go see those places yourselves, then I'll feel all the more accomplished. :)

Cheers! Aaron

posted July 29, 2002 06:23 AM in Travel | permalink