Thursday, 30 August 2012

A reader asks: 'So, what's an Amera hijab?'

I've had a couple of messages asking about the head covering, the Amera hijab, that I talk about in the posts describing the mosque visits in Istanbul.

The tube (r) and buknuk (l) that together make up an Amera hijab.
As you know you'll need to cover head, shoulders and legs when visiting many places of worship, not just mosques.  If you're wearing shorts and a top with shoulders and/or legs exposed then you'll have to use one of the cover wraps that are usually supplied but for head covering, the Amera is the go.  It squishes up easily and takes up hardly any room at all in a handbag or backpack. I carry it in my bag held together with a tie that I use to put my hair in a pony tail before putting on the hijab.

The Amera is a 2 piece hijab, the first part (on the right in the pic below) you put on like a head band.  The second part slips over the top of the band and its this part that is long enough to rest on your shoulders.  Some people call this second part a buknuk.  You put the buknuk under your chin and then slide it onto your head over the band.  There are also 1 piece Ameras available that are even easier as there's no headband.  Most important, for the traveller especially, the Amera is quick to put on and no pins are required. Above is a pic of an Amera hijab that I use regularly when travelling, the tube part on the right is reversible and the buknuk part is on the left.  I'm all thumbs, so if I can use it anyone can.


Thursday, 23 August 2012

Istanbul: And its (Turkish) bath time.

Final full day in Istanbul.  After breakfast at the hotel we walked up the road to the Aya Sophia where we picked up the Hop On-Hop Off double decker.  The same open top red double decker buses can be seen on the streets of London, Sydney and many other major cities. The Istanbul bus follows a 1.5 hour route circuiting the major sites and we sat on the top deck enjoying the breeze and the magnificent city as it passed by.
Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul
After a lovely morning on the bus we went back to the hotel, booked the car for our trip back to the airport tomorrow :-( and then headed out again to find the Suleymaniye Mosque. It turned out to be only a 15 minute walk from the hotel and as there are several streets nearby the mosque with shops specialising in copper work and handmade stationary its worth having a wander round the local area. Suleymaniye Mosque is a truly wonderful building designed by the master architect Mimar Sinan whose tomb can be found in a street leading up to the mosque.  While I was doing some research on Sinan, who died in 1588, I learnt that there is a crater on the planet Mercury named after him, great stuff for the next trivia night.  Suleymaniye Mosque doesn't receive the attention it deserves though. Still, maybe that's a good thing as the place was empty and we were able to enjoy the glorious exterior which is reminiscent of the Aya Sophia in relative peace. Except for the tea seller dressed in Ottoman clothes who let us know several times several times that the building was open, I think he wanted a tip but we'd figured it out for ourselves.

Before entering the mosque, ladies must cover their legs and heads but again no problem as I had my trusty Amera hijab in my bag. The interior with its soaring dome, stained glass windows and rich red carpet is a delight. Quite honestly if you only had time to see one major place of worship it would have to be Aya Sophia but get there early as the queues can be horrendous. If there's a choice between the Blue Mosque and Suleymaniye IMHO its a no-contest, Suleymaniye wins.
The tea house fountain made
from a shisha.
From the mosque we crossed the road to where the kitchens and madrassa (school) used to be and we were surprised to find a flight of steep stairs which led down to the tranquil tree lined garden that served as a tea house. In the centre of the garden is a water fountain and tables are laid out under trees or tents. The calm atmosphere and relaxing background music made this a haven. We drank several cups of apple tea, followed by some delicious pistachio icecream and were tempted to have shisha but I knew if I did that, I'd be there for the duration and we had a few more things to do on our last full day in Istanbul. So we dragged ourselves away, on the way paying suitable homage to the gorgeous tabby cat who'd appointed himself as door security.

Like many mosques of the time, Suleymaniye was not only a place of worship but also had a school, medical rooms, kitchens and a public hamam (bath). The hamam is located outside the main mosque area across the road and is now one of the small number of baths still in operation and we headed there for the authentic Turkish bath experience in a building that has been a functioning hamam since the 1400s. At the main reception you pay your fee (35 Euros) and wait for your turn. A receptionist calls you to follow him upstairs where you are allocated a lockable change room and are given a waist wrap for men and bra and shorts for ladies. The Sulemaniye hamam is mixed but is exclusively for couples. The first stop is the steam room with a large central stone for sitting or lying on while you sweat for 40 minutes or so. There are basins of water with dishes in them that can be used to douse yourself to cool off....slightly. There are several small rooms off to the sides where, after steaming, the hamam masseuse calls you for exfoliating with a firm glove, then you lie on a stone bench and he covers you with suds and gives a massage and scrub. After rinsing off with cool water, you leave the steam room and go to separate male and female change rooms to remove the wet outfits and replace them with cotton towels that cover 'everything', they're about the size of a large bath towel. Next stop is the relaxing room where you can sit on a bench to cool down, have an apple tea or water if you wish. Once you're temperature is back to normal you head back to the changing room to get back into your street clothes and get back on the tourist trail feeling squeaky clean.

Our next stop was back to May Costumes in the Grand Bazaar to collect my costume which was being custom altered and everything was ready as promised by the owner Ender May.  I managed to resist buying another bedlah though it was a struggle as he has wonderful costumes.  While I was there I met Yoko, a lovely friendly lady, who runs the annual Raks Turkey bellydance festival in Istanbul.

We headed back to the hotel to pack but with a detour by a local fresh orange shop. Unlike 'freshly squeezed orange juice' beloved of restaurants that tastes like its come straight out of a can, this is the real thing.  The oranges are pressed in front of you.  The shop also produced a yummy pide (pee-day) which is a pita bread with a range of fillings. The grand total for the lot was 8TL which is about $4 Aus. 

We packed, had a final dinner at Faros, and now we're ready to leave we're not at all ready to leave to Turkey!  We'll be back.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Istanbul: Mosques and markets

A very slow start today after our late return from Gallipoli last night, or I should say, this morning and it was 10am before we even woke up. Down the road to Faros for breakfast as the hotel breakfast buffet was closed. Turkish breakfast with 3 different types of Turkish cheese including the stringy one that looks like thick spaghetti and is very nice. After stoking the boilers for the morning it was time for a quick tram ride up the hill to visit Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  Unfortunately, by the time we got to the Blue mosque it was closed for prayers so we walked along to the Aya Sophia.
Aya Sophia, Istanbul
The Aya Sophia is known as Hagia Sophia (G) or Sancta Sophia (L) all of which have nothing to do with St Sophia but mean 'Holy Wisdom'. The  current structure is the third church to be built on this site. The first, on the site of a pagan temple, was built by Constantine.  This church was burnt down
in the riot in 404AD.  Its replacement was also destroyed in a civil disturbance during the Nika Revolt in 532AD.  Some marble panels from this church can seen near the entry including one showing the 12 apostles as lambs.
The cathedral we see today was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and completed in 537AD in an attempt to stamp Byzantine's authority on the Christian world and for nearly 1,000 years the most important ceremonies in Christendom, including coronations, were held here.  Justinian's famous words on seeing the completed structure were "Solomon, I have outdone thee."  The Aya Sophia has survived fires, repeated invasions and several earthquakes. The city was sacked several times, including in 1204 by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade who were supposed to be on the Byzantines' side. Describing the sack of Constantinople in 1204, Speros Vryonis, Professor Emeritus of history at UCLA says, "The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable."

From 360 until 1453 the Aya Sophia was a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, except for 60-odd years when it was a Catholic institution.  It was converted into an Islamic mosque following the Ottoman conquest by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453.  Some of Mehmet's cannonballs used in the successful conquest line the walkways outside the building.  During its time as a mosque many of the original mosaics portraying the Holy Family and other figures were plastered over as Islam does not allow figurative imagery.  The alter was removed and a mihrab, a niche indicating the direction of Mecca, together with a minbar or pulpit were added. The minbar looks like a free standing staircase and can be found in all mosques.  The minarets and several fountains were also added.  In 1931 its use as a mosque ceased. The building was closed for four years, reopening to the public as a a non-secular museum in 1935. 

The central done of the Aya Sophia. Over the centuries, the
building has survived fires, invasions, sackings and 
The massive central dome at its tallest point is 55.6 m (182 ft 5 in) from floor level being supported by 40 ribs which rest on pillars concealed in the walls.  The largest of the pillars is estimated to weigh in excess of 70 tons. The original dome collapsed completely after an earthquake in 558 and was rebuilt.  The original mosaic work on the dome fell off after one of the many earthquakes and was replaced by ornate painted plasterwork.
On the surface of a smaller dome over the alter area is a mosaic of the Virgin and Child. The mirhab or prayer niche is now in place of the alter but as it shows the direction of Mecca it is slightly to the side of visual centre. 
The Sultan's Lodge, a screened area where the Sultan
could pray in privacy, it also prevented assassination attempts.
To the left is the Sultan's personal prayer area, called the Sultan's Lodge. A raised and screened area on columns, it was accessed by a hidden walkway so the Sultan could arrive, pray and leave without the hoy-palloy below seeing him. The screens also prevented any assassination attempts.

All the while, the women, including the Empress, were on the second floor seated above (nearer to God?) This area was accessed by a switchback ramp from the rear of the building.

Interior of Aya Sophia.

High above the central area hang huge green circular medallions inscribed in gold lettering.  The letters on the two medallions in the photo on the left proclaim, on the right. the name of Allah (Gold) and on the left the name of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).  The other six medallions, sometimes called roundals, show the names of the four caliphs who succeded the Prophet, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali and the two grandsons of the prophet, Hassan and Hussain.

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)
From there we walked back to the Blue Mosque. The mosque was designed by Mehmet Aga, sucessor to the famous architect Sinan and built on the orders of the Emperor Ahmed I who wanted to rival the Aya Sofya in grandeur. While its official name is the Sultanahmet Mosque, the name Blue Mosque comes from the blue tiles used in the interior.  The mosque was completed in 1616 only 7 years after work began.  We entered through the rear visitors' entrance as only worshippers are allowed to enter through the main front door. First we removed our shoes and put them in the plastic bags provided. Ladies had to cover their heads but I was prepared with my Amera hijab in my bag while other female visitors and some men who were wearing shorts were issued with blue wraps to use.

Main dome of the Blue Mosque.
The dome is covered in blue mosaic tiles and its four main supporting columns, called 'elephants feet' because of their shape, are visible for all to see. The minarets are impressive and the building's exterior imposing but quite frankly, I don't think it came within cooey of the Aya Sophia, but each to their own. 
The entrance to the Grand Bazaar.
Its wall to wall people.
From the Blue Mosque we walked back to the hotel. After a quick coffee we headed down to the Grand Bazaar which is only 10 minutes walk from the hotel. (If you're looking for a central location in Istanbul, the Hotel Raymond is hard to beat.)   The bazaar has been a centre of commerce since the 1400s and has been expanded and rebuilt many times, its current form took shape in the 1700s.   There was a major restoration following an earthquake in 1894. The famous Arabic traveller Ibn Batuta mentions the bazaar in his journal written 100 years prior to the Turkish invasion of Istanbul.  The bazaar now contains nearly 5,000 shops, has survived  fires, wars and earthquakes and still draws traders and visitors from all over the world.  Its open Monday to Saturday 9am to 7pm and is closed on Sundays.  The covered area eventually opens out and its streets lead down to the Spice Bazaar and eventually to the shore of the Marmara Sea.

May's costumes.  A treasure trove!
Luck was on my side, within minutes of walking into the bazaar we'd found May Costumes and then just up the alley was another costume place called Ali Baba. May's stands out, Egyptian style costumes at a reasonable price and an owner who was easy to deal with. Ali Baba only offered costumes that I could have made myself (and, honestly, have made them better.) So back to Ender May, sales made, tea consumed, everyone happy.

We walked back down the hill into the dress, shoe, hijab and jilbab area. So cheap! Then out for dinner at the North Shield along from the hotel which tonight featured a Russian tv channel that shows nothing but car accidents, several of them could have been filmed in Doha and would have barely raised an eyebrow!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Istanbul: A pilgrimage to Gallipoli.

34 years. That's how long its been since I visited Gallipoli. Let me tell you a story, or if you'd rather not hear it, trawl down a few paras and start there.  Anyway, the last time I was here, back in 1978, I was young, idealistic, and on an overland bus from Katmandu to London. Unfortunately when we crossed from Afghanistan to Iran we found the revolution in full flight and foreigners were distinctly unwelcome. We crossed from one side of Iran to the other in only 3 days. This was back in the days when there were no mobile phones and we kept in contact with home by letter and postcard. Letters from home were waiting for us at Poste Restante in some of the major cities we went to and there was an eager readership for any newspaper cuttings received by fellow travellers.

Our current events were completely out of date, hotel rooms didn't routinely have tvs at that time in the parts of the world we were in, so while we spent 3 months on the road, up-to-date(ish) news was obtained through crackly BBC World Service or by meeting someone who knew something. When Pope John Paul I died someone heard about it one night on the BBC and passed the information around. A month or so later another passenger shelled out for a copy of the International Herald Tribune and announced 'The Pope's died.' 'Yeh, yeh', we scoffed, 'We knew that weeks ago.' 'No.' he said to a crowd of disbelieving faces, 'Its the new pope. He's died too.' Funny feeling of dislocation like it was all happening in another dimension unrelated to important daily things like, who was chronically ill with diarrhea today and did we have enough toilet paper. Ah, but who could forget the evening performance in Afghanistan by Bul Bul, the Nightingale of Herat.  He sat cross legged on a platform and sang while we ate our camel knuckle stew served with the obligatory mountain of rice.  I wonder what happened to him? I can probably guess. 

Anyway, moving along, we eventually made it into Turkey and sutlac (rice pudding) which seemed like mana from heaven after camel knuckle stew. One of our stops in Turkey in was to Gallipoli which was, even back then, a place of pilgrimage for Kiwis and Aussies. At that time the area surrounding the battlefields was undeveloped, there were no roads just tracks cut through the scrub. We got up to ANZAC Cove, from what I remember there was no official signposting just the guide's word for it. Sadly we could go no further as rain had made travelling up the track to Lone Pine and the New Zealand memorial impossible, but what little we'd seen gave the Kiwis and Aussies on the bus much to contemplate.

Fast forward 34 years and I'm back. 

We had limited time unfortunately so we booked a one day return trip from Istanbul to Gallipoli, Gelibolu in Turkish, stopping after 4 hours in the seaside town of Eceabat. Here we had lunch at the hotel owned by the tour company, then off we went for a 4+ hour visit to the battlefields and grave sites. Nowadays there are sealed roads, information boards, tour buses, multi-lingual guides, a lot's happened.  
Our guide's name was Hassan and his services were provided by RSL Tours.  Hassan was most informative, knew more about Gallipoli than most historians and was able to explain the reasons why our guys ended up on Turkish soil with insights from both sides of the conflict.  He also explained the strategies and battle plans they'd been sent so far from home to fulfil. He explained the importance of the Dardanelles, which once you've seen how narrow it is, explains why everyone wants it even today.  He explained why the hills of the area were important enough to die for, though after 9 months and thousands of deaths it was a stalemate. He explained why the Turks fought so tenatiously (wouldn't you if you were defending your home?) He also painted a horribly vivid picture of what life was like for the men who endured the heat of summer and the cold of winter in the trenches. He also raised questions that made me revisit what I'd been taught at school and heard from family members over the years.Over the afternoon we visited Brighton (North) Beach, walking along the beach to the ANZAC cemetery. From there we drove further up the coast to ANZAC Cove. The site of the first landings is a shallow pebbled beach bordered by Ari Burnu to the north and Hell Spit to the south. On the night of 25th April 1915 the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) made an amphibious landing onto this and other beaches along the coast. There are many books on the subject or check out Wikipedia

We then visited the Mehmetcik Statue, a statue of a Turkish soldier carrying an English soldier and apparently based on a story told by Gov. Gen Casey of Australia. Further up the peninsula is the Lone Pine Australian memorial and reconstructed Turkish and Allied trenches at Johnston's Jolly (so called because the Allied commander was ordered to use his cannons to 'jolly up' the Turkish defenders.) We also paid our respects at the cemetery of the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment of the 19th Division (Ottoman Army).  It was to the 57th Regiment that Ataturk gave his famous order, "I do not order you to attack, I order you to die."  This regiment was completely wiped out during the Gallipoli campaign, the regiment number being retired afterwards as a mark of respect.

The final stop was the Chunuk Bair New Zealand Memorial marking the area where combined NZ and British troops stormed and took the hilltop.  During the battle, 17 men of the 'Native Contingent', the forerunner of the Maori Battalion were killed and 89 were wounded. (The story of the Native Contingent is fascinating in itself.)  The success of the assault was fleeting and the Turks retook the hill only a few days later. 
The Canuck Bair Memorial.
The statue is on the right is of Kemal Ataturk.
On the sides of the memorial are engraved the names of 860 officers and men of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who died in the area in 1915 but have no known grave.

What doesn't change is that, despite what current historians may think, these events and the ones that followed resulted in a seismic shift in how New Zealanders and Australians saw themselves. It took many years but the public started to see themselves less as relocated English people ('South Pacific Poms') and more as 'New Zealanders' and 'Australians' with distinct national identities. It takes time, but with the passing of the generation with direct links to the UK, family ties fade. Gone also are the days of Overseas Experience when young Kiwis and Aussies headed for the UK for a couple of years of work and travel before returning home to settle down, build a career, probably a house, and start a family. Those young people, often the descendants of soldiers who fought for King and Country now apply for visas and have their stay in the UK limited. 

That's life I guess, time changes everything and our enemies last year are our friends this year.

'Maori Units of the NZEF', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-Apr-2011

Monday, 20 August 2012

Istanbul: Palaces and pounding the pavement.

Exterior of Domabache Palace.
After a quick ride on the tram we arrived at the waterfront and walked along to the Dolmabahce Palace which is in the Beskitas area of Istanbul right on the Bosphurus.  Work on Dolmabache, which means filled-in garden, started in 1843 and was completed in 1856 just after the Crimean War. The palace was built by Sultan Abdul Mecid to replace the old and outdated Topkapi Palace and he went all out. The exterior of the building has a European feel.  Unfortunately on entering the building we learnt that photography inside the palace is forbidden so, as a result, this blog will be more words than pictures. The upside was that we didn't have to take our shoes off, we got to wear natty pink plastic bags on our feet during the tour hehe.

 The interior feels a bit overblown and theatrical (even for a palace!) but that's not surprising as the interiors were the work of the designer of the Paris Opera at that time.  The interior of the palace is in original condition in some places particularly in the harem even with the original drapes in some places.

Covering over 250,000 square metres, Dolmabahce Palace served as the official residence of the sultan until 1924 when the caliphate was abolished and the Republic of Turkey established.  The palace has three functions: ceremonial, administrative and family residence (harem).  The ceremonial hall is utterly breathtaking.

The founder of the republic, Kemal Ataturk, used the palace as both his office and his home on his trips to Istanbul from Ankara, the newly appointed capital of Turkey.  All the clocks in the palace show the same time, 9.05(am), which is the time that Kemal Atatürk died on 10 November 1938. When touring the harem you'll be shown the small bedroom in which he died.  Access to the balance is as part of a guided group only.  Usually different languages are catered for with their own group and guide but as it was the Eid holiday we were in one large mixed group.  The guide did a great job, jumping between 5 or 6 languages to make sure that everyone knew what they were looking at.

After the palace visit we took the funicular from Karaköy station, up the hill to the Beyoğlu area exiting at Taksim Square.  There are only the two stations on the funicular. In the centre of Taksim Square is the Monument of the Republic commemorating the forming of the Turkish Republic in 1923. 
 İstiklâl Caddesi
We then walked the length of İstiklâl Caddesi, a major shopping and people watching area.  Before 1923 Istanbul was the capital of Turkish and this was the centre of the fashionable part of town.  After the capital relocated to Ankara in 1923 the  İstiklâl Caddesi area suffered a serious slump for several decades, its nadir being in 1955 when the avenue was ravaged during riots aimed at the Greek minority (it was all to do with Greek-Turkish friction over Cyprus).  Greek houses and shops were looted and burnt, churches desecrated, people raped (1204 all over again but with different perpetrators?)  At least 30 people were killed during the riots that only ended with the involvement of the Turkish military.  Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, covered the riots for the Sunday Times, I guess it was a better paying gig than his usual work with MI5.   The area recovered and has now been been gentrified.  Its become Istanbul's restaurant, bar and nightclub hub.

Galata Tower
We continued our walk downhill stopping at the Galata Tower. Built in around 1348, the tower is now isolated but used to be part fortifications of the city walls.  We stopped to take some photos and have a much needed coffee break and it was here our friends Kelly and Andrea left us to return to the hotel to catch their flight home. 

Yuksek Kaldirim. Its steep!
Colin and I walked down the steep Yuksek Kaldirim, a cobbled street that used to be Karaköy's main pedestrian thoroughfare before the opening of the funicular.  The area has been the first stop for immigrants to Istanbul from the Genoese in the 1200s, Spanish Jews escaping the Inquisition, Greeks, Armenians and in 1917 a wave of Russian émigrés fleeing the Bolshevik revolution.

There are music shops with window displays of darbeckis, mizmar, nay, kemence, ouds etc.  I bought a new pair of zills (finger cymbals) and listened to one of the shop workers play the saz and he was good!
Q: What's the difference between a mizmar and a trampoline?
A: You take off your shoes when you jump on a trampoline.
Ok, moving along.....

Once at the bottom, we walked over Galata Bridge checking out the success of the fishermen who hang their lines over the sides of the bridge. 
Wall to wall people at the Galata Bridge.

Back on the old side of the bridge, it was heaving with people out with their families and enjoying the first day of the Eid.  Most were buying food from the floating restaurants which moor next to the wharf.

We did a short walk in the Spice Bazaar but it was so crowded that it wasn't much fun so we headed back to the hotel after another wonderful day.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Istanbul: The birthday bellydancers.

Today is the first day of the Eid holiday to mark the end of Ramadan and all the major sites and most of the shops were closed for two days.  So we decided to take a wander round the local area starting near Gulhane Park. We walked up Sogekcesme which is a street running between the outer walls of the Topkapi Palace and the Aya Sophia mosque. Sogekcesme is a cobbled street with houses on one side which back onto the palace walls. These houses are some of the few remaining wooden Ottoman era houses in Istanbul. Mostly used as pivate hotels the houses are now painted various soft pastel colours and are notable for their covered verandahs on the second floor. As you walk past you also notice the lattice on the bottom half of the windows which ensured that the women of the house could not be seen from the outside.

We walked further into the Sultanahmet area passing numerous hotels and cafes which were doing busy trade. We also passed Les Arts Turc, the headquarters of an artist collective who can arrange classes in everything from tile painting, bellydance, Turkish language lessons and cooking. Eventually we arrived down by the sea and we followed the road that would around the walls of the Topkapi Palace walking along the footpath by Kennedy Caddessi which runs along the edge of the Bosphoros. The cars and buses whizzed by which could be a bit disconcerting at times. The huge walls were built in the mid 1400s and are massively thick. In several places we saw that recycling isn't a new idea, as in some places the builders had used sections of unwanted pillars to make the walls. We went inside the walls at a couple of places where there had been collapses.  The walls seem to be hollow in places with corridors. Kelly said that sometimes false passages were put in to confuse any invadors who breached the walls. 

After winding our way back to the hotel we rested up for the afternoon and in the evening the bus picked us up for our evening at the Orient House. Yes its a tourist-centric show but I wanted to see the bellydancers and it was my birthday so there! There were 3 dancers, all gorgeous women. The first, Oya Man, is a Russian dancer, real name is Olga Roussina. Dressed in a pink sequin skirt and bedlah she put on a terrific show, technically accomplished, professional and a pleasure to watch.  Her style was almost exclusively Egyptian.  The second dancer was dressed in biege and seemed quite disinterested, a bit of a shame.  After another couple of folk troupe numbers, the final dancer, Birgal appeared.  She was wonderful and for me the highlight of the show. While the other two were technically proficient they just didn't have *it*, in fact the second one looked a bit bored. No Turkish Romani, karshlma, 9/8 or zill playing from any of the bellydancers, though each of the dancers used a bit of modern Turkish music.  It seems that Egyptian style rules with some crowd pleasing American tricks (fan veil for instance) thrown in.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Istanbul: Topkapi Palace

Top of the agenda today was a revisit, for me after 34 years, to Topkapi Palace. We entered the palace by walking through through Gulhane Park, which used to be the private gardens of the palace. Work on construction of the palace commenced in 1460 taking until 1478 to complete. The palace was expanded and changed right up to the late 1800s when the sultans left Topkapi and moved to the new 'modern' palace of Dolmabahce.

Topkapi Palace is organised into 4 'courts'; the first for the public, the second for invited guests, the third for the royal family and the the fourth being private living areas for the sultan and his immediate family. The first court is now a large park area with the ticket booths in one corner, from there you enter the second court which has a large garden in the centre and the kitchens on one side. The Imperial Council Chamber is on the left, its a double room where the powerful leaders of the Empire gathered to discuss matters while the Sultan listened from behind a golden grill. When the Sultan had enough he would either cough or slam the grill loudly and the council knew the meeting was over and they'd been dismissed!

The infamous harem can be entered nearby.

The third court holds the audience chamber and a library building with an ornate painted ceiling. Also in the third court was a display of religious artefacts including gold plated guttering and part of the lock from the Kabba in Mecca. The sword and bow of the Prophet (pbuh) are on display as well as the gold plated cover of the holy black stone from Mecca worn by the touch of pilgrims.  An imam sits nearby and recites from the Koran, I believe there used to be an imam chanting from the Koran 24/7 but I'm not sure if this is still the case.
Through into another room was a display of portraits of the sultans.  The right arm of John the Baptist encased in gold is also on display (not many people know there is another right arm of John the Baptist in Venice).

Then came the highlight, the Treasury, housed in a building constructed by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1460 (he was the brains behind the whole palace). Unfortunately photography was forbidden as was the case in much of the palace. There are golden swords, bowls and bottles carved from rock crystal and then inlaid with precious stones, a pair of huge solid gold candlesticks that have over 1,000 diamonds on each and of course the Topkapi Dagger. The dagger was made on the orders of Mahmoud 1 as a gift for Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia. An ambassador was despatched from Turkey to present the dagger to the Shah in Tehran but when the ambassador arrived at the border he learned that Nadir Shah had died so the ambassador returned to Istanbul with the dagger.  And there its stayed.

The dagger features 3 enormous emeralds on the hilt and the hinged lid carries a further large emerald surrounded by diamonds.  Diamonds and flower motifs are used to decorate the shealth. It was stunning 34 years ago and still is today.

We had a coffee on one of the terraces below the palace and then headed off to watch the All Blacks -v- Wallabies rugby game which was being shown live at one of the local pubs.

After the game, and the ABs triumph, we took a tram to the Basilica Cistern built by Justinian in AD532 to provide water for his palace. Eventually it was closed and then forgotten until around 1545 when a scholar researching the area was told that local people were able to get water from below their basements and were sometimes even able to catch fish. It has been restored several times in the past, the most recent restoration which involved the removal of 50,000 tons of mud, sludge and years of rubbish. The cistern is now a tourist attraction its 336 columns holding up a bricked roof 65m wide x 143m long. In a dark corner on the north western edge of the cistern two of the columns are mounted on carved heads of the mythical figure Medusa.  One of the Medusa heads is lying on its side and the other is upside down. Whether this was done on purpose or just 'recycling' will never be known. There's about a foot or so of water in the cistern now and its populated by carp, some of which were so big they had trouble moving round, in what is to them, shallow water.

After emerging into the light from the cistern we took the tram to the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian bazaar). It was packed as busy shoppers prepared for the end of Ramadan and the 2 days of public holidays, we'll try to get back at a time when its not wall-to-wall people.

We walked back to the hotel on the way trying some local icecream which is strangely stretchy when you try to bite into it.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Its Istanbul not Constantinople.

Lights on the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
 The end of the holy month of Ramadan is here and we've taken advantage of the public holidays to have a much needed break out of Qatar.  So, we've arrived in Istanbul after a 4 hour flight from Doha on Qatar Airways. 

On arrival in Istanbul there is a list of nations requiring visa displayed on a board. New Zealanders don't require one so I joined the queue with the Turks and the sundries who who also need visas. The queue was long and snakelike, there was no air-con, several planefuls of passengers and only two immigration officers on duty.

As Aussies need a visa Colin first had to stand in a long queue at a separate window to purchase the entry visa which cost him an eye watering $60!  Then to add to the indignity once he got his visa, he then had to join the end of the huge queue that I was standing in, in order to have his visa stamped. Its not like Doha or the UAE where, if you're eligible to pick up a visa on entry, you queue, pay your money,  have your visa stamped into your passport and off you go.

By this time all the visa officers decided to have a tea break and the queue of several hundred people were served by only one officer. Fortunately this happened just after I got through so I trundled off to find the bag which, wouldn't you know it, was on the luggage belt at the furthest end of the hall but by the time I collected the bag and walked back to the immigration area, Colin was through.

We'd booked the hotel car to pick us up though taxis are plentiful right outside the door of the arrivals terminal.  We were quickly into the old part of the city with narrow, cobbled streets.  On the edge of the footpaths are short metal bollards to prevent cars mounting the footpath and parking there. 

We met our friends at the Hotel Raymond which is in the heart of the old area and within walking distance of all the main tourist sites.  While the rooms at the Raymond are small, they're spotlessly clean, have all mod-cons and after all, you're only there to sleep!   After dropping the bags we walked around the corner to a cafe called Faros and sat on their veranda, drinking coffee in public (very exciting after being in Doha) and watching the world go by. Many ladies wear hijab, many don't and only a few were wearing abayas.  The Turkish ladies who cover seem to favour square silk head scarves in every colour and pattern imaginable. The scarf is folded into a triangle and placed over the head, usually over an underscarf or bonnet, and the scarf is then pinned under the chin to hold it firm with the loose ends tucked under the collar or pinned.

We then walked to the tram which runs along the end of the road.  The trams come frequently and are a great way to get around town, avoiding the traffic.  We purchased the red tokens from the dispensing machine and rode it just one stop up the hill to the Blue Mosque.  We had a wonderful dinner at Rumelis restaurant sitting outdoors then walked over to the grounds of the Blue Mosque where many families were having iftar picnics.

Tomorrow's agenda is a return, after 34 years, to the Topkapi Palace.  Really looking forward to it.