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!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your nice descriptions of Istanbul - brings it all back, definitely one of my favourite cities. You teasingly mention Gallipoli though without giving us any further details. I've never been and would very much love to hear your impressions, of the war cemeteries and memorials but also of the Dardanelles in general. I hope you will cover it in a subsequent post. Thanks.