İstanbul : Ceramic and Stone

Istanbul Travel Blog

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The domes of Aya Sofia (detail)

One thing for sure Istanbul does not lack are sights of architectural and historical interest to stuff your imagination silly with.  In the knowledge that I would be returning later in my journey for another week here I moderated my mass-consumption of tourist happiness inducing activities.  Therefore such joys as the interior of the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern and ‘underground Istanbul‘, the Chora Church and the Dolmbahçhe Palace to name a few are pleasures delayed for my return.  Here in no particular order are few things I did devour though :

Failing to Fly?

‘Oh my word I… I uh… I… when I uh firszt enteured zis mosque I… I… I had zees feeling that I… I… like I could fly!!  Like I could juszt szpread my wingsz like zees…’ Ronan, the very enthusiastic French Aya Sofia fan will gesticulate to me wildly in a months time in Mardin ‘and fly right us into ze church ceiling… it wasz uh incredible no?!’ 

Well, I’m tempted to say no.

Aya Sofia chandelier (abstract)
  Well not that incredible anyway.  Having shaken the 36 hour cold that accompanied me into Istanbul, and being as I wake up to the sight of its graces every morning from the Mavi Guesthouse Rooftop Dormitory, Istanbul’s most famous mosque Aya Sofia is my first stop in the city.  And if upon stepping through to its mythically proportioned domed inner sanctum my feelings for the vision fail to take wing in quite the same way as Ronan’s, you can rest assured this probably has more to do with me being a slightly jaded and desensitised traveller right now rather than any slight to Aya Sofia’s power to impress.  It’s probably just the highest profile victim of my being ‘aaall churched out’ right now.  As you stretch your eyes up to the high flung, seemingly unsupported dome - a graceful architectural trick given its 1,500 years of age - one can’t help but raise at least an eyebrow of admiration.
İnterior oıf Aya Sofia...okay looking back at these photos ıt's way more impressıve than my narky writing would suggest ;))

It’s phenomenally busy within so best to shell your 20TL (£8) and get in early doors (9.00am) if you can.  Originally a church ( Sancta Sofia) constructed by the Roman Emperor Justinian around 537 AD, it was converted to a mosque in 1453 by the victorious Mehmet the Conqueror.  In 1935 it was turned over to the function of a museum by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk.  Strolling between patches of shade and light and shimmying between tour groups I’m impressed by the giant wooden cartouche-style discs that are suspended at angles from the ceiling corners proclaiming (or so I overhear) the names of Allah (God) and The Prophet Mohammed in gigantic gold calligraphic flourishes.  In one quadrant of the upper balcony area the remainders of some fine mosaics are visible, but in all honesty aside from the awe born of scale, the interior beauties of Aya Sofia tend to end there - certainly while the pre European Capital of Culture restorations continue.

Heavy ongoing restoration to the very, very high dome of Aya Sofia.
  Think lots of scaffolding!  Aya Sofia I’m told tends to divide people.  You’re an ’inny’ or an ’outy’ I.e. you prefer the interior or the exterior, and despite its slightly cumbersome appearance set facing its more elegant neighbour (the Blue Mosque) I prefer to marvel at it from without in the varying lights of day and night rather than from within.

The Palace of Mispronunciation

One of the sights of Istanbul I have the pleasure of enjoying, reunited with my Travbuddy pal Devika and her friend Danique is the Topkapi Palace.  Now, note the spelling of ’Topkapi’.  Correct.  That digit on the end is not an ’i’ but an ’i’.  When Turkish was converted from an Arabic style script to the Roman alphabetical system as part of Atatürk’s modernising, secularising program for the nation, a couple of additional vowel phonemes were required and ‘i’, (effectively the letter ‘i’ without the dot) is one of them.

Portrait of The Blue Mosque froım inside Aya Sofia
  It denotes a sound equivalent to ‘uh’. 

But this doesn’t stop almost everyone in the universe, including the locals - either unknowing themselves or just too tired of trying to correct lazy tourists over the years - pronouncing Istanbul’s most famous Palace the Topkapee palace as opposed to The Topkapuh Palace.  A strange point to prattle on I know.  But it’s interesting, don’t ya think, that given the progress of enough years the original and correct pronunciation may just be forgotten.  The unloved, unwanted and not so zappy sounding ‘uh’ just a little linguistic appendix.  No longer required.  This process happens with language and pronunciation all the time of course.  But I make it my duty whilst in Istanbul to go around stating the ‘Topkapuh’ Palace in conversation but this elicits looks of incomprehension every single time from Turks and Tourists alike.

Scarves for sale in the Grand Bazaar
  Weird huh.  ‘Yes you are Steve.  Yes you are’.  Alright.  Never mind :)

So what’s behind the name?  The Topkapi Palace was constructed also at the behest of Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th Century (quite keen to memorialise his victory with great architectural feats it seems) and was home to the great sultans of the Ottoman Empire until 1839 when after Mahmut II bit the dust his successors set about building more modern glories such as the Dolmbahçhe Palace.

Devika, Danique and I find ourselves here of a weekend which is unfortunate as the overriding memory of Topkapi for us is probably how horrendously busy it was.  Whether it’s better during the week in high season I couldn’t say.  The sun was out in finest tourist-roasting fetter and so after walking through the pleasant wide green precincts of the First and Second courts (the former also known as the ‘Janissaries Court’ after the corpus of elite Ottoman ‘Janissary’ soldiers forcibly forged from the ranks of male Christian children abducted from mainland Europe by the Ottomans such as Serbian born Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic talked about in my Višegrad entry) it’s queuing time!  Several half hour + queues to then be squeezed and squelched through a series of rooms of markedly beautiful décor and probably containing many things of wonder and great beauty (for example the items of high sacred value to Islam exhibition and the sparkle-tastic Imperial Treasury) but you just spend your whole time thinking ‘get me outta heeeeere!’.

One ofthe many interior arcades of the Grand Bazaar

The grounds of the Palace are extensive though so the crowds do occasionally thin out and allow us to take some time to view the various chambers and halls open to the public and their frequently beautiful displays of traditional ‘Iznik’ ceramic tile décor.  The highly elaborate use of colour, floral forms and geometric patterning deployed over such large surface areas create quite incredibly seductive and hypnotic panoramas.  Although I often baulk at the Islamic dictate - enforced for most of its tenure to date - that representational imagery (of humans, animals etc) is wrong and sinful, there’s no denying that the sublime symmetry and design ethic that has developed consequently over the centuries can be arrestingly beautiful.  Indeed the symmetry of interior mosque décor has me sat on the floor, dropping my jaw any number of times in my month and more in Turkey.

As the Guide Books will claim correctly - the most impressive part of the Palace is the Harem and it‘s here that the most impressive examples of Palace décor are housed.  Whilst it’s an additional 15TL (£6) to the 20TL (£8) you’ve already paid to get in, a vision of the Palace and an insight into the living quarters and lives of the Sultans’ families of yesteryear is pretty incomplete without this visit.

Bizarre Bazaar

Next to the Grand Bazaar.  Near the top of many people’s Istanbul itineraries but I found in many ways the Grand Bazaar best encapsulated a sense of the reason why, by the end of Week One I may not (yet) have been as swept away by Istanbul as I had expected.  A sense that maybe the most recent layer added to the centuries stacked sedimentary foundations of the city is the spirit of vibrancy and energy and authenticity that, in large pockets, has fallen victim to over familiarity and dependence upon tourism.

Beautifully ornate ceiling in one chamber of the Topkapı Harem
  Certainly in the Sultanahmet district anyway. 

Within the confines of the Grand Bazaar where chaos and confusion and excitement were expected, an unusual calm, you may call it torpor exist in their stead.  The Bazaar does not sing, zing or buzz to the fevered haggle-drowned hum of classic market life in the slightest.  Whilst its history may be rich these days it is a lazy dog, asleep in the shadows of its covered arched arcades at midday, content in the knowledge that it will be fed with tourist dollars whether it presents gleaming eyes and wags its tail or not.  Shopkeepers for the most part sit lazily in small doorways sipping çay with friends, not over-fussed with engaging too banteringly with the tourists who hover through the labyrinthine covered walkways like at first expectant but soon indifferent flies.

İznik Stevie
  ‘Oh you take photo, photo!  How many photo you take?’.  ‘Umm, two.’oh-oh! that 20 Euro, 20 Euro.  10 Euro per photo!’.  Ha ha.   ‘Heeey man, the guy round the corner only charged 10 Lira per photo, I’m goin’ back to his place!’.  Ha Ha. Etc.

Whilst I enjoy the structure of this, Istanbul’s oldest and largest market space;  the certain aesthetic appeal of its re-plastered and painted ceilings and window alcoves, the meandering composition of its covered alleys and ’streets’, it is a place of relatively little soul and a few too many million cheap Ed Hardy knockoff t-shirts.  After 2-3 hours trying to tread life into my experience of the area it’s time for some cheap shaded courtyard glasses of çay and my book and then to head through the slew of streets that course Eastwards down from the area of the Grand Bazaar until one meets the banks of the Golden Horn.

Topkapı wındow (detail)
  It is in these streets that you will find the real throng of local Istanbulu market living and colour.  So I implore you to lose yourself a bit here. 

When you break out of the chaos to arrive at Eminönü you can also pass through the 17th Century Spice or ’Egyptian’ Bazaar, the once famous repository of all sensual treasures and condiments shipped over from Cairo.  Though its provenance is rich I would though argue again that whilst a jolted and buffeted jaunt through it must be undertaken, with cheap t-shirts and tourist tat having squeezed a lot of the purveyors of the powdered and aromatic wonders of the senses out to a large degree nowadays, when coupled with the asphyxiating crowds of tourists that toothpaste tube through here, this too is a largely forgettable market experience.

'Yeeeey!' Reunited with my wonderful TravBuddy pal from Leiden Meetup, Devika!:))
  For market junkies like me, head to Urfa in the South East of Turkey.  The best Bazaar district I’ve yet witnessed in this land!

An End To All My Quibbling

Well.  I’ll end on an apology my friends.  It’s been overdue and underwhelming.  My scrawling about Istanbul that is.  And maybe therein lies a contributory reason for the slightly griping tone a lot of my none-too-engaging commentary on this most mind bending of cities has laboured under.  One of many experiences Istanbul bequeathed to me was a mild but noticeable form of writers’ block which has frustrated my ‘creative’ progress through Turkey.  But bein’ as I’m not a writer and you must presumably be one to be blocked as such, this is no excuse for tardiness and dreary prose so I shall now crack on with the rest of my Turkish adventures with hope to be a little more engaging as time flows on.

Yeni Camii ceiling.
  As for Istanbul.  I look forward to experiencing it with fresh eyes and feelings when I return in five weeks time!

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The domes of Aya Sofia (detail)
The domes of Aya Sofia (detail)
Aya Sofia chandelier (abstract)
Aya Sofia chandelier (abstract)
İnterior oıf Aya Sofia...okay lo…
İnterior oıf Aya Sofia...okay l…
Heavy ongoing restoration to the v…
Heavy ongoing restoration to the …
Portrait of The Blue Mosque froım…
Portrait of The Blue Mosque froı…
Scarves for sale in the Grand Baza…
Scarves for sale in the Grand Baz…
One ofthe many interior arcades of…
One ofthe many interior arcades o…
Beautifully ornate ceiling in one …
Beautifully ornate ceiling in one…
İznik Stevie
İznik Stevie
Topkapı wındow (detail)
Topkapı wındow (detail)
Yeeeey!  Reunited with my wonder…
'Yeeeey!' Reunited with my wonde…
Yeni Camii ceiling.
Yeni Camii ceiling.
Restoratıon detail in Aya Sofia.
Restoratıon detail in Aya Sofia.
Aya Sofia marble floor (detail)
Aya Sofia marble floor (detail)
Stevie in the light of Aya Sofia
Stevie in the light of Aya Sofia
Jesus mosaic on theupper gallery o…
Jesus mosaic on theupper gallery …
Ed Hardy is eeeeeverywhere in and …
Ed Hardy is eeeeeverywhere in and…
Grand Bazaar (abstract)
Grand Bazaar (abstract)
This is all you can currently see …
This is all you can currently see…
Spice Bazaar
Spice Bazaar
The domes of Yeni Camii
The domes of Yeni Camii
Yeni Camii interior - my favourite…
Yeni Camii interior - my favourit…
Yeni Camii chandelier (abstract)
Yeni Camii chandelier (abstract)
İznık tiles inside the Topkapı …
İznık tiles inside the Topkapı…
Topkapı roof (abstract)
Topkapı roof (abstract)
Istanbul
photo by: Memo