Istanbul is oft cited as the crossroads of Europe and Asia due to its unique geographic location: an ancient city straddling these two continents, as well as controlling one of the more strategic and important naval passages on earth, the Bosphorus. Istanbul also stands as a holy symbol for three major religions, if you view Greek Orthodoxy as a separate religion from Roman Catholicism (the Greeks certainly do!).
With the mighty Bosphorus cutting the narrow land bridge between Europe and Asia, the people of Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul have heard the tramp of armies, the whistle of arrows and blasts of ships’ cannons for centuries as nations fought for control of these straights. Persians, Greeks, forbears of the Greeks, Romans, nomadic tribes, various European nations, and, lastly the Ottomans, have all claimed this land, and all have left their indelible footprints.
At first, I found it difficult to get a sense of what Istanbul is today. With a population just under 14 million, it is impossible to even begin to know Istanbul in one week. But by the time we left Istanbul, I was already missing the city, certainly regretful that we hadn’t seen everything we’d wanted. As our ship slowly moved from its pier and headed up the Bosphorus, I knew that somehow, Istanbul had gotten its teeth into me. And no matter how much I’d struggled to like Istanbul at first, this ancient city wears a beauty and unrivaled mystique. In other words, I’d fallen for Istanbul just like millions of visitors over the centuries.
Istanbul is not without its frustrations. It is certainly one of the most crowded cities we’ve visited – but we expected that with 14 million people. We also arrived during Ramadan, and the public areas overflowed with people as the sun went down and thousands flocked to join communal “break-fast” feasts after sunset in public parks and squares. In some areas, picnic tables were set up late each afternoon especially for the evening’s feasts.
For those of you not familiar with Ramadan, here’s a one paragraph primer:
Ramadan is celebrated during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. It is the holiest time in Islam, as Ramadan is the month in which the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Mohammad. It is the duty of every Muslim, as well as one of the five pillars of Islam, to fast from sunrise to sunset for the entire month of Ramadan, and men, especially, often attend a mosque for all five daily calls to prayer. Women may pray at home or in the mosque (if allowed – more on this later), but will also fast during the day before breaking the fast at dusk with family or friends. There are many Muslims who are lax in religious observance the rest of the year, but will steadfastly observe Ramadan with fasting and prayer. In that regard, it’s much like the majority of American Jews who are absent from temple most of the year but annually attend the High Holy Days.
Back to more touristy matters:
One of the smart things we did was hire a guide and driver to take us through some of the major historic sites in Istanbul. It was definitely money well-spent. Our guide, Emre, was extremely knowledgeable, and would spend as much time as we wanted in each attraction. What follows is a recap of our first full day in Istanbul.
Chora Church (Kariye Museum)
Having grown up largely outside the U.S., with avid travelers/historians as parents, I thought I’d seen the best of early Christian mosaics and frescoes in Europe and the Middle East. San Giusto Cathedral in Trieste last year revised that opinion. (https://ourdistantsojourns.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/trieste/ )
The ancient Byzantine Chora Church in Istanbul, however, set me reeling. How these incredibly beautiful mosaics and frescoes survived over the centuries was amazing. Islam, like Judaism, does not permit graven images of people or animals in their places of worship. With most, if not all, churches converted to mosques after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 (and became Istanbul), their artwork was defaced, plastered over, or permanently removed. The mosaics and frescoes in Chora Church were plastered, but thankfully many were salvaged and restored through cooperative efforts of Turkish and American curators and artisans in mid-20th c. The church-mosque was reopened as a secular museum for all to enjoy in 1958. As can be expected, the stone mosaics were more easily restored than the painted frescoes, but some of the latter have withstood the centuries.
Most of the church-museum building as seen today was built in 1077-81, but the interior decorations of magnificent frescoes and mosaics (by anonymous artists) were added about 1315-21. Parts of the building are thought to date to the first church, built in the 5th c. After the church was converted to a mosque, a minaret was added as well.
The majority of mosaics on the walls of the narthex of the church depict the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, from her own birth, the birth of Christ, her eventual death and ascension to heaven. Other mosaics show scenes from the life of Jesus, including some of the miracles. Our guide told us that with the exception of the gold tiles, all the stone tiles used in the mosaics are the natural color of the stones, a fact I found amazing; I’d never imagined that stones could be so colorful. Unfortunately many of the frescoes, particularly those in the outer narthex area, were badly damaged either by intent or from the centuries of being plastered over.
Suleiman’s Mosque (Suleymaniye Camii)
If Chora Church’s brilliant mosaics had me reeling, Suleiman’s Mosque left me near speechless. Fascinated by the grandeur of the mosque, Michael and I sat with Emre on the Prayer Hall carpet for nearly an hour, trying to absorb all the details and beauty of the interior.
The creation of the great architect, Sinan, the mosque, built between 1550 and 1557, is considered the masterpiece of all of Sinan’s creations. The dome is the largest of any Ottoman mosque, and the interior was designed to have a complex ventilation system and is acoustically near perfect.
A short aside on Sinan: although renowned as an Ottoman architect, Sinan was born neither Turkish or Muslim. His exact ethnic background is not clear, but a contemporary biographer stated Sinan was born of either Greek or Armenian parents near Kayseria in Anatolia (now part of Turkey), which would mean he was Christian at birth. This is supported by the fact that Sinan was recruited and trained as a Janissary (Royal Guard), and the Janissaries were predominantly Christian youths taken from their homes, converted to Islam, and trained for this elite corps. Sinan gained notice with his engineering skills, which eventually lead him to architecture. More than 300 major structures are attributed to him during his long life, as well as dozens of smaller facilities.
One feature of the mosque we found intriguing. While the interior’s illumination was largely from natural light through the many windows, additional light came from oil lamps contained in halves of ostrich eggs. Sinan also devised a clever way to draw the soot from the burning oil and thus prevent it from dusting the mosque’s interior. As part of the air venting system he built two slits high in one wall, which led to two small rooms where the smoke and soot from the burning oil could be drawn and collected. Periodically, the soot would be gathered and ink would be made from the soot residue. This ink would then be used only for copying Quran scriptures, or other holy uses.
Another feature we learned concerns the number of minarets. Only an Ottoman sultan could have more than two minarets attached to the mosque. Sinan designed Suleiman’s mosque to have four minarets, which was the usual number prescribed for a sultan. Sinan also borrowed some architectural features from the Byzantine era Aya Sofia by designing the central prayer area under an immense dome. Emre said that from then on, all Turkish mosques contained a dome, and indeed, as we traveled around Turkey, I never saw a mosque without one. At the time this mosque was constructed, it had the highest dome of any mosque in the Ottoman Empire.
As in most major mosques, the place of worship is one of several facilities in a multi-building complex. In addition to the mosque, Sinan designed a huge complex containing a large courtyard and columned portico, four schools, a hospital and medical school, public baths and kitchens, and the royal tombs of Suleiman and his chief wife.
Built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th c., the immense underground cistern is as big as a cathedral, and the largest of several cisterns in the city. All are part of an aqueduct and water storage system built to provide and store water within the city’s wall for the population. The 336 columns used to support the 26-foot high roof are of various styles, and are believed to have been scavenged from older Roman and Greek sites during the construction of the cistern. This particular one is called the “basilica” cistern as in later years a Christian basilica was built over the underground facility, and forgotten about for centuries until its rediscovery in the mid-19th century.
Notable feature is the use of two huge blocks of stone as bases for two of the columns. Both blocks of marble are carved as heads of Medusa, and while one is placed upside down, the other is laying sideways. Myth has it that this unusual orientation of the heads is to avert the gaze of Medusa, whose Gorgan gaze could turn people to stone. Another explanation could be simpler. Being that Justinian was Christian (as was most of the population of the city by the 6th c.), the heads were placed in an unnatural position as a form of desecration of their pagan origins. Another notable column has tear-drop carvings. Emre posed an interesting question: are they meant to be tear drops or depictions of the evil eye to warn off danger? He also told us that the evil eye is always depicted with a blue iris, because the Ottomans (and Greeks) associated blue eyes as rarities, as well as belonging to European invaders – never a positive occurrence — hence, blue eyes are “evil.”
Another interesting feature of the cistern was the presence of large carp (also known as koi) which, we were told, served like canaries in the coal mines. As long as the fish lived, the ancients knew the water was good. If the fish started dying, the cistern caretakers knew the water needed treatment. (What kind of “treatment” could be back then we never got to.)
One of the most defining icons of Istanbul, the Aya Sofia dominates the skyline of the old quarter, especially as seen from the waters of the Golden Horn or the mouth of the Bosphorus. Along with the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, it is one of the three most visited sites in Istanbul. Its original name, in Greek, Hagia Sophia, literally means Church of the Holy Wisdom. Completed in 537 A.D., it was the largest Christian church and monument for nearly a thousand years and is still considered the greatest example of Byzantine architecture in the world. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans converted it to a mosque; Ataturk, the great Turkish leader, turned the Aya Sofia into a museum in 1935 so that its beauty can be enjoyed by people of all faiths. To this day, restoration efforts are attempting to recover some of the plastered-over mosaics and frescoes from the early, Christian era, and while some have been successfully uncovered, others are lost forever. Not all of the damage to the church’s décor came from the Ottomans, however. In 1204 the Venetian-led Fourth Crusade decided to forego rescuing Jerusalem from the “infidels” and instead, sacked Eastern Orthodox Constantinople instead.* Among the artwork and artifacts vandalized or stolen from in the city were many of the golden mosaics from Aya Sofia. Thankfully, a few remain and have been restored. Unfortunately, because of the on-going reconstruction, we weren’t able to see all the interior or go to the upstairs galleries which contain some of the more beautiful mosaics.
The central dome of the church, supported ingeniously by two half-domes and four pendetives, is truly a masterpiece. Originally, the dome was over 182 feet high and more than 100 feet across. Subsequent restorations due to damage from earthquakes and warfare have reduced the size and shape of the dome somewhat.
In keeping with the church-mosque’s current role as a museum, curators have kept many of the Islamic decorations that were added on top of the plastered-over Christian frescoes and mosaics. Among these are four huge medallions of gold Arabic script on black with the names of Mohammed, the Prophet, and the first three caliphs. One of the smaller domes is also a beautiful example of Islamic calligraphic art and has been preserved as well.
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)
Standing opposite Aya Sofia is the imposing Blue Mosque, the mosque designed and built for Sultan Ahmet I by Mehmet Aga, a student of the great architect, Sinan. Mehmet Aga, many believe, took inspiration from Sinan’s works as well as Aya Sofia and created a mosque which surpasses any other in its beauty, airiness, light, and form. And, in fact, this is one of the most beautiful mosques I’ve seen. But it is the interior décor that truly lets this mosque shine above others. Much of the interior is covered in blue-green Iznik tiles, and the hundreds of windows illuminate the interior and tiles brilliantly.
As this is an active mosque, not a museum, and we were in the middle of Ramadan, there were many people – almost all men — coming into the mosque to pray, or performing their ablutions outside. But tourists were permitted during the “non-official” prayer times, along as we were quiet and respectful. Following the required “etiquette” for entering mosques, we left our shoes in the designated repository, and I rolled down the cuffs of my pants to cover my ankles and covered my hair with a scarf. Only practicing Muslims were allowed within the inner prayer area, which was separated only by a low bannister, so we walked around inside, talking quietly with Emre, who told us a few facts about the mosque.
As large as it is, the mosque was completed in just eight years, a remarkable feat. (I wanted to ask how many slaves had died to make this construction deadline, but felt that probably wasn’t a welcome question.) Another interesting feature is the six minarets attached to the mosque. Aga, the architect, apparently got carried away and went beyond the standard 4 minarets for a Sultan’s royal mosque. Unfortunately, the maximum number of minarets a mosque can have was a tradition set by the six minarets of the Majid al-Haram mosque in Mecca: no other mosque in the world was allowed to have an equal number of minarets.
The solution? Sultan Ahmet sent Mehmet Aga down to Mecca to design and build a seventh minaret for the al-Haram, making it (still) the mosque with the most minarets. (I suppose it may have occurred to a few of you by now, as it did to me, that this was just another version of the male game of phallus sizing/counting.)
The mosque was so beautiful, so peaceful, but unfortunately for us, the afternoon sun was dipping low, and we had to hustle out of the mosque, which is closed to visitors during the five official prayer times. Even as we left, the muezzins’ calls to prayer were booming from loudspeakers on the mosque’s minarets, calling the Faithful to the evening prayer, echoed by the musical calls to prayer ringing from minarets across the city.
As we left Emre after nearly ten incredible hours of Istanbul history and architecture, we saw hundreds of people streaming into the Hippodrome plaza, on one side of the Blue Mosque, where picnic tables were set up for people coming to join family and friends for the breaking of the daily Ramadan fast after sundown. Many families came together, carrying bundles of food to share with friends, while others gravitated toward the portable grills and food carts brought by entrepreneurs with foodstuff to sell. The sweet smell of roasting corn, kebabs and chops grilling drifted on the air as people drifted onto the grass and benches in the parks between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia, those two sentinels of Istanbul, chatting quietly, waiting, until the sun went down, to break the day’s fast.
And a final look at the Blue Mosque and the Ramadan celebrants:
*A fascinating book by Roger Crowley on the genesis of this “crusade” is City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas. He has also written two other books on the struggle between the Ottomans and the loose coalition of Christian European nations for control of the Mediterranean.