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Saturday, 23 August 2008

DIA 293-295 - Istanbul Not Constantinople

Sinop - Istanbul

Catching a bus to Istanbul is not always straightforward. Our plan was to catch a bus from Sinop since we were running low on time. Little did we know that Sinop is extremely attractive if you are a Turkish family looking for a beach holiday. All the buses were booked solid for a week. This made our journey to Istanbul quite interesting, albeit a little stressful.

We rode out of Sinop and hitch-hiked to another town, which proved to take a very long time. When we arrived at the next town only the 'drama' bus had room for us. This bus stopped at every one-horse town all night and whenever new passengers joined us everyone was forced to play musical chairs. A lot of shouting ensued each time, and one time the bus conductor hit a passenger in the face. Quite naturally, the passenger was upset by this turn of events. The only problem was that he was travelling with his mother who was extremely large, and the conductor managed to hide behind her in the aisle. The woman fanned her face frantically and looked on the verge of fainting as her son uselessly tried to reach over her to hit the conductor. This all happened about 3cms away from my left leg. Angel, who had been sleeping, woke up and tensed: He appeared quite eager to join in but wanted to work out first who to punch!

Getting to Istanbul was therefore a relief. The Golden Horn seen in the pink dawn light across the water was enough to start the butterflies in the pit of my stomach. But there was no bridge, we did not think to take a ferry, and the bus drove us away. It took us all morning to get back again (metros and bicycles do not mix well). When we found a dodgy hotel and recovered some semblance of calm, we planned our tourist itinerary. Here are the highlights.

Our first stop was the Aya Sofia Museum. It was built by the Byzantines in the 6th century, not by Constantine as I had formerly supposed, but by Justinian. Both men appear in the building: If you look back at the last archway as you exit, these emperors are immortalised in golden mosaic. Constantine on one side offers Jesus the city of Constantinople (held out in his hands), and Justinian offers Jesus the Aya Sofia on the other side.

For almost 1000 years no one could replicate the Aya Sofia's feat of engineering: such an enormous, apparently unsupported space under a dome. The architects, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, were derided at the time for attempting the impossible. Indeed, their dome fell down in an earthquake after 20 years, so the sceptics got their chuckle. But not the last laugh. Isidore's nephew, Isodorus the Younger worked out some new logistics, and Jesus got his Aya Sofia back again.

What I love most about the Aya Sofia, the amazing golden mosaics and the impressive architecture notwithstanding, is the religious tolerance it displays. Well, religious tolerance between Christians and Moslems. (The place was sacked by fellow Christians during the fourth crusade in the 13th century.) When the Ottomans sacked Constantinople in 1453, scimitars swinging, Mehmet the Conqueror hoisted up a few Koranic prayers, repainted the ceiling of the dome with lots of wordy praise to Allah, blocked out all the low-lying Byzantine saints and miscellaneous greybeards, and declared the place a mosque. He did not burn the place down, he did not desecrate it, he simply left the virgin Mary floating in space with little baby Jesus perched on her knee, put Koranic prayers on either side of her, and started praying.

Our next stop was Topkapi Palace, but we spent so long in the Aya Sofia that Topkapi had to wait until the next day. This palace was begun by Mehmet the Conqueror straight after he told everyone to stop calling Constantinople Constantinople and to start calling the place Istanbul. Then all the subsequent sultans added extra rooms, especially in the harem, to show that they had been through. There are four sections in the palace: one for the public, one where the public could meet with the vizier acting on the sultan's behalf, one for the harem, and one reserved solely for the sultan.

All the sections are breathtaking but the harem is the most fascinating. The day-to-day life of all the concubines and the hierarchy amongst them is easy to imagine. The favourite of the sultan often wielded great power, and heads rolled as a result of pillow talk. Roxelana, the concubine/wife of Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century managed to convince her man to kill his competent first born son so that her incompetent son had access to the throne. Then she had him kill his grand vizier for good measure.

The Ottomans were clever: They had so many children by all their concubines that there was plenty of family to defend the empire. On the downside, brothers got suspicious of each other and some were forced to stay in the harem where they grew debauched with so much sex and soft living. A few of these made it to the throne, and then had a large number of people killed randomly, showing that lots of sex does not necessarily equal competent governance.

In sum, there is so much to see and think about in Istanbul, once known as the 'Great City'. Standing on Galata Bridge looking towards the Golden Horn, we thought about the rise and fall of empires. The sheer terror of the Byzantines, knowing that the Ottomans were going to win and sack their beautiful city, the dunbstruck awe of Istanbulites watching the Allied Forces sail quite literally into the centre of town in 1918. So much to Istanbul: a city with layered memories of greatness.

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