Down to a sunless sea

Constantine founded the new capital of the Roman Empire in a promontory jutting into the Bosphorus because it could be defended so easily. Draw an iron chain across the Bosphorus and you deny ships access by sea. Build a defensive wall at the western end of the promontory, and you deny access by land. This was impeccable military logic, and it was a thousand years before an enemy could enter the city.

The lack of drinking water did not trouble Roman engineers, who were experts at building networks of the gently sloping aqueducts which would bring water to a city through a system powered only by gravity. While rebuilding Constantine’s city two centuries later, Justinian built huge underground reservoirs to store water even if an enemy could break the aqueducts. The immense cistern (it can store 800 million liters of water) had a water filtration system, and remained in use until late Ottoman times.

We walked across from Sultanahmet square, stood in a short queue, and then walked down the damp and slippery steps to the bottom of the cistern. Fortunately there is anti-skid bump tiling, and railings on the steps. In the past you could take boats through the cistern, but that more romantic custom stopped in 1985. The two Medusa head columns have become minor wishing wells, as you can see from these photos. The vaulted roofs, the dim lights, the occasional sculpted “hen’s eye” columns, all make this piece of Roman engineering a very photogenic place. So it is not a surprise that several movies have been shot here.

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Kabab for lunch

I love to read the general instructions in guide books when I plan to visit a new country. One of the big tips I got before we traveled to Turkey (and one which I forgot until I reached Istanbul) was simple: a kebap restaurant is usually not a take away. The Family and I like to sit down for lunch, even if it is a quick lunch. When we looked for quick bites for lunch and found kebap shops, I finally remembered this piece of information. We loved these kababs, flavourful and low in salt. A typical lunch would be çöp sis kebap or Adana kebap for me, and a tavuk sis kebap for The Family. Often this would come with a salad and bulgur rice on the side, and a basket of nan.

The little shop that you see in the photo above is a typical little kebap shop off Istiklal Caddesi. It was a one man show. The guy whom you see in the pictures ran the shop, We were the only customer in the afternoon, and we took one of the tables downstairs. The man grilled the kebaps after we ordered, and heated up the nan. We could see him do a quick barbecue of the tomato before serving it to us. We loved the food, and liked the service, but we were certain that we were unlikely to come back here. There are many equally charming and good shops scattered around Istanbul. We ate at a new place for lunch every day, and did not regret trying any of them.

Istiklal Caddesi and its art

Istiklal Caddesi. This was the name which I would always think of as essential to Istanbul before I came here. Topkapi palace, Hagia Sophia, the Sulemaniye Mosque, were also-rans in my imagination. My imagination was full of what Nerval, Gautier, and Pamuk had written about Freedom Street. When I first climbed up from the Cihangir district to Istiklal Caddesi, it was everything that I’d hoped for: elegant shops and cafes as well as the charming decay of one of the world’s oldest global cities.

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The street is full of elegant buildings slowly decaying, brought alive today by the vibrant street art that you see in the slideshow above. It was dead at noon on a Monday, and came alive slowly as the day progressed. Istanbul is a party town, and this area is not a bad place to be in.

Aimless wandering

Between spells of rain, we walked aimlessly through the streets of the Eminönü and Fatih districts of Istanbul. Only Rome may come close in the juxtaposition of many different styles of architecture spanning a couple of millennia. Only Kolkata comes close in terms of the astoundingly capable sweet shops at every corner. Nothing matches Istanbul in how laid back businesses are. During a brief rainstorm, when a large number of people rushed into cafes, the service shut down until people left. In other cities cafes might make a windfall (really!) profit serving coffee to cold and damp people.

There are parts of Istanbul where people on the streets are so relaxed and friendly that you are reminded of Porto. Other parts are lined with carpet shops where you might not want to stop to chat with every friendly shopkeeper (although we enjoyed the chat every time we stopped). I have a very small bucket list of places which I want to go back to, and Istanbul is on it.

Fifty shades of blue

The best view of the exterior of the Sultanahmet mosque of Istanbul comes from the south gallery of the Hagia Sophia (featured photo). This is the last of the great works of classical Ottoman architecture, completed in 1617 CE, just at the beginning of the three century long decline of the empire. You can see the main dome and two of the four semi-domes supporting it, as well as several of the lower supporting domes, and four of the six minarets. You can probably see more of the structure from the ground, but then the building looms over you and distorts the perspective of the domes.

This is a working mosque, which means that there is no entry charge, but you have to be dressed appropriately. When we reached the mosque it was time for prayers and tourists were being asked to come back in an hour. That gave us an opportunity to walk along the hippodrome, and walk downhill to see the little Hagia Sophia. When we came back from the charming district of Fatih the gates had opened again. Tourists enter through gate B next to the Hippodrome. You can’t wear shoes into a mosque for a very good reason, but you are handed plastic bags to carry them in. We were happy to see that there is a bag collection point at the exit.

The first view of the inside is stunning. There is a sense of light everywhere which is quite different from the experience of the Hagia Sophia. The classic Ottoman style skillfully blends older Turkish architectural styles with Byzantine to produce a light and soaring architecture. This is a prefiguring of modernity, like the two centuries of Ottoman political dominance in the Eurasian continent. This mosque was built at the precise point in time when Ottoman society could not make a transition from the medieval into the modern. The Ottoman army had been reorganized, the navy had fought down the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, and controlled the spice trade, but the infusion of large volumes of silver from the Americas destabilized the Ottoman economy before a mercantile class could rise.

The incredible tile work of the Sultanahmet mosque gives it the name that tourist guides use: Blue mosque. (In a conversation on a tram I found that Sultanahmet mosque is what Istanbullus say). I would have liked to lie down to look at the ceiling carefully, but that was impossible. We had entered at a time when the interior was really crowded: people were still coming in late to pray but tourists were also inside. The photo above shows the main dome (mainly blue) and the western supporting semi-dome (mainly gold) with a soaring arch between them.

When you look up, it is like falling into a drawing by Escher. The multiple domes and their pendentive arches create a confusion of persepectives, deliciously enhanced by the repeating patterns of tiles. These are hand-painted tiles from Iznik, and I believe that this was the first large-scale use of such tiles. I wonder whether the extreme decorativeness of the interior has anything to do with the fact that the chief architect, Sedefkar Mehmet Aga trained in inlay work before becoming a pupil of Mimar Sinan. Interstingly, this was his first large commission, obtained at the age of 69. He, and his patron sultan Ahmet I, died within a year of completion of the mosque.

I had museum eyes by this time, and could not give this place the attention it deserves. I walked out and sat under a tree waiting for The Family. She managed to take a much more leisurely walk through the interior. I keep missing one of the major things about Turkish mosques, the deeply comfortable carpets needed for prayers. I would not have remembered the glowing red carpet with its interlocking blue and white flowers (notice the tulips among them) if it was not for the photos that she took.

Clouds gathered as I waited. The sporadic rain and shine of the day was building into something dramatic. I was prepared with both a raincoat and an umbrella, and I took them out. The umbrella provided the camera with some protection as I took the photo of dramatic clouds gathering over the mosque. It started pouring within seconds of The Family coming out of the mosque.

We will bury you

After leaving the Hagia Sophia, we walked across an open space towards the Sultanahmet mosque. Amazingly, this space has been open since the founding of the Roman city of Byzantium in 330 CE, when it was called the Augustaeum. Entrance to the mosque was temporarily barred to tourists because it was time for midday prayers. We decided to walk off to one side to see the remains of the ancient hippodrome. Standing just to the east of the now-buried grand palace of the emperors, and west of the Sultanahmet mosque, it is now simply an open space, as you can see from the featured photo.

This late-Ottoman style water fountain at the northern end of the hippodrome was intriguing. It turns out that it is called the German fountain for a good reason. It was financed by the German government to commemorate the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Istanbul in 1898. This was the first thing we saw as we reached the area. We admired the beautiful mosaic work on the inside of the dome before moving on. This juxtaposition of new and old disturbed me, until I realized the tragic hubris behind it; Kaiser is cognate to Caesar, and the same hubris would fester for forty years in a dream of a doomed “thousand year empire”. Planting this fountain here in the center of Constantine’s city must have been a political statement.

At the founding of Constantine’s city, this was the stadium where the emperor watched chariot races along with the rest of the city. It was said to be decorated with statues of the Roman gods, wild animals, and creatures out of legends which were brought from across the empire. Interestingly, in medieval times, after the custom of chariot races had disappeared, this place was still a center of social life, and people began to attribute supernatural powers to these statues. The famous gilded bronze statues of the horses which once stood here were looted by Venetians in the 13th century, and now stand in St. Mark’s square in Venice. Interestingly, this was taken to Paris by Napoleon, and placed atop the arch of the carousel, before being returned after his defeat at Waterloo.

Only three decorations from the early centuries remains in the Hippodrome. One of them is the serpent column which you see in one of the photos above. It was first erected in Delphi to commemorate the Greek victory in 479 BCE over Persia in the Battle of Platea, and brought here around the end of the 4th century CE. It wasn’t erected in a sunken pit though. The pit is part of the normal process of building up a city over centuries. The bottom of the pit is the level of the chariot races of the 4th century CE. The past is always buried under a new layer. We got a better feel of this gradual burial of the past when we walked down a sloping road at the north-eastern end of this vast plaza and passed the curved south wall of the old hippodrome. The second decoration is an obelisk from the Theban temple of Amon, which is one of a pair. One was taken by Constantius in 357 CE to be erected in the Circus Maximum in Rome, the other was brought here by Theodosius in 390 CE (photo above). The third is called the Built Obelisk, and is the one in the foreground of the featured photo. An article by Sarah Guberti Bassett explains very lucidly the symbolism of political power expressed by these.

The Little Hagia Sophia

In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine chronicler Procopius wrote that the little Hagia Sophia (then called the Church of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus) was second only to the Hagia Sophia in beauty. The construction of this church was started in 527 CE, after Justinian I became emperor, and just five years before the center of Constantinople was burnt down in the Nika riots. It was completed just before the Hagia Sophia, and the architects are said to be the same Anthenius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus who are known as the architects of the Hagia Sophia.

Looking at the structure from outside it was clear that it was not quite like the Hagia Sophia. The dome here is not supported by semi-domes (although there are two), but instead rests on an octagonal base, with large windows on alternate sides. Around this central octagonal column there are other structures whose ground plan, taken together, looks roughly like a rectangle. The church was built out of brick and mortar like most Byzantine buildings of its time.

We entered from a little gate in the north-west. The complex has been used as a mosque since the early 16th century. Right in front of us, on the western end of the rectangle, was a little portico and minaret which were clearly later additions. You can see from the photo above, that they are made of stone and not brick. The main prayer was over, and we were free to enter the mosque. A couple of people washed they hands and faces and said a quick prayer without going in.

As I took off my shoes I happened to glance up, and found a glowing painting on the inner curve of the dome atop the portico. The whole inner surface is plastered and painted white, and the colourful design with its three-fold symmetry was quite stunning. When I looked more carefully I saw an interesting play of numbers here: after the three-fold symmetry of the innermost circle was an eleven-fold symmetry of the next. I wonder whether the ratio 11/3 has some mystic significance.

As soon as you enter, your eye is drawn up to dome. This is where the main similarity with the Hagia Sophia is visible: the dome is ribbed and windows are cut into its base. Apparently this reduces the weight of the dome, and is important to making it light enough to span a large space. This was the first Byzantine building we entered after the Hagia Sophia, and the contrast was immense.

Here the multiple windows in this smaller structure gave it a sense of light and airiness, as opposed to the grandeur of Hagia Sophia’s upper reaches rising out of a deep gloom. As you can see from both the featured photo and the one above, the gallery admits as much light as the dome, and the windows at the lowest level also serve to illuminate the interior. I looked at the stone work of the capitals of the pillars, and the bands running around the gallery and they looked almost identical to that in the Hagia Sophia. Not surprising really, since the two were completed almost simultaneously. The same stone masons must have worked on both.

The Family was mesmerized by the blue carpet. Almost all the mosques that we visited had really deep piles, much better than the carpets we’d been shown in shops. The marble columns were very special; the pair that you see in the photo above were made of Synnara marble brought from Anatolia. Behind the minbar you can see an antechamber; below one of the semi-domes. The stairs up to the gallery were barred; perhaps it would open later. But here, I could admire the wonderful woodwork above my head. I think this is Ottoman, like the painted designs on the wall.

There was no one else around; certainly no other tourists. It was amazingly peaceful and calm. I wondered whether at any time in the future it would be possible to strip away at least part of the plaster to reveal the mosaics which had been praised by Procopius. The train line which runs south of here apparently put the structure under great stress; enough that it was put on the list of the hundred most endangered structures. After extensive repairs a few years ago, it was reopened to the public in 2015. I didn’t know that; lucky we didn’t come here four years before!

Meowday

Istanbul is cat city. In 2017 there were 125,000 cats in the streets of Istanbul. I wonder whether the featured cat from Hagia Sophia counts as a street cat. It was proud of being a museum cat, and disdained all tourists. The three in the photo below were not inside a building, so I guess they would certainly count among the 125,000. Unless there are more by now. They are proud street cats, and would not spare a second glance at someone who had no food for them.

There were no signs of the packs of dogs, which, according to Orhan Pamuk, were “mentioned by every Western traveller to pass through Istanbul during the nineteenth century, from Lamartine and Nerval to Mark Twain”, and which “continue to bring drama to the city’s streets.” Instead, there are the cats, bringing a regal touch to the everyday lives of Istanbullus.

The street cats are not the thin uncared-for foragers which you see in Indian cities. Someone has laid out a pallet for this one to sun itself on. Elsewhere, after I took a photo of a cat walking along a wall, a passerby affectionately rubbed its fur, eliciting a purr in response. Istanbul lives at peace with its cats.

Street food on the Halic

The ferry terminal on the Golden Horn may not be the most fashionable place to eat in Istanbul, but it is easily accessible. The double decked Galata bridge has a deck full of restaurants. The punters here were mainly tourists, and the restaurants were beginning to shut down already at 11 at night. Continuing music indicated that at least one bar was planning to keep open later.

We’d spent the evening hopping from place to place tasting wonderful Turkish wines and little eats, otherwise it would have been nice to sit at one of these tables and stare out at the ferries. The atmosphere reminded me of the waterfront eateries on Shamian Island in Guangzhou.

The upper deck of the bridge was lined with people fishing. Those must be really long lines, to reach all the way down to the water. I should have asked one of them how high the bridge is, because I couldn’t find the information any where. It is a bascule bridge, rolling up to let shipping pass below it, but only only traffic here seem to be the ferries, and they are low enough to pass. People with smaller lines were fishing on the waterfront below the bridge. The cheerful candles must have been special to Ramazan.

We stopped to look at a kiosk open for late customers. I love to look at the kind of things that would have stopped me in my tracks when I was a school boy, only now I don’t think of buying them. The silent school kid inside me must be screaming at this betrayal. The young salesman was very friendly and smiled for the camera.

The waterfront is a great place at this time: not too crowded, but there is activity enough to be interesting. Just the place to sit down for a chat. The Family stepped up to the safety wall to check for a place to sit. I was happy to take photos. We walked on.

There was a quiet little party happening on a boat. One person stepped off as we stood nearby. Another couple of friends joined them. It was very casual, quiet, just a small thing after a day’s work. The man fishing nearby was quite sure that the chatter and the lights would not keep the fish away, but I didn’t see him land a catch in the time we stood there.

The ferry terminal was closed, but this man in front of it had a lot of yet unsold mussels. I thought for a moment of trying out one. The Family does not like to risk it. If there had been a crowd around the man it would have reassured me enough to risk it. But with no local around, I was not sure whether fresh catch from the Halic is edible. Maybe it is; Erdogan came to power first as a mayor of Istanbul who promised a clean-up of the Golden Horn.

A cart nearby was selling boiled corn. I’m used to barbecued corn on the cob with lime, salt, and chili flakes. That’s a staple of Indian street food. The boiled variety does not tempt me. Also, I saw no chili flakes. The cart made a pretty picture, though. As pretty, in its way, as the picture of the chap frying fish on a boat. Earlier, we’d seen a bar right up on the terrace of a building looking out to the Halic and Bosphorus. It was time for a nightcap.

People in Hagia Sophia

I wanted a clear and unobstructed photo of the marble door in the south gallery of the Hagia Sophia. This is not easy, because a continuous stream of people go through it. After a long wait I decided that I should be taking photos of tourists instead. In any case, ambush photography is great fun: you take photographs of people who are being photographed by others. The Family and I had an argument a few days before about whether Chinese tourists outnumber everyone else.

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I’m not terribly good at pinpointing nationalities, but by my count about two and a half photos out of the eight in the slide show contain Chinese people. A significantly larger number come from eastern Europe. Add in the west Europeans, Turks, and a smattering of people from across Asia outside of China, and I think you begin to get a picture of where the tourists come from. About half of them take selfies, a fourth have someone else take their photo, and the rest are not interested in their own photos. My survey was interrupted because I was spotted while taking a non-ambush photo. I had to go back to being a tourist interested in the marble door again.