Five hours in Fatih

It was hard to say goodbye to Istanbul. We walked until the last possible minute and left the dealing with fatigue for the flight back to Mumbai.

Constantine’s column

Our last day in Istanbul started with a tram ride down the central axis that Constantine built for his new city: the street once called the Mese, now Yeniçeriler Cadessi.

We hopped off at the stop called Çemberlitaş. The square here is as old as the city; it was part of the Roman forum. The column is Constantine’s column, today called Çemberlitaş, meaning burnt column, The base has been raised over centuries, the old base lies well below the level of today’s ground. The mosque behind it was built by Atik Ali Pasha. The single minaret designates that the Pasha was not of the royal family. The sultan’s family was allowed to put up two minarets in mosques they financed, the sultan would normally use four. There’s a nice hamam right in front of the column, across the square from the mosque. One reason we need to go back to Istanbul is that we didn’t find the time to go to a hamam.

Nurosmaniye mosque

We were at the northern end of the square. At the other end we could see the Nurosmaniye mosque, one of the exemplary Baroque Ottoman mosques, and our second stop for the day.

I should write more about this grand 18th century structure, which may, quite deservedly, be included in the World Heritage list soon. Started in 1748 CE during the reign of sultan Mahmut I and completed seventeen years later in the time of his successor, sultan Osman III, the architect Simeon Kalfa built a structure bathed in light. I should write more about it, but, for completely different reasons, I must repeat the words of Evariste Galois, “Je n’ai pas le temps.”

Grand bazaar

Just outside the mosque was the covered bazaar which is the big destination for tourists. So many carpet sellers in the rest of Turkey had told us that their prices were much lower than we would find in the Grand bazaar, that we were looking forward to it.

The Turkish name, Kapalıçarşı, literally would mean covered bazaar, but grand is a good description. Its construction started immediately after the Turkish victory over the Byzantines in 1453 AD. This area stands just across a hill from the ancient port on the Golden Horn, and the end of what used to be Theodosius’ forum (now Beyazit square). So there must have been ancient market here even earlier. In the 17th century the Ottoman empire controlled trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe, and this market was deemed to be the biggest in the world. It remains picturesque even today. The Family and I could roam through this market for a full day, looking for carpets, ceramics, calligraphy, meerschaum pipes, and even food. So it was hard to walk through quickly in half an hour.

Streets of Fatih

The Beyazit mosque was under repair. On another side of the vast Beyazit square was Istanbul University (which produced two Nobel laureates and the founder of Israel). We walked up to the enormous ceremonial gate (featured photo), then detoured into the used-book market. The only planned stop in our walk after this was the Sulemaniye mosque. The rest of the time was for immersing ourselves into the life of Istanbul.

We walked past a few meyhane. My subconscious went into overdrive and reminded me that the Turkish hane is the cognate of Urdu khana, so meyhane is the same as the Hindi maikhana, a pub. They were closed now. Could it be because of Ramazan? Nerval had come to Istanbul in Ramazan in the 18th century, and described it as a fast and a carnival. We’d expected nights to be livelier than they were. Much has changed in the intervening years. Nerval’s friend, Theophile Gautier, walked through these streets (“labyrinth”, he called it) a few years later, terrified by snarling packs of dogs. The Turkish writers Yahya Kemal and Tanpinar followed in their footsteps in the 20th century and called then “ruined, poor and wretched.” Now, as we proceed beyond the beginning of the 21st century, the area is quite gentrified.

Egyptian bazaar (spice bazaar)

Our final stop was the spice bazaar, behind the in-repair Rustem Pasha mosque. The area outside the covered bazaar was truly a bazaar in the Indian sense; lots of little shops, a huge press of people rushing about, others, like us, holding up traffic by taking photos. But we would be back in such places the very next day, so we passed by familiar pleasures and walked into the Misir çarşısi, ie, the Egyptian bazaar.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Located just behind the New mosque (Yeni cami), the spice bazaar had an astounding variety of things to eat. I was really taken by the balls of nuts held together by a gummy matrix like lokum, and bought a single piece by weight. Istanbullus are like people in any other city; shopkeepers are a little surly when you do things that no local does. But tis man sold me a weirdly small amount of food after a little grumbling. There was a lot of lokum on display, but I’d earmarked a special shop for the sweets I wanted to take back. Did I want rose water, or orange essence? No. “Time to move on”, The Family said. Indeed, we were back in Eminönü after a five hour walk. Time to leave Istanbul.


A book market

The Beyazit Mosque was hidden under scaffolding: more repair work. We went around it, and there, opposite the library, just behind the mosque was Sahaflar Çarşısı. The name means antique market. Does the name refer to the second hand books here, or to the fact that it was reputedly a book market since the Byzantine times? I couldn’t figure that out. The courtyard was a pleasant place to stroll through. Although I read no Turkish, I love to look at books while trying to figure out who buys them.

The Istanbul university occupies the whole area between the Beyazit and Sulemaniye mosques. So most of the people who pass through this lovely arched gate are probably students; there did seem to be an enormous number of textbooks. But there were some who were looking at the books without picking up a single one; probably tourists like us. One gate of the bazaar opens up to the University, but the other stands just outside the Grand bazaar. In any case, it no longer seems to be the haunt of novelists and antiquarians that it was in the early twentieth century.

The fountains and the structures here are not very old. I’d read about a fire here some time in the 1950s, so all this would have been built after that; even the rococo-looking water fountain near the gate. There was a bust on one side which neither The Family nor I remembered to take a photo of. This was of Ibrahim Muteferrika, an Ottoman diplomat, who published the first Turkish book in 1729, a two-volume Arabic-Turkish dictionary.

Stacks of books lay around on the warm stone paving. From what I’d read, there wasn’t a single market place for books in the early Ottoman times. Some shops in this Sahaflar bazaar and several in the Grand bazaar next door would deal in books and manuscripts. They were moved here in the late Ottoman times, perhaps at the beginning of the 20th or the end of the 19th century. The line of Marvel comics here showed a recent interest in the American superhero, probably due to the movies, which have been as big in Turkey as in the rest of the world.

The interest in Tintin and the other French and Belgian comics is much older. Orhan Pamuk, in his book Istanbul, writes “When the first Tintin film was made in Istanbul, a pirate publishing outfit issued a black-and-white comic book called Tintin in Istanbul, the creation of a local cartoonist who mixed his own renderings of various frames from the film with frames from various other Tintin adventures.” I casually flipped through these books. No luck with counterfeits, they were all the usual genuine articles.

Inside the Grand bazaar we’d seen several shops selling calligraphy and paintings, nice, but very ornately framed. Here I stopped at a shop which was clearly geared to the same tourist market (note the books on Turkish food in various foreign languages). I can barely read any Arabic, but one doesn’t need to in order to enjoy Arabic calligraphy. The Family and I lost ourselves in thumbing through the plates, and wondering about the pencils and brushes and inks to be used. We may have spent no more than half an hour in this place, but we carried away very pleasant memories.

Suleyman’s magnificent mosque

Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent commissioned a mosque in 1550 CE, and Mimar Sinan built it on the third hill of Contantinople by 1557. We walked up a steep sloping path from the street gate into a large courtyard, green with grass, shaded by trees, overlooking the Halic (Golden Horn). It is a beautiful view. From below, the skyline is dominated by the domes and minarets of this mosque, and I should have expected this breahtaking view. What I could not have anticipated is the calm of the complex.

It is hard to get a good view of the totality of the mosque from nearby; you have to be at the Golden Horn (Halic) to get a good photo. Perhaps the best view from inside it in the fore-court, with its fountain and peristyle. The taller pair of minarets, 76 meters high, are then visible (photo above) flanking the 26.5 meters wide main dome. You can see two wires strung between the minarets. Between them they carry bulbs which spell out messages for the month of Ramazan. The extreme foreshortening in this view prevents you from seeing the supporting semi-domes on the east and west, and the tympanum arches on the north and south.

The inside was full of light from the windows on the qiblah wall, in the domes and in the tympanum arches. It is here that I understoood the smart design involved in moving the tympanum out to the exterior; it can then be pierced by windows which let in light. The large crowds inside produced a hushed sound, indicating that the acoustics of the place is deliberately designed. Apparently part of the clever architecture is the carving of resonant cavities into the stone blocks used in the main dome. I understand that water reservoirs were cut into the hill below the mosque to supply the neighbourhood, and to provide climate control inside by recirculating hot water from the hamam under the floor of the mosque. When I visit it again, this is something I would love to see. One of Sinan’s innovations was to incorporate the buttresses into the interior, to preserve the harmonious external appearance of the mosque. You can see them on the edges of the photo above. The minbar is pushed towards the central mihrab to accommodate this, and the back wall pushed outwards by a meter.

The interior decoration is not as overwhelming as in the Sultanahmet mosque. There use of handpainted Iznik tiles is muted. In the photo above you see one of the largest areas covered with tiles. Apparently the red colour was an innovation made for the use of this mosque. I could not see any way of getting up the upper baclonies. Perhaps you need to take special permission to go up there. Looking up from near the chimney over the central door I took the featured photo. You can see the many different sizes of domes used in this structure.

The stained glass in the windows on the qibla wall glowed with light. Although the sun had already moved west past the zenith, it was a bright and clear day outside. The Ottoman state had a ministry called the Nakshane whose job it was to promote the fine arts. The continuous development of new hues in Iznik pottery is partly due to its investments. Little has been written about Ottoman stained glass, except for a description of the windows installed in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem during Suleyman’s time.

Archaeological evidence has been obtained for the extensive use of coloured glass in Umayyad palaces in the 8th century CE. A glass lamp is apparently mentioned in the Quran, and there is extensive writing about coloured glass in the court of Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad in the 10th century CE. In any case, this window glass is unlikely to be from the 16th century, because of several large fires and earthquakes. The inscription above the main gate to the courtyard (photo above), however, is likely to be original and gas coloured glass embedded into the stone.

The Family and I could tear ourselves away from the mosque with great difficulty. I was sure that there was much we had missed because of the lack of writing about the structure. Since this is a working mosque, there are no tickets, and no one has bothered to put together an audio guide. It is also impossible for tourists to come here during prayers, and therefore it is impossible to experience the acoustics. The Family was lost in admiration of the decorations on the facade. I had not noticed earlier the maqrana vault that you can see in the photo above, or the round glass pieces in the windows which, through lensing, served to control the amount of light available inside the mosque. We were not the only tourists lost in admiration of Sinan’s masterpiece.

The outer courtyard is also magnificent, with an incredible view of the Halic and the Bosphorus. We did not have the time to explore the whole complex, with its hospital, the hamam, the medrese, and the public kitchen which is now a restaurant. However, we did want to see the mausoleum to sultan Suleyman and his family. Unfortunately the tombs were closed. We peered in through a window to get a restricted view of an incredibly decorative interior, which we have to go back to see.

Turkish Street Furniture

You might not be surprised by Istanbul’s charm. A little square between buildings in Fatih with a swing and a teeter-totter makes a decent playground for the neighbourhood’s children. A few benches are scattered around for parents who are too tired to stand. And someone has painted a cheerful canary on the blue wall of one of the buildings which encloses the area. Charming? Sure. Surprising? No.

But in Galatasaray, two dolphins rearing up on their tails holding telephones in their plastic bellies is a touch of whimsy that one does not anticipate. We’d watched dolphins fishing in the Golden Horn. Here, a kilometer or two away, a telephone company had decided to use them as a symbol. Nice thinking.

Between the two, in the Eminönü district, a tap at the German fountain still works. Tourists and locals drink the water it dispenses. There is no sign saying which sultan had it placed here, but supplying potable water to citizens was a task that the Roman empire took very seriously, where in its first capital, or in the successor capital, Constantinople. We asked the locals about the tap water. They do not recommend it to tourists, but they drink it themselves. So we followed their example now and then, without getting into trouble.

On our drive through the town of Selçuk we saw an avenue lined with lions. This was quite surprising, and I hopped off the car to take a quick photo. I haven’t come across a description of this before, nor an explanation. Is it recent? Not recent enough for it to be made of concrete poured into moulds. The columns were made of stone. Sometime, somewhere I suppose I will eventually find the history of these lions standing on two paws.

Seats and water fountains are probably as ancient as the very notion of a city. Telephones have had their day, and phone booths are now quaint reminders of the twentieth century. It was comforting to walk by the Halic and see a line of ATMs waiting patiently. I didn’t have to use them, but after spending a week wandering through Anatolia, it was nice to be reminded that one was back in a city.

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.

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!