Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Talking Turkey

Spice Market
My friend and I did manage to fit in a bit of sightseeing amongst our Grand Bazaar obsession. We walked around the Old Town, had an all too brief visit to the Spice Market (just as fascinating as it sounds), and hit the top spots of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.

Interior of the Blue Mosque
Many of the mosques are open to visitors as long as it's not prayer time. We had a fantastic habit of arriving at the mosque just as the Closed sign was being set out, so we ended up visiting only a couple.The Blue Mosque is actually the Sultan Ahmed Mosque...but there are loads of blue tiles decorating the interior, so it's more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. All over Istanbul, the tile work is simply stunning. Mosque interiors are no exception. Since living in Italy, we're quite familiar with the protocol of covering knees and shoulders and had dressed accordingly. In the Blue Mosque, however, we had to cover up completely with scarves we had in our purses as well as loaner scarves - we had loaner scarves tied around our waists that fell to our feet, scarves tied around our necks to cover our arms all the way to the wrists and scarves over the head as well. While the coverings worn by some Muslim women are quite beautiful, we looked like peasant women in from the fields for a day in the Big City. It was wall to wall crowds and stifling hot, so we spent all of about 8 minutes taking in the beautiful interior before escaping to the fresh air.

Hagia Sophia
Interior of Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia, built around 350 (although the current structure was built in the 500s), was an Orthodox basilica for 900 years. In the 1200s, it became a Catholic cathedral, then went back to being Orthodox until the mid-1400s, when it became a mosque and was in use for the next 500 years or so. In the 1930s, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum, which is what it is today. Although it's not a museum as we'd think of one, but basically just an empty building one can walk around and enjoy the decorations. When it was converted to a mosque, it became the model of architecture for many other mosques, which I found to be a fascinating tidbit. And makes me wonder how the cathedral architecture of the 1200s and on in Europe diverged from these earlier, Christian churches.

We also visited the Cistern...actually one of hundreds of cisterns that are underneath the city, but this one is one of the largest. If you've read my post on the Piscine Mirabile, a cistern not too far from our house and serving the ancient, Roman cities in our area, then Istanbul's cistern looked much the same, only about four times bigger. There are walkways that held us above the water covering the floor (in which there are fish!) and led to the Medusa heads. In the back of the cistern are two Medusa heads turned on the side and upside down, respectively, and holding up columns. There is no definitive reason as to why the Medusa heads are there and why they are not right side up, but today, they make for interesting photos.
The Cistern

Absolutely amazing tile work everywhere we looked

And our final tourist site was a visit to Topkapi Palace, where mainly, we wanted to go to the Harem. I found out, much to my surprise, that the Harem is not what we think it is. While the Harem is where the women of the Palace lived, as well as the Sultan himself and the children of the palace, the Sultan did not have "access" to all of the concubines. In fact, for the most part, his mother ruled over the Harem. She and his Senior Wife picked his other wives or concubines, and the Sultan was allowed to have no more than five women with whom he could have relations. Since getting and then holding onto power was key, imagine the women the Mother and Senior Wife would pick...and what a backstabbing place to live the Harem must have been. We focused on the Harem, and the incredible tile work that covers every wall, and then hurried through the rest of the palace...and then returned the Grand Bazaar. That may sound shallow, but I've written in numerous posts about how my travel focus has changed. And for my friend, to an extent, as well. We get to see things like churches and palaces and castles all the time, and while each one is still special and still exciting to have the opportunity to visit, the pressure is gone to explore every bit of it and really make sure we're wringing out every last drop of the visit. We can visit a top attraction, take a look see, and head on, still feeling that we enjoyed the site. And for us, the Grand Bazaar was a much more exotic and unique attraction. Which is why you got a whole post on the Grand Bazaar, while all this other stuff is lumped together.


  1. Sorry to get so personal on a public post, but if the Sultan was only allowed to have relations with 5 of his "wives," what was the purpose of the others? Was that 5 at a time, or what? I mean, I'm guessing he had plenty of servants to do everything else, so just curious as to what being a "wife" meant.

    1. Well the women weren't always his wives. He had a Senior Wife, but his Mother had to agree if he wished to take another wife. He was allowed to have relations with up to five women (including the senior wife), but the others could have just been concubines, not wives. Other women in the harem were his daughters and servant women of the harem. Concubines in the harem would have been beautiful slaves or beautiful daughters sent as "gifts" in hopes that they would be picked as a favorite, thus gaining power. I have also read some differing accounts in saying that the Sultan was allowed up to five wives, but an unlimited number of concubines, which fits what we Americans think of as a harem, but what I learned in Istanbul was that the harem was quite a different place than what we'd thought...and that the Sultan was basically ruled by his Mommy (including in governing and politics). I'm assuming what I learned in Istanbul is the more correct version.