FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Mosques of Istanbul

Posted in Istanbul, Turkey by folkestonejack on October 11, 2014

I headed out early to visit the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as the Blue Mosque) but clearly not anywhere near early enough! By the time I arrived, at 8.15am, the queue was already around the block. However, once the doors opened the line moved quickly enough. I was inside after just a half hour wait and back outside a few minutes later! In the meantime, the queue had doubled in length…

Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque

Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque

Inside, or outside, this place really imposes itself on any visitor. The exterior view of the seventeenth century mosque with its six minarets is simply stunning, whether viewed from the square or from the courtyard. The interior is equally impressive, featuring 21,000 blue tiles from Iznik and four five metre thick ‘elephant’ pillars. I spent most of the time with my neck craned upwards to better appreciate the ornate designs. As you can only walk within a restricted space the visit itself does not take long, but it certainly delivers in that time!

After leaving the mosque behind, I headed on to Beyasit, to visit an older mosque. The Süleymaniye Mosque (1557) presented a real contrast with barely a soul around, making for an altogether different experience. The decoration is less elaborate than the Blue Mosque, but all the more powerful for its subtle use of colour.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque was founded by Süleyman I, whose reign saw the Ottoman Empire extend as far as it ever would and was widely regarded as a great patron of the arts. It is also the masterpiece of the Imperial architect Sinan who was responsible for 131 mosques during his 98 years. The mosque is at the centre of a historic complex of a hospital, soup kitchen, schools and lodgings which must have made this an incredibly active place at one time. Although these surrounding buildings no longer serve these roles, you get a clear sense of just how large and important the welfare network centred around the mosque was.

Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Rüstem Paşa Mosque

I found my visits to the three mosques quite fascinating and I could easily have spent my time exploring the many other mosques in the city. One of the unexpected pleasures of the trip was the incredible sound of the competing calls to prayer resounding from every direction, particularly as dusk approached.

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Marvel of the Byzantine empire

Posted in Istanbul, Turkey by folkestonejack on October 10, 2014

It’s not hard to see why the Hagia Sophia is so popular as you first enter the nave and begin to appreciate the immense scale of the space in front of you. The vast footprint at ground level is matched by the soaring height of the interior, with the dome sitting above you at an astonishing height of 55.6 metres. Emperor Justinian’s desire for a church to surpass all others certainly delivered a quite remarkable structure.

The Hagia Sophia in late afternoon sunlight

The Hagia Sophia in late afternoon sunlight

The history of the Hagia Sophia is as remarkable as it’s design. The basilica was the largest cathedral in christendom when it was consecrated in December 537 and it retained this status for around 900 years. It was not exactly peaceful throughout, with the church at the centre of battles between the christian forces of the Byzantine empire and the crusaders. The church was desecrated by the soldiers of the fourth crusade during the sack of the city in 1204, looting its treasures/relics and placing a prostitute on the patriarch’s throne.

After the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed the Conqueror (in 1453) the building was converted into a mosque, resulting in the covering up of the most beautiful artistic works of the interior. Nevertheless, the conversion of the church probably ensured its survival through a tumultuous period in history. The mosaics remained hidden beneath the mosque’s white plaster walls until their restoration in the 1930s, including a particularly fine 12th century mosaic depicting Mary and John the Baptist petitioning Jesus for the salvation of humanity.

The central dome

The central dome

Although the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in 1934, there has been much talk about turning it back into a working mosque this year – a suggestion that filled many column inches during the election campaign over the summer and which attracted much popular support. It is a contentious proposal, drawing heavy criticism from the orthodox church and international preservation bodies, but not without precedent – a former byzantine church in Trabzon has followed a similar path.

In Trabzon the re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque has involved covering the frescoes and re-carpeting the floor (see the Economist article Erasing the Christian past). It would be a particularly tricky line to walk in Istanbul, as the Hagia Sophia attracts over 3 million visitors each year and is one of the most popular sights in the city.

A step into the interior of the Hagia Sophia is sufficient to explain why this building is sometimes listed amongst the seven wonders of the ancient world. The uncertainty surrounding its future is a reminder to visit and appreciate such marvels whilst they are open and accessible.

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One day in Istanbul

Posted in Istanbul, Turkey by folkestonejack on October 10, 2014

The duty manager at my hotel was a little incredulous that I had allowed myself just a single day to see Istanbul and quite rightly so, for the city has far too much to offer than can be crammed into twenty four hours. Nevertheless, this was my challenge for the day and I headed out early to make the best of my time.

As my time was limited, I centred my sightseeing on the old city (Sultanahmet) but soon began to appreciate that the challenge was not simply to compress my exploration into a single day but to find a way to avoid the massive queues that would all too easily eat into the little time that I had. A lengthy queue had already formed for the security screening to enter the Topkapi Palace long before it opened, seemingly the combined strength of three cruise ships worth of sightseers!

The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

The first stop on my whistle stop sightseeing tour was the mighty basilica of the Hagia Sophia, the place that I most wanted to visit from the first time I had leafed through the guide books. A monumental structure that has stood the test of time and seen it all, from crusaders to conquerers. The building is undergoing some substantial renovations at the moment, with scaffolding on one side of the interior. Although this was a disappointment in one sense, it was surprisingly helpful in giving a clearer sense of the astonishing dimensions of the structure. You certainly couldn’t begrudge the work as anything that preserves this marvel for future generations has to be welcomed.

The Hagia Sophia has many wonders from mosaics to calligraphic panes but many of these are easily missed if you don’t know where to look. Midway through my visit I saw the crowd gathered around one spot and assumed it must be some particularly fine piece of artistry on the floor that had previously escaped my attention, but instead it turned out to be the mosque moggy! The basilica is probably never quiet during the tourist season, but it can easily absorb the crowds and still seem spacious. If you want to see it at its quietest, the statistics point to January. Without question, it was the highlight of my visit to the city.

The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern

The second stop on my tour was the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici), just over the road from the Hagia Sophia, which was quite a contrast to the soaring spaces of the basilica. This cavernous underground chamber features 336 columns rising out of the water. Visitors thread their way through this space along walkways across the water to the most striking sight – two Medusa heads that have been used as plinths. If you pick the right time it could be the perfect antidote to the crowds above, with a soothing mix of soft music, low lighting and fish. Or, as I found, you can shuffle along and get a fleeting glimpse of the Medusas – though maybe not having the time to stare into their eyes has its plus points!

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace

The security screening queue for Topkapi Palace looked much more reasonable when I made it back into daylight so I headed inside to see the palace that Mehmet II had built after the success of his conquest. It is formed of a series of pavilions, linked by courtyards and gardens, which all reminded me of the Forbidden City. The comparison didn’t end at the layout, for the crowds were a real challenge here too. One of the guards at the treasury thought the answer was to herd people into the rooms, without any regard for the ability to view the exhibits, which was an interesting, if flawed, strategy. Quickly, quickly, inside…

The most interesting part of the palace, to my mind, was the Harem. In part this was a reflection of the significantly reduced visitor numbers (entry to the Harem requires an additional fee) which allowed you more time to appreciate what you were looking at and soak up the story of the palace. However, the most astonishing exhibits await in the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle. I had not fully understood the rather remarkable collection in these rooms, but soon began to see why so many had made the long trip here when faced with Moses’ staff and Mohammed’s robes.

For the next stop on my tour I took the tram to Topkapi (confusingly, ten stops away from Topkapi Palace) to visit Panorama 1453. I can never resist a good panorama (having seen the surviving panoramas in Wrocław, Moscow, Waterloo and Lucerne) so when I discovered there was a modern example in Istanbul it forced its way onto the itinerary as a late addition (courtesy of a model in the Basilica Cistern!).

Panorama 1453

Panorama 1453

Work on Panorama 1453 began in 2005, with 10 painters commissioned to complete a vivid image of the conquest of Constantinople by the army of Sultan Mehmed II. The painting features 10,000 figures and is said to be the first panorama created as a full dome (rather than the usual 360 wrap around the walls). An audio guide is a must as the vast amount of text displayed is entirely in Turkish, but this is no bad thing as the battle sounds and music adds to the overall effect. The museum was heaving when I visited and is clearly a popular visitor attraction amongst Turkish families – all good to see, as many of the panoramas I have visited have been far too quiet. After my short visit I took the opportunity to wander over to the nearby city walls, which are themselves featured in the painting. All in all, it was worth seeing and was a good way to get a quick history lesson on the conquest.

An easy tram ride back to the old city brought me to a much quieter museum focusing on the mosaics from the former Great Palace. This place really is quite remarkable and the mosaics displayed are some of the most astonishing to emerge from antiquity. It may just be the misfortune of this museum to compete with some rather amazing buildings in the near vicinity, but I really don’t know how some reviewers could rate this place as missable.

The Great Palace Mosaic

The Great Palace Mosaic

At the end of the day I took a wander through the old city, taking in some wonderful exterior views of the New Mosque (where new means 1597!) and Rustem Pasa Mosque, sunset over the Bosphorus and the sensory overload of the Spice Market. I then proceeded to display my legendary navigational skills by getting lost amongst the narrow streets of the old city – walking up to the Grand Bazaar and then unintentionally looping back to where I started from!

Ferry across the bosphorus

Ferry across the Bosphorus

It is surprising how much you can achieve in a day, admittedly skipping lunch, but if I had my time in the city again, I would definetly allow a handful of days as a bare minimum to do the city much better justice. If you are stuck with a short visit then the three day museum card is a must, if only to save time by avoiding the long ticket queues.

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Turkish delight

Posted in Istanbul, Turkey by folkestonejack on October 9, 2014

It feels like quite while since I have headed out on my travels to seek out the last remaining survivors of the steam age, but this is something that I am rectifying this week with a trip to Western Turkey to see one of the many kriegsloks that found their way onto the Turkish rail network after the war. I am bookending the week long photo-charter with a dip into the cultural offerings of Istanbul and Antalya.

Destination: Turkey

Destination: Turkey

The flight from London to Istanbul was not especially long, at 3 hours 45 minutes, but not much of the day was left after I had squandered a fair number of hours at the airport. Although I didn’t have great hopes of getting to do much with the day, I still clung on to the possibility of watching the sun set over the Bosphorus until the moment that I turned the corner and first saw the massive queue for passport control at Atatürk Airport! After an hour of shuffling I was finally through with the formalities and once again re-united with my luggage.

On my escape from the airport I grabbed an Istanbulkart (the equivalent to London’s Oyster card) and headed for the metro. It was a relatively easy, if slow, journey from the airport to the Zeytinburnu interchange and then on to Sirkeci by tram. I seemed to have timed my arrival perfectly for the rush hour, so the journey gave me a much more authentic introduction to the hustle and bustle of daily life than I would have liked – though, no worse than any London commute! It was good to reach the calm of my hotel in the heart of the old city.

Window shopping in Istanbul

Window shopping in Istanbul

My journey has effectively taken me from sunrise to sunset, setting me up perfectly for a single day of sightseeing in Istanbul tomorrow. I celebrated my arrival with some of the sweet morsels on offer all along the street outside my hotel. Time for the adventure to begin…