Searching for Something #6: Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – Istanbul, Turkey

6: Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

13 Mar 2002
I can’t help but sing that catchy They Might Be Giants song everywhere we go in Istanbul. I think it’s driving Josh crazy, but then and again he’s making gobble-gobble turkey noises just as frequently, so I suppose we’re even.

Istanbul is the only city that spans both Europe and Asia, the two continents separated by the Bosphorus. In addition, the two European banks are split by the Golden Horn.

Looking out over Istanbul’s skyline reminds me of that scene from Star Wars: Episode I, when the camera first pans over Queen Amidala’s city. George Lucas completely ripped off the dome and minaret architecture of mosques here. At night, it’s absolutely beautiful with the city’s many grand mosques lit up, especially in our Sultanhamet area where from one park bench, you can see the Blue Mosque radiating gray-blue and white on the right and Aya Sofia, a former church, then mosque, now museum, glowing warm red to the left. Five times a day, we also hear the muezzin’s prayer call blaring from the loudspeakers of each mosque in the city. It’s a cacophony, but also strangely comforting.

We’ve been through a quick tour of Istanbul’s various palaces and mosques, although some of them have not made so much of an impression on me after the grandeur of the Alhambra. Both the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, however, were breathtaking. When we first saw the Blue Mosque at dusk, we were convinced that the outer dome was a beautiful blue. However, every single time we’ve passed it since, the dome has obstinately remained gray. Pretty amazing how the power of suggestion works.

The inside of the mosque is covered with predominantly blue tiles (hence the name), laid in intricate patterns throughout the great dome. Towards the 4 sides of the domes are stained glass windows in flowered and other symmetrical patterns, all interspersed with golden Arabic script which looks like another beautiful pattern to my eyes. The main dome is surrounded by four half-domes on four sides, and these in turn are each supported by an additional three half-domes.

After viewing the Blue Mosque, we went back to Aya Sofia, which was built a thousand years earlier. At its completion, it was considered the finest cathedral in Europe. It was a marvel of architecture, as the huge dome of Aya Sofia doesn’t rest on any supporting columns. This opens up the vast interior space tremendously. Personally, I suspect that if they remove the network of scaffolding inside the dome, it’d all collapse, but we’ll have to wait a while for that to happen.

Turkish Buses & Pensions

After one hellish overnight bus from Oxford, England to Edinburgh, Scotland many years ago, we had vowed to never again be caught in an overnight bus. But lo and behold, some days ago, we took an 11-hour overnight bus from Istanbul to the city of Selcuk.

This was unavoidable as it saved several days of travel for us… but now I think I might be in love with the Turkish buses. As we entered the bus station office, we were invited to join several men eager to partake of a huge platter of baklava. It was wonderful! Next, they tagged our luggage to make sure that nothing got lost.

Upon boarding the bus, the bus attendant brought around lemon water for each person to wash his/her face. And the service never let up from there. Every so often, bottled water would be served, interspersed with fresh tea. In the morning, we even received cakes and tea for breakfast. There’s even a TV on the bus (I’ve now watched Mr. Bean and Rush Hour – in Turkish). The service was far better than most airlines now offer. The seats were comfy, the people friendly… what more could you ask for? We’ve since taken another overnight bus and frequent day buses.

The hotel offerings for budget travellers in Turkey are also of high quality. Each little place we stay in has a lot of character. There’s usually a comfy common room with a TV (CNN and tapes of old movies), music, book swapping, and other travellers to talk to. Breakfast is also included for many of the hotels. It’s quite similar to staying in a nice and interesting hostel.

Historical Bites
Since Turkey is between Europe and Asia, it’s been invaded by every Eastern power that seeks to expand West, and also every Western power that seeks to expand East. Consequently, we’ve travelling through much of early world history.

We visited Ephesus, a well-preserved Roman city that was a large busy town in its day. It contains a spectacular open amphitheatre that seats 25,000 people, as well as the Temple of Artemis, now in ruins, but once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

We travelled through here with a Finnish guy named Timo, who was a student of history. As we walked through Ephesus, he gave us bits and pieces of the history. The town is mentioned in the Bible as where St. Paul’s Christians vs. the worshipers of Artemis had a brief fracas in the Great Theatre. Paul also wrote a famous Letter to the Ephesians a little later on. It made Roman times quite realistic as we stood in the Great Theatre with Timo translating passages from the Finnish Bible for us.

Another highlight was the town of Pamukkale, which looks like it’s completely covered with snow due to white calcium formations that formed when mineral water flowed through the cliffs, leaving calcium deposits. The Romans used to come here to take the waters, so it really speaks for its continuity that people come here for the same thing today. Unfortunately it is not as spectacular as many pictures I have seen – the area was over-touristed in the 80s and as hotels diverted the mineral water to fill their pools, the natural springs have been drying up.

Finally we went through Cappadocia, a region in the central part of Turkey that contains strange and wonderful shapes, formed from hardened volcanic ash. The volcanoes in this area erupted a long time ago, and the various people of the region realized that they could carve into the soft and porous stone. Consequently, it looks like a surreal moonscape around Cappadocia, with elongated mushroom shapes that are amusingly phallic, tall towers called “fairy chimneys”, and various dwellings carved into cliffs and rocks. We’ve seen monasteries carved out of a cliff as well as various churches with elaborate frescoes painted on the plaster affixed to the stone. There’s also elaborate underground cities, carved 8 or 9 levels-deep into the soil. When the various people of the region were invaded, they would retreat down into the cities and live there for months at a time. The landscape around here has been used in some Star Wars movies as well.

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