Saturday, October 13, 2007

Surprise, shock, dissapointment, amazement and awe in Istanbul

Yesterday we visited two of the most famous sites in Istanbul: the "Aya Sofya Muzesi" and the "Sultanahmet Camii". I had much anticipated seeing the first of these historic places because I had been told of its grandeur by many people in my family who had visited it, in fact, one of my dear cousins had told me that she was left speechless upon stepping foot in this former "grandest church in the world" built in 532 AD, which was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in 1453 and then declared a museum in the 1930s by the beloved Turkish leader Ataturk. Well, I must say that I too was rendered speechless but for different reasons. Even before entering this grandest of buildings I was surprised by the state of disrepair of its exterior, chipped "barely there" red paint and discolored walls, but even that is nothing compared to what I saw inside! The interior of this relic is now in my opinion, in complete ruins compared to its former grandeur. The walls are covered with decades of grime making the dulled marble difficult to identify as such, and the Ottoman layer of plaster is equally decayed to say nothing of the bent and dulled chandeliers that are so abandoned only a handful of them are even in working order. The only things that are remotely maintained in this "museum" are the parts of mosaics that have been uncovered since the 1930s under the plaster. Perhaps because I had such high expectations I felt as empty as the Sofya as I walked inside it. It is noterworthy to say that the Aya Sophya is empty of life and soul, but not empty of bodies as it is the most visited tourist site in Istanbul, and at 10YTL per person, one really has to wonder where the money is going since the only sign of work or restorations being done is the ever-present scaffolding in the middle of the building.

The wondering about where the profits from Aya Sophya are going was short-lived as the mystery seemed to be solved when we visited the Blue Mosque. This Muslim holy site that is still a place of worship is as grand and impressive as it is clean and well maintained. The lush red carpet looks and feels brand new and the famous tiled walls look as bright as if the blue hued tile patterns had been baked in just the other day. In complete contrast to Aya Sophya where I could not even muster a tiny prayer, in this holy place not of my religion, I wanted to kneel down and pray all afternoon.

Today we walked over to Sultanahmet again, this time to spend the afternoon in Topkapi Palace, the grand former home of the Sultans. This huge complex includes many gardens, houses, a humongous kitchen where it was not unusual for the staff to prepare meals to feed 1200 hungry guests, stables, a church, and the 400 room harem where some of the sultan's family and his consorts and concubines and were housed. By a stroke of luck, as we were walking up to the ticket booth to pay our 10ytl each we were approached by three young men of apparent Turkish descent who handed Kevin two free entrance tickets. In addition to visiting most of the sites in the complex, we also walked through four treasury rooms housing the most impressive collection of jewels and jeweled items I have EVER laid eyes on, including an 86 carat diamond, a mother-of-pearl encrusted throne, and two 86lbs solid gold candlesticks encrusted with over 1000 diamonds each!!!! Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed, but really who has time to take pictures when one is busy wiping drool from the sides of one's mouth. There were enough golf-ball sized emeralds and rubies and diamonds throughout the collection to fill a whirlpool and take the most luscious and luxurious bath of all time. This place made me happy, oh so happy and I didn't even feel any guilt about it.

The Harem was a different story. As I walked through the many small rooms, narrow halls and enclosed courtyards of this vast edifice I could feel the sense of incarceration that the concubines may have felt at being destined to a life of confinement. The "queen mother's" and sultan's bathrooms are magnificent odes to white marble and gold leaf, many walls are covered in ornate tiles of many rich colors and intricate patterns and the prince's rooms and main hall are grand affairs with stained glass vitrines and fine upholstered furniture and plush pillows. However, even in the most beautiful of guilded cages, the lovely bird cannot feel free and when it sings it's song is sad, empty and soulless though it may sound lovely to its audience. As melodramatic as it may sound, I found it very appropriate that it was raining when we left harem, as if its former inhabitants were trying to tell me that the sadness I perceived within some of its walls had been a truth.