Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Three Mosques of Istanbul

The Nuruosmaniye Mosque

Once we got to Istanbul, it took us a few days to go into a mosque. It wasn't for lack of opportunity: it seems there are as many mosques in Istanbul as there are churches in Rome. We had never set foot in a mosque before, and the abundance of respect we seem to have for sacred spaces (which we blogged about yesterday) worked against us. We ruled out Fridays because it's the Muslim day of prayer, and our first Thursday in the city we bought 3-day museum passes that had to be used before they expired, so it was Monday before we visited our first mosque.

Any trepidation we might have had quickly faded. We found the attendants entirely pleasant, affable, and helpful. Now--like we pointed out yesterday--if only all the visitors were actually respectful. We visited three of Istanbul's top "destination" mosques plus a few others. Here's a quick account of the three mosques in the order we visited them, but if you get to Istanbul be sure to include visits to a few of the smaller mosques too.

The Nuruosmaniye Mosque

(Picture at the top of this blog)

The Nuruosmaniye Mosque was a great first mosque experience for us. It is just to the east end of the Grand Bazaar, so if you visit that Istanbul landmark (and you certainly will) then this beautiful mosque offers a great break from the hustle and bustle of the bazaar. Despite being so close to the throngs of the bazaar, few tourists troop through this mosque, so it manages to retain a quiet, peaceful air.

Sultan Mahmut I ordered its construction in 1748, and it was completed in just 7 years. It has a unique columned half-circle courtyard and two minarets. Mosques are carpeted, and the color and style of the carpet gives the whole space--despite the grandeur of the structure or its decoration--its primary "feel". The Nuruosmaniye's carpet is a pastel blue, and it's wonderfully set off by the white marble and gold-accented walls. The light shining through the windows makes the lampshades in the chandeliers sparkle magically. The Nuruosmaniye Mosque was Lori's favorite.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (nicknamed the "Blue Mosque")

The Massive Columns of the Blue Mosque
We'd like to propose that the nickname of the Blue Mosque be changed to the Red Mosque. There is, in fact, very little of anything blue in this grand mosque, except a single row of blue tiles around the main dome's interior and perhaps a very light blue tint to the exterior stone. We had passed by this mosque several times by the time we actually visited. Sitting at one end of Istanbul's "tourist zone", it attracts massive crowds. We saw lines stretching around two sides of the building, through its garden, and out through the Hippodrome and across the street: rumors had the wait time at three hours. If that were true, we'd likely never set foot in Istanbul's most famous mosque.

But the cruise ships require their passengers back on board around 4pm, so 5pm is a great time to visit. We hadn't planned to visit the afternoon we did, but on our way back to our hotel we noticed there was no line. None. So we went in.

The Blue Mosque, with a Tiny Bit of Actual Blue Around the Dome Above

The Blue Mosque was built by its namesake, Sultan Ahmed I, and completed in 1616 (the neighborhood called Sultanahmet derives from Sultan Ahmed also). It's a huge space set off by six minarets. Legend has it that the Sultan told his architect he wanted gold minarets, but the Turkish word for gold is very similar to the word six. Having an accidental half-dozen minarets might be almost as impressive as having gold minarets.

Even though we didn't have to wait 3 hours to get in, the Blue Mosque was still a busy place, packed with the few fortunate tourists like us who came at the right time. It wasn't our favorite of the three mosques, but it was still well worth the visit.

The Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque is actually the largest mosque in Istanbul. It was commissioned by Sultan Süleyman (known to the world as Süleyman the Magnificent), designed by the prolific and famous architect Sinan, and built in only eight years between 1550 and 1558: when the Ottomans decided to build a mosque, they didn't mess around.

Inside the Süleymaniye Mosque

Sinan designed the mosque with predominantly red decorations which are accented to this day with brilliant red carpet. The space is grand, and being a less-trafficked mosque, it's serene. When we visited, the sun was more directly overhead--not shining directly through any of the windows--which meant that illumination came primarily from the splendid chandelier (which was fully lit as workers replaced bulbs). This was Chuck's favorite of the three big mosques we saw.

At the back of the Süleymaniye Mosque were great informational posters about Islam. Reading them, we were reminded that Muslims--like Jews and Christians--are also the faith descendants of Abraham. It was particularly interesting to read about their views on Jesus: did you know that while they don't believe that Jesus was divine, they do believe He was the Messiah?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Topkapi Palace and Dealing with Crowds

The Topkapi Palace is a sprawling complex that was the royal residence of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years from the mid 1400's to the mid 1800's. Here you will see the opulent, tile-covered residence of the Sultans, the chambers of the harem, fascinating holy relics of Islam, beautiful gardens, and meticulously manicured grounds - that is if you can see any of it through the bajillions of tourists swarming the place.

I know, I know, we too are tourists, so I don't have much room to complain. And I wouldn't, except that it just seems as though so many of all those other tourists are just so darn rude. For example, at the very back of the Topkapi compound can be found a small mosque, and when it was time for the call to prayer the day we visited, an imam emerged at the top of the small minaret and began the call in person (most calls to prayer are done over public address systems). During the calls to prayer, we've tried to be respectful and reverent, but at the Topkapi Palace that day, you'd have thought it was no more than a spectacle to point at, laugh about, and snap pictures of.

The Sultan's Harem; a Rare Picture Absent People

This wasn't a limited incident, by the way. We've witnessed some incredibly disrespectful, insensitive, and downright rude behavior all during our trip. The day before we visited the Topkapi Palace, we went to the Hagia Sofia; I was at the window paying for our audio guide equipment, and a woman literally stepped in front of me to stick her head in the window. And just yesterday at the cathedral in Gloucester, England (as I write this, we're back in the UK) I watched as a young woman mounted the cathedral's altar and actually leaned over the altar table with her arms outstretched so her friend could take a photo. I was about to say something when she caught sight of me and scurried away.

The Topkapi Palace is one of Istanbul's top attractions, so naturally it's going to attract hordes of people mindlessly following their tour guide. It's disheartening to see even a small percentage--which winds up being a large number--completely oblivious to the culture and history of the places they wander through, as if the capital of the Ottoman Empire, or (worse yet) the still-active mosque on the site, are nothing more than an opportunity for a peace-sign bearing photo or a place to check off their bucket list.

So how do we recommend you deal with these sorts of people when traveling? Well, start by trying to avoid them. Ask your hotel or your restaurant servers or fellow travelers what days are best to avoid crowds. Ask what time of day is best. If you don't have any options, go anyway and try to offset the jerks and the twits. Shush people who talk loudly in churches and mosques, admonish them for treating other's sacred and cultural places like dirt (even if they're not sacred to you), and try to enjoy the people watching: there's no telling what you'll see.

1 Packing Solution: Wear Everything You Own, Including 2 Hats

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hagia Irene and the Second Ecumenical Council

Sometimes you visit a place for its beauty, sometimes for its fun, and sometimes for its convenience. And sometimes you visit a place for its history.

When you visit Istanbul, one of the top attractions on your must-see list is the Hagia-Sofia (pronounced HI-ya so-FEE-yuh). We will, of course, blog about this top attraction in due course. Today we're talking about the lesser-known Hagia-Irene.

Like Hagia-Sofia, Hagia-Irene is an ancient Christian church. You'll find it just inside the outer gates of the Topkapi (Sultan's) palace. It is older than the Hagia-Sofia and was commissioned and dedicated by Constantine himself. "Irene" doesn't refer to a saint's name, but instead it means "divine peace"; literally, Hagia-Irene means "church of the divine peace". While it's not as large and impressive, nor as pretty as Hagia-Sofia, an important event in the history of the Christian faith took place here.

We like to think of the history of the church as fluid and consistent, with a (fairly) clean apostolic succession from Saint Peter to Pope Francis, but the truth is that the early church was chaotic and frequently bickering. Bishops exercised nearly complete local power in interpreting scripture and preaching to their flocks, and over the first few centuries of the faith, disputes and differences of opinions naturally cropped up. We know of one such dispute--whether Gentiles could become Christian--from the Acts of the Apostles. Those early bishops didn't have the benefits of modern communications to compare notes, so the only way to resolve their disputes and come to a consensus was to get together in a council (the example having been set in the Acts of the Apostles).

The first such "ecumenical" council was held in Nicaea and achieved the momentous goal of codifying Christianity into a single statement of beliefs, or creed: the Nicene Creed. The second ecumenical council, known as the First Council of Constantinople, was held at Hagia-Irene.

This council of early bishops was called to address a couple of controversies that had arisen in the church. In one case the divinity of Jesus was debated, and in another the divine role of the Holy Spirit was considered. While it's best known as the council to first confirm the divinity of Jesus, because the role of the Holy Spirit was also considered, the complete picture is that it was the council that established the concept of the Holy Trinity.

Within These Walls, the Concept of the Holy Trinity Was Established

Another interesting outcome of the second ecumenical council has had important repercussions through history to today. The council changed the priority of the bishops, with the Bishop of Constantinople achieving second place behind the Bishop of Rome, knocking the Bishops of Antioch and Alexandria out of a privileged position. It was certainly more a political move than a ecclesiastical decree: the new capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) was an important new city to the Roman empire. Doing such, however, served to further drive a wedge between the western, Roman, church and the eastern churches, a wedge which continues to this day.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Bazaars of Istanbul

An Entrance to the Grand Bazaar

One of the most famous attractions of Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar, and it's been at (or near) the top of our wanna-see list for quite some time. It's a sight to behold, to be certain, but Istanbul is brimming with bazaars and markets.

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar

This is the mack-daddy of all bazaars, and not just the bazaars of Istanbul. With more than 5,000 shops in a maze of arch-covered shopping glory, the Grand Bazaar is more a city-within-a-city than a marketplace. It's so large that it's roughly grouped into merchant clusters, with a concentration of jewelry shops here, a group of leather shops there. Even then, the shops spill out of the confines of the covered buildings and into the surrounding streets. We found the antique section particularly interesting, and the shops selling Turkish lamps--those colorful glass mobiles--are wonderfully dispersed around the whole bazaar. There are, naturally, Turkish carpet stores everywhere, so many that you wonder how they can stay in business: there must be a healthy supply of tourists willing to shell out a couple grand or more on those artistic carpets.

Being such a top destination, the Grand Bazaar is jam-packed with tourists and cruise ship groups following guides with signs on sticks or umbrellas held high. In some places, the crowds are shoulder-to-shoulder. And you can tell by the lack of locals that the prices are at touristic premiums. For the sheer frenetics of the place, the hustle-and-bustle of sights and sounds, you can't miss the Grand Bazaar. But if you are looking to actually buy something, keep reading.

An Entrance to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar

The Egyptian Spice Bazaar

Less than half a mile almost due north of the Grand Bazaar, close to the shores of the Bosphorus at the southern landing of the Galata Bridge, you'll find the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. According to Google Maps, and closer to reality, it's simply the Egyptian Bazaar: its specialization as a spice bazaar is long gone.

Spice Vendor at the Egyptian Bazaar

That's not to say there are no spice vendors here: there are in fact, plenty of them. But you can find spice vendors aplenty at any bazaar and spread around the city. Likewise there are lots of carpet, tile, jewelry, and more vendors to be found here as well.

The advantage of the Egyptian Bazaar is that it's a slightly more manageable size--not nearly as easy to get lost in--and one step down the tourist destination lists from the Grand Bazaar. You'd think that would mean less tourists, but we found it as packed here as at the Grand Bazaar, though perhaps with more foodies than tour group shoppers looking for nonexistent deals.

A Fine Alternative Bazaar: Arasta

The Arasta Bazaar

There are, in fact, bazaars all over Istanbul. Unlike the Grand Bazaar, they are usually open air, pedestrian-only stretches lined with the same type of shops you'll find at the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar. Not being on the tour circuit, they are usually--and wonderfully--less trafficked. This actually could be a disadvantage: without the crowds, the store hawkers--those guys tasked with getting you into their stores and spending your money--are more likely to hit you up than in the overcrowded bazaars. But we also found the hawkers in these quieter bazaars more polite and laid-back than their cousins at the Grand Bazaar.

The Wonderfully Quiet Promenade of the Arasta Bazaar

You don't have to go out of your way to find these other bazaars. One such is the Arasta Bazaar. If you come to Istanbul, the Sultanahmet ("Blue") Mosque is going to be on your must-see list, and the Arasta Bazaar is all-too-conveniently located just east of the mosque. It's a single stretch of a hundred or so shops, a quieter, more relaxed experience than the "big" bazaars. Consider spending some time here the same day you visit the Blue Mosque, but as it's in the midst of the Sultanahmet tourist zone, don't expect too much of an improvement on the prices.

Street Shops in Istanbul

Istanbul's Bargain District

For great deals, with prices and bargains that attract the locals, you only have to stroll the streets between the big tourist bazaars. In particular, spend some time in the maze of streets to the south (and up the hill) of the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. If you're coming from the Sultanahmet/Topkapi area, it's the pedestrian-mainly streets (the full concept of "pedestrian-only" doesn't seem to exist in Turkey, so be on guard for cars and scooters weaving through the crowds) a half mile west of the Topkapi Palace and Gulhane Park.

You'll find a totally different vibe here, and you'll feel like you're in a foreign country. People aren't wandering around with cameras and following someone with an umbrella: they know where they're going and they're busy. Men sell snacks from trays they carry on their heads, they push and pull big carts making deliveries, and even carry huge packages on their backs. The hawkers are more likely to chat and joke with you, the food vendors are tasty and quick, and the prices are better than at the bazaars. Chuck bought a tux jacket and pants for less than $100 here.

Delivery Man

The variety of shops doesn't suffer here. You'll still find spice vendors, Turkish lamp shops, silver and jewelry stores, carpet shops, and more, but they're setup to appeal to the locals. And among them you'll also find the kinds of shops that the locals need, like kitchen goods, plumbing supplies, restaurant supplies, underwear and (even) lingerie stores, lace and bridal shops, and children's apparel...that is, if you want your children dressed like little sultans.

Children's Clothing Store, Istanbul Style

Friday, October 17, 2014

Chuck's Turkish Haircut

My "Berber"

I confess. The prospect of going to the barber in Turkey made me a bit uneasy. Walking into a strange shop, where they might not speak my language, and where sharp, pointy things are going to be used in close proximity to my neck and head gave me pause. I wasn't real sure I wanted anyone putting a knife against my cheeks and neck, especially considering what has been going on a little further east of here.

Ah, but logic prevailed: the likelihood that I would randomly encounter a jihadist barber in the resort town of Bodrum seemed so ridiculously remote that I decided to go ahead and get the haircut that I needed. I spied a likely "berber" just around the corner and worked up the nerve to walk in. Having blogged about getting a haircut back in Manchester, UK, I had not intended to blog on this topic again, but the experience was so unique I couldn't resist.

My berber was busy with another customer, so I quickly--nervously--walked in and took a seat. From the comfort and (perceived) safety of my chair in the corner, I sized up my would-be coiffurist. From top to bottom, he wore a pouffy hairdo of thick black concentrated on the top and a bunch in the front, a skin-tight t-shirt, skin-tight blue jeans rolled up at the ankles, and blue denim loafers. Beside him, beneath the counter, slept his dog: a toy poodle at the end of a pink leash.

The likelihood that I would encounter a gay jihadist barber approaching impossibility, I was greatly relaxed. I casually waited my turn.

I had no idea whether he spoke any English, so I carefully planned my contingencies. As I took the chair, I asked, "Do you speak English?" as clearly as I could.

He smiled and shook his head, "No, no English."

No matter, I knew how to get my desires across. As I watched him standing behind me in the mirror, I outlined my face with both hands. "Make me look like...George Clooney."

My joke died an instantaneous death. The crickets were so loud they woke Fluffy the poodle. Apparently I was in the presence of the only (gay) guy in the world who didn't know the name "George Clooney."

For a couple of very awkward moments he had a blank look on his face. Then he said, "Short?"

I nodded. Yes, short. My lesson from this is that the only English any barber in the world really needs to know is "short" or "long", and that a few might not even know who George Clooney is.

For a few minutes, my haircut could have been taking place in El Paso, Texas, Cheyenne, Wyoming, or any number of other manly locations. He dry-clipped my sides, shaping them with Edward Scissorhands-like dexterity. Then he cropped off large chunks from the top, where it tends to get overly thick. He had a quizzical look on his face when it came to my sideburns; I used my fingers to show him where to shorten them. Snip, snip, snip.

Then out came the blade.

Carefully but firmly he carved the rest of my scraggly sideburns off. I had shaved that morning, so there was no need to shave any more, but he amazingly, with a single straight edge, did better, got closer, than the 16-blade Gillette Fusion Pro Maximus Super Ultra Mega cartridge thing I use. He proceeded to the back of my neck where he worked similar magical smoothness and (thankfully) left my head attached. He spray-dampened my hair and thinned it out to desirable dimensions.

Then things got exciting.

Back home barbers ask you if you'd like them to trim your eyebrows. Not so with Turkish barbers. He produced a sharp little pair of scissors, and--snip, snip, snip--knocked my eyebrows back down to normalcy. Then he pushed my nose up against my face and proceeded to trim my nose hairs. Barbers back home never ask to do that. Peeking around his arms, I could see myself in the mirror: I looked like my daughter's pug.

Then things got really exciting.

Breathing through wonderfully unobstructed nostrils, I watched with curiosity as he pulled a small length of wire from his berber's drawer. He opened a little Skoal can, extracted a small red dot, then attached it to the end of the fairly rigid wire.

Then he set the red dot on fire.

I'm sure my eyes were much larger than normal, but I didn't check them in the mirror: they were glued to the little blade of bright blue flame. He pressed my ear flat against my head, and I was imagining a spa-like treatment of gently warming...my ear lobes? Instead, he flicked the little wire against my ear, and with a crackle and a puff of acrid smoke, he BURNED the hair--that nuisance of middle age--out of my ear. As he passed quickly to my other ear, I nervously laughed and said, "I've never seen that before!"

He replied with the extent of his command of English, "Too long," and BURNED the hair out of my other ear. Apparently my middle-aged ear hair was too long for good Turkish tastes.

Honestly, it's the best haircut I've ever shelled out 40 Turkish Lire for. It's certainly the most memorable haircut experience I've ever had.