Saturday, October 25, 2014

Final Thoughts on Turkey



One of the "bonus" museums we got with our Istanbul museum card was the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam. It gets our award for "Longest Named" museum of our 2014 travel adventure. Although we learned some interesting things, it has few actual artifacts (it's filled instead with replicas and models), and it works too hard to make sure you understand the contribution of Islamic scholars and scientists to mankind's body of knowledge.

Those Islamic contributions are undeniable. Driven by the need to know precise times for prayer and the direction of Mecca, they excelled in astronomy and mathematics centuries before their counterparts in Europe. They built huge and amazingly accurate observatories that were not only functional but artistically beautiful. Extending scientific process into biology (a thought that hadn't yet occurred to anyone in Europe), they made major discoveries in human anatomy, such as mapping the circulatory system. The list goes on, and not only did they make scientific discoveries, they actually applied their findings in inventive technological ways, from early surgical equipment to a steam-powered doner kabob cooker built in the 1500's (you might laugh at its mundane application--or my interest in it--but steam engines didn't hit practical applications in Europe for another 200 years).

If you've ever visited Disney's EPCOT center and taken a ride on Spaceship Earth, you should already be familiar with the impact of Islamic scholarship on world culture. I can still hear Walter Cronkite's voice as we would glide past the smoldering remains of the collapsed Roman empire, "But all is not lost, for Islamic and Jewish scholars continue to preserve ancient wisdom..." But there's unfortunately good reason why this museum is filled with replicas instead of originals: in dozens of cases, the card next to the replica on display would bear the footnote, "Original in London", or "Original in Paris". As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages and finally began catching up to Islamic (and Asian) scholars, they also began exploring the world and bringing those interesting devices back to Europe where many remain today. And all too often, the scholarly research "discovered" during those travels was carried back to Europe, translated from the original Arabic, and credit given to the translator or their European sponsor instead of the original scholar.

As we said, this museum works hard to reclaim a bit of that due credit, to get some well-deserved attention. The same could be said of today's Turkey in general. Their efforts seem to be working: they're basking in top travel list glory at the moment, with Istanbul practically everyone's new "gotta see" destination. Turkey's secular-society / Muslim population balancing act is laudable, and we hope it's as resilient as their economy and democracy seem to be. On the one hand they strive to be European, accepting Euros (and Dollars) as readily as Turkish Lire and setting their work week to Monday through Friday like the Western, Christian world; on the other, reminders of Muslim life are everywhere, from burka-clad women to the sometimes cacophonous calls to prayer to their current President suggesting that women should be required to cover their heads in public.




Whenever we've moved on from one country to the next, often sitting in the airport waiting for our flight out, we usually ask each other, "What did you think of this place?" It's hard to say we "loved" Turkey, the same way we readily said we loved Portugal and Ireland. Turkey is a fascinating and beautiful place, to be sure. We ask then, "Would we come back?" and "Why would we come back?" The answers to these two questions are easier.

We would love to return to Turkey and spend months exploring the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal and island towns of Kos, Fethiye, Antalya, and Alanya. We'd love to visit the ancient biblical towns and ruins like Ephesus, take more gullet cruises, and even travel inland to Cappadocia.

What about Istanbul? We enjoyed this great city, but it will likely be an "opportunity" destination for us for the foreseeable future (meaning we'll come here on our way to or from someplace else). What would bring us back to Istanbul would be either to accompany family or friends who really want to visit, or to fulfill a craving for that wonderful Turkish cuisine.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Istanbul's Archaeology and Mosaic Museums

Assyrian Reliefs: It's Not a Purse, It's Assyrian!

We bought our 3-day Istanbul museum card in part because it gave us access to a couple of the lesser-known, lesser-visited museums in the city. Two of those museums deserve special note: the Archaeology Museum and the Mosaic Museum.

We are archaeology nuts. When we were kids, we both fancied being archaeologists, even before there was an Indiana Jones. So if there's an archaeology museum around, count us in. Istanbul--previously Constantinople and pre-previously Byzantium--is right up there with Rome for archaeological interest. There are sites of importance all over the city.

The Archaeology Museum, nestled in one corner of the Topkapi Palace compound, is itself a compound of three separate museums-within-a-museum: the main archaeology museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Museum of Islamic Art. There are also expansive boneyards of artifacts and remains, even filling the yard of the museum café and spilling out into the area around the museum. Oddly positioned at the end of the Arasta Bazaar, you'll find the Mosaic Museum: a quick tour of an underground excavation exposing floor mosaics that date back to when the city was called Byzantium. Here are a few of the hilites of these museums that most impressed us.

Sarcophagus of Sidamara

Sarcophagus of Sidarma

One of the top draws at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum is a sarcophagus known as the Sarcophagus of Alexander. You'd think it once held the remains of Alexander the Great, or at least someone else named Alexander. But this (allegedly) great sarcophagus is so-called not because of its original occupant but instead because of its exterior decorations. Unfortunately, the famed Alexander sarcophagus was unavailable to us due to construction at the museum when we visited. Instead, we were wowed by this other splendid Sarcophagus of Sidarma, dating from the 3rd century.


Inscription from the Temple in Jerusalem

Inscription from the Temple in Jerusalem

Everyone knows that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD, but it hadn't occurred to us that pieces of it might be spread here and there. In Istanbul's Archaeology museum we found a stone inscription surviving from the temple. It's a warning sign that used to stand outside the entrance to the courtyard of the sacred temple. It reads: "No intruder is allowed in the courtyard and within the wall surrounding the temple. Whoever enters will invite death for himself." We like how no words are minced here.

Ancient Floor in the Mosaic Museum

Mosaic Close-up: Two Dudes on a Camel Roadtrip

Ancient Floors in the Mosaic Museum

Two things stand out when strolling through the mosaic museum: the artistic detail of the mosaics and their sheer extent. The esplanade on display is just a small part of what remains unexcavated a few feet below the areas beneath the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia (perhaps acres), yet what's there is extensive, especially considering the amount of time it took the artists to create these mosaics--all just to decorate the floors--to begin with. These mosaics date to when the city was called Byzantium.

The Kadesh Treaty

The Kadesh Treaty

This treaty, literally written in stone, is the earliest known peace treaty. It ended a war between the Hitites and Egyptians in 1269 BC, when Ramses II was the pharaoh. It was written in the "common tongue" of the day, a language called Akkadian. Several copies were made and distributed (presumably so everyone knew of the peace accord), and three copies survive today: two at the Istanbul museum, one at the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. It's a testament to mankind's desire to achieve peace, but as the peace it created only held for a few years, it's also a testament to how frail peace can be.

Lori and a Column Capital in the Museum "Boneyard"
(Imagine the column this once sat atop)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hagia Sophia: Church, Mosque, Museum

Hagia Sophia

It appears regularly in movies, usually east-meets-west spy thrillers or Dan Brown-esque conspiracies where a certain Christian-Muslim-secular mystery and intrigue is required. The Hagia Sophia is Istanbul's tourist zone bookend to counter the Blue Mosque. As such, it's as equally thronged as the Blue Mosque and the nearby Topkapi Palace. It owes its frequent cinematic backdrop to its intriguing history, which also makes it worth braving the crowds to visit.

Hagia Sophia, sometimes also written Sofia and meaning "Church of Holy Wisdom", was built by the Emperor Justinian in the mid 500's. It was intended to be a grand cathedral for the home of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. It replaced two earlier structures which dated back to the time of Constantine, the first of which was burned down by rioters as a result of a conflict between the Patriarch of the time and the emperor's wife, the second of which was also burned down during a political uprising. Wisely, the third structure was built of stone so still stands today.

Hagia Sophia was a Christian church until 1453. It was the cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople for all of that time except 50 years or so during the early 1200's when it was used as a Roman Catholic cathedral. When the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, they converted the Hagia Sophia to a mosque and renamed the city Istanbul. It operated as a mosque until 1931 when it was closed; it was opened four years later as a museum, which it remains to this day.


That history--as church, mosque, and museum--makes for a fascinating blend. Restorations have uncovered some of the first, earliest Christian motifs: frescoes and mosaics of New Testament figures that were covered for centuries while the structure was used as a mosque. In what is one of the most interesting architectural views in the world, the image of Jesus sitting in Mary's lap is flanked by large Arabic Islamic medallions, the one to the left bearing the name "Mohammed", the one to the right "Allah".

If, like we blogged about a few days ago, Turkey is the east-west crossroads of Christian-Muslim culture, captured in a successful, modern, secular society (that is, by the way, a politically and economically stable democracy), then Hagia Sophia is its epicenter.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Visiting Mosques

With Sunglasses On, She Looks Like Katherine Hepburn

You should have no reservations about entering a mosque, but you should observe some simple, polite etiquette. In many ways, we wish the Christian churches of Europe enforced a similarly high level of decorum that Istanbul's mosques do. There are plenty of guidelines for visiting a mosque in guidebooks and floating around the Internet, but most are checklists that don't actually explain why it is that visitors are doing what they're doing, so here's our spin on how to accept the offer of being a guest in these sacred spaces.

First of all, you should think of these buildings as just that: sacred spaces. They may not be holy to you, but they are to your hosts and it's only polite and respectful to treat them as such. Try not to visit on Fridays and for a half hour or so before and after calls to prayer on any day. While in the mosque, speak softly if at all. Don't point. Don't interrupt or talk to people in prayer or bound for prayer. Stay behind any barriers to separate visitors from people at prayer. Pictures are ok, but turn off your flash, avoid taking direct pictures of people in prayer, and remember that this isn't a photo opp: you're not at the mall or an amusement park, and this isn't a great place for a selfie.

You should dress appropriately for Muslim mores while in a mosque. This means a difference--like it or not--between the way men and women dress. Men should wear long pants (though we saw plenty of men wearing short pants) and remove hats and sunglasses. Women must cover their heads, shoulders, and knees. Lori wore a jacket, pants, and carried a scarf around with her for when we visited a mosque. If you don't meet these standards, don't worry: mosques (at least the big destination mosques) often provide wraps and scarves for you to use.

There are a few special rules about shoes and feet. Neither men nor women wear shoes in the mosque, so you'll have to take them off. It's okay to go barefoot if you're wearing sandals, though you'll probably feel a bit more comfortable wearing socks. As you approach the entrance, you'll likely spot a slightly raised, felt-covered platform just outside the door: it might even have a "no shoes" emblem drawn on it. Find a spot nearby to remove your shoes. If there are shelves and cubbyholes around you, they're for placing your shoes in; if there are plastic bags, place your shoes in a bag and carry them with you (you might find cubbies just inside the mosque to place your bag-o-shoes in). While in the mosque, should you decide to sit on the floor (you'll likely see other people sitting, and it's perfectly acceptable), make sure you don't point your feet--especially the bottoms of your feet--at the wall the Muslims face when they pray; when in doubt, either don't sit or make sure your feet point at the door you came in through.

Some of the areas outside the mosque are considered part of the mosque, i.e. more sacred spaces, the courtyard and gardens in particular. Men and women should use the same dress guidelines here as in the mosque, except that you wear your shoes. Near the entrance of the mosque you'll find fountains. Some are mere pedestals with faucets, some are beautiful marble-domed structures. They are for a Muslim pre-prayer ritual cleansing called ablution, and not for any use by visitors. Watching prayer-goers at ablution is fascinating, but as it's a prayer ritual, it would be incredibly impolite to interrupt someone in the process or to snap their pictures. Simply put, respect their time at prayer and observe silently from a distance.

And for extra credit, learn this simple bit of Arabic: wa aliakum assalam ("WAH uh-LIE-uh-kum AH-suh-lahm). It means, "And peace be upon you". Much like some Christians greet each other with "Peace be with you" and the response "And also with you", Muslims greet others by saying "Peace be upon you" in Arabic: Assalam aliakum (AH-suh-lom uh-LIE-uh-kum). If you're greeted this way and you respond properly, you will earn a smile and a respectful nod.

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?