First, I want to give an update on Jen & Dave who are very grateful for everyone’s thoughts and prayers. Dave is out of ICU but still in the hospital. His kidneys are still not functioning, but he’s feeling a bit better than earlier in the week.
We met our tour guide, Safiye, at Sultanahmet Mosque, on Thursday, October 16. After touring there, we walked to the Hagia Sophia, the Underground Cistern, and Topkapi Palace with lunch in between.
Sultanahmet Mosque aka Blue Mosque with Safiye
Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”), built in 537 as an Eastern Orthodox basilica during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, was turned into a mosque (“camii” in Turkish) by the Ottomans when they conquered Constantinople in 1453. When the Republic of Turkey was established in the 1920’s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secularization and modernization of the country included turning this landmark into a museum. The building’s changing and fascinating history is on display at every turn. Christian mosaics appear next to Arabic script and Ottoman art. Museum workers are now using scaffolding to prop up the ceiling which is cracking from centuries of earthquakes as well as scraping the plaster off some of the walls to reveal more of the ancient Christian mosaics. The mosaics do not date back to the church’s origins since Christianity went through a period of Iconoclasm in which such artwork was frowned upon. When that period ended, artwork including images – of the Holy Family or other saints – was again permitted in churches, and the Hagia Sophia’s walls were again covered in beautiful mosaics. Islam does not allow images in houses of worship and plastered over most of the artwork. Now in its museum stage, the Christian and Muslim histories are both evident.
Topkapi Palace was used by the Ottoman sultans for centuries before Dolmabahçe Palace was built in the 1800’s. We were only allowed in the enormous kitchen (At times, the palace was home to thousands of people which required a whole lot of cooking.) where no photography was permitted. We saw displays of some of the many beautiful sets of China dishes they used there as well as gorgeous jewels, including the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond.
The cistern was my favorite, as strange as that may sound. I read Dan Brown’s Inferno a few months ago, part of which is set there. I asked Safiye why the Romans built such a beautiful place just to store water. Did it used to be something else? “No,” she shrugged. “They just enjoyed the beauty of it.” The Underground Cistern is a popular tourist attraction (as is everything we toured) but was still almost mystical in the experience. It is only dimly lit and there is haunting, lovely music playing softly. The pillars and the Medusa heads were taken from ruins of other buildings in various parts of the Roman Empire.
We ended the tour at the site of the ancient Hippodrome where the Byzantines held horse races. All that remains now is a couple obelisks, one a gift from the Egyptians.