Hagia Sophia: A Treasure in Istanbul

It took us a couple days before finally getting to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, but oh! what an amazing place! In a way, I guess I’m glad we did this on our last full day in the city, because if we had seen it first it might have made everything that came after it seem less exciting. The Hagia Sophia as it stands now was built in the year 537, but it’s the third structure to stand in that location. (The first two were burned to the ground in riots.) Built as a Greek Orthodox church, it was converted into a mosque during Ottoman rule in 1453. Now it is officially a museum. A slew of restoration projects over many years have once again revealed some of the Christian imagery that was painted or plastered over when it became a mosque, but living in the same space still are the names of prophets written in Arabic calligraphy. (It strikes me as an important message in today’s world for evidence of these two faiths to live side-by-side like this under one roof.) The sanctuary inside is enormous, beautifully constructed of marble and stone, with seemingly no surface untouched by decorative details like painted patterns or incredible mosaic frescos made with gold tiles. Certainly pictures could not fully do this place justice!

Istanbul510 Upon entering, we were greeted by a set of these rather imposing looking doors. They actually predate the current structure, and are too tall for the doorway they are in so they are built into the floor and cannot be closed.Istanbul512 Immediately, the pattern and detail begins in the first hallway.Istanbul515 At the end of this entrance hallway we saw our first mocaic, a scene of Emporer Justinian gifting the Hagia Sophia to the Christ Child. Istanbul517On the interior dorrs, you can still see markings where the cross was removed and replaced instead with this arrow-like symbol often seen in the Muslim faith.
Istanbul520 Sometimes it was difficult to discern which details were painted and which were mosaic, because of the attention paid to detail in the design.Istanbul522The first time you step into the sanctuary, it’s admittedly a little overwhelming! The space is several stories tall, the dome gilt with gold leaf. The flowers in the four corners around the dome were revealed in a recent restoration project to be covering images of angels from the days when it was a church. You can see the face of one that was recovered in the lower left-hand flower. (In the Muslim religion, no pictorial depictions are allowed, which is why the preferred decoration in mosques has more to do with pattern and calligraphy. All images in the sanctuary were covered over with paint and/or plaster when it was converted to a mosque.)
Istanbul523Incredible amounts of beautiful marble can be found all over, on walls, floors, columns, you name it. Much of it had been imported from Egypt at the time the Hagia Sophia was built, and some marble types were rare even then.
Istanbul530 Each column is topped with some of the finest carvings I’ve ever seen. It all seems so finely detailed, and perfectly executed. Istanbul531 Istanbul536 This tile mosaic of the Madonna and Christ Child had been covered with plaster before the restoration projects began. Istanbul546 All of the corridors have high ceilings and low-hanging chandeliers, which used to be candle-lit and needed to be close to the ground so they could be reached easily. And while the more modern lighting throughout the entire building was certainly helpful, there was plenty of natural lighting flooding in through large windows and skylights.Istanbul550 Istanbul551 In order to get up t the second level of the sanctuary, we used a dark, undecorated corridor and system of ramps, which were apparently used during construction for pushing, dragging, or rolling materials to the upper levels.Istanbul554 Istanbul590 The sheer size of the space was even more apparent from above, where we could see how small the people below seemed. Istanbul561 Sadly in the years before the Hagia Sophia had proper protection as a museum, people would take the little tiles that made up the mosaics as souvenirs, so many of the frescos are missing the tiles that could be easily reached. Now of course there are security personnel to make sure no one gets too close to these. Istanbul562 But look at the incredible detail! Rosey cheeks, the shading of the beard, the folds in the clothing. Unbelievable! This is as detailed as any painting by one of the masters, but  this is made of tiles. We took our time browsing and taking in all of the mosaics on the second level. Istanbul564 Istanbul574 Istanbul578On the second level, we found this pattern, which we didn’t seem to come across on the ground level. It’s much darker than a lot of what we saw elsewhere.Istanbul570 Also, it was a treat being so much closer to the details on the ceiling of the sanctuary. (And there’s that previously hidden angel again!)Istanbul572 Istanbul589 We even found this little corridor of Iznik tiles, a signature of Turkey.Istanbul591 Back down on the ground level we snapped a few more pictures of this incredible space. Istanbul600 Towering marble columns were on all sides.Istanbul601 Istanbul606 Istanbul616

After one last look up in the sanctuary…Istanbul611…and one last look at the beautiful ceiling patterns in the corridors…Istanbul602 Istanbul603 …we got a glimpse at the few remaining artifacts from the previous structure that this Hagia Sophia had replaced. This was all that was left after it burned down, but it is so important to acknowledge this as part of the history of this place. Istanbul619What do you think of all the detail in this nearly millenium-old place?

Istanbul: An Honest City

During our short time in Istanbul, it occurred to me how honest the city as a whole is. What do I mean by that? Well, everything in the city seems to be exactly what it is, with no efforts to mask it or make something be any different cosmetically than whatever it already is. There are buildings as old as the year 500 and buildings as new as just a couple years old sitting happily side by side, with no attempt to make one look like the other. Some buildings are even dilapidated or abandoned right in the middle of a high traffic and otherwise well maintained area. Even the new storefronts added to old buildings are built with the style sense of the time in which they were built, so that walking around you can see additions from the 1940’s, -70’s, or -90’s among original and new buildings. I love this about Istanbul, especially in contrast to a place like Los Angeles where sometimes it seems everything has a facade to make it appear to be different than it actually is (not unlike a movie set).

Our first impressions of the city were from the rooftop of the building where we rented our Homeaway apartment. We were practically next door to Galata Tower, and could see it clearly over the nearby buildings.

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Istanbul struck me as a crowded city with little park space for its size, so it was not surprising that people had added greenery on rooftops and patios wherever they could find space.
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Looking out at the sprawl, it seems old, new, and a little gritty. And I will admit, I hadn’t thought much about air quality before we got there, but there was a noticeable amount of exhaust in the air. Istanbul018

Near our apartment, we came across this car. It seemed to fit in quite naturally with the cobblestone streets.Istanbul027

With little sidewalk space and extremely narrow streets, I was surprised at how easily people and cars were able to manuver around each other. With little need for car horns, people would part to allow the cars to come through, and then fill in the road again once it had passed. Both pedestrian and driver were aware of each other and their surroundings, and with a little patience could work together to allow passage.

Istanbul030 Some of the streets were so narrow it was hard to imagine a car would even fit, presumably a result of the original city being built long before cars and the subsequent sprawl that came after. But somehow it worked, and the cars got through. (No huge SUV’s here!)

Istanbul671 It was not uncommon to see the Turkish flag flying, or even a flag for Istanbul. It struck me that people were proud of their home.Istanbul040 And perhaps even more frequently than the Turkish flag, we came across buildings that were no longer fit for use, just left to breakdown right in the middle of the city’s commerce.

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This one struck us as particularly interesting. We could still see the decorative paper on the ceiling and even though it was falling down, I could almost imagine what it must have been like inside in the 1800’s. Istanbul289

Some of our favorite moments were while wandering off the beaten path, just exploring the lesser travelled pockets of the city.Istanbul413

This woman happily posed for a photo, and then immediately ran inside to tell whoever was in the house with her. We couldn’t understand her Turkish, but we heard her excitedly saying “California” to her family inside. Maybe we’ll be able to return one day with a copy of the picture for her.Istanbul414

Closer to the more tourist-travelled parts of town, I notice the colors of the buildings became much more vibrant.Istanbul293

Some of the greenery in the area seemed to have been there forever, like these trees that almost seems to grow right out of the sidewalk.Istanbul424

Roman structures still stand in the middle of the city.Istanbul080

And of course, let’s not forget the Hagia Sophia, which was built in the year 537 and was the third structure to stand here. It was a church first, then was converted to a mosque. Now it’s a museum where both Christian and Muslim symbology are displayed side by side. (More on the Hagia Sophia on Thursday!)Istanbul509

And right across the park is the Blue Mosque, built in 1616.Istanbul511

On more than one occasion we came across chickens like these, which belonged to someone nearby and were presumably used for eggs and food. Istanbul104

And there were loads of stray cats around the city. It seemed that the people take pretty good care of the feral cats in the area. Frequently we would see food left out for them, and the adult cats all seemed very healthy (although they definitely looked more like wild cats than the domestic kitties I’m more familiar with).Istanbul291

Every bridge we crossed over was heavily lined with fishermen. They seemed to just camp out for most of the day trying to catch whatever they could.Istanbul064

And there were always men pushing carts around the city selling baked goods or cooked meats.Istanbul071

Day and night.Istanbul263

At night there seemed to be another world of commerce altogether. Individuals selling all sorts of food and goods anywhere where they could find an open enough space to do so.Istanbul258

We drank loads of Turkish coffee, which is offered after every meal. I loved that this cup embraced the beautiful patterns seen all over Turkey. They do patterns so well in this part of the world!

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We drank loads of Turkish tea, also offered after every meal, as a social drink, and even in some shops while you’re looking around. Istanbul493

We played backgammon, and smoked shisha. (It’s just tobacco folks, don’t get too excited.) Both are traditional middle-eastern pastimes that we found incredibly relaxing after a long day of walking around.Istanbul630Cafes seemed to pop up out of nowhere sometimes. This one was in a small, open area and even had tables set up on tiers that looked more suited as a mini amphitheater. Vines had made their way up over the electrical wires and seemed to have been there for years. (We saw this often around the city, and sometimes they were even grape vines!)Istanbul497

Istanbul is also home to Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. It has been restored to its original glory, including these fabulous skylights and decorative details.

Istanbul673 This cabinet, made of wood and inlaid mother of pearl, houses original copies of all sorts of great classic books by Christie, Hemmingway, and more.Istanbul677

Even the apartment we stayed in held true to its original history. While I don’t know the exact age of the building, the walls were clearly original construction, the bathroom  and kitchen seemed to be afterthoughts (presumably because running water and electricity came well after the building was built), and winding staircase leading up to our 2nd floor apartment had marble steps that had been worn down so much over the years that they seemed to bow, and the edges had rounded over, so that we really had to be careful not to slip coming down the stairs.Istanbul506 The shop owners in the area were so proud of their businesses. (This one was my favorite!)Istanbul686 People walked down the area’s pedestrian street, Istiklal Avenue, even early in the morning before most of the shops had opened.Istanbul681Because of the timing of our trip with the beginning of the protests against Turkey’s Prime Minister, we encountered a few peaceful marches. These people made themselves known by chanting and shouting their cause.
Istanbul035 This one held us up for about 20 minutes on our way to the airport as we were leaving Istanbul. This was the day after they had received union support, and another 240,000 people for their cause. These were happening all over the city that day.Istanbul690 Istanbul692And the views of Istanbul were dreamlike in the evenings. There was a whole level of activity that started aorund the city once the sun went down. And with the glow of the lit-up mosques and the sounds of the call to prayer, it was somehow peaceful, even among such a crowded, bustling city.

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What are your thoughts or impressions on Istanbul?

This Week I Loved… Travel Edition: Turkey

(aka This Week in Turkey We Hope To Have Seen…)

The Blue Mosque (Photo Credit – http://www.bestourism.com)

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Hagia Sofia (Photo Credit – http://istanbulvisions.com)

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Spice bazaar (Photo Credit – http://commons.wikimedia.org)
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The Bosphorus (Photo Credit – http://www.turkeyvacationplaces.com)
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Hot Air Balloons (Photo Credit – http://www.travelpackagesturkey.com)
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Underground Cities (Photo Credit – http://cappadociaturkey.travel)
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Star Cave Hotel (Photo Credit – http://www.cappadociatoursguide.com)
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Next week I’ll be back blogging in real time, and I’m sure I’ll have lots and lots of blog fuel! Stay tuned for photos and stories from our travels.