Thursday September 8th
Today, the Sultanahmet Mosque. Built by the order of, unsurprisingly, Sultan Ahmet I, about 1600. I’ve already touched on the outside of the mosque, so let’s move inside. But wait, first you have to get in line! The line doesn’t take more than fifteen minutes. When we reach the entrance, we take our shoes off (“not on the blue, shoes not on the blue”) and put them into the small plastic bags provided. The ladies have their hair covered with scarves. Women who have forgotten their scarves are provided unattractive blue shawls (less likely to take them away?), which they seem to just drape over their shoulders. At least ten percent of men ignore the admonition to not wear shorts. Ok, people, this is not that hard. Put on some pants, or go somewhere else. Now inside the mosque, we are mostly looking upwards. It is beautiful. Sultanahmet Mosque is apparently known as the Blue Mosque since the semi-domes and the large dome are decorated with blue calligraphy. Also, the interior of the mosque is covered with more than 20,000 pieces of blue, green, and white Iznik china, which lends the interior a cool aspect, quite different from the warmer yellow and orange of Hagia Sophia. Again, words are largely inadequate. At least, my words are.
I probably shouldn’t leave the Blue Mosque without mentioning the basic argument between it and Hagia Sofia. They are right next door, and it is clearly natural to compare them. Keep in mind that I know absolutely nothing about architecture and even less about mosque architecture. My goal is to try and give you a bit of colour commentary, so you understand what we’re up against. First, one crucial element to consider is that the Blue Mosque was built more than a thousand years later. That’s 1000 years! Obviously, one would expect that some significant architectural and engineering improvements would have taken place during that time span. And this is the central point that the Hagia Sofiaists seem to want to make, that the Blue Mosque doesn’t seem to exhibit this required improvement, and therefore Hagia Sofia is clearly superior. You see, although the Blue Mosque is beautiful and elegant from the outside, when you go inside you are immediately faced with its inadequacy: it has a huge dome, and the four gigantic pillars that are required to support this dome are right there, in front of you, as if the architects must have imagined that you might be half blind and wouldn’t even see them. Because the architects of Hagia Sofia cleverly hid their gigantic pillars, making them appear as if they were just part of the wall surrounding the interior space beneath the dome. Now, I’m pretty sure those four pillars are there, because I walked around where they should have been, and, sure enough, that area was pretty solid. I’m sure there are lots of other hidden supports, but those four pillars are certainly pretty central. Back to the Blue Mosque. Is it clunky and unsophisticated to just put the gigantic pillars on display, without making any effort to hide them? Or is it actually more sophisticated to say, hey, it’s a dome, it’s supported by pillars, what, you have a better idea, perhaps? I suspect it comes down to sensibility and subjectivity. Which do you prefer? Rome or Paris? Ferrari or Maserati? Red or white? Lager or IPA? Canucks or Leafs? Cats or dogs? Blue Mosque or Hagia Sofia?
After the Blue Mosque we visit Topkapi Palace. 20TL each. Free child. Susan skips it, because she has seen it before (ed note: and, more importantly, wants to save money. SK). The palace occupies a gigantic area a short distance from Hagia Sophia. The brochure claims that it is the oldest and largest palace in the world. But wait. Construction was completed in 1478. The Reconquista in Spain took place in the same year Columbus travelled to America (1492, ocean blue), if memory serves. And, I’m pretty certain the Moors had been using the Alhambra in Granada as a palace for more than 20 years. So, off the top of my head, I’m not certain I’m happy with the suggestion that Topkapi is the oldest palace in the world. But, my goodness, it takes the cake for immensosity. It’s not as detail oriented as the Alhambra, I should point out. Pretty much any surface in the Alhambra is covered with calligraphy or that unusual “honeycomb” detail. Topkapi is impressive, but it turns out that I am an unabashed Alhambra snob. At least, for now. I would be remiss not to mention that we actually skipped what is reputed to be the best part of the palace, the Harem. People under the age of, let's say, 15, often don't have quite as much interest as those over the age of, say, 40, in seeing too much at once. Having spent the better part of 2.5 hours looking around the part of the palace that we had already paid for, we opted not to pay more in order to see the Harem. So, perhaps next time I'm in Istanbul I'll have an opportunity to make a more informed opinion.
In the evening, we go to the Grand Bazaar. Susan bargains an “Abercrombie & Fitch” sweatshirt for Sunny down from 100TL to 30. He almost stops at 45 (“It costs me 35, so I cannot go lower than 40.”) but comes down a bit more as Susan walks away. The sad truth is that we cannot afford it. Oh, it’s an excellent price, in Turkish Lira, but Sunny has absolutely no room in her pack. She is already carrying the shoes she bought in York on the outside of her pack, and she bought a colourful bag in Selçuk, which she is carrying in her day bag. What a teenager. Is this the shopping tour of Europe? I almost bought a nice Turkiye t-shirt for 10TL, but the man offended my bargaining sensibilities, and I, his, so we parted without any business having been completed.
We made it to the waterfront and the New Mosque by an unusual route of small, unmarked streets, full of Istanbulis shopping in small shops. We weren’t really lost, because Susan surmised that down would inevitably lead us to sea level. Sunny and I went inside the New Mosque, which, to be honest, was just as nice as the Blue Mosque to my untrained eye, and had only about ten tourists total.
We finished the day with an Istanbul tradition. Fish sandwiches under the Galata bridge. Apparently, these were previously served from special boats, moored in the same location, but these were shut down several years ago due to health concerns. We didn’t make it past the first restaurant when the promise from the nice man of free çay lured us in. Who could possibly argue with a 5TL sandwich of fried mackerel and greens?