I know I’m in extreme post debt at the moment and have many to catch up on, including Norway, Iceland, the Lakes, Scotland, to name a few. However at the risk of messing up the post timeline, I’ll pick up with Istanbul… My Turkish is coming on a treat, I can say hello and goodbye (from both the departer and the departee), yes and no, please and thankyou (informal and formal), I can order turkish tea and fresh orange juice, state that I’m a vegetarian, identify a few types of breads, meze, and various sugary desserts, order tickets (any number from 1 to 4, or 11), and ask for the toilets. Pretty much sorted on the language front!
Today we started out bright and early and headed via the Hippodrome and its ancient obelisks to the Aya Sofya – absolutely stunning. We knew it undergoes pretty much continually ongoing repair work so were preparing ourselves for scaffolding obscuring the interior but it was completely free of scaffolding! Very lucky. The space is just amazing, such a huge dome span free of columns, built 1500 years ago, and constructed over only 6 years, commisssioned by Justin’s favourite and eponymous emperor, Justinian. I particularly liked how the extremely lofty space is so impressive and awe-inspiring, yet is rendered human scale by the decorative ironwork lighting rigs suspended by extremely long supports down to just above crowd level, although I guess on a practical note it makes it easier to change the millions of light bulbs. There is an incredible extent of marble wall cladding throughout the interior but it actually reads as reasonably subtle due to the fairly muted colours – grey-blues, grey-greens, grey-reds, while the remnant mosaics with their glittering gold byzantine tiles are anything but subtle. Amazing that it has been both a church and a mosque and now a museum, and remains intact rather than a lost victim of iconoclasm.
Next we headed to the Blue Mosque, which is still very much a functioning mosque, and were able to walk through the rear and view the building. While also amazingly beautiful (inside and out, in contrast to Aya Sofya which is quite dumpy and plain from the outside) and in almost immaculate condition, it is neither as large nor as technically daring as the Aya Sofya, relying on four enormous columns to support the dome span. I did not feel that the space was ‘neutral’ like the Aya Sofya, due to its ongoing function – I felt a bit of an intruder and didn’t want to hang around too long inside. I felt that it was more intrusive to the poor women rather than the men, as they stay in enclosed areas at the rear to pray, and are divided from the main space where the men are by the constant stream of tourists pouring through.
After this we went underground to the Basilica Cistern – an amazing Roman water storage space about 1500 years old, that although currently at quite a low level can hold 80 000 cubic metres, and I think runs underneath the Hippodrome. The brick vaulted ceiling is supported on 336 columns, through which raised walkways run. The space is quite eery, with dim lighting, dripping ceiling, and ghostly pale carp drifting around in the water. I particularly liked the fact that it was a functional space rather than a show space, so the columns are constructed from leftover bits of other buildings, with a mix of doric, ionic and corinthian columns, odd mismatching parts and a few standout carved stones including a column covered in carved peacock ‘eyes’ and two large medusa heads.
We then headed to the Grand Bazaar, but found it was not really our kind of place – less hassling than the Moroccan souks but also a bit less interesting, although perhaps we didn’t give it a fair go… we gave up with headaches and headed back to the hotel for a quick break before dinner.
Dinner! was fantastic. Found a lovely restaurant and drank Turkish tea while waiting for a free table, then the Bread arrived…. (yes it deserves a capital letter…) large, soft and steaming, scattered with sesame and nigella seeds, blown up like a balloon to the size of a football – perfectly inflated at first then slightly sinking before being torn apart and devoured… fabulous! We also ordered a selection of mixed vegetarian meze, with another Bread! And being too full of Bread to eat main courses we moved straight on to dessert (separate stomach) – a super-syrupy mound of semolina, toasted pine nuts and spices for me, and a turkish rice pudding for Justin. And so to bed, with the intent to visit the Tokapi palace tomorrow…