Friday, August 17, 2007

Can't Leave Istanbul Without Seeing a Harem and a Bazaar

There's a lot about travelling that makes you feel closer to your fellow man: invitations to a family celebration, sitting down together over local food, and the camaraderie developed on an ill-fated tour, to name a few. Unfortunately for me, being surrounded by the masses at a popular tourist attraction is not one of them. I can be a somewhat relentless optimist, but there's nothing like a popular and crowded exhibit to make me want to start shouting 'Stop pushing! Wait you're turn!' It's very American of me. But I've learned from travelling that Americans are unnaturally good at queuing. And that busy tourist sites turn me into a misanthrope.

On our last day in Istanbul, Tyler and I decided to fit in a few more sights: Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and the Mosaic Museum.

Topkapi Palace was first on the list. Just down from Sultanahmet, the neighborhood we stayed in, remained the grounds that served as the home and heart of government for the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. The grounds are huge--we didn't have time to explore it all--so we made a beeline for one of the more popular attractions, the Harem. You have to pay extra to visit this titillating area, but it was well worth it. In actuality, the Harem was not quite as licentious as the word suggests now. Rather, it served as the private quarters for the Sultan and his family (which did include eunuchs and concubines). The rooms were quite beautiful and clearly built and decorated to befit a royal household, with beautiful tiling covering most of the walls, marble baths with gold faucets, and huge mirrors and chandeliers.

Tyler entering the Harem. Note the specially made cordoning tape for just this part of the museum.

One of the sumptuous rooms within the Harem section

An inner courtyard of the Harem showing traditional Turkish architecture

Having done some ceramics work myself, I couldn't help but be in awe of the gorgeous tiles that covered much of the Harem, the glazes still brilliant after all these years.

Detail of one of the many beautıful tiles within the Harem

Another detail of a tile design

My favorite room ended up being the Crown Prince's Quarters, two meeting rooms with Turkish carpets, low seating around the edges, and amazing tilework and stained glass windows.

One of my favorite rooms, the Crown Prince's Chambers

Stained glass windows and tilework in the Crown Prince's Quarters

After wending our way through the open sections of the Harem (already getting a little frustrated by the crowds rushing their way through), we made our way to one of the sites Tyler wanted to see, the Arms Museum. This included a pretty interesting if macabre array of swords, rifles, and armour. I had to marvel at the artistry that went into creating items intended for such dark means.

Ancient helmets from the weapons display room

Then we decided to brave the crowds to see the big draw, the Treasury. As our guidebook noted, this section is the easiest for the masses to appreciate because you just get to look at pretty things and humongous jewels. They had small boxes made entirely of emerald, huge dıamonds, boxes full of jewels, and golden thrones. Surprisingly, they even had relics of Saint John the Baptist--parts of his skull and his forearm and hand. But the crowds! You'd think if everyone would just get in line and wend their way through, everyone would be happy enough. But people would get impatient and walk through the inner circle, barging their way through to get a glimpse of some bauble, then continue to the next. I know I should be a bigger person about it, but after getting literally pushed a few times and finding myself having to hold my ground to see something I'd been waiting and sweating to see as someone tried to scoot past me, my patience began to fail. So the treasury items were impressive, but I think my overwhelming memory will be of fighting the crowds.

After extricating ourselves from the grounds to preserve my faith in mankind, we walked to see the Grand Bazaar, aptly named as it is one of the largest covered markets in the world with 58 streets and 4000 shops. While Turkish retailers have been relatively benign compared to Egypt, we were still set upon as we entered one of the market's gates. It started with a compliment of Tyler's beard, worked its way into a connection because of a brother living in Houston, Texas, then became an invitation to come visit his shop. 'Come, I give you my card! Maybe you look at a few things.' Then, when we tried to politely decline, 'But Houston! Texas!' But we walked on, American connection or not. The Bazaar is full of about anythıng you could want: rugs, jewelry, leather, lamps, what-have-you. Unfortunately, our bags are already near the breaking point after sıx months of hardly buyıng anythıng, so while we could marvel at the Bazaar's scope, the excitement of avoiding salespeople and ignorıng pretty objets we couldn't/shouldn't buy only entertained us for so long.

One of the many gates for entering the Bazaar

View in the Grand Bazaar

Because we still had tıme to kill before catching our night bus to Goreme in Cappadocia, we swung by the much less popular Mosaıc Museum. I was inspired to come after seeing the few examples on view at the Aya Sofya, and I had memories of beautiful slides from those Ancient Civilizatıon classes in college. This museum had mosaics from the 6th century made durıng the Byzantine period. They are known for their detail and color due to many tıles of varied materials and the small squares, or tesserae, used to create scenes of people, landscapes, and mythical creatures.

Example of the mosaics. Though I don't think the picture does it justice, the mosaiced trees seemed especıally impressive.

Mosaic griffin

Then the time had come for a little food and the shuttle to the night bus. Turkey seems inordinately fond of having their long bus rides pass overnight. On the one hand, there is some logic to not spending 10+ hours during time you could be sightseeing. On the other, the romance of long bus rides--especially overnight--has worn off over time. Now all they really mean is a cranky Tyler who can't sleep, me with a poor night's sleep, and still losing half a day to napping. But we tried to keep in mind our excitement of landing ın Cappadocıa, a region of colorful, rocky valleys and faıry chımneys.

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