Turkey: Mosques & Museums

March 21, 2016.  Turkey is simply chockablock with “bucket list” sites, especially for folks like Matthew and me, who’ve studied architecture and archaeology.  But rather than bombard you with basic guidebook information, I thought I’d share with you my favorite fun factoids and most memorable moments of Istanbul’s historical sites.  I’ve covered a lot of territory below, so prepare yourself.  Plus, I’ve created some gargantuan photo galleries that I hope will whet your appetite for a visit.  (Click on the images for bigger views and captions.)  Enjoy!

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Check out Hagia Sophia’s dome above us.  In 532 A.D., Byzantine Emperor Justinian hired two Greek geometricians to engineer a monumental edifice that would bring him glory.  The church took five years to build and its dome stands 185 feet high and about 105 feet in diameter.

Hagia Sophia
For architects, archaeologists, and history buffs, getting a chance to see this church-cum-mosque-cum-museum is practically a religious experience, a bit like making a pilgrimage to Mecca or the Vatican.  Hagia Sophia’s dome — tall enough for the Statue of Liberty to stand up in, and big enough to encompass all of Notre Dame — ranked as the grandest in the world for a thousand years (until Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence’s Cathedral challenged it for the title.)

Inside, Hagia Sophia (called Ayasofya in Greek) still has the classic basilica floor plan -- a large central space centered beneath a dome and flanked by narrow side aisles and rows of columns. Also visible are the series of half domes that support the weight of the central dome. Many Mosques utilize these same design features.
Inside, Hagia Sophia still has the classic Christian basilica floor plan — a large central space flanked by narrow side aisles and rows of columns, over which hovers a dome. Also visible are the series of half domes that support the weight of the central dome. Many mosques utilize these same design features.

To me, one of the most surprising things about this originally Byzantine Imperial Church is its architectural influence on Islam.  After the Ottomans captured Istanbul in 1453 and were awed by the building’s opulence, it became the model for all future mosques.  Sure, during the church’s Islamic conversion, the Ottomans stuck some minarets on the corners to accommodate the Call to Prayer.  But the domed mosques of today can claim the initially Christian Hagia Sophia as their architectural ancestor.

This close relationship seems wholly appropriate, especially given that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all spring from the same family tree.  They share identical origin stories; you know these tales as the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch in Christianity, the Torah in Judaism, and the Tawrat in Islam.  Touring the building is like tracing the timeline of ancient religions and regimes.  Which is fitting, because Atatürk turned Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934.  (Although the current Turkish government is seeking to turn it back into a mosque.)

The Blue Mosque’s actual name is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, in honor of its benefactor. To design it, Sultan Ahmet hired famous Ottoman architect Mehmet Aga — the same guy who built the Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam at the center of Mecca’s mosque.

The Blue Mosque
If you didn’t believe what I told you about Hagia Sophia inspiring the design of mosques, just look right across the street to the Blue Mosque (c. 1616), considered one of the world’s finest.  With its domes and minarets, it mimics its neighbor, but trumps most every other classic mosque in size and grandeur — except for the one in Mecca.  The Blue Mosque’s patron, Sultan Ahmed I, wanted to show off, so he had his architect build six minarets.  The sultan in Mecca one-upped him by adding a 7th to his own.

We took a tour of the interior, which is wallpapered in stunning blue tiles (hence the mosque’s nickname.)  Then our sweet, elderly guide gave us a quickie refresher course in the practice of Islam just as the Call to Prayer was beginning.  As we exited, I watched folks stream inside to the singing of the muezzin, just like Christians do when the church bells ring.  It seems we all need reminders to make time for personal reflection and connection with our community.

The Süleymaniye mosque complex looks out over the city. In the distance, you can see the Galata Bridge crossing over the Bosphorus Strait.
The Süleymaniye mosque complex looks out over the city. In the distance, you can see the Galata Bridge crossing over the Bosphorus Strait.

The Süleymaniye Mosque
Just one more mosque, I promise.  Think of it this way:  you wouldn’t go to Rome without checking out all it’s most famous churches, would you?  Anyway, this mosque is my favorite.  Maybe it’s because it reminds me a little of the Dome of the Rock, which I visited many times during my summer-school stint in Israel.  Or maybe it’s because it possesses an air of unearthly peace, glowing softly white on a hilltop high above the city.

The little latticed fountain in the middle of mosque's courtyard was once used for ablutions before prayer. The Muezzin would sing the Call to Prayer from the balconies on the minaret. Nowdays, loudspeakers provide an assist.
The little latticed fountain in the middle of the mosque’s courtyard was once used for ablutions before prayer. The muezzin would sing the Call to Prayer from the minaret’s balconies. Nowadays, loudspeakers provide an assist.

Perhaps my favorite moment at Süleymaniye was sitting in the tranquil courtyard, absorbing its meditative stillness.  The little lattice fountain in the center gurgled away, lulling me almost to sleep.  My nose caught the scent of rosewater as it drifted out from the mosque’s interior, where the perfume is diffused to enhance worship.  The Turkish have a saying, “To smell a rose is a God-rewarded deed.”  I say Amen to that.

As I headed to the fountain, a tiny elderly woman wearing a black robe and head-covering attempted to step down from portico.  Realizing the drop was too deep for her to manage, I moved to help her, but she waved me away, embarrassed.  Continuing on my way, I felt a tug on my arm.  I turned, and her toothless, wizened face beamed up at me.  She patted my shoulder in thanks, then grabbed my hand, depositing two wrapped toffees in it.  Sometimes no words are needed to communicate welcome.

Built in 203 A.D. but enlarged by Constantine in 324 A.D., the Hippodrome is still a major feature in Instanbul’s landscape.
Built in 203 A.D. but enlarged by Constantine in 324 A.D., the Hippodrome is still a major feature in Instanbul’s landscape.

The Hippodrome
Just like the Romans, the Byzantines –who were the Greek successors to the Roman Empire in the East — liked their chariot races.  And of course, their capital city of Constantinople (Istanbul) had to have the biggest and best racetrack in all the land.  Only bits and pieces of it are left today, but they tell fascinating stories of a time when winning charioteers were the equivalent of soccer stars.

My strongest memory of this place is wandering around it the morning after the Taxim attack, listening to the Call to Prayer being broadcast from the minarets of the nearby Blue Mosque, and thinking that the muezzin (the singer who performs the wailing song) sounded particularly grief stricken that day.  There’s nothing quite as soul-stirring as hearing this haunting cry for remembrance.

The Underground Cistern
Yeah, the concept seems pretty boring, doesn’t it?  Touring a water reservoir really didn’t sound like much fun to me, either, but friends swore that it was a “must-see.”  They were right.  The atmospheric Byzantine cistern looks like the perfect place to stage a production of Phantom of the Opera — you can just imagine the caped, masked maniac paddling his fainting Christine through the flooded forest of columns.

Or if you’re more into action movies than musicals, check out From Russia with Love, which was shot in Istanbul.  James Bond gets rowed through the cistern by MI6 agent Kerim Bey, who uses a periscope to spy on the Russian Consulate.  Good stuff.

Check out this lavish room, complete with enormous brass fireplace and painted dome, in the Harem of Topkapi.
Check out this lavish room, complete with enormous brass fireplace and painted dome, in the Harem of Topkapi.

The Topkapi Palace
If I had to sum up this place in a phrase, it’d be:  Sensory Overload.  Touring Topkapi is a bit like visiting Versailles, but with a Turkish twist.  Silk carpets, inlaid wood, ornate metalwork, Iznik tiles, gold leafing — everything thickly piled on like a cake iced with a spackling knife.  It’s a mishmash of colors, textures, patterns, and materials, all designed to advertise the wealth and power of the Ottoman Empire’s sultans.

I'm taking some downtime next to the pool at the Baghdad Pavilion, where Ibrahim the Mad used to chillax after a hard day of drowning all 280 members of his harem (so the story goes.)
I’m taking some downtime next to the pool at the Baghdad Pavilion, where Ibrahim the Mad used to chillax after a hard day of drowning all 280 members of his harem (so the story goes.)

I myself am addicted to the whole orientalism look, as our home in Chicago can attest to.  Matthew often gently prods me when I talk of tossing in more, saying, “Honey, I think we might have enough patterns going on in this room right now.”  But even I, at the end of our visit, was completed jazzed from the visual stimulation, like I’d had ten cups of Turkish coffee.

Add to that the intense palace intrigue — stories of harem murders, mad sultans, and passionate affairs — and I felt like I needed a shot of whiskey or a valium to recover from all the excitement.  Topkapi is definitely a “can’t miss it” monument, but I’d give yourself a full day to explore the rambling palace complex.  You’ll need to periodically plop down in one of the courtyards for some mental “white space” before tackling the next visual feast.

The eight domes in the church are unbelievable. (I don't have any photos of the exterior, though, as it was completely under wraps for restoration.) Many of the domes act as a form of a family tree, tracing the lineages of Jesus, or the patriarchs and apostles. This one shows the genealogy of Mary.
The eight domes in the church are unbelievable. (I don’t have any photos of the exterior, though, as it was completely under wraps for restoration.) Many of the domes act as a form of a family tree, tracing the lineages of Jesus, or the patriarchs and apostles. This one shows the genealogy of Mary.

The Chora Church
Hey, at least it’s not another mosque, right?  Okay, technically it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans for a time, but when you check out the mind-blowing mosaics inside, you’ll see that Chora very definitely began its life as a Christian church — an Orthodox monastery, in fact.

The ceiling reads like a Greek-icon picture book of the Bible, relaying all the old favorites, with sad-eyed, unibrowed Byzantines playing the full cast of characters.  Spending an hour gazing up at such gilded glory will leave you with a serious crick in your neck, but it’s totally worth it.

Dating from 1500, this plate is one of a pair considered the best surviving examples of Iznik tile. (The Turks use the word "tile" to mean any kind of ceramics.)
Dating from 1500, this plate is one of a pair considered the best surviving examples of Iznik tile. (The Turks use the word “tile” to mean any kind of ceramics.)

Istanbul’s Art & History Museums
Last but not least, a word about Istanbul’s museums.  We squeezed in visits to four, and each had incredibly beautiful items to peruse.  However,  detailed information was fairly limited.  (Most had typical art museum I.D.-card info:  name, material, date, location, but not much context.)

If you love Islamic art and textiles (which I do), you’ll enjoy all of Istanbul’s museum offerings.  But if you’re not a huge fan of the ornate, you’ll probably get enough of pretty objects by visiting the mosques and Topkapi Palace.  And on that note, here’s a sample of some of the gorgeous pieces we enjoyed.  Stay tuned for my next posts to learn more about quintessential experiences in Turkey — including a Turkish Bathhouse.

 

4 thoughts on “Turkey: Mosques & Museums”

  1. Kimmie & Matt,

    Your pics are delicious! I was there with Ian (he & dance partner were representing US firgureskating in a Jr Gran Prix Ice Dance event) about 8 years ago — my pics are way less impressive, but seeing your excitement at being there brought back so many great memories! We saw many of the same highlights — thought of you guys the whole time we were there!
    And, of course, the past few days — so sad, not to mention harrowing, for those there now.
    Be safe in all your travels!

    Lynnie

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    1. Hi Lynnie!

      Great to hear from you! Hope Ian is doing well as he continues his Olympic training, and I’m so glad you enjoyed Istanbul and got to go before things have gotten so rough now. It makes me so sad. Take care and let me know if you guys have any travel plans to this side of the pond in the near future 🙂

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  2. Hello Kimberly I saw your new post last evening as I got back home but decided to keep it for the next morning. I then went downstairs to watch a little TV before going to bed. Well…. to see the attack on the airport I’ll probably never go to again. How very, very sad. You or I could have been there, what a scary thought! I am so happy I did make it to Turkey, such a beautiful country and people, as I fear I never would have made it at all. It’s getting difficult to choose where to travel, isn’t it? I have no idea where I’ll travel next winter but will have to give it very serious thought very soon. Where should I go?…..

    I hope you and Matthew are well and I hope to see you very soon. You are coming to Chicago in early July, aren’t you? I’ll be busy in the middle of next week with a visiting friend but hope to hear from you about your dates and sure hope you’ll have time to get together with me. Until then, keep well. Love Diane

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    1. Hi Diane,

      Yes it’s so sad. I’ve been trying to convince my sister and niece to go with me again, but that will probably never happen now, as they were already quite nervous about the idea. We will be in Chicago for a week soon, I’ll let you know when we’ve nailed down our dates. Hope to see you soon!

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