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357x0x Beyond the Palace Door

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  • Turkish Radio San Francisco
    Nov 1, 2000
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      x0x Beyond the Palace Door

      The Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia are just the beginning of
      Istanbul's treasures


      The domes and semi domes of the Blue Mosque, one of Istanbul's most famous
      sites.

      Bazaar shopping advice: Padlock your purse and bargain!

      Treasures from 'Palace of Gold' dazzle

      Where to stay and dine in Istanbul

      BY JANE WOOLDRIDGE


      ISTANBUL -- Drop in at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art starting today,
      and you can glimpse some of the most vaunted treasures from Turkey's most
      famous museum, the Topkapi Palace.

      But to get a full sense of the Topkapi's delicate pavilions and lavish
      harem, its stunning collection of emeralds and such relics as the sword of
      Mohammed and the hand of John the Baptist, you simply have to go to
      Istanbul.

      And don't stop with the Topkapi Palace, or the city's other icons, the
      Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. Like any history-rich, traffic-crazed
      international crossroads, Istanbul's texture is complex. Dare we say
      byzantine?

      This isn't just any meeting place, it's the geographic confluence of
      Europe and Asia, where West encounters the first breath of the Orient,
      seductive and strange. Stop for a day, and you'll race to hit the high
      points. Two days? Skate across the surface of empires past and metropolis
      present. Stay longer, and you can wander ever deeper through the wending
      cosmopolitan cityscape.

      Sky-piercing minarets play against the soothing curve of 12 domes and the
      running angles of narrow wooden houses stacked on ancient sloping lanes.
      Carpets woven by village girls and low-to-the-ground cafe tables spill
      onto sidewalks. In manicured gardens, conservative Muslim women draped in
      black stroll past women in strappy T-shirts, hardly sparing a glance.
      Breezy restaurants serve sizzling kebabs, spicy stuffed mussels and tangy
      tomato salads along the banks of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the
      Golden Horn. Hawkers in traditional garb sell corn on the brazier and
      sesame-covered bread twists, called simit, from old-fashioned street
      carts. Haunting and sweet, the call to prayer sounds five times each day,
      reminding the Muslim faithful that it is time to turn to Mecca.

      The city's nubby patterns weave into a living kilim, as intricate as the
      mosaics left behind by the early Romans and the exquisite decorative tiles
      that are hallmarks of the Ottomon style.

      ``It's so exotic,'' said Barbara Lasky, a visitor from San Diego. ``The
      sights, the sounds, smells and tastes are so different.''

      What's more, this city of 10 million is a bona fide travel bargain. Though
      the Turkish economy is improving after years of triple-digit inflation,
      the dollar still stretches farther here than most places in Europe. (Think
      $65 for a well-located room that is simple but charming, $12 for a
      casually upscale dinner, $5 for a simple meal.) Merchants in the Covered
      Bazaar complain that business is still slow after last year's worries that
      the trial of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan could provoke
      retaliation (it did not) and the horrific earthquakes that killed more
      than 800, though government statistics show tourism is picking up.

      Thankfully, none of Istanbul's important tourist sites was damaged, and
      caravans of tour buses and cruise-ship day-trippers still roll into the
      old city district called Sultanamet, home to the Topkapi and the city's
      other must-sees, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya.


      Photographs:

      The Blue Mosque, one of the most visited sites in Istanbul.

      Tradition meets modern on the streets of Istanbul.

      TOPKAPI PALACE

      The Topkapi Palace's cache is so rich that if you didn't know that its
      most lauded treasures were in the Fort Lauderdale exhibition, you wouldn't
      miss them. Emerald pendants the size of goose eggs, more jeweled daggers,
      suits of maille and an 86-carat diamond are among the spoils on display at
      this sprawling seaside complex of pavilions, courtyards and gardens. It
      was here that sultans lived and ruled over the Ottoman Empire from the
      16th to 19th centuries.

      Each day, the Topkapi receives some 5,000 visitors, drawn by the grandeur
      of these jewels and the palace's conspiratorial past. And of course, the
      harem.

      The very idea of a harem reeks of temptation and taboo. No wonder tourists
      gather early to snag places in line among the mere hundreds allowed inside
      these secretive household quarters.

      The tour guide -- no private wandering allowed -- quickly dashes the most
      salacious imaginations. Most of the 800 or so concubines worked as common
      servants, never setting eyes on the sultan.

      But tales are real enough of the Black Eunuchs, who guarded the household
      so fiercely that even cucumbers had to be sliced before being brought
      inside. Exquisitely tiled chambers, mother-of-pearl shutters and elaborate
      crystal chandeliers beneath airy domed ceilings give witness to the lavish
      lifestyles of the royal household: the sultan, his mother and children,
      and his four to eight favorites among the harem. Here, dark intrigues
      festered as royal brother plotted against royal brother, caging younger
      siblings for life in one of the harem's upper rooms.

      Less known to Westerners, but equally fascinating, is the Topkapi's
      reliquary. Here lies the hand of John the Baptist, covered in gold. Hairs
      from the beard of Mohammed are encased in small glassed stands rimmed in
      gold. A small gold casket contains soil from the prophet's grave. The most
      sacred relics -- including the mantle, sword, bow and standard of Mohammed
      -- reside in jeweled chests visible only through glass.


      DON'T MISS

      The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya play spectacular bookends to a formal
      garden; the mosque stately and geometric with spires and domes, Aya Sofya
      glowing reddish and grand against a cerulean sky. Each carries a story of
      religious devotion and improbable engineering.

      Flash back almost 1,500 years. While the western Roman Empire wanes, the
      eastern or Byzantine Empire -- capital: Constantinople -- gains power. To
      symbolize its position, Emperor Justinian orders the building of Aya
      Sofya, Church of Wisdom, completed in 548 A.D. on the site of a previous
      church.

      Earthquakes, the conversion to a mosque and a millennium and a half later,
      Aya Sofya is still a breath-catching vision. Inside, the 180-foot-high
      dome suspended on a pair of semi-domes leaves visitors craning their necks
      and staring in awe. Through the scaffolding that shores up the dome, one
      can easily see why this was the foremost church of the Eastern Empire for
      nearly 1,000 years and, after the Muslim Turks took it over, one of the
      nation's most important mosques.

      On the ground floor and in the gallery above, visitors can see the few
      remaining gold mosaics of Mary and Christ. Equally beguiling are massive
      calligraphy medallions bearing the name of Allah and Mohammed that hang
      from the columns -- reminders of the dual-religious heritage of this
      museum.


      BLUE MOSQUE

      A picturesque stroll away, the Blue Mosque takes its name not from the
      color of its main dome and semi-domes, which can look steely in some
      light, but from the seemingly endless supply of 21,000 blue-and-white
      geometric tiles plastered over every inch of the interior save the stained
      glass windows. Sultan Ahmet I ordered the creation of an impressive mosque
      as a way to outshine his rivals and the Christians who built the Aya
      Sofya. When it was completed around 1616, the main dome rose to 140 feet
      and measured 312 feet across.

      Most mosques are surrounded by four minarets, Ahmet I ordered six -- to
      better convey its importance.

      Though thousands of tourists pass through each day, the Blue Mosque is
      still an active place of worship. The endless play of flowers and
      flourishes in the tiles and kaleidoscopic light from the windows give the
      sense that the place itself is alive. In the early mornings and late in
      the day and especially around noon on Friday, you can find the devout
      making their ablutions -- washing hands, face, ears, neck and feet -- in a
      fountain along the foundation before entering the monument to Allah. The
      women and children pray in sections along the back and walls; only men
      pray in the central part of this or any mosque.


      CITY OF LAYERS

      As impressive as they are, Istanbul's ``must sees'' are hardly the whole
      feast. Like phyllo dough, the city is revealed as a series of layers.

      Churches filled with early Christian mosaics and gems of mosques tucked
      among the sloping streets. The Egyptian Market, best known for its exotic
      and mysterious spices. The Cistern Basilica, a vast underground reserve
      whose brick vaults rise from unusual columns -- one even sits on a head of
      Medusa -- above waters rich with fish. Fine museums (yes, the labels are
      in English) such as the Archaeological Museum, home to an exquisite marble
      sarcophagus depicting the life of Alexander the Great; the newly reopened
      Museum of the Ancient Orient, home to clay tablets enumerating Hammurabi's
      code of law; the Mosaic Museum, an excavation of Fourth-Century Roman
      floors; and the Museum of Turkish Arts, rich with 15th- and 16th-Century
      carpets and ethnographic exhibitions showcasing round tribal tents, called
      yurts, and Ottoman houses.

      And of course, the Covered Bazaar, where some 4,000 shops hawk leather
      jackets, ceramic Easter eggs, pillboxes sculpted from camel bone,
      100-year-old objets d'art and enough carpets to blanket the entire Middle
      East.

      With time to spare, you can venture across the water that seemingly
      caresses every view: east to Asia, which hides a few important mosques
      among its residential quarters, and north of the watery finger known as
      the Golden Horn, to the new Istanbul.


      NORTH OF THE HORN

      Dazzled by the capitals of Western Europe, the 19th-Century Ottomans built
      a modern city here amid ancient walls and centuries-old mosques and
      crowned by the Galata Tower, part of fortifications built here in the 14th
      Century by the Genoese and now a nightclub.

      For the Ottomans, the nexus of the new city was the 285-room Dolmabache
      Palace, an extravagant Versailles-like manse and gardens set on the
      Bosphorus and adorned with crystal ballasters, trompe l'oeil ceilings and
      chandeliers that, quite literally, weigh tons. (Too bad they had to sell
      off part of the Topkapi treasury to foot the bill.)

      Today, the center of Istanbul is bustling Taksim Square, edged by a Hilton
      and Inter-Continental, a performing arts hall and airline offices. A few
      green spaces and historic monuments dot the quadrangle, but mostly this is
      business-as-usual in any modern city. Buses queue at one side, starting
      their routes; beneath the green lies the fledgling metro system, currently
      covering only a few kilometers.

      Here, too, begins Istiklal -- in Turkish, victory -- Street, a pedestrian
      thoroughfare dedicated to the things that lira can buy. Shops promise
      Lacoste shirts, traditional Turkish sweets made from pistachios and sugary
      dough, silver jewelry, day packs and platform sandals. Tucked in a side
      alley is the fish market, where bins of sea bream and sea bass can be
      taken home or grilled up for a simple lunch served on tables set up
      nearby.

      The Dunkin' Donuts and Burger King outlets stand at a stark contrast with
      the nearby house of the Whirling Dervishes, a museum dedicated to this
      mystical sect and site of occasional dervish displays in which the mystics
      seek to connect with God through chants and whirling dances. (The tourist
      shows that offer a bit of the same are pure performance, not prayer.) The
      sect's cemetery, just beyond the museum, is a delightful example of the
      common custom here of creating gravestones in keeping with the dead
      person's rank, so that some seem to wear fezzes while others wear turbans
      or other headdresses.


      WATER EVERYWHERE

      With another day, you can hop on the ferry that runs along the Bosphorus,
      past cruise ships and sea buses, cargo ships and Leander's Tower, where
      James Bond's one-time love plotted her takeover in The World is Not
      Enough. (The tower, it is said, was built by a loving Byzantine father to
      safeguard his beloved daughter from threat foretold by an oracle. Legend
      has it that the girl was bitten by a snake hidden in the food she was
      brought, and so she died anyway.)

      The ferry chugs beneath bridges linking Europe and Asia, past medieval
      castles, north of Istanbul's palaces and suburbs. As you near the Black
      Sea, the coves are dotted with Victorian houses-turned-luxury weekend
      homes and picturesque harbors filled with pricey yachts, old-fashioned
      fishing boats and waterside eateries offering fare fresh from the sea.


      MIDDLE GROUND

      The weekend homes, the cozy cafes, the curving domes and traditional garb
      mixed with the clamor of Taksim offer undeniable proof: Istanbul isn't
      only where east meets west on the map, it is truly Middle Ground.

      Unlike many of the other nations in the region, Turkey is a republic, and
      has been since the 1920s and '30s, when revolutionary leader Mustafa Kemal
      -- known as Ataturk -- abolished many extremist groups and reformed
      Turkey.

      Sure, the police carry guns, and you may even spot a soldier in Taksim
      Square armed with an automatic weapon. But the turmoil and fundamentalism
      that have marked such neighboring states as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and
      Georgia are largely absent, and Turks seem proud that their country is a
      formal candidate for membership in the European Union.

      You witness easy tolerance as you wander through the streets, among women
      in the black robes of fundamentalist Muslims, less conservative garb of
      women with heads tied in scarves, and women in clothes so Western you'd
      think you were in South Beach. In the comfort locals feel about expressing
      opinions -- complaints about snarling traffic (it's nothing like I-95),
      smog makes L.A. look clear and various government policies. In such breezy
      districts as Ortakoy, where chic homewares shops give way to cafes along
      the Bosphorus. And assuredly, in the ubiquitous advertisements for
      Turkcell, whose success is evidence by the mobile phone attached to nearly
      every belt.

      ``I'm far more comfortable than I thought I'd be,'' said Marilyn Charles
      of Miami, who was traveling alone. ``The people are gracious hosts.''

      Yolande Erickson, a Los Angeles attorney, agreed. ``I've found it an easy
      city, with people who are very friendly and helpful.

      ``There's nothing Third World about Istanbul.''


      -------------
      Published Sunday, October 15, 2000, in the Miami Herald

      http://www.herald.com

      Forwarded to us by TurkC-L member Meltem B.

      Distributed to TurkC-L with the permission of the author.