x0x Beyond the Palace Door
- x0x Beyond the Palace Door
The Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia are just the beginning of
The domes and semi domes of the Blue Mosque, one of Istanbul's most famous
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
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
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
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.
The Blue Mosque, one of the most visited sites in Istanbul.
Tradition meets modern on the streets of Istanbul.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
``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
Forwarded to us by TurkC-L member Meltem B.
Distributed to TurkC-L with the permission of the author.