Today was the day that I handled the holy trinity of Istanbul: the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia and the one that I was particularly looking forward to – the Basilica Cistern. “Why,” you ask? Do you like James Bond, and by that I mean the real Bond – Sean Connery? Well if the answer is yes, then you’ll remember the scene from “From Russia With Love” where Kerim Bey takes 007 for a cruise in the underground network of columns and water to get to under the Russian embassy. Although you can no longer navigate the cistern for your espionage fantasies, it does remain quite a fascinating draw. But first, the Blue Mosque.
But why is it called Blue? It’s concrete and plaster!
First impressions of the Blue Mosque have been published widely. And I have to disappoint you, because mine aren’t very different. It is quite a stunning piece of architecture in its own right. Built between 1609 and 1616, it is more popular than the Sultaniye Mosque around the corner for 2 reasons – minaret number 5 and minaret number 6. Most mosques around the world are built with 4 minarets at the corners of the perimeter. Sultaniye Mosque was no exception. It was royal architect Sinan’s masterpiece, and the biggest in Istanbul. But unfortunately he planted only 4 minarets in it. And thus lost fame to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque – aka Blue Mosque.
As a photographer, it was interesting from almost every angle and approach. Leave aside the full frontal which is garnished and ruined by the poles and the strangely planted palm tree on the right hand side of the symmetry. The best time to shoot would be around 8 am or just before sunset, mainly because the concrete picks the light very moodily.
Once you walk on to the premises of the mosque, you are bound to see and feel the bustle of people coming in and going out. The entrance to the main structure is right in front of the main gate. You will find people from everywhere here. Looking up, looking around, looking amazed, or simply dazed. Once you get to the inside you will be on the courtyard which has raised platforms running around the four sides. You could imagine people resting here after prayers in the days gone by. But right now I just saw… you guessed it… tourists.
The courtyard has an entrance to the main mosque, however this is for people going for prayers. So if you are a tourist (which most of us are) keep walking straight and through the gate opposite from where you entered. You will have exited the structure and you will know this is the right place because you will see the line snaking up all the way to the stairs (I would say on a decent day – 300 people), but it moves fast.
You get back on the stairs towards the end of the structure and get into the structure again. You’ll be asked to remove your shoes and place them in plastic bags and carry them around. Once that is done, you’re good to enter the mosque. And then you realize why it’s called the Blue Mosque.
It’s the predominant blue on the domes on the inside.
Over 20,000 handmade tiles, ranging from elaborate to colourful, run around the ceiling. Although the luster has faded over the centuries the charm still hangs around. And thanks to the heavy usage of the colour blue on the tiles towards the top end of the dome, it earned its moniker “blue”, the In fact, the elaborate domes when viewed from the inside, and the massive lamp holders suspended from the top create a certain aura of spiritualism.
However this spiritualism lasts only as long as your neck is turned looking up. Because the instant you look down, the an instant as kids run around and flashes go off and the damn tourists chatter away. Luckily the mosque decided to divide the area into two parts – for the devout Muslims who want to pray and everyone else. You cannot enter the mosque during the 5 prayer calls. And the times you can enter, it is a great contrast on both sides. One side feels like a place of worship. And the other feels like a marriage hall gone wrong – you know, where parents are busy talking amongst themselves as their kids go crazy high on sugar. I would recommend catching the blue mosque early in the morning between prayers.
You cannot spend more than 15 minutes inside the mosque. As in you could if you wanted to, but unless you have done your thesis on the Sultan Ahmet Mosque’s interiors or have a great level of patience you would, like me, try to get some fresh air outside. And for me the interesting people were outside. From the Istanbul punks to the old Japanese gentleman clicking away incorrigibly.
After getting a few good portraitures, I decided to amble across to the next big draw, and personally a more explorative one.
Aya Sofia – Architectural Grandma of Istanbul
Albeit the Hippodrome, or rather the remains of it, is older in age – when it comes to aging gracefully, it is blown out of the water by the Hagia Sofia aka Aya Sofia.
Innaugurated in 360 AD, it was one of the larger churches in the world and befitting the stature of Emperor Constantine. I can hear some historians voice their discontent with the previous line – because Constantinus II also called dibs on having built it. Whichever be the case, it is an impressive piece of work.
Although its external appearance might have faded a bit when compared with its younger and larger neighbour, its glory remains intact. Personally I found that you could spend quite a bit of time inside the Aya Sofia in comparison to the Blue Mosque. It’s no wonder that when you enter the premises (ensure you stand in the foreigner’s line and not the one for Turkish citizens) you find the booth for audio tour guides – which is recommended. At 10 TL it’s quite useful.
As soon as you walk towards the main entrance of the Sofia, you will be transported to a different era and even geography. The architecture with the sunken garden moat doesn’t feel very Turkish and neither does the style of architecture. The first thing you see upon entering is the mosaic cross close to the ceiling which is roughly 20-25 feet high (this is before you enter the main structure). The aisle in which you enter leads to the upper level of the Sofia from the left. But for now I proceeded straight in.
Ready for a crick in the neck?
First impressions? “How the hell did they get up there to do that?” The main dome is roughly 50 metres high. Yes. 50 metres! Notice all the people around you with their heads arched up. Once you follow suit you will begin to see the confluence – or conflict, as some might call it – the Christian murals and mosaics being overpowered by Islamic symbolism covering the corners.
The Aya Sofia probably best represents the history of Constantinople-Istanbul. It has outlasted empires, Sultans and a raging torrent of tourists looking straight up and firing away their flashes into the oblivious heights of the dome. It is a structure full of character, history and nooks and corners that tell interesting little stories. Like the Imperial Gate, where only the Sultans could pass through. Or the library of Sultan Mehmud, which has bronze walls running along its length.
After exploring the ground level I decided to make my way up to the higher level. That involved a mini climb on the ramp running in the top left corner of the building. The upper level has quite a few mosaic paintings depicting Christ, archangels and Mary. But for me the most stunning view was peering out of the windows just before the Imperial Gate and seeing the Blue Mosque beyond the domes of the Aya Sofia. Still suspended in time, it makes for delicious photographs should the light support you.
Needless to say, you’re closer to the top, and therefore at a better vantage point to observe the work on the inside of the dome. They say that the dome was an advanced creation for its time, especially the fact that they placed the windows lacing the dome. The windows lead to interesting lighting across the Sofia at different times of the day.
You could easily spend the afternoon wandering lazily and discovering these little nuggets of history. And if the weather is good, as it was in my case, enjoy a coffee or an ice-cream in the cafe just outside the main structure.
Lunch at Rumeli Cafe.
By the time I finished with Aya Sofia, it was late into the afternoon. I decided to catch a bite and walked across to the side street behind the Basilica Cistern. There are a number of cafes lining with waiters trying to fill their numbers by enticing tourists with the badly shot food photographs and promises of “authentic Turkish” dishes. Walking through at least 10 such peddlers, I found myself at the corner of the side street and this inviting little cafe with tables laid outside and in seemed quite inviting. I chose a table inside, since it was a bit nippy and the head waiter sat me down and handed me the menu. The service wasn’t the fastest and the food wasn’t the best. But it was good. A word of advice: In Turkey, stick to the Turkish fare – kebabs and platters. Continental cuisine will tend to disappoint you, unless you’re at an upscale restaurant.
The Cistern “Chapel”
After lunch it was time to savour what I had been looking forward to the most – the underground wonder from the Byzantine era – the Basilica Cistern. Its entrance is most innocuous. At a first glance it is a simple little house with 2 windows and a door on the street. Fairly insipid, only to be betrayed by the line of tourists snaking down the street.
Open from 9 am till 7 pm, the Basilica Cistern is quite the draw and for good reasons. I will insist that you pick up the audio tour (5 TL) to get those reasons. But this much I will tell you, it will blow you away when it comes to aura, mood and architectural wonderment.
The municipality has actually done a very good job of lighting up the pillars that hold up the structure that used to provide water to the neighbouring mosque and the palaces around it. The water still remains but well below its capacity and the footboards you can traverse across. You will find fairly large carps swimming across but the authorities do not take too kindly should you try to go fishing.
Talking of fishing, did I mention how many people I saw fishing across Istanbul? It seems to be a citywide hobby. Fathers teaching sons. Friends hanging out with friends. All of them with their trusty fishing rods. The best example of this is at the Galata bridge. It makes for quite a visual.
Coming back to the Basilica, do make your way to the very end where you will find Medusa’s head pillared under and the myths and tales will follow.
The Cistern doesn’t take more than 30-45 minutes, but makes for a compelling visit and you won’t be disappointed. I know I wasn’t.
Aloran – A feast. A show. A most kindest host.
A short walk further ahead from the Blue Mosque and next to Four Seasons Hotel (which incidentally used to be a prison before being transformed into a luxury destination) is Aloran Cafe. Topping tripadvisor’s recommendation, and also recommended by Kamer at Hotel Amira, I thought I’d check out what the fuss was all about.
I was greeted, most politely, by the maitre’D – Yusuf. He made me feel welcome as he seated me down and asked me whether it was my first time in Istanbul and how I was enjoying my stay. As he left me with the menu, I noticed a different name on the menu. For a second I felt conned, like someone trying to ride the fame of a number one restaurant by keeping the same name. Yusuf allayed my fears and explained how they are in the process of name change and there was no other Aloran. I decided to stay on. And I am glad I did.
For starters I ordered the mixed mezze platter. Before the platter came a rather gigantic warm bread (somewhat similar to a Naan) came along, smelling delicious and tasting as good. The platter, with various salads and hummous followed and I have to say that the spicy salad was tangy-brilliant. But my favourite on that plate remained the Kashkush salad, which is a mixture of red bellpeppers and aubergine. Simply amazing. The hummous left a bit lacking, but that could be because my taste buds are hummous-trained thanks to my numerous trips to Beirut. But still, over all a very good experience.
But that would not prepare me for my main dish – the “Testi Kebab.” I am assuming the spelling would lean towards “tasty” and not otherwise. The dish arrives in a closed earthen pot being heated over an open flame. The waiter then begins to crack open the pot, and with great finesse cracks it clean open to pour the dish – piping hot and steaming – into your plate. Needless to add that the lamb preparation I chose was utterly delicious. You could ask for the same preparation with chicken or beef. I do recommend that you get another ‘hot’ bread to go along with the main course.
After the meal is over, make sure you walk to wherever you must, because you will have to. The food is indeed a culinary journey, but it takes its toll on your stomach capacity.
At the end of my meal, Yusuf very kindly insisted on desert – on the house. But in the same spirit, I kindly refused. He might have mistaken it for politeness, but it was simply the incapacity to swallow another spoonful of anything.
Turkish Coffee, Art and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Walking back to my hotel I came across Cafe Palatium. It looked inviting from the outside. A combination of a Turkish rug store and a coffee shop. I decided to step inside and take the quieter corner. With low couches and bean bags made out of Turkish rug fabric, it is a nice place to lounge for a bit. As I got to the corner I noticed I was standing on a glass surface. Looking down I saw a mini grotto of sorts. The glass was supported by beams. But for a second, it does throw you off… literally. I made myself cosy on the couch and ordered a Turkish coffee, also known as ‘coffee’ in Turkey. Stiff and strong and sweet was the order of the day. And it came in a rather interesting little cup. At the end of my beverage I wished I had a coffee cup reader. Mainly because I saw a bird in mine. Any interpretations?
I left Palatium and walked on further and came across this small art gallery cum coffee shop. It was around 10:30 pm and although the neighbourhood had wound down, this store remained open. With anything from beadwork to fine art paintings to mini sculptures, the Constantine Art Gallery seemed to have it. I walked in, inquisitive. What got me was not the art, but the music that filled the space. It was undoubtedly Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Specifically ‘Sweet Pain’ from the Night Song album. Very moody. Very atmospheric. “Nusrat, always good, anywhere.” I remarked as the gentleman behind the computer screen arose. What’s amazing is how music can help you bond with almost random people. The same happened with me and Emre, who started discussing the better works of Nusrat and moved on to Nitin Sawhney and Niraj Chag. We exchanged music tips and I walked out of the store with much more than I had bought.
In Conclusion: I will be back!
The next morning it was time to wish Istanbul goodbye. All in all, I had a superb experience in Istanbul. Almost all people had been friendly and quite helpful. The city is a mine of ancient structures and discoveries to be made any way you turn. A four day trip can only help you scratch the surface. My facebook status stated “I think Arnie had Istanbul in mind when he said, “I’ll be back.” So I promised myself, unnecessarily, that I would return shortly. Why unnecessarily? Because I know I will.