Byzantine Istanbul

Today, I set out to explore Istanbul alone.

My first stop was the Bascilica Cistern. It’s the last mega-tourist attraction I really wanted to see, and I wanted to go when it opened to avoid the crowds. There was a que outside the door when I arrived, which initially concerned me. However, once we got inside, they all lolly gagged at the entrance. I took off immediately, and it was a big place, so it felt very empty. It’s nice not to have to compete with big crowds.

The lady in front of me in the line was from Alaska, which was cool. She’s the first other American I’ve met. When it was my turn to buy my ticket, I was 4 lira short and they only took cash. I was about to make a mad dash to the ATM, but the very kind gentleman behind me covered the difference.

I mentioned yesterday that my Italian friends said that the cistern was more beautiful than the Hagia Sophia. I don’t agree, but I do think the cistern is a very solid runner up. It’s incredible and ancient. It’s one of the oldest things in the city. They have a wooden path running between the pillars so you can walk all the way through it. It’s enormous. It could potentially hold up to 100,000 tons of water. The original function was to store reserve water in case the city was ever under seige. It has hundreds of columns. Each is 9 meters high, but they were probably mover to the cistern from other locations because they vary in style. Two hidden on the very back are placed on plinths of Roman carvings of Medusa heads. No one is sure why.

It’s dark and atmospheric and contemplative, and unobtrusive classical music is playing through it. There are some unfortunate kiosks near the entrance, but they aren’t too distracting once you get away from them. Oh, and there are fish.

After emerging back out into the sun, I set off to see the Byzantine Mosaics at the Chora Museum. It was quite far, so I decided to walk as far as the Roman Aquaduct (about half way) and then catch a cab.

I got a little turned around at first but I made it to the Aquaduct pretty easily. The walk was interesting. I stopped in a large mosque I happened to pass. I didn’t catch it’s name, but it was gorgeous. I also got my first taste of the less-touristy side of Istanbul. It was a little more conservative, but mostly calmer. There weren’t too many women on the streets, and of the women more covered their head than in Sultanhamet.

So the Aquaduct itself was bizarre. A giant freeway runs under it. it’s cool, but it feels like you’re just standing there watching traffic. There isn’t anything that acknowledges its existence, except that the cars swerve around it.

I walked a bit further before I found a cab who had heard of the museum I wanted to go to. That should have been my first clue about just how far off the beaten path I was about to go. The place was recommended to me by the lady who I met on the place, but very highly reviewed online it’s mosaics are quite famous.

and rightly so! They were gorgeous. It’s really too bad how damaged most of them are. Many we’re destroyed or covered in plaster when turkey became a Muslim state, and earthquakes have done a lot of damage as well. But still, they were impressive. The guards were nice, too. They pointed out some of the specific saints for me.

from there, I headed to the city walls which were about two blocks away. They were blessedly and frighteningly untouched by tourism. I was the only one there. They were literally just 30 or 40 foot tall ancient walls. There was a staircase leading up the side with no railings, and no railings at the top. I walked along it until the section ended, then went down and back up a different stair to the next section.

Two people went up right before I did. There was a Turkish man and a girl around my age. The girl was about to climb up a steep ladder/staircase another 15 feet to a higher level that lead to a tower. I told her I was right behind her.

We encouraged each other and chatted for a bit at the top, and helped each other take kickass photos. The view was way better than Galata Tower, and it was free. The girl was a German who lives in Berlin, but she coincidentally studied in Brighton for a few years.

After we made it down alive, I showed her the way back to the Chora Curch (where she was going next) and she told me about a nearby restaurant from her travel guide. I had lunch there. It was called Asitane, and it was amazing. They say that dining there is like a history lesson. Ey only serve traditional Ottoman food. It was so delicious, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who visits that area.

I left to sit outside and look at my map. It’s a very residential neighborhood. It’s funny. People have been pretty good about giving directions if you ask them, but in the quieter neighborhoods, anyone who sees you with a map asks where you’re going and offers to help. It’s not uncommon for them to just walk you to your destination, even when its 15 minutes away or cold or raining. The children are especially friendly. One cute little boy showed me to the restaurant earlier. I think they like practicing their English.

when I was sitting in the park trying to decide where to go next, another boy (younger than my brother Michael) came up to chat. He introduced himself, his two friends, and his dog, always with the phrase “my name is…” His English was really impressive though, and I didn’t want to correct his pronoun use. We chatted for a little while, and when we said goodby he shook my hand and kissed me on both cheeks. It was sugh a funny mix of cultures and so cute.

i decided to go to another mosaic museum that my lunch waiter had recommended. I didn’t get more than 5 feet, map in hand, before a man swooped in to help me. He escorted me all the way to the church, which was almost a 20 minute walk. He spoke no English. We took only side streets and alleys, which made me a little nervous. But the safety guides say that daytime is very safe and anywhere that there are women or children is usually safe as well, and there were always at least a few women about. There were some stunning views in route. Istanbul is very hilly, so there are lots of moments where you can suddenly see an amazing panorama between two buildings.

The Fethiye Museum didn’t have as many mosaics and frescos as the Chora, but the ones were in better shape. Well, mostly. a few of the saints had their faces scratched out, a cross was scraped out, and some were missing their eyes. it sounds bad when you say it like that, but it was honestly really amazing. And even the fact that it was deliberately destroyed is pretty interesting.

I was he only one ere. And if that doesn’t tell you how off the beaten path it is, this will:

one of the Istanbul reviews I read online said that despite her fears, the toilets were all western.  She carried around toilet paper the whole time and it turned out for no reason. I didn’t know what she meant and I didn’t think much of it. Then, at the Fethiye Museum, I asked where the bathroom was. The man grabbed some keys and walked me outside the museum entrance and around the side of the building. He went in first to make sure no one was there, then let me go in and locked the door behind me. I’m thinking women don’t use public restrooms much in these parts. The first thing I see is a place for people to wash their feet. This kinda makes sense, because there are mosques everywhere and therefore places for foot washing everywhere. It’s a little gross that it’s in a restroom, but I accept that.

I look into a stall, and don’t really see anything. There’s nothing in the other stall, either. It smells like urine, so I have to be close. I think about the foot-washing bench, and quickly dismiss that. Then I see a drain in the floor in the middle of the stall, in a shallow porcelain basin in the floor, and I know what I’m meant to do. But that makes it really, really gross that people wash their feet there.

After I finished admiring the mosaics, I started walking, hoping to find a main road where I could get a cab. The streets of Istanbul are crazy, though, and again it was just interesting to walk through the non tourist parts of the city. I think school had just let out, because the streets were full of children. I wandered into a few scarf stores and bakeries. I decided my best bet would be coffee, and Turkish coffee was on my list of things to do.

I stopped in a place where I saw a lot of people gathered, drinking coffee and smoking. I didn’t realize until I was inside that they were all men. When I came in, they all went outside. I am fairly certain, based on this experience.that Turkish coffee is simply dry instant coffee with about a spoonful of hot water, not enough to dissolve. the serving is about the same size as an espresso, but only the top third is thin enough to drink. The rest is mud.

When I finally found my way back to a main road, it was at the exact place I had picked up taxi before. I decided I would walk all the way back, since I approximately knew the way and the weather was so wonderful. Also, I had time to stop by both the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar, conveniently en route.

The Spice Bazaar was first. It is the smaller of the two and is supposed to have (slightly) better prices. It was crazy. Spices, teas, and candy were everywhere. There were stores in between with small goods, but it was all about the food. It was packed shoulder to shoulder, and e vendors were mean and aggressive.

Outside the bazaar, there are still shops for blocks and blocks. Like shopping suburbs. I stoppEd in a few to see clothes, and that experience is quite different than in the states. You undress yourself, and then the shopkeeper (always a woman) re dresses you. Very odd.

I thought I was just going to go back to the hotel after that. My energy was totally gone, and it was getting to be near dusk. Then I had one of those street vendor bagels I was talking about, so when I ran across the Grand Bazaar quite on accident I felt strong enough to give it a shot. It was a completely different experience. I expected it to be crowded like the Spice Bazaar, but it was nothing like it.

Again, it felt like I had Istanbul to myself. It was just me and the shopkeepers, who were often too busy talking to each other to talk to me. The ones who did talk to me were more interested in knowing where I was from than selling me anything. Even after explaining that I had not nearly the money to even haggle over fur/leather/silk/rugs/cashmere/gold/ivory, they wanted to chat about other things or have me sign their guest book. It was nice, I was just so tired.

the bazaar closed at 7. I got a little lost coming back to the hotel. But I found my way. I stopped by a little convenience store to get juice and water. My nose has been running like a faucet in the wind and cold, and I was feeling really dehydrated. There, I ran into a fur vendor from the bazaar. He had been quite nice, and when I explained that I wasn’t feeling well he invited me to come to his house for apple tea. I declined.

I also ended up not meeting with Alberto and Tomas tonight. It’s dark so I don’t want to walk alone, and a taxi that far is too expensive for just one. I think it will be good to get some rest and be fresh for tomorrow.

I skipped the Turkish bath today. I decided it made more sense to do first thing in the morning or last thing at night, so I didn’t have to waste time in the day by putting on makeup twice. I invited Alberto and Tomas to come. Tomorrow is their last day, and I don’t know if they have plans before their fliGht. Obviously then men and women have separate sections,but we could walk together.

hopefully between hydration, sleep, and the hot bath, I’ll be feeling more energized and less congested by tomorrow. There is no sudafed here.


3 thoughts on “Byzantine Istanbul

  1. Another day to remember — for sure. I’m afaid the ol’ U.S.A. is going to seem pretty boring when you get back. I googled the Cistern and it is amazing. Lucky girl.

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