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  • Shelley Dark

7. A ripper of a day

My darling travellers

Carolyn and I have just had a drink in the bar downstairs - apparently there are some very good Turkish wines, but I had to have a pinot grigio from the Veneto (after your tutoring Carolyna!). Carolyn loves gin and soda on lots of ice. But I’ll be doing my homework for you diligently and trying Turkish wines as soon as I can…..

At first I thought that tonight I might just go to bed and catch up on some sleep (woke at 5am this morning as usual - old habits are hard to break!). But I’m finding myself wanting to share this wonderful day with you. An exhilarating day. Istanbul is mind-blowing.

My Turkish is improving. I love calling out ‘merhaba’ to anyone who catches my eye, a little like a demented person. Our guide Sardar (pronounced Sardash - yes I know. Ridiculous!) taught us yesterday that thank you sounds like ‘tea-sugar-a-dream’. I tried it many times, and was mostly met with blank stares or politely stifled laughter. One helpful shopkeeper told me that an easier way of saying thank you is sar-ool as in wool. That’s worked much better. I even managed to get a man selling pots and pans to return my ‘merhaba’ with a touch to his heart and then his head. I think it meant he wished me love and a few more brains. I did it back to him. Carolyn bought two pairs of sunglasses at a very upmarket shop and the man there taught me how to say goodbye. I think it was ‘alas-man’. Will try that out tomorrow.

Todays delights were slightly different from our itinerary - it was raining on and off which didn’t look like dampening our enthusiasm, plus there was a huge cruise ship arriving this afternoon so we went to the Blue Mosque ahead of the hordes tomorrow and there was no queue at all - apparently sometimes you can wait for an hour. We’ll add in the Archaeology Museum tomorrow. Today we mosqued ourselves silly.

When you are reading tourist guides to Istanbul, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Süleymaniye mosque all rate up near the top. But in each one I read, there was an added exhortation not to miss the Chora museum, a 20 min ride (chora means outside, as in outside the city). It was the absolute highlight of the day.

A gem of Byzantine architecture, it was first built as a monastery in the early 5th century, and stood outside the defensive city walls. Byzantine means from the time when the capital of the Roman Empire was Constantinople (Istanbul), named after the emperor Constantine. During the Ottoman empire in the 16th century it was converted to a mosque, and because images were forbidden to the Islamic religion, the mosaics were covered over with plaster. The mosque became a museum in 1948. Its mosaics and frescoes which in part tell the story of Joseph and Mary and the birth of Jesus, were added in the early 1300’s, and are among the finest Byzantine art remaining in the world.

The actual tiles themselves are teeny tiny. It's hard to comprehend just how they managed such beautiful work. And the artist or artists are unknown. Imagine having your work last for 700 years, and no one remembering who you are!

We also visited the Rüstem Pasha Mosque built around 1561. Like the others, it’s a working mosque, so closes at times of the day for the prayers of the faithful. I liked its honest simplicity as you can see in the photo below. You can get a cricked neck from looking upwards. By the way, the muezzin is the man who calls people to prayers, and the imam is the one who leads the prayers. There is a staircase looking affair where he stands - never at the top because that position is reserved for the prophet Mohammed.

Istanbul, like Rome is built on seven hills. I think we have climbed all of them in two days. The weather is warm but very steamy - it’s easy to get quite hot. From this last mosque, we climbed to the Süleymaniye mosque. Streets are lined with vendors selling everything from mops to Turkish slippers and of course the ubiquitous Turkish delight. One vendor heard me saying SOOLAMAN mosque, and quickly corrected me. SOOL-A-MAN-YUH. Don’t forget the YUH at the end he admonished with a smile. I walked up the hill chorussing SOOL-A-MAN-YUH. Sounds nice doesn’t it? We walked by way of the Istanbul University, established mid 1800’s.

Then the Süleymaniye Mosque with the most beautiful and touching national treasure cemetery beside it. I gasped, honestly, when I saw it. Many tomb stones from the ornate to the simple, from soldiers to babies. And iris growing out of holes left in the stone.

Inside the mosque, the courtyard has columns resurrected from ruins all over the city - it’s quite fun to see red pillars next to marble, next to other stone. And the view from the Süleiman mosque - a vast panorama of the Bosphorus, with ships, ferries, boats of all sizes and shapes whizzing around. Breath-taking.

We went to the Chora museum and back by bus and then tram. We’ve done the full gamut of public transport and it’s been fun to engage with native Istanbullians if that’s a real word! The men gallantly give up their seats as soon as we get on, and there’s much smiling all around. I love the eyes of the women, often beautifully made up with kohl pencil, eye shadow and mascara, faces framed by scarves. More women wear scarves than those who do not, but no one seems to mind. The burkha is seen but is not very common.

It was raining when we arrived at the Hippodrome - so called because it’s the area where the Romans held their chariot races, and where 23000 people in revolt against the emperor were slain. There’s an Egyptian obelisk at one end, brought to the city by the emperor at great expense - but it’s rather shortened, as it was broken in half on the journey.

The Blue Mosque is very beautiful. The blue Iznik tiles are hardly noticeable as they are on the mezzanine floor, but it’s the domes which I so loved. The main dome is actually blood red and royal blue on white, but in photos it appears pastel coloured - perhaps a function of the light from the windows which surround the dome. The 5 supporting pillars are called elephant columns, because of their massive scale. The photo shows how big they are - I put my bag down next to it to show you - it looks like a doll's bag.

Lunch at the Pudding Place in Sultanahmet - we surprised at the blandness of the food there. Good wholesome food, but no kick at all. I had a beer, which was very similar to Australian beer.

The Basilica Cistern is an underground water supply built by the Romans. It’s hard to imagine the technology required to do it.

The spice bazaar was great fun. Exactly as you would imagine. Our guide, as guides do, took us to his ‘favourite’ shop where they sell the most exotic teas you can imagine. I am not fond of feathery-leg teas. But Good for Love Nights tea, was an instant hit. I drank a big glass and wanted to eat all the flowers left at the bottom. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was, and fragrant. Of course I had to buy some. Yes, that's it below.

Before we came home, we booked to see a Whirling Dervish show tomorrow night. Not your tourist rubbish, but fine art dancing, so our guide said. This was Carolyn’s idea and I’m really excited about it!

And now to bed. Gosh I’ve loved telling you about our day. We had booked a restaurant for dinner, but we cancelled it. Neither of us are big eaters, and after a big lunch, were happy with the nuts in the bar, where we laughed until we cried. I don’t even remember what was so funny now! Must ask Carolyn tomorrow. She’s a great travelling companion.

So now here I am, ready for bed. Right now, you are sleeping. May angels guard thy slumbers. And when you wake, have a wonderful day!

shelley dark, writer 

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