Day 2: Istanbul

Its midnight Cinderella and I have just finished my second day in Turkey in the old city of Istanbul. Today was a whirlwind of sight, smell and experiencing. Colors that the Crayola Company has not even invented yet. I started the day sitting at the rooftop restaurant of the Best Western Obelisk hotel in the historic section at 7am, and my skin was itching a little bit, I think that the water has a little more chlorine than I am used to, but as with most things in life, this too shall pass. Breakfast was delightfully shared with a seagull that swooped down to partake in the unprotected cereal of the woman in the table next to me. She said that she did not want to waste the food and she was going to still eat it, I said two little words that changed her mind “bird flu.??? She then went inside and got another bowl.

After the morning call to prayer I went to the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia is one of the reasons that I choose this trip. In high school AP art history my teacher spoke about this Mosque / Church with such passion that it has been imprinted for almost fifteen years. When I was checking out places to go and I saw the name in print, I just knew I had to fulfill the experience.

The H. Sophia has been called the greatest house of worship in the Muslim and Christian world. The Emperor Justinian built the church in the grandest scale possible and then the Ottomans conquered and converted it into a Mosque. The H. Sophia and the Blue Mosque were in direct religious competition. The two religions operated within a five minute walk of each other and the architecture and scale reflected their desire to impress.

The inside of this mosque is impressive to say the least, it is an amazing display of engineering skill and the amount of open space that is possible by using the dome structure. I did not know this but the H. Sophia stood unchallenged as the largest place of worship for over nine hundred years. Only St. Peters eclipsed it during the renaissance but in my opinion having seen them both the nine hundred years did not establish St. Peters to be better, only bigger.

The Mosque is currently under renovation, just as most great building are around the world. It fascinates me that it take twenty years to build and fifty years to restore and then it still never matches the magnificence of the original. I know that you can google the Mosque if you are interested so I wont bore you with things that the collective already knows, but I will tell you about a temporary exhibit from the chronicles some of the times of Rumi the Sufist. The display is entitled “Being a soul in the lodge of divine love.??? And the façade is an opaque white that backlights some very beautiful and insightful phrases from Rumi.

“Nice insanlar gordum sirtlannda elbise yoktu.
Nice elbiseler gordum iclerinde insane yoktu.

I have seen many men with no clothes on them.
I have seem many clothes with no men inside them.???

To me this really reaches out and grabs my attention because it helps me to understand that the clothes do not make the man. It is the person on the inside and not the façade that has strength and longevity. That a man with principles and a man who is whole can stand naked in front of his maker and be dressed as a king. But the man who is only constructed of the fabric cannot bear scrutiny.

Inside the Mosque are the typical ornamentations that one would expect, a pulpit for the sermon and decorative elements fit for a king, but the one interactive experience was the Miracle Column of St. Gregory. It is know as the “perspiring column??? because people believed that this column wept holy water that could cure afflictions such as disease and infertility. The way to ask for you wish is by placing your thumb in the hole and if it comes out feeling damp you wish will be granted. You do this by sticking your thumb in and rotating your hand in a complete 360-degree circle withdraws it just after making your wish. Remember only one wish per day.

Then I was off to the edge of town to visit an under appreciated grail of Byzantine mosaic work. The Chora Church has mosaics that depict some of the lesser-known stories of the New Testament. I am not a new book scholar but from what I understand, most people have never heard the story of The Virgin Mary’s first Seven Steps or the Dormition of the Virgin that depicts the “sleeping Mary??? who is actually dead but no one wants to admit it… The artists capture a sense of emotion and beauty in the faces of the participants that I have never seen anywhere before. I had a real sense of connection to Mary in her blue robe and the people that were there for her funeral. I have some pictures that you can check out but the lighting in there and the limitation on using a flash really limited what I can show you.

From there the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts where I got to see my first Koran up close and personal. The museum has an elegant collection of carpets, calligraphy and ceramics that I enjoyed. I appreciated the tombstones that looked like faces and the metal work and brass minaret tops that served not only as art but also as a lighting rod. I guess that form really does follow function. Listen the carpets and fabrics were great, but once you have seen one prayer rug, you have seen them all. I do know how to identify a prayer rug versus a decorative rug now; a prayer rug will have an arrow or symbol to identify direction and the decorative rugs are usually geometric and consistent. A little boring but the view of the Blue Mosque as you walk out of the exhibit really made up for it all.

I estimate that I walked about four miles today and I am heading off to the Grand Bazaar a labyrinth of four thousand stalls that create a microcosmos of commerce. There is only one thing that I want. I need a new belt. Not just any belt but a big buckled belt that when you are wearing it, there is no option but to notice. I have been struggling to find such an item, but if it can be had, it can be had here. I am excited to try out my bargaining prowess and my ability to use a choice Turkish word for discount, which Saeed at the office told me. The word is inderum (my spelling is not great) but the word has power.

I am two hours and three thousand shops into this little outing and I have still not found what I am looking for. So I go to a leather shop and ask where I can find a belt with a buckle that makes a statement. It took a few hand gestures and a smile but he directed me outside of the bazaar to a small side street where his ‘cousin’ owns a store. It seems that everyone has a cousin here. Take some back alley tour while trying to convert meters into yards so that the directions make sense I find this small hole in the wall and what looks like the home base for a leather distribution business. There had to be a thousand belts there clumped together like the snakes on the head of medusas, but I found it… I found the belt that I wanted, and with a quoted price of eighteen liras, I was more than happy to pay a third of the ‘retail’ prices inside.

With my mission accomplished and the fourth call to prayer being announced I figured it was a good time to head back towards the hotel and go for a little dinner. When my mom told me that shopping makes you tired I never really believed her, until now. Dinner for this evening was going to be a chicken shish kabob from the side of the road, a perfect food to refuel. Dinner was uneventful and I met up with a guy from Arizona named Bruce and I let him know that the evening before I had seen a ‘water pipe bar’ and now that I was in Turkey, I would do as the Turkish do. He seemed less than pleased, but he agreed to come along and watch me smoke a little bit.

As we were heading past the Blue Mosque with the Whirling Dervish show to my left hand side the lights of the pavilion blinked once and then went dark. I then heard a group of people clapping and I said to myself “TIT – This is Turkey??? and with a smile on my face I headed down towards the bar.

Store keepers and the locals were less impacted or shocked than the tourists, because within three minutes the storefronts were lit with elegant candles and business was humming once again, even if the air conditioners were not.

We got to the bar, and I asked about the flavors. The proprietor Apo recited the flavors and I felt like a kid at a Baskin Robbins, it was really 31 Flavors. There was honey, rose, lemon, banana, coffee, raspberry and spices that I can hardly recall. My chocolate, vanilla choose exercise led me to banana, and in the back of my head I was picturing Gwen Steffani and a little smile emerged on my face.

What can I say about the experience? It was more magical and easier than I could have comprehended. The word smooth just does not do it justice. Silky seems too non-committal but it was like the highest viscosity, easiest to do activity that I could have comprehended. There was no burn, no unpleasant taste and had it not been for the puff the magic dragon coming from my nose and mouth I would not have know that I was even smoking anything. I stayed there for about an hour, sipping apple tea, and puffing away at banana flavored air. And a little before one in the morning, it was time to go to bed.