There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Istanbul (2): The Cistern and the Dolmabahçe Palace

Istanbul is home to some of the world’s greatest mosques; it was, however, one of the smallest that most affected our stay. The Direkli Mosque, fifty metres from our hotel, may be tiny and the minaret may be merely a token, but it possesses a state of the art sound system. Dawn prayers were called, it seemed, by a muezzin sitting on the end of our bed.

After breakfast, we walked back into Sultanahmet, this time heading for the Basilica Cistern. Built by Justinian in 532 AD to supply water to the Great Palace, the cistern was lost during Ottoman rule but rediscovered when they found the locals going fishing in their basements.

The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Descending the 52 stone steps, we entered a cavern considerably larger than a football pitch, its 9 m high roof supported by 336 columns. Fed by a system of aqueducts from a source 20 Km north of the city, the water is currently about a metre deep. When in use it was considerably deeper, but there is still ample to provide a home for hundreds, if not thousands, of carp. Walkways allow the visitor to stroll between the columns to the present end of the cistern (a third of it was bricked up in the nineteenth century). The columns are a mixed bunch, being recycled from various sites in Constantinople and further away. Two, at the far end, have been placed on Medusa head pedestals. In one case the Medusa is inverted, in the other turned through 90º. The idea may have been to negate the petrifying power of the Gorgon’s gaze, or perhaps it was the easiest way to make them fit. Opinions are divided.

Inverted Medusa head pedestal, Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Back at ground level we made our way to Gülhane Park which surrounds the Topkapı Palace (the dotless i indicating a vowel unstressed almost to the state of nonexistence) and found our way to the buildings containing Istanbul’s archeological treasures.

The Museum of Oriental history concentrates on the Babylonians and Assyrians, and has a truly remarkable display. The glazed friezes from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate caused some excitement, but the Assyrians are Lynne’s specialist subject and she was thrilled to find all her heroes were there; particularly Sennacherib, Shalmaneser IV and Tiglath-Pileser III. These 8th and 9th century BC kings were present as statues and also represented by the clay tablets so carefully scratched out in the cuneiform writing Lynne learned to read and translate at university.

Babylonian lion, Museum of Oriental History, Istanbul

It is a shame that most of the names we know from the dawn of history are of warriors with outsized egos. The contribution to human progress of Sennacherib and his cohorts was, I suspect, largely negative. I also never cease to be amazed that at least three times in history doting parents have looked at their newborn son lying gurgling in his crib and one of them has murmured, ‘I know, we’ll call him Tiglath-Pileser’.

Across the courtyard, the Museum of Archaeology houses a collection of ‘more recent’ artefacts from Sidon in modern Lebanon. The featured exhibits are a series of elaborately carved marble sarcophagi. The finest shows Alexander the Great hunting on one side and fighting the Persians on another. There are also two busts of Alexander, which are, more or less, contemporary with him.

Outside the park we looked for a light lunch and found a faux-Ottoman nargile café where trendy youths puffed away at the water pipes which have recently become unaccountably fashionable. We settled for Turkish coffee (this time excellent), Baklava and a plate of mixed Turkish Delight. It looked pretty and tasted wonderful; as a lunch it may have been low on fibre, but there was plenty of sugar.

Light lunch with ample sugar
Baklava, Turlish Delight and sweet Turlish coffee
We took the tram down to the Golden Horn, across the Galata Bridge and on to the end of the line. A ten-minute walk past the Beşiktaş Football Stadium brought us to the Dolmabahçe Palace.

Here comes the tram
Sultanahmet, Istanbul

The Ottoman Empire reached its zenith in 1529 when the armies of Süleyman the Magnificent reached the gates of Vienna. His son, Selim the Sot, seemed less capable of focussing on military expansion - or indeed on anything at all. For three hundred years the Ottoman Empire, like the Byzantine Empire before it, gradually decreased in size, power and wealth.

Realising they were falling behind, a series of nineteenth century sultans set about reform and modernisation, importing European ideas wholesale. In 1856 Abdül Mecit I decided the latest phase of modernisation would involve moving out of the Topkapı Palace, the homes of the Sultans since the fifteenth century, and building himself a whacking great European style palace beside the Bosphorus. Exactly how he thought this would help, particularly as he lacked the money to pay for it, is a mystery.

Lynne at the Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul

The Dolmabahçe Palace, the fruits of Abdül Mecit’s labour, is huge and magnificent, or at least it hangs somewhere between magnificence and bad taste. Despite being built largely in the baroque style the palace includes harem quarters, suggesting the sultan’s commitment to Europeanisation was, at most, partial.

Inside the entrance is a salon where visiting ambassadors waited to see the emperor. It was built to impress. We walked through the ground floor offices before climbing to the Sultan’s quarters via the ‘crystal staircase’, a double horseshoe staircase with balusters of Baccarat crystal. The Sultan clearly intended to live in comfort, but his main bathroom, carved from solid alabaster, may have been better to look at than to use.

After the First World War put an end to the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, had an apartment in the palace. He died there at 9.05 on the 10th of November 1938. Officially, all the palace clocks are stopped at 9.05. Unofficially, that is not quite true; it seems beyond the wit of humanity to have all the clocks telling the same time, even when they are stopped.

The Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul

We descended to the Ceremonial Hall, designed to hold receptions for up to 2500 people and lit by the largest chandelier in Europe, all four and a half tonnes of it. Although it was made in England, Trotter’s Independent Traders did not win the contract to clean it. The hall is a huge domed room, but only the third largest domed room we had seen in the previous thirty hours.

For a while we sat in the gardens in the sunshine watching a couple of dolphins making their way up the Bosphorus. It was almost warm enough for Lynne to remove her pullover, but not quite.

A place to sit and watch dolphins
Bosphorus Gate, Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul

The tram took us home, perhaps not by the most direct route, but certainly the quickest. In the square by the Beyazit tram stop we bought some hot chestnuts; their sweet chewy flesh a perfect accompaniment to a drink before dinner. Hot chestnuts stands are common on the streets of Istanbul; I do not know if they have disappeared from English streets or I now live in the wrong place. If they have gone away, they should be brought back immediately.

For dinner we let a tout con us into a restaurant on the fourth floor of a nearby hotel. There was nothing obviously wrong with the restaurant, it was smart and well appointed - but empty. We ordered different lamb dishes which were satisfactory and reasonably priced, but there is little pleasure in being the only customers in an empty restaurant. After our main course the management seemed to lose interest in us, so we paid the bill and did what many Turkish people do, we went to a café for dessert. A glass of tea and a mixed plate of Baklava and Kadayıf is about as good as desserts get. The usual description of Kadayıf as ‘shredded wheat soaked in syrup’ does scant justice to its sticky loveliness.

Before turning in we checked the weather forecast. Almost the whole of southern Europe had spent the day bathed in warm sunshine, temperatures in Rome and Madrid had been in the high twenties and even in the north, temperatures over 20º were expected to continue in London and Birmingham. The exception to this rosy picture was Europe’s southeast corner. Being so far south and relatively close to the Mediterranean I had naively expected sunshine, but Istanbul was forecast to be no warmer than 14º - though rain was, fortunately, considered unlikely.


1 comment:

  1. We loved the cafe culture and also easily fell into coffee and cake in a tempting coffee shop after our meal. Very sweet memories!