Refreshed and raring to start my second day in Istanbul I planned to see Haiga Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul Archaeology Museum and more. Playing it safe I wore trousers as custom dictates wearing shorts is not normally allowed in mosques, the weather too wasn’t what I had become acclimatised to either with a bit of an autumn bite in the air. Even the slow 10-15 minute walk from my hotel to Haiga Sophia I passed plenty of interesting looking places, some new, some old others who knows but this is a unique city filled with people from the four corners of the globe.
I had no idea that Haiga Sophia was so old when I first saw it, it is very big, stout in stature, mixed architecture and a bit neglected…those were my first impressions, putting things into context often changes perspectives. Haiga Sophia is 1500 years old! Built during the early part of the 6th century as the hub of Greek Orthodox in the area it remained a cathedral till 1453, only briefly serving as a Roman Catholic Cathedral during the time of the Crusaders 1204 – 1261 – it was the biggest cathedral for almost 1000 years, succeeded by the Seville cathedral in 1520. As almost all churches in the area it was converted into a mosque and between 1453 till 1931, in 1935 it was changed into a museum.
Haiga Sophia was under restoration when I visited, (as were quite a few places in Istanbul) a great to see they’re investing in preserving such heritage, this is a special building. Not just historically or architecturally is this a wonderful building but the condition and grandeur, most notably inside, makes it nothing short of wonderful. From the exterior, except for the four minarets (assuming they were additions when it was converted into a mosque), looks like an integration of circles and squares put together like a jigsaw puzzle. The interior is almost entirely marble, a mix of deep colours dominated with a misty grey, such large facades of grey could make this a dark space but not so. The colours throughout the interior are offset with lots of windows, none very big for such a colossal building, golden mosaic ceiling reliefs. Even with these clever architectural and decorative inclusions the inside should still be dark. Whether it’s because of hundreds of years of use or how the marble was originally polished, or both, the light tingles off every surface from the smooth stone, reflecting all the light from the windows and the low hanging pendulum chandeliers.
Yes, there have been many changes to Haiga Sophia, only noticeable at closer inspection, but at first glance the buildings changes/additions are seamless and add to its majestic nature. The decorative walls and ceilings look like paintings, upon closer inspection they are in fact mosaics; there must be millions upon millions of tesserae! When the Ottoman Empire reconquered Constantinople in 1453, they were so impressed with the cathedral they converted into a mosque, in the process removing most Christian iconography; part of that process included plastering over most of the mosaics. Throughout the church some of this plaster is falling off to reveal the artistic treasure beneath, there must be hundreds of square meters cocooned from eyesight, only time will dictate what they behold.
The lighting in the church, a remnant from its mosque conversion I imagine hang delicately yet precariously from the ceiling. Thin cables from a distance near invisible connected high up in the ceiling rafters connect to low hanging large brass circular chandeliers, so low you could touch some of them if you jumped. These pendulum lights have a unique way of illuminating the space around and give you a clear view of the vaulted ceilings and seem to give you a feeling of less clutter and openness.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque/Sultan Ahmet Mosque/Blue Mosque
Haiga Sophia was the main mosque in Istanbul until the Blue Mosque (as it’s commonly known) was built in 1606-1616. At 400 years old the Blue Mosque is in impeccable condition, I had no idea it was that old, thinking maybe built in the latter part of the 20th century. Standing outside, the overcast sky and scattered blue piercing through shining down on the dim blue domed rooves and the grey blue hew stone, this building does have an aura about it. It is massive, standing boldly and resolute whilst camouflaged into the surroundings, build on top of a Byzantine Palace it stands proudly visibly for miles.
Inside the Blue Mosque is no disappointment, detailed down to every millimeter including over 20 000 individual lznik style tiles just on the lower level. Without doubt it is elaborately decorated but not ornate, no, it has an uplifting feel inside and like so many other mosques it is understated and not verbose. The chandeliers apparently used to be gilded in gold and has crystals and precious stones, alas they are no longer, now in museums and who knows where, for the better I think. It is splendid inside without being ostentatious, a true sense of classy decoration that only a lot of money, style and intention can get you.
The colour inside a mix of blues, mustard, red, sandstone brown-red and natural stone adds to the airiness and calming mood. With four (I think) wide pillars as the main supports they hardly detract from the openness of the interior, they fade into the background decoration. For such a large space there seems little support to hold up the massive domed rooves adding to the visual of one gigantic room with a plush red and gold carpet underfoot.
Instead of trying to replicate an updated version of the Haiga Sophia, the Blue Mosque is moulded out of its own, with one exception in my opinion, here they made the exterior understatedly bold and takes prominence of position within the city. I don’t know how you make dominance unobtrusive for such a colossal structure, maybe the colour helps it blend into the sky…most times you look need to be looking up few degrees to take in the panoramic size. Calling this a classy building in every respect from architecture, decoration, the mood it creates, the Blue Mosque makes positive addition to the hilltop and entire area without even considering it is over 400 years old – this is a WOW building.
Heading back to where I was yesterday I had the Topkapi Palace on the cards, grrrrr, only to find out it was closed….but was yesterday, oh well, my fault! Nothing lost, so I wondered around then headed to the museums. The main museum, I’ll get to it shortly, was being renovated so what looked like a lovely building was masked by scaffolding. Opposite the main museum I saw a smallish stately like building at first, I dismissed it for an administrative building of sorts, it’s not, this is the Tiled Museum, great little stop too.
It used to be a pavilion within the Topkapi Palace and built in 1472, to put that into perspective in 1492 Christopher Columbus spotted land in the Bahamas. It forms part of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums as a standalone building with primary displays of ceramics and tiles. Not the biggest of museums, I would highly recommend going in especially if you have any interest in ceramics, if not I’d still go…the colours, designs on display are fantastic, especially if you like blue!
Istanbul Archaeology Museum
As I mentioned the museum was under restoration, a lot of the areas were closed off making walking through it disjointed i.e. there were two separate entrances which were not interconnected, not an issue nor inconvenience. In the first section, there is a master exhibition of marble carvings, mostly sarcophaguses in Roman/Greek style – they are frankly amazing!
The intricate detail of the sarcophaguses is just awe-inspiring, with so many on exhibit I’ve not seen such quality on mass. Not a room packed to the brim with whatever they could get their hands on, no, this exhibit has some of the finest examples I’ve seen. Huge pieces of marble made into the daintiest of features, no subject avoided for complexity; flowing gowns, lions, galloping horses mounted by fighting soldiers the stone worked to resemble skin and body.
If the quality of these beautiful works of art are questioned, then simply look at what has been left outside, not fit to meet the standards or comparison to what is inside! Museums around the world would fight tooth and nail just to display what is here left to their garden decoration.
Through the other entrance of the museum is a plethora of examples and exhibits covering Turkish history and surroundings. I took loads of pictures and would need an anthology of a blog just to over what is in the museum, so instead I’ve included just one exhibit. It may seem insignificant and I think many people just walk past this old chain! This is part of the chain that was used to close off the Golden Horn by spanning it across the water from Constantinople to the old Galata Tower. A unique and ingenious way to stop or at least slow ships down trying to enter the city.
A few other interesting things whilst meandering through Istanbul, the Walled Obelisk/Constantine Obelisk/Masonry Obelisk; just over 32m high and reconstructed by Constantine VII it is in a sorry state, only resembling an obelisk by its shape from a distance. Supposedly gilded in bronze when constructed, the Fourth Crusaders removed these and melted them down. Janissaries used the obelisk as a climbing wall which added to its deterioration and the state we see it in today.
There is so much more to see in Istanbul, no rush I had another two days to explore…or so I thought! The last two days in Istanbul were frustratingly disappointing, nothing to do with the city, but the weather, raining cats and dogs for two days. The temperature plummeted too into the low teen’s, that’s not that cold but I had become accustomed to mid-20’s being cold ?! Not the end of the world, it gave me time to catch up on some writing and it did clear up in the afternoon of the second day. I didn’t do much that afternoon, just walked about exploring the city, this and Turkey is high up on my list to do a thorough exploration. A unique city for every possible reason whether it be religion, history, location and so on and so on. Haiga Sophia and the Blue Mosque may be the biggest attractions in the city by size but they are just a fraction of what Istanbul has on offer. From my ever so brief visit I have done Istanbul no justice let alone Turkey!
Next stop was heading back to South Africa, I’ll spend a few days in Cape Town before visiting my mother in Montagu, then Windhoek in Namibia for my friend’s wedding, then back to Montagu for Christmas before heading off to spend New Year in the Eastern Cape with friends. That would be the prelude before my next big trip over 7 months…more of that to follow…I write this whilst in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Istanbul was a two part blog, too much to do in one, here is the link to the first part Istanbul, Ancient Great Constantinople. As usual here are some additional pictures from Istanbul. Ps. All the pictures were taken with my phone!