Impressions of Istanbul (and #occupygezi)

Before we start cycling we gave ourselves four days in Istanbul to wind down from the last few weeks of pre-departure panic. Here is a summary of some of the things we did and saw in this super fun city:

Aya Sofya (537
This 1500-year-old monumental Byzantine church (the world's largest church for almost a thousand years) is impressive and obviously worth the visit. It is now officially a museum after serving as both a church (for ~ 1000 years) and a mosque (for ~ 500 years). It is in a constant state of repair (a large part of the interior covered in scaffolding) which surprisingly didn't detract from the visit. Particularly interesting is the juxtaposition of Christian and Muslim decorative elements like the Jesus mosaic in the main dome directly above the mihrab (prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca).
Christian mosaic above Islamic prayer niche

Topkapi Palace (1453)
This is a huge sprawling palace complex which served as the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans. Along with multiple halls and rooms it houses a large collection of precious items. Lots of emeralds (literally a bucket of them), rubies and even the world's fifth largest diamond. It is pretty overwhelming and we sometimes felt like we were seeing the same tile-adorned room over and over again. The impressiveness of the sight seems to be in its size even if a visit can seem a little monotonous. Inside a Topkapi Palace pavilion

For an additional fee you can enter the palace's harem, former living quarters of the Sultans and their families (including concubines). The decorative features are more ornate than those of the rest of the palace and it is less crowded making for a more enjoyable pleasant visit featuring a lot of Iznik tilework, mother-of-pearl inlay and some amusing descriptive signs about the importance of concubines.

Basilica Cistern (532)
An underground cistern supported by massive columns (apparently constructed from nearby ruins). Two of the columns are resting on giant Medusa heads (which were surrounded by mobs of tourists, including us). Other than the Medusas, we could comfortably visit the cistern on its elevated walkways.
Medusa head supporting a column of the Underground Cistern
We visited five of the city's famous mosques, but not nearly all of its notable ones. The key difference between each mosque, from our very limited perspective, was the number of tourists in each of them (we've listed them from most tourists to least) had we spent more time visiting them or if we had any knowledge whatsoever of architecture we might have been able to highlight some of their respective key features. Instead here are some photos:

Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque (1616)
View of the Blue Mosque from Aya Sofya

Afternoon in the busy inner courtyard of the Blue Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque (1558)
Inner courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque

Rüstem Paşa Mosque (1563)
Ceiling of the Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Yeni (New) Mosque (1665)
The busy square outside the New Mosque

Şehzade Mehmet Mosque (1548)
The quiet Şehzade Mehmet Mosque 

The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar

With no desire to purchase anything, we explored the bazaars as tourist attractions, which is what they are. The only locals in either bazaar are the sellers. Both were still fun to explore but the Spice Bazaar's displays were a little bit more novel and colourful. The fact that the markets are centuries old adds a little bit of mystique to the rows of trinket and carpet stalls. Turkish delight on sale at the Spice Bazaar

Touring the Grand Bazaar

Istanbul is extremely touristy. We had heard this repeatedly before arriving, but somehow pictured it differently. There are hundreds of tour buses, huge crowds at major attractions, wall-to-wall souvenir stalls and restaurants with inflated tourist prices. This is not to say that we didn't like it, that it isn't justifiably well-visited nor that it isn't easy to get off the tourist trail. On the contrary, we enjoyed our stay very much and found the touts to be far less annoying than other places we'd visited. We were never ripped off and within a few blocks from the main tourist streets found very well-priced delicious food. The setting of the city, at the confluence of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus Straight and the Golden Horn is amazing with views of the water from almost every rooftop. In four days of sight-seeing we checked off items from our list of “must-sees” and “must-dos” leaving us little time to discover the city, but we did our best and we will surely return.

Occupy Gezi

The real highlight of our visit was Taksim Square the heart of the recent Turkish uprising which began with a protest to save Gezi Park, a small green space in the heart of a city with very few such spaces and quickly grew into a movement encompassing hundreds of thousands of Turks in dozens of cities across the country. In the face of an increasingly conservative and autocratic government people took to the streets with a broad range of concerns (police brutality, freedom of assembly, decrease in secularism, war in Syria...).
In a country that in 2013 ranked 154th out of 179 on the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders , people have turned to social media and alternative news sources to share their stories of what is happening in Turkey. For a comprehensive description of the movement check out the Wikipedia link 2013 Protests in Turkey or twitter #OccupyGezi

We visited in the afternoon on the day that the police began "clearing" the square (June 11th 2013). After overcoming the initial unease at the sight of water cannons, flying tear gas canisters and flaming barricades we visited Gezi Park where hundreds of protestors were still peacefully camped out. Our only disappointment was not being able to speak Turkish so that we could tell everyone there how inspired we were.

1 comment:

mom said...

The Medusa head is in Dan Brown's new book-Inferno.