Why is it that whenever I to go to the great monuments of the world, I always seem to be on the Scaffolding Tour? Great architecture doesn’t stay great with out a bit of maintenance…. that I totally understand, but for some reason I always seen to plan my “I’ve got my ticket and I’m on my way” with the major upgrade or renovation planning dates of the city officials. Mind you, this always makes M happy. He just loves anything that can be intricately erected, disassembled within ‘minutes’ and has that dishevelled look in the meantime. If it’s on a Château, a church or covering a large piece of art, all the better as it means I’ll spend less time there.
So it was with a sinking of heart that when I stepped through the imperial gate into the magnificent atrium of the Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest cathedrals in the world, and aside the Sistine chapel, one of the most intricately painted pieces of art adorning a church, I saw great swathes of scaffolding covering one whole side from floor to ceiling and taking up at least a quarter of the atrium’s space. The incredible centre dome I’d been eager to see (especially after watching Joanna Lumley’s recent doco – The Search for Noahs Ark) was only partly visible. Its size and grandeur diminished by the steel cubed poles that rose towards it. Only two of the ‘six-winged angles’ could be clearly seen and a third ‘six-winged angle’, the one with the face, was partially obscured (there are four in total).
Still, despite the scaffolding, the intensity of the artwork, the depths in the mosaics and the enormity of the monolithic columns were inspiring to see. I stood there staring up, contemplating how within five years (that’s all it took! And this was back in 532) over 10,000 people constructed this building that was to surpass the scale and architecture complexity any other church ever built in its time or within its future. The main dome at 31meters in diameter rises to a height of 55.6 meters.
I shake my head, How in the world did they conceive this back then. The Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) began as a Orthodox basilica. Then in 1204 it was looted and defiled in the Fourth Crusade before becoming a Roman Catholic Cathedral until 1261 when the Byzantines took it back. It underwent another change in 1543 and was converted to Mosque and restored back to glory by Sultan Mehmed II. It remained so until the great unifier of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had the building converted into a museum.
When M and I left the Aya Sofya it was well after 2pm. We had been inside for nearly four hours…. it truly is that interesting and amazing to explore and behold. One of our cameras had gone flat so off popped M back to the room to recharge it, whilst I went in search for food - not that one has trouble with search for delicious eats in Istanbul (or as in my case, the Sultanahmet area), no, the problem is deciding on which delicious morsel to eat.
Armed with our lamb kebaps in fresh crusty bread, I wandered down to the Hippodrome to wait for M when to my delight a number of rally cars and trucks trundled into the square to cheers. They parked all over the centre of the Hippodrome, some erected tents and picnic tables, others had set up a set of small soccer goal posts and begun a quick game. All the cars were decked out in sponsorship stickers along with various items such as plush teddy bears and children’s pedal cars.
One team had two cars stacked with wheel chairs on their roof-racks. It was the “Allgeau-Orient” Klasik Otomobil Rallisi" (Europe-Asia Classic Automobile Rally) and they were racing their way to Jordon, having started in Germany. The Rallys aim was to raise money for a children’s hospital in Jordan and the paraphernalia adorning the cars and stacked inside were for the hospital too. There was 100teams competing and it turned out Istanbul was the third day stop. Three days to come from Germany to Istanbul, driving ‘clap out bangers’ - I was amazed.
M arrived back and we toured the incoming cars, chatted with drivers and signed the bonnets of the cars. There was a party atmosphere happening with lots of music and laughter and again I thanked the powers that be for the serendipity of fate in being here at this time.
And now it was time for my much anticipated visit to the Sultan Ahmet - the Blue Mosque.
Almost 35years after seeing my first picture of the Mosque and vowing to one day stand on its steps, I was now about to enter it. I could not wait to see the famous blue tiles that gave the building it’s western name. We joined the queue of tourists visiting the mosque, me donning a head scarf and long skirt over my 3/4pants. I’d brought my own as I was aware it wasn’t considered respectable for a woman to wear pants in the mosque and upon arriving at the door watched other tourists being asked to cover up in plain blue robes. This not only included women, but also the men who were wearing shorts.
The Sultan Ahmet mosque is one of the most elegant buildings I’d ever been in. It was stunning. The carpet was so soft and sumptuous to touch, predominately red with a pattern of blue ribbon entwining tulips and periwinkle flowers. Massive marble columns soared to the dome which was covered in the most glorious tiles I’d ever seen. 22,000 plus tiles cover the interior of the Sultan Ahmet mosque, every one of them hand painted and from the city of Iznik.
Flower patterns flowed everywhere, a garden of paradise of which the tiles were to represent. The massive pillars are over 5metres in diameter and are carved in arches around their form, called ‘fil payn’ meaning Elephants feet. From the main dome, almost taking up the whole airspace above the floor was the most incredible chandelier light with hundreds of bulbs; it hung from what appeared to be thousands of fine wire threads, floating above the devotees. I couldn’t speak; the beauty and aura of the space filled me with wonderment.
I have been in countless temples, churches and mosques and on stupas – I love places of faith – of all them, this however was the most beautiful I’d ever step foot in. Even as we left, I found intense beauty in the massive doors of the exit. Intricately caved in similar pattern to the never ending knot, the doors soared skywards with mother-of-pearl and exotic timber inlays though out it.
I’m sure it would be said that no trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar. I must also say that for me, the Grand Bazaar was actually last on my ‘lets go see’.
Unlike the mosque I’d dreamed so much about and knew, no matter what, it wouldn’t be a let down in the real, the Grand Bazaar was something I was afraid would not live up to expectations. I’d seen and heard so much about the great Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, about its size, its frenzied pace, its colourfulness and the eagerness of the stall holders, that it felt like I’d already been there. I braced myself for the crowds and frenzy, but walking through the labyrinth of alleys it was quiet and almost empty…. Empty that is for Istanbul.
The colour and vitality swirled around and I found the roof structure of various alleyways fascinating especially the bee-hive brick dones in what was once the 17th century storage warehouse – Sandal Bedesten. Because we had wandered around so many streets in the Sultanahmet area chock full of beautiful ceramics, lights, lanterns, evil eyes and carpets, it felt like I ‘seen it all before’ and nothing dazzled me. The highlight of our visit to the bazaar was drinking apple tea in the Eski Bedesten, an area that was once the location of the slave auctions.
The day was starting to wane and we decided to walk back from the bazaar to our room instead of facing the crowds on the cable car. One lane led to another and before we knew it we had stumbled upon the little Aya Sofya, a mosque built well before the big Aya Sofya and of such exquisite beauty and charm it’s delightful. Surrounded by a group of student/bohemian like coffee shops and bookstores that offered comfy chairs ideal for chilling the afternoon away and catching up over a cay, the Aya Sofya had a soft delicate feel to it. Soft pale blue carpet covered its floor and pale cream walls with delicate frescos painted in blue and pale green gave the feeling of complete serenity.
A pink hue fell upon the city as we sipped our Efes and watched the albatross swoop in from the Marmara for their evening roost. A line of tankers stretched along the sea, awaiting passage through the Bosphorus and on shore, the hum and clang of construction machinery gave reminder to the rapid modernising future of this vibrant city. And then M spied it, a minaret, possibly attached to another historic mosque and draped in a skirt of scaffolding. Yesteryear being maintained for tomorrow.