Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Christina's visit to Istanbul

In mid-March (that's how far I am behind on this blog!), we had our first two visitors stay in our apartment at the Center. First my fellow grad student from USC, Nick, came for a few days. He was at the end of a 5-week or so trip all across Europe to photograph Roman art in major museums. He had not originally planned to visit Istanbul, but the lure of a free place to stay was too great, and I think he was pleasantly surprised by the richness of the collection in the Archaeological Museum here.

A couple of days after he arrived, my cousin Christina came as well, on her Spring Break from teaching middle and high school band in East Texas. For two nights the two of them shared our small apartment, and we all had a great time (at least I think so). Nick was a man on a mission, so he did not have a lot of time to play. But on his last morning in the city, he joined Christina and I for a tour of the Chora church (also known as the Kariye Camii). I have posted pictures of this magnificent church before, I believe. It is, quite literally, the site of some of the most important and well-preserved Byzantine fresco and mosaic work in the world.

While we were there we took the opportunity to stop by a nearby shop and visit our friend Volkan, who works there. He invited us to come to his house for dinner a couple of nights later, which we did do (more on that later).

Nick took off from the Chora for the airport, and Christina and I went on to Yedi Kule, the Turkish prison. Since I've written about that before also, I'm not going to recap it here, except to say that an older Turkish man gave us a "tour" this time. Since he didn't speak any English, he told us everything using pantomime. It was hilarious, even though he was mostly talking about people being shot with arrows, beheaded, and strangled. Between my basic Turkish and his wonderful pantomime, we "learned" that the hole in the floor of the inside of the Golden Gate was used by the Byzantines to throw the bodies of executed prisoners into the sewer system, where they would be disposed of by dogs, or washed out to sea and eaten by fishes (all of which he pantomimed). This is absolutely not true, but it was fun to watch him explain it anyway.

From there we crossed back to the side of the Horn I live on, and went to the top of Galata tower for some amazing view of the city.


Since Christina and I were together the first time I ever visited Istanbul a few years ago, we have both done most of the "big" tourist attractions such as Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. So once Nick left, we focused on some of the lesser-visited but interesting sites, and just tried to relax and have a good time, which she really needed!

The next day, Peter joined us for a daylong trip to the Prince's Islands, so-called because Ottoman sultans sometimes deposited potentially problematic brothers there to serve exile. In more recent times, the islands have become resorts, a place to escape the crowded bustle of Istanbul. We took the slow ferry from the European side of the city and island-hopped for several hours.


On Heybeliada we walked around and took in the view of the other islands and the horses that were wandering freely.



Then we climbed to the top of the island to visit the 11th-century Greek Orthodox monastery of Hagia Triada, which the groundskeeper was kind enough to let us into although it is not normally open to the public. We could not enter the buildings, which are now a boys' school, but we could look at all the wonderful animals!




On Buyukada, literally the "Big Island," we were greeted by an amazing cacophany of sounds when we stepped off the boat. Although the islands can be very busy in the summer months, with holiday-makers from Istanbul and abroad, we were not expecting them to be so busy this early in the season. But what we did not realized was that with the Turkish elections only a couple of weeks away, all of the major political parties had set up their headquarters on the big island and were blasting their own personal theme songs! The entire island was covered with flags and banners, and it was madness!


We were able to escape from this a bit by taking a horse-and-carriage ride (only service vehicles are allowed on the islands, no personal cars), around the island to see the gorgeous late Ottoman architecture.


Then Christina and I traded the horse cart in for donkeys (Peter was not interested, since we discovered in Petra that he is probably allergic) and rode up to the highest point of the island to see the church and monastery of Aya Yorgi, some parts of which date to the 6th century. Unfortunately it was not open, but the views of the islands were nice. They would have been nicer if the weather was clearer, but it was still pretty.


Day three, Peter took Christina to the Pera Museum, a very nice small museum close to our apartment which houses, among other things, the famous "Tortoise Trainer" painting by Osman Hamdi Bey, the most well-known of Turkish artists. I stayed home to get some work done. In the afternoon, Christina and I went to the spice market and the nearby Yeni Camii which, although it is not one of the most famous of the many mosques in Istanbul, is quite beautiful.

Later that day we got on another ferry, this time a fast one, and made the trip
to the Asian side to visit Volkan and his girlfriend, Janset. She is an amazing cook, and it was great to have a homecooked meal. For Peter and I, it was the first time in several months! It was also nice for Christina to have a chance to see how the "real people" live in Istanbul.

The following day, because the weather forecast called for steady rain, we went to the archaeological museum, which Christina had not seen because we did not do our research before our first visit to the city, and had overlooked it. Afterward we visited a small textile shop in the same part of town. It was recommended to us by Amanda, the Fellow at the Center who is writing her dissertation on Ottoman cushion covers. The family that owns it is based in Antakya (Antioch), but they have this small shop in Istanbul also. They specialize in silk textiles, and you can watch a man working the loom right there in the shop. Their stuff is amazing, and fairly inexpensive compared to the fake examples you can find in other, more touristy, shops. Christina purchased several souvenirs, and we frustrated the owner by refusing to have tea (we didn't want to take the time).

That afternoon, we took advantage of the awful weather (it was cold and rainy almost the entire time Christina was here, unfortunately) to relax in the Chamberlitas hamam, one of the oldest and most opulent in the city. All I can really say about that is "Aaaahhhh...."

That night, we headed to another area of town to have dinner with our friend Marco, who works for the State Department. He had been very excited for a couple of weeks because a Chili's opened down the street from his house. He tries to pretend like it is his young son who is excited, but it is really him! Unless you have lived outside the U.S. for an extended period of time, it is simply not possible to understand how thrilling the opening of an American chain restaurant can be. Christina said she didn't mind having some American food, so we went there with Marco and his son and daughter. His wife Karen was unfortunately tied up at work, busily preparing for President Obama's visit.

The next day, we visited Dolmabahce palace, which was the home of the last six sultans. It was designed and built, at incredible expense, as a way of proving that the 19th-century sultans were as modern and cultured as their European ruler counterparts. The harem is also famous as the site of the death of Ataturk. The grounds and the buildings are amazing, and the decorations are unbelievably lavish.




Neither of us paid for the extra ticket that would allow us to take photographs inside (but I won't make that mistake again, when I go with Peter). The most exciting moment of the Dolmabahce visit was when we were walking around the grounds and got a bit off the tourist path. Christina saw some peacocks wandering freely and wanted to go for a closer look. An old groundskeeper came out of a nearby building, probably to shoo us away. I spoke to him in Turkish and he was suddenly very excited, and asked us to come into his building. We had no idea what we were in for, but it turned out to be the Ottoman aviary, still in use! There were thousands of birds of all kinds inside. I have no idea why they maintain it, since it is not open to the public. What are they using the birds for? It is a mystery that none of my Turkish friends have been able to help me solve as of yet.

We picked Peter up for a quick lunch at the Ara Cafe, which is owned by Ara Guler, the most famous photographer of Istanbul. He is known worldwide as the "Eye of Istanbul." His photographs taken in the 1950s and 1960s are iconic. We have even seen him eating in the cafe on at least one occasion, but this time we just enjoyed the yummy food.

Next we visited the fortress of Rumeli Hisar, which was constructed by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 1490s when he was besieging Istanbul. It allowed him to control the waterway of the Bosphorus, and block off supply ships from reaching the Byzantines in the city. Because of its location on the water it is an absolutely gorgeous site to visit, although often overlooked by tourists. Highly recommended.

For Christina's last evening in town, we took her out to SantralIstanbul, the Ottoman power plant that I have blogged about before.



It was an especially fun evening because there was a well-known band playing in Otto (the pizza place). They are called BaBa ZuLa and are very good.


It was a fun night, despite the fact that we had to fight to get on the free shuttle home, and even missed the first one because we were not willing to shove our way on. We were not so nice when the second one pulled up!

Despite the cold, wet weather and the fact that I was very busy with work while she was here, we did find some time to have fun and see some of the sites that neither one of us had experienced yet. Christina, I hope you had a good vacation!

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