The first day or two in Istanbul I was still a bit sick.
Which is not the most glamorous way to start a blog post.
But sometimes, reality hits you right in the holiday.
I managed to catch a nasty respiratory bug at the end of December, and spent a few evenings coughing through the night and drooping through the day. Sameer was very kind and looked after me and gave me soup as well as advice from his own breathless past.
At one point, he did also pose the unpopular opinion that maybe it would be better to spend the Christmas break resting at home.
I did not agree.
By Thursday evening I was able to sleep through the night at ‘baby level’- only 4-5 wake-ups in an 8 hour period.
By Friday afternoon, I felt well enough to fly. Mask on, coughs suppressed with an unholy amount of syrup.
So on Saturday morning, we woke up in Istanbul.
We had breakfast on our hotel’s fancy terrace, and then spent a bit of time doing practical things, like trying to find and ATM and getting a SIM card.
And then, it was time for some CULTURE:
We headed to Sultanahmet Square aka the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and checked out the Serpent Column and the Obelisk of Thutmose III.
They were fine.
The big two Events of the square are the Hagia Sofia (a church-mosque-museum-mosque), and the Blue mosque (that one’s in the name).
We wandered around, posed in front of the Hagia Sofia…
*Pose Pose Pose*
… and then went inside.
When I visited Turkey in 2014, the Hagia Sofia was one of my favourite things.
I loved the colours and textures, the combination of Islamic style with Christian art, and the mix of opulence with a hint of crumbling decay.
Every now and then, you see a famous thing– art or architecture or natural beauty- that just amazes you. Where you just instantly think ‘I get it, I get why this is famous’.
Hagia Sofia hit that feeling for me.
And the thing is, it’s still very very beautiful and very very special.
But it’s also changed a lot in its essence.
Back then, I wrote:
Built in 537, this building has seen it all. Beginning as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriachate of Constantinople, the Hagia was then converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral during the rule of the Latin Empire, then back to Greek Orthodox, then converted to a Mosque when Constantinople fell to the rule of the Ottoman Turks, and finally became a museum.
And I assume that most of that is still correct.
But at least one, very important thing, is not.
Because as it turns out, ‘museum’ wasn’t the final state for the Hagia Sofia.
In 2020, the site was turned back into an active Mosque.
This means that you don’t have to pay a museum entrance fee, but also means that the building is only open for tourists at certain times of the day (with intervals for prayer throughout), and also that you have to remember to dress modestly.
(I did notice that the Hagia Sofia seemed to be less strict on the skirt length than the Blue Mosque was -I was wearing a dress that came just above my knees, as well as opaque tights under it, and in the Blue Mosque I was provided with an extra modesty skirt but not in Hagia- but that might have been less of a ‘rules’ thing, and more of a ‘vigilance of the people in charge’ thing.)
As well as that, shoes have to come off, and there’s a big green carpet covering the (marble?) floors to move about on.
More noticeably from a historical point of view, the paintings of Mother and Child, shown here from my 2014 visit, have now been carefully covered with draping cloth.
Although while it’s worth mentioning that those Old Testament Angels are still going strong, the other beautiful old murals that we viewed last time, as well as the upstairs area, are no longer accessible.
So we were mostly confined to the centre of the room, standing on the big green carpet.
All up, I’m not quite sure what to say about the experience.
There’s something strange about being in the same place, it having the same history and effectively looking the same, but the rules have changed.
Looking back at photos from last time, it’s weird to see that my shoulders and head were both uncovered.
I did prefer the Hagia last time around, back when it was a museum.
When it comes to Europe’s Catholic churches, I tend to feel that they were built by the people- all the people- and they should have modern purposes that serve all of the people best. I once saw a church being used as an art space showing very humanising photos of the refugee crisis, and that seemed like the right thing to do. But that’s not the case for most modern churches. I do also tend to believe that any god couldn’t possibly care where you loved and worshipped Him, as long as you did, and might even be happier to be worshipped in nature rather than a house of gold.
But I guess those are easy things to feel when you’re an atheist.
And I don’t think I can extend those ideas to other peoples’ countries and cultures. And I’m not sure how that anyway stands up with the fact that I want these spaces to be open just so that I can go there, as a tourist, with my camera.
I’m sure that while I preferred the Hagia as a museum, for many it should never have been one.
As I said, I’m not quite sure where to land.
In any case, there was us, standing in the middle of a green carpet.
And next to us, was her.
After lots of photographs, including a few of her, we put our shoes back on, and headed back out.
I think they call this a triptych
Or a tript-ich.
Which is a trio of selfies, maybe, if you speak really bad German
We took a break, took some turkish coffee (the newest love of Sameer’s life), and went to Site II.
The Blue Mosque.
Which was a disaster.
The Mosque has been under restoration for some time, and when we entered, we were greeted with this sign:
Dear readers, it was not.
This section of ceiling was all that we were able to see, and was anyway blocked with scaffolding.
The beauty and scale and detail was completely lost.
Worst of all, the exit was effectively a funnel, with an additional bottleneck of everyone needing to put their shoes back on added to the mix.
All up, we (got dressed, got undressed) went in, spent 5 minutes looking, and then spent over 10 minutes trying to shove ourselves into and out of the funnel.
Back outside, we saw this shiny thing:
(The German Fountain aka The Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain)
.. And this even shinier thing:
Lunchtime came at us with lots of turkish bread and a delicious eggplant kebab thing…
.. and then we headed through the streets again, passing the greatest of all cats:…
… and eventually ending up in the Grand Bazaar.
I bought some earrings, Sameer and I had discussions about how uncomfortable haggling is for me, and how I would have to learn to be comfortable with outsourcing it to him.
We looked around at the spices and jewels and sweets and eventually, by the time we exited the market, the day was blurring into night.
24th December, 2022
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