Istanbul the magnificent
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Before getting started I need to say a big hello to the 4th grade gang at Ekebyhovskolan (Ekebyhov School) just outside of Stockholm. Even though it was a while ago I hear you're still asking about me, my travels and worrying about the bombings in Egypt and the like. Well don't worry - I am definitely ok - and if some of you are reading this you can spread the word that I'm probably coming back to Sweden over the summer and will visit your class if I do. I'll see you then!
And to those Istanbul old hands who are after the last entry are thinking 'He's lost it - gone and forgotten the most important attraction of the lot...', because I haven't made one mention of Topkapi Palace, well, today is the day. Palaces, castles and cruising the Bosphorus are on the menu and I think most will find them tasty morsels. Here goes something anyway!
Topkapi is the prime attraction in Istanbul and you really need to devote half a day to it, preferably starting when it opens at 9am to avoid the bulk of the crowds. More a rambling collection of pavilions, courtyards, pagodas and flowering gardens than a conventional palace, if you judge it by its cover (the guard house - top left) you get the general idea of its domey style and opulence. Pretty amazing stuff.
Perched on prime land overlooking the confluence of the Bosphorus, Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara, it was the seat of the Sultanate from the mid 15th century until they moved to the more conventional Dolmabache Palace further up the Bosphorus in the 19th century. Suleyman the Magnificent was a big name builder here and his extravagant name transposed itself on the construction works.
Don't think it's overstated however - it's tastefully executed the whole way through. Because of its nature I found it hard to get a defining image of the place from the outside, although the courtyard and pool shot above is pretty nice. I also loved the Tulip Garden over the back on the slopes down to the waterfront.
Inside is a bit easier to picture. There are literally hundreds of rooms here, all of which are tiled, gilt or otherwise lavishly decorated from floor to ceiling. Various decorative styles are represented depending on the era of construction but all are Ottoman through and through.
About the only things not Turkish on the premises are some of the treasures and weaponry on display within the Treasury section of the site. One Sultan toward the end of the 19th century collected a vast array of medals and honours from pretty well every monarch in Europe, including the Order of the Garter from England - all of which are on display in the treasury halls. Sounds like he was a popular guy for his crumbling empire around Bismarck's time. John the Baptist's arm and skull are also to be found here. Unfortunately none of the covert pictures I took came out, excepting a groovy set of jade pots shown above, but the collection covers Japan to Great Britain and southwards to Africa, so an interesting assortment indeed.
In another room is a large collection of Islamic relics from the birth of their religion. One case contains an imprint of Mohammed's footprint, reliquaries holding locks of his hair and a parchment of ultimatum to the Copts of somewhere or other to convert or face the consequences. Other cases hold beautiful swords attributed to the important disciples of The Prophet and the first four caliphs of Islam, although I expect the former aren't the real deal - I reckon these holy warriors raged around the region with something a little more humble than the gold and jewel encrusted weaponry on display here.
A final highlight was the blunt and eye-wateringly named Circumcision Room, a kiosk off the pool courtyard which I think prepared the sons of the Sultans for life at the top. If you're going to lose some skin you might as well do it in attractive surroundings, and this ornately tiled room is one of the most attractive in the complex.
The 400 room Harem is the second half of the palace and an additional $10 investment to enter. Still, the mandatory tour is worth it, although this area didn't have the seamy connotations back then that the word seems to conjure nowadays. The Harem was the family living quarters, reserved solely for the Sultan's extended family with no entry permitted unless specifically authorised. Even doctors and teachers had a hard time getting in.
We were ushered through many a fantastically-adorned room, including the Sultan's bedroom, his fruit room (named after the tiles used - because you just have to have one dahhhling), his royal 'throne room' (featuring gold protective grating in case a relative tried to assassinate him whilst in a compromising position on the water closet) and the eunuchs and concubines quarters. Just so you know, the concubines were just slaves, although 'favourites' selected from the concubines could eventually become one of the sultan's four official wives, if they'd possessed exceptional beauty and talent with the local instrument (the naj amongst others ;-). The 'Favourites' special quarters overlooking a frolicking pool are pictured above.
With dodgy weather prevailing as well as some R&R and a few chores to take care of I postponed a boat ride up the Bosphorus for a couple of days. By my last day in town it was still grey and pretty miserable, but seeing this was my final opportunity I set off anyway. Olof from Sweden had recommended Bebek and the castle village at Rumeli Husari as less touristy options to check out, and in the end I wasn't to be disappointed.
There's some awesome architecture on both sides of the Bosphorus as you head east, including the Dolmabahce Palace (where Attaturk gasped his last breath) and the eye-popping Kepinsky Hotel (think that's how it's spelt) a little further along. And by the time I'd alighted at the stop beyond the second bridge and bussed and legged it back to Rumeli Husari, the sun was starting to shine. Beautiful.
Olof's restaurant recommendation hadn't lasted the 20 years since he'd been a regular, so I lashed out on a lamb steak at a new terrace restaurant up the hill called Pruva. The cheeky barmen tried to sell me half a beer for $7 but after sorting that everything including the water views was very much to my satisfaction. Just like a harbour-side lunch back in Sydney. As my mate Simon told me before departure - you have to splurge sometimes on a trip like this...
Time was getting on so after wandering along the foreshore to the Double Bay-style Bebek (probably a bit more yuppie than when you were here Olof!) it was time to hop a few ferries in a roundabout way back to town. There are no returning ferries on the European side in the afternoon for some unknown reason, but bouncing back and forward to and from the Asian side was a good way to see a few things in the sunshine that had looked a bit downcast on the way out.
My overnight train departed at 10pm which left time for a last Middle Eastern kebab and a meander around this fabulous town as the sun went down over Sultanhamet. I also had time to help a new Aussie traveller Kaz, just arrived in Istanbul and about to take on similar Greek and Turkish adventures to mine before I left, which was nice. Go for it mate!
To wrap, Istanbul has left a warm lasting impression with me, blowing any expectations I had out of the water in the best possible way, so it looks like Alphonse (from the last Cappadocia entry) had a point - if you did only have a moment to glance on the world, Istanbul would certainly be a worthy option. It might not beat Sydney but then again he probably hadn't seen Sydney when he said that... Whatever happens I'll come back.
Next entry -> back behind the crumbled Iron Curtain in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Old Rossian Proverb
Jokes and immigration officials don't mix at any time, let alone at 4am.