Monday, July 5, 2010

Istanbul - Cistern, Palace, Harem

Cistern
We started the day with a visit to the underground cistern in the old town of Istanbul. It was built in the 6th century AD and is as big as two football fields. However, it fell out of use when the pipes clogged, and people forgot about it. However, they did notice that the wells in this part of town were more successful. Anyway, it's this huge dimly lit cavern full of recycled Roman columns of a variety of designs. Since the columns are all different sizes round and height, they used blocks underneath to make them all the same height. Two of the lower blocks are carved Medusa heads. Some people think the Medusa heads are there to ward off evil spirits. Others think they were conveniently sized.

From Istanbul


Apparently, until recently, it was still at least half full of water, so the only way to visit it was by boat, which sounds pretty awesome. They have (mostly) drained it and installed catwalks over the water. Although there's not a lot to it other than endless underground columns disappearing into black water, the atmosphere is great down there even with a modest crowd. It feels like some rather wet Hall of the Mountain King. It showed up in the Bond film "From Russia With Love", so you might have already seen it.

From Istanbul


Topkap─▒ Palace

Next we took lunch and moved on to the Topkapi Palace, the main residence of the Sultan and governmental headquarters of the Ottoman Empire. This was certainly one of the more unique palaces we saw in our journeys, yet in other ways we felt like we'd seen it all already. Istanbul is the city that spans Europe and Asia. It is where East and West come together, and the Ottoman Empire was top dog regionally for a long time. At once we were reminded both of the Indian palaces from the beginning of our trip, the Chinese palaces from the middle of our trip, and the European palaces we'd most recently seen, with a huge amount of lovely Islamic calligraphy throughout. Unfortunately, about half of the exhibits were closed, including a lot of the ones we were most interested in, like the Kitchens and Armory. The Treasury was nice but crowded. We saw one of the biggest diamonds in the world: 86-carats.

The Hall of Holy Relics was a bit odd. They had all manner of things from Mecca, and a bunch of everyday items that supposedly belonged to religious figures: Muhammad's sandals, Moses' staff, etc. And they had many visitors who certainly seemed to believe in the authenticity of the items.

There was also a whole tulip room from the tulip mania period in Europe.

From Istanbul


From Istanbul


Harem
The harem isn't what we Westerners expect when we think of a harem. While there were a lot of women in the harem, the sexual relations of the sultan were strictly regulated by ... his mother. This is to make sure that there aren't too many heirs to compete so that the succession isn't a terrible mess. Apparently it worked fairly well, as the family dynasty lasted a long time. As a place, the Harem is the set of rooms that the Sultan, his mother, his (up to four) wives, consorts, princes, and all the associated staff lived. The quarters are of course, extremely lavish, as you would expect from a dominant world power. Common in the quarters is a blue glaze ceramic that was produced in ─░znik. They make for a nice wall decorations. The layout of the rooms is interesting, as it places the princes well away from the consorts, and the queen mother between the sultan and the wives. The only men allowed in (other than those of royal blood) were doctors. That's a large part of why there is so much misinformation regarding harems in Western culture; the foreigners weren't allowed in and apparently their speculation was a little off the mark. The harem is beautiful, and well worth a visit.

From Istanbul


From Istanbul


From Istanbul

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