A Palace & A Cistern

After yesterday’s shall we say “overposting,” I am going to keep it short today. I had a little bit of a frustrating day, as two of the museums I most wanted to see today were closed–that happened to me yesterday, too. I’m not sure what that means: I think that Turkey’s economy is strong right now, and I can testify to the number of tourists here in Istanbul, so perhaps they are able to do repairs and restoration that they have been putting off. I’m not sure. But, both the Museum of Mosaics and the Calligraphy Museum are closed for renovation, and I really wanted to see them both!

So, the main site I visited today was the Topkapi Palace Museum: interesting, but also an exercise in frustration. This is another tourist magnet [I actually heard more German than anything else–I think the euro is strong against the Turkish lira (most places actually take euros and dollars, too), which I am assuming makes Istanbul a popular destination]; and, in my view, they let in way more tourists than they have the capacity to hold, particularly given that a few of the exhibits here were closed for renovation, too. That meant lines to get into almost all of the different collections, each of which is housed in a different building of the palace, and that meant for me, lots of annoyance!

The palace itself was the residence of the Ottoman sultans, built by Sultan Mehmed II between 1460 and 1478. It functioned as this residence until the mid 19th century. It was turned into a museum in 1924, after the Ottoman monarchy was abolished in 1922. For me, the most interesting collection was the collection of holy relics from the Prophet Muhammad and his family. Honestly, I didn’t really know that Muslims “did” relics, if you know what I mean. So, for example, there is the mantle of the Prophet Muhammad, housed in a special case, there are several reliquaries with bits of hair from Muhammad’s beard, and one with his tooth, broken during the Battle of Uhud, along with various weapons and letters from Muhammad. My favorite was his footprint–I couldn’t tell what material it was cast in–it looked like mud, but that can’t be right. They also have some objects from Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah.

In addition, I saw some objects that were used with the Kaaba in Mecca, including one of the former cases for the black stone itself. My museum book also says that there some other interesting relics in the collection: a tray used by Abraham, the staff of Moses, the sword of David and the robe of Joseph. I didn’t see those myself–but again, the crowds were just ridiculous in this collection [including a much higher percentage of more conservatively-dressed Muslim women than I have seen in other places] and I couldn’t get close to all the cases. Apparently, not only were these holy relics sent to the Ottomans from other parts of the empire from the 16th-19th centuries, during WWI, some holy objects were brought here from Medina for safekeeping. The last thing I want to say about this collection is that there is also a small room that you pass through, going from one section of the collection to another, where a hafiz [that is, one who has memorized the Qur’an in its entirety] was reciting Qur’anic verses. The practice of reciting the Qur’an 24 hours a day continues today just as it has for centuries: it started when the mantle of Muhammad was brought to the palace in the 16th century.

The Iznik tiles in many of the buildings were amazing, as were the views: the palace sits at the tip of what is called Seraglio Point, the tip of the peninsula I described yesterday, which juts out into the meeting of the three waterways–the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the Sea of Marmara. Another building that was closed, which I was really hoping to see, is the Haghia Eirene, a church that dates from the 6th century [and is built on the foundations of what is thought to be the oldest site of Christian worship in Istanbul. My guidebook describes a black mosaic cross set into ceiling that dates from the iconoclastic period–that would have been neat to see.

The other site of note that I visited today is the Basilica Cistern. It is marked by a small, totally unassuming building above ground, but once you go through the entrance, you descend into an enormous underground water chamber–it’s very cool. This cistern was established under Justinian in 532; and for a century after the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, they didn’t even know it existed. My guidebook says that “It was rediscovered after people were found to be collecting water, and even fish, by lowering buckets through holes in their basements. [Wouldn’t that be great for fish night?! I mean, catch them and then set them free in some larger body of water, of course.] There are still fish you can see in the cistern today. There are two “Medusa columns” that are interesting–“evidence of plundering by the Byzantines from earlier monuments.” The large columns rest on one sideways and one upside-down Medusa head, and they are thought to mark a “nymphaeum”–a shrine to the water nymphs.

I also dipped my toe into the Grand Bazaar, but that is going to be a whole other experience–it is HUGE, and will probably take at least half a day on its own, depending on how much I feel like exploring there. There are lots of other smaller bazaars that are much more manageable, but I feel like I have to at least attempt the challenge of the Grand Bazaar while I am here!

The last thing I wanted to comment on is the fact that while I am here, I have begun work on the “Introduction to Islam” chapter in my next book; and I have decided that Istanbul is a really appropriate place to get into the creative headspace for that work. The reason for that is that Turkey is unquestionably a Muslim country: the CIA factbook, updated in April of this year, puts the percentage of Muslims at 99.8%–Jews and Christians make up the other .2%. Yet, at the same time, Turkey is unquestionably a secular country, and the freedom and diversity that I am experiencing here rivals any major European city I have visited. In short, it is a great place to dispel negative religious stereotypes about Islam, and recognize both the breath of belief and practice within Islam and also the capacity of Islam to easily coexist with what we might call traditional “western” values of democracy, freedom of expression, and tolerance. Tomorrow is my first meeting with a Muslim scholar here, and I am eager to hear his thoughts on all these things!

Wait, one more thing! I bought my first sampling of Turkish Delight today–thoughts of Edmund Pevensie & “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” flit through my head. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it is a shade more recognizable than the Japan sweets! It’s…..interesting tasting, and there are lots of different kinds, so I am going to keep sampling. Also bought some very good baklava, which I love!

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