November 17, 2009

Istanbul – Where you should be Part I

The Walks – The walks along the Bospherous are amongst the best I have done ever. There is a slight nip in the air during this time of the year. The chill reminds you of the lazy winters in India and you walk, more than you have done in months. Perhaps a great way to start would be at Mosque at Ortakoy, pass the Kempinski and the Four Seasons Hotel, wonder at their history and go on to the Waterfront. The Kempinski was a palace that was destroyed in the fire while the Four Seasons Hotel was once a prison. Who would not want to stay in a place like that?

At the Waterfront you might want to stop, drink some tea and walk on to The Dolmabache Palace. But wait! Perhaps you might want to start somewhere earlier in Time. Perhaps, you might want to walk with the Romans?

The Relics - Take a tram from Dolmabache and go to Sultanahmet Square. Given that you need to be either in Calcutta or Melbourne to ride a tram these days, Istanbul might seem a better option. At Sultanahmet look for the Underground Cistern. Built during the Byzantine times, this underground cistern was the source of water for the entire city of Constantinople. Legend has it that when the Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople, they had to search for a whole century before they could find the same. Once inside the cistern, you’ll see a massive storage house supported by pillars brought from various parts of the empire. This gave rise to stories about the pillars. On the Pillar of tears you will find tear drops engraved along the pillar. It is said this is to remind one of the numerous slaves who died during the construction of this cistern. This is also the wishing well. Maybe the sighs of the dead slaves gives it the power to grant your wishes. As you walk ahead you will find two Medusa heads. Clearly taken from some earlier temple of the Roman or Greek Gods, the medusa heads form the base of two pillars in the north western end. While one’s head is turned upside down, the other looks sideways and therefore, just therefore perhaps I am standing in front of you and have not been converted into a stone.

Once you are done with the cistern walk out into daylight and walk towards Hagia Sophia or AayaSofya as it is called today. Once the centre of Byzantine Empire and the symbol of Christianity, Hagia Sophia has seen changes like few other structures in this world. The First Church is still under the ground, buried within the debris of the past, the second church was also destroyed with time and what remains are parts of its dome jutting out of the ground. The Third and the most magnificent church was built while Constantinople was at the height of its Christian glory. However, as the times changed and the Ottomans overran the city, they for some reason did not burn the church down. Instead, all the beautiful mosaic art was covered with plaster and paint and the Crosses were removed from the walls and any depiction of living form was meticulously removed. Hagia Sophia became a mosque. Times changed again. The Caliphate ended and the republic of Turkey was born. And slowly Aayasofya became a museum. Everyone knew of its History. The Ottomans did not rewrite the past. And so slowly restoration started and the mosaic painting beyond the coat of paint was removed.

Today as you stand on the balcony, you can see the image of The Mother and Child guarded by Archangel Gabriel surrounded by lines from the Holy Quran proclaiming once again why Turkey continues to be one of the few nations tolerant of diversity.

According to custom, all mosques face Mecca and according to the stories that inspire legends, a holy man did not want the Ottomans to burn down Hagia Sophia, Thus he caught hold of one of the pillars and with his thumb turned around the Church itself. And thus it became a strange confluence of two religions. Even today on its walls you can see symbols of the cross that have been pulled out, angels looking at you, half their imposing structure covered with paint.

I had an eerie feeling while I walked around. It seemed I had been there earlier. Hymns were playing in my mind in a language I did not recognize. Church bells were ringing somewhere and I sensed myself walking down the aisles. The spoils of war after the destruction of Pagan Temples had built its foundations. Here religion made you bow in awe; fear and respect not out of love. Here was a proud church, magnificent in its glory and revered by Emperors. But could she offer solace to the commoners? The answer perhaps is lost in time.


Meow said...

Soooper.. I've to visit this place Banjo :)

Shreya said...

Brilliant Banjo, I don't remember any of the history I had studied. Are you really an engineer? ;)

sultanahmet said...

Pics are beatiful.
Thanks for sharing.

Madhurjya (Banjo) said...

@ Shreya - :)

@ Sowmya - you should

@sultanahmet - thanks