Friday 28 March 2014

Hammam Hints

The first hint is - you should absolutely, definitely, unequivocally visit a hammam if you're in Istanbul.  We chose the Cagaloglu Hamami which apparently is one of the '1000 Places to See Before You Die'.  (I know this because there were signs everywhere telling us this fact.)  But don't let that stop you.

Lady Travellers will, of course, go around the corner to the Ladies Section.  

Inside it is beautifully, perfectly old world.  It doesn't appear to have been renovated much in the last, oh, fifty years.   You are handed a key to a small cabin where you undress, wrapping a thin Turkish towel around yourself and stepping into wooden sandals, before heading into the inner sanctum: a series of domed steam rooms.  In the main ablution room, a central circular marble platform is surrounded by a series of fountain-style basins.  Here one steams, washes, is massaged.

My best hint is this: give yourself over to the experience and don't worry about modesty.

For guidance, you could read Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's description of visiting a hammam in the early 18th century.  

I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that showed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to a stranger. I believe, in the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles or satirical whispers that never fail in our assemblies when anybody appears that is not dressed exactly in fashion. They repeated over and over to me; 'Guzelle, pek guzelle', which is nothing but 'charming, very charming'. The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets on which sat that ladies and on the second their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked without any beauty or defect concealed. 

Next hint: post-ablutions, take time to drink some mint tea while reclining on a velvet bolster.

You will emerge refreshed, relaxed and, in my case, smelling strongly of lemon verbena.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Overseen: Hafiz Mustafa

Overseen, Istanbul, Turkey, February 2014

Baklava and Turkish Delight (more kinds than I've ever seen) in the window of Hafiz Mustafa pastry shop near Sirkeci Train Station.

Yes, of COURSE we bought some - and consumed them more or less on the spot.

Monday 24 March 2014

Looking Up: the Blue Mosque

It is interesting how different three women can look when they're wearing head scarves.  In this case, my sisters, 

and my mother.

We were wearing scarves, as all women are asked to do, because we were in the Sultan Ahmet Mosque - or, as it usually known, the Blue Mosque.  Blue scarves and blue - draperies? - are handed out at the entrance to those who haven't brought their own or whose skirts are deemed to be that little bit too short …

Surely it's not coincidence that the fabric matches perfectly the blue flowers of the carpet?

Inside the Blue Mosque we, like almost everybody else there, spent most of our time looking up at the tiles and decorations that have given the Mosque its nickname.

Interesting how the putting on of special garments puts you in a different mood, a different mindset. All the better, perhaps, to appreciate the space.

Thursday 20 March 2014


Perhaps better than anywhere, Ayasofya represents the multiple histories of Istanbul. If you close your eyes, you hear a torrent of Greek around you: for members of the Greek Orthodox church, Hagia Sophia is still an important centre of pilgrimage.  Open your eyes and you're as likely to see a sura from the Qur'an as an inscription in Greek (not to mention Viking).  In 1935, under the leadership of Ataturk, the building - formerly a mosque, a Roman Catholic cathedral and seat of a Greek Orthodox patriarchy - became a museum.  

From the outside I found it a little ungainly.  There have been so many additions to the structure over the years (including the minarets added when the church became a mosque in the 15th century) that the famous dome - pinnacle  of Byzantine architecture - is somewhat obscured.  I did wonder at Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, deciding to transform the church into a mosque.  I might have expected a conqueror to erase the crowning glory of the city and to build something he regarded as bigger and better - instead, Mehmet ordered that the building be repaired and minarets, minbar (pulpit) and mihrab (niche pointing towards Mecca) be added to convert it for prayer.  Was it a final spitting in the eye of those he had defeated?  I prefer to believe that Mehmet was a man of vision.  (Although I remain unconvinced about the positioning of the minarets.)  The blending of multiple purposes and styles is something I encounter often in my work.  Some of my favourite museums are those that have managed to take an existing building or collection and rethink them for a new audience: preserving elements of the old but imagining them in new ways.  Perhaps Mehmet was a prototypical museum designer!

On the inside, however, all of the elements combine to create a beautiful whole.  The key design motif in the interior is the play between darkness and light.  Perhaps the reason that the space works so well is because this motif is central both to Christian and to Islamic art and architecture.

The passage up to the gallery is mostly dark, with flashes of light.

You emerge into an illuminated space: golden paint, golden mosaics, golden inscriptions.

Some of the mosaics remained hidden from the 15th century to the 20th (Mehmet wasn't so visionary that he would keep Christian icons on view).

Looking down, you see the dark body of the building, lit by hundreds of lamps set into the circular frames typical of mosques.

Ayasofya is a reminder that nothing - not even a monumental building - stays the same.  We change and adapt and so do our holy places (and isn't there something fascinating about the journey from Christian sacred space to Muslim sacred space to museum - the modern world's oxymoronic version of a secular/sacred space?)  It's also a reminder that, with vision, these changes can - paradoxically - help to safeguard our holy places.

Monday 17 March 2014

The Tiles of Topkapi

As I suspect is the case for many visitors to Istanbul, our first stop on the tourist trail was Topkapi Palace.  It didn't disappoint and you should certainly take the tour of the Harem (though I still don't know how to pronounce it.  Is it Hair-EEem or Harr-EEem or Hair-em or what?)  But especially what I loved were the hundreds and hundreds of exquisite tiles.  Alors, my tour of the tiles of Topkapi.

First, the main entrance (not the Sublime Porte, just a very nice one.)

What I particularly liked about the tiles was that they were beautiful by themselves,

and in combination.

The most beautiful we saw were inside the Harem (also, does anybody know what the difference is between a Harem and a Seraglio??) which also featured intricate patterns of pebbles set into the ground.

(Lady Traveller's Little Sister looks mournful as she contemplates the passage the concubines travelled through when they were summoned by the sultan.)

Much of the decoration depicts flowers and gardens, whether in the form of tiles,

or murals.

The room of the Valide Sultan (Sultan's mother - a position of great importance) was particularly lavish though you couldn't help but notice: for all the stunning ornamentation and the frescoes depicting various pastoral idylls, the windows were few and either very high up or barred.

In some ways it was a relief to leave the enclosed spaces of the Harem and admire the real as well as the painted gardens elsewhere in the palace.

One thing you can't help but marvel over is the attention to detail.  There is some form of ornamentation on almost every surface, even on the undersides of the rooves.  

And around the lintels of doors ...

… and on the Sultan's capacious trousers (seriously, these were XXL and looked super comfy).

Despite the decor and despite the fact that women in the Harem received a reasonable education for the time (many of the more lurid accounts of goings on in the Harem owe more to fevered European imaginations than truth) I wouldn't care to have been a permanent guest of the Sultan.  I wouldn't mind having some Topkapi tiles in my home, though - or perhaps one of these.

Friday 7 March 2014

Picture Dictionary: Sublime Porte

Sublime Porte [səˈblʌɪm pɔːt]
From the French 'Sublime Porte', translation of the Turkish Bab-i-Ali, 'grand door'.  Refers to the ceremonial gate to the palace of the Grand Vizier in Istanbul; also used to refer to the government/seat of government of the Ottoman Empire.Eithne's favourite example of metonymy (qv).

Metonymy [məˈtänəmē]
Metaphorical device where one object is substituted for another, related object.  Cf 'crown' for monarch, 'bench' for judiciary.

The Sublime Porte.  Where did my obsession come from?  I think it's probably related to the fact that I explored the delights of metonymy (and its close relation, synecdoche) in my first term at university, around the same time I was writing essays about competing Imperial interests in the run up to WWI.  The Sublime Porte seemed to me a glorious shorthand for the Ottoman Empire, much more exotic and interesting than the Court of St James, say.  (Or the more prosaic 'Berlin', 'Washington' and 'Brussels' we get today.)

So I was determined to track down the original, actual gate from which the term derived.  Easier said than done.  The gate now leads to the provincial governor's HQ and is not particularly on the Istanbul tourist trail - though it is in the Sultanahmet district, along with the Topkapi Palace.  In fact, we discovered the gate through sheer serendipity.  We were walking along Ankara Caddesi looking for a restaurant and I looked up - and recognised the distinctive canopy over the gate.

I went back to see it the next day: to the passers by, the trucks and cars and taxis, it's clearly just another gate in a city that's chockablock full of interesting sites.

But I know (and it knows) that it is the very definition of a Sublime Porte.