Friday, May 22, 2009

Istanbul Day 2

On my second day in Istanbul, I went to churches. First church: Aya Sofya, aka Haghia Sofia, aka Sancta Sophia, aka La Sainte Sophie, aka Church of the Sacred Wisdom - I guess when you've been around for 1500 years, and served as the center of Christianity for most of the first 900 of those years, you pick up some nicknames.

The first thing you notice about Aya Sofya is that it's ginormous. I don't think any of my photos really capture the sheer size of the church. Here's a photo of the central dome, which is half-filled with scaffolding as part of a long-term renovation process:

Here's a photo in the upstairs gallery:

Oh, and this one gives you a bit of a sense of the scale:

The second thing you notice is that it's full of beautiful things:

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And then you start to realize how old it is:

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In this photo you can see a bit of the mosaic under the plaster (when it was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of 1453, they covered up the Christian iconography with painted plaster). So it was covered up with plaster 500+ years ago, and the mosaic itself was put up who-knows-how-many years before that. Amazing.

Oh, and on the way out I noticed that a cat had found its way into Aya Sofya:

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I overheard someone else's tour guide telling her that this was "Obama's cat" because when Obama came to visit Aya Sofya he took a shine to her or something. The woman being tour guided seemed a bit dubious, as was I. A lot of the Turks I've met want to talk about Obama, but mostly the people I've talked to don't understand enough English for me to really explain anything. Today I was talking to a guy, and he was like, "America, Obama, yes, you like?" And I wanted to say something along the lines of, "Well, I think more than anything it was important to get away from Bush, and I feel like almost any sort of change would have been positive; Obama is great from a symbolic perspective but I'm not sure he really shares my values 100%. Still I'm very hopeful that he will be the president we need right now, and effect some positive change," but what I ended up saying was, "Change - hope" - ay! I thought, I've become a Shepard Fairey poster!

Obama Cats aside, Aya Sofya was not quite enough Byzantine church for me! I was hungry for more so I got on a bus across town and went to see the Chora church. It is a small church, but it has beautiful mosaics and frescoes.

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Here's a closeup of the mosaic in the photo above (it's the hem of Mary's robe):

Tiny rocks, stuck to the wall! Amazing.

Afterwards I had a very nice lunch in the restaurant next to the church - lamb and figs and apricots and shallots, I forget what it was called. And for a starter, delicious bread, goat cheese, and a sort of tapenade.

Then I decided to walk along the city wall to where I could get the ferry. I lost track of the city wall at some point, and basically had no idea where I was, but I figured if I kept heading down, I would surely end up at the water at some point, and then I would just follow along the water to the ferry stop. But I ended up coming out right at the ferry stop I had originally intended to stop at. There is a sort of park there, and about half of Istanbul appeared to be hanging out there. I had to wait about 40 minutes for the ferry, but it was nice out and I was well-fed and I knew where I was for the first time in the last half-hour or so, so I was happy.

The ferry ride was nice. There is tea service on the ferry - they will bring it right to you at your seat. I did not partake, though. There were nice views but I was sitting towards the middle of the boat so I didn't get any really great photos.

Then I wandered around the Sultanahmet neighborhood some more. There are loads of hotels in this neighborhood and loads of tourist-oriented businesses, but also lots of ordinary people going about their lives. Here are some neighborhood kids helping an old man push his cart full of shoes up a hill:

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A couple of times I would come around a corner and it would feel like the North End for a minute, right down to the old people eyeing you suspiciously.

For dinner I went to Simit Sarayi (Simit = bagel/pretzel-like thing; Sarayi = Palace; Simit Sarayi = very popular Turkish fast food place). I had a stuffed spinach pastry (borek) and the girl at the counter talked me into a simit as well; this, and a water set me back 3.50TL ($2-$2.50). It was delicious. We need to get Simit Sarayi over to the US ASAP.

And that was the end of day two.

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