Saturday, December 29, 2012

Istanbul Diary, Day 5

This was definitely going to be the day we took a tour of the Hagia Sophia Mosque. After all, it was right next to our hotel. Below is a photo of the building on a cloudy day, stolen from

Here's a look up at the southeastern wall, taken by me.

We were definitely going to go in. There was a high-energy crowd of tourists just waiting for us to join them.

Then we saw the line that was also waiting for us. Smiling people with expensive-looking cameras and poor time management skills were queued up as far as we could see. The only longer line in town was the one to petition the Sultan. So we moved on, and decided to reschedule this architectural and historical gem for another day.

Luckily there was another cultural treasure (literally) across the street. The dimly-lit vaults of the Basilica Cistern were open for business, and featured almost no line at all: success! 

This place used to be used for fresh water storage for the city. They've since drained it and built a platform inside which visitors can walk through to look around, mainly the hundreds of marble pillars that are holding up the roof. They've kept a foot or two of water in the bottom, though, to remind you of its original use and to increase the eerie beauty by reflecting the lights. There are also thousands of big, fat catfish swimming around. I assume they're there to cut down on algae-scrubbing bills. I have also hypothesized that they eat at least half of the many coins that visitors toss over the side of the viewing platform, wishing well style.

The most popular part of the Basilica Cistern are two monumental carved heads representing Medusa. Several signs point to the Medusa heads, and everyone takes several pictures of them each (including me). They look like they were originally meant to serve as column capitals, but they are both on the ground level, and one is sitting sideways while the other is upside down. Why? It is mystery, silly tourist! 

Unfortunately the light is very dim in the Cistern, and cell phone photos tend to come out either very dark or overexposed. Oh well.

Suffice it to say that they are large and charismatic objects, and not at all some sort of House of Versace advertising stunt.

And thus, having avoided the long line at Hagia Sophia in favor of the ethereal gloom of the Cistern, we made the fateful decisions to dive into the opposite end of the spectrum by subjecting ourselves to the sensory assault that is The Mother of All Tourist Traps, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

This lantern shop is a good example of the quiet, restrained atmosphere that reigns amid the endless offerings of the Grand Bazaar. And remember, this isn't even the inside of the shop - this is just what you see walking by.

Fortunately, it is possible to find an oasis of relative quiet, even amid the frantic bustle of commerce. This little courtyard is part of the Grand Bazaar complex, but maintains a leafy charm all its own. Min-Min the Travel Panda approves.

Much more our speed, however, is the nearby Book Bazaar. Here, no one is hustling you in broken English to come in and buy a commemorative coffee table book about famous Ottoman palaces (although they have many such volumes for sale).

It is also a place in which the free market in ideas is a vibrant reality. I found one stall-keeper who seems to be the organizer of the local Objectivist/atheist club... 

You can also get the whole set...

Or takes side in the Tesla vs. Edison war...

Or read the latest Turkish guide on how to dress well and tie a necktie elegantly (I assume)...

Istanbul is a city of historic and cultural riches, roughly half of which seem to be under construction or renovation. This site, in Sultanahmet near the Blue Mosque, also marks the exact location on which a kindly older gentleman engaged us in conversation about ongoing archaeological efforts, only to quickly turn the conversation to...rug purchases. 

I told Bryan as we were walking away that I was going to preempt such a conversation by asking the next person who walked up to us on the street if they wanted to buy a rug, and then following them down the block with offers of guided tours of the Bosphorus when they refused. For you, my friend, special price! Wait, Effendi, where are you going?

Finally, it was time for dinner, and what better place to round out the day then one of Istanbul's only Chinese restaurants? Chang Cheng is a tribute to the enduring friendship between the Turkish and Chinese people, a bond apparently based almost entirely on the color red. 

The flags of both nations, of course, are dominated by the scarlet hue, and Chang Cheng takes this interior decor cue and runs with it. No cartoon abattoir was splashed with more layers of red, red, red!

Are strings of chili peppers a traditionally Chinese decoration? It doesn't matter, as long as they're red. As we were leaving, one of the valet parking attendants noticed me taking a photo with my phone and called one "one picture - 10 lira!" As I was feeling generous, however, I decided not to collect the 10 Turkish lira he was offering me, and simply walked back to the hotel.

The food, by the way, was perfectly cromulent Chinese food of the variety that can be widely found in the United States and with which no actual Chinese person has had any contact whatsoever.

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