On Friday 26th we arrived at 8.00am and had immediate access to our hotel (The Olympiat ) having paid for the extra night before; It was located in the tourist area very close to the Topkapi Palace/Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque). We slept till early afternoon then ventured out to wander the very narrow and busy streets around the Topkapi Palace. The shops here are largely tourist traps with jewellery, turkish delight, porcelain and restaurants predominant. The weather was pleasant..about 21 degrees and the vendors friendly if a little insistent! Our feeble attempts at haggling resulted in a draw (no sale/no buy!)
We found a “regular” pad near our hotel to eat (The Adorna Restaurant Winehouse) run with enthusiastic precision by maitre de Cem who provided before and afters on the house even when not asked for. We loved the fresh fruit, simple salads and sensational fish and meat dishes. The coffee…latte mainly milk; Turkish coffee mainly grounds in the bottom of the cup somewhat bitter but an acquired taste. I missed it when we left.
The overpowering microphone magnified muezzin calling us to prayer five times a day was a sound I will never forget…drowning out the trams and urban buzz. We were there in Ramadan and at 3.30am in the morning being close to the Blue Mosque and the city still it was an eerie and spiritually powerful sound which could not be slept through.
Saturday 27th June was a day I have anticipated for many years. The fifth century Hagia Sophia, 800 years a cathedral (the fourth largest dome after St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London and the Florence Duomo), 500 years a mosque and for the last 80 years after the secularisation of Turkey by Ataturk a Museum. We had a tour for the day so avoided the queues and it was an emotional experience to walk through the vast doors and be immediately imposed upon by the vast breadth and height magnified by very low (now electric) chandeliers. It was emotional for both of us..I think Ann was fully aware how much this particular visit meant to me. For Christians the eye is immediately drawn to a now uncovered fresco of the Virgin Mary and child high up on one of the smaller dome ceilings …beautiful colours still, a quiet and reflective and very peaceful work.
Thoughts tumble …the clash of cultures..six massive Islamic circular plates attached awkwardly high on protruding columns all around the Basilica proclaim different names of Allah in massive letters; everywhere there are crowds with their inevitable chatter/photos/laughing/excitement but also much genuine interest and cameras at six paces; also everywhere scaffolding …high, ugly and intruding but reminding us that each generation must work to keep these ancient and epic monuments alive and in good order.
There is a mid-range gallery around the whole interior easily accessible by a mysterious graded passageway with burial sites in the walls and providing an excellent overview and a close up view of the now exposed Christian frescoes. Less than 20% have been exposed..the rest will gradually be done…perhaps! I confess to significant historical anger that it was Crusader knights on the way to the Holy Land who were the first to sack Constantinople and who weakened the city and effectively laid it open to attack from successive Islamic military assaults. Perhaps its fall to Islam was inevitable but the jealousy and massive division between the Greek and Roman churches and the eventual split between Orthodoxy and Catholicism has weakened and diluted Christian theology and life. We have lost too much of the mystery, the simple sense of awe and closeness to God and the emotional power of deep unity and there is danger in our hair splitting overly propositional letter based Western theology. I will never forget these moments and for me the Hagia Sophia ranks with Gothic Chartres, Cologne, Durham, St Patricks in New York and Baroque St Paul’s in London, Orthodox St Isaac’s in St Petersburg and the Sagrada in Barcelona as the iconic structures of Christian worship.
The rest of our Saturday was taken up with the Blue Mosque, still very much a functioning worshipping mosque, the underground water cistern with its vast collection of Corinthinan, Ionic and Doric columns which formerly watered the city, an informative if high pressure presentation of Turkish rug making and jewellery, the Hippodrome with its amazing collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman obelisks and columns and of course the famous Souk, the Grand Bazaar with its ultimate high pressure sales pitch where leather jackets were reduced from 4200 Euro to 1000 Euro. (Still no sale/no buy!); The Topkapi Museum was a vast collection of palaces and courtyards with beautiful gardens, amazing heavily guarded jewellery including arguably the world’s largest cut diamond and sensational fews over the city and the Sea of Marmara. We flew out on Sunday morning rather sad to say goodbye to Turkey’s friendly, busy, happy people.