9 day trip · Uncategorized

Topkapi Palace: Of 1300 person kitchens and an angelic singer

The Topkapi palace served both residential and administrative purposes for the Ottoman sultans. Throughout our trip to Turkey, we found silly glee at identifying Turkish words that occasionally were the same in Hindi too. So the Topkapi palace literally meaning Cannon(top in Hindi) gate was a fun titbit. Though still very grand, the structures within have undergone multiple renovations due to earthquakes and fire incidents.

The area is broken up into 4 courtyards and the Harem. Unless you’re really checking things off of a list it’s a bit hard to visit every single place within it all. We took the route of wandering in and out of what we pleased.

Within the 2nd courtyard, we dropped into the imperial kitchens and bakery. It had displays of utensils used in the era in addition to silverware and porcelain. The kitchen staff had an elaborate hierarchy in order Head of the pantry->Superintendent of the Imperial kitchens assisted by the clerk of the kitchens->  Chief cook-> Master cooks, journeymen and apprentices.

The simple-sounding “kitchen” consisted of

  • The imperial pantry
  • 2 bakeries
    • One for fine bread for the Sultan and his family
    • One for ordinary bread
  • A butcher’s shop
  • A poultry shop
  • 2 dairies
    • One specializing in making yoghurt
    • One to produce butter, cheese and other milk products
  • A candle-making section
  • A vegetable store
  • A water distribution office
  • A flour mill for fine white flour was the one part which was housed separately in Bursa a town near Istanbul.IMG_3028

At its peak, it employed 1300 people in the 17th century and understandably was the largest kitchen in the Ottoman empire. We found particularly interesting with meticulously arranged exposed brick used to make both the walls and the domed ceilings.IMG_3031.jpgIMG_3033

On the opposite end of the 2nd courtyard are sections displaying armoury and various clocks of the era in addition to staying quarters for the halberdiers(who provided services for the palace quarters).IMG_3123.jpg

We walked into the 3rd courtyard and the Audience Hall– the place where the King met ambassadors of other kingdoms, his ministers and other officials.IMG_3066.jpg

Next was the Library of Ahmed the III. This space changed by definition of what I thought would be my dream library. Floor level seating, stained glass windows, gorgeous mosaics.IMG_3049.jpg

The last area we passed by was the Chamber of sacred relics in the 3rd courtyard. As named it housed stunning versions of the Quran with the most amazing calligraphy and we heard a lovely voice in the background. Wondering if it was a recorded bit of music, we were taken aback to realize it was a gentleman who was singing it live and genuinely appeared angelic in his immaculate white outfit. Since it’d be rude to just stand and stare, we walked out and plonked ourselves on the benches just outside to enjoy his singing infusing its fragrance into the gentle evening air. The large open garden area just ahead which supposedly had peacocks and gazelles during the Ottoman times now had quite a few seagulls being chased enthusiastically by toddlers seemingly just for our amusement.IMG_3052.jpg

We made our way out through the Imperial gate– a massive gate with gilded calligraphy of verses from the Quran and seals of various emperors surprised that it was only our very first day in Turkey and that so much seemed to have been experienced.IMG_3077.jpg

Note: The term Topkapi palace is misleading. It’s an immense complex which takes a few hours to cover on foot and will have you taking a few rest stops. We recommend you visit this just after your breakfast or lunch so you’re not hungry mid-way. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to even carry a packed lunch and some snacks. Your ticket is for single entry so unless you want to pay twice you’d rather come prepared to spend the time for a while.

Munching on some corn from a vendor and a chocolate simit ( a circular bread often sprinkled with sesame seeds found with stalls all over Istanbul) we made our way back to the Airbnb. We truly felt lucky to also be back to a lovely view of the Ottoman mosque of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha till it was too dark to see it anymore.

A bit rested by now and not too hungry after the simit and corn we still made our way to dinner at a nearby restaurant and shared the vegetarian version of the testi kebab. A dish cooked within sealed clay pot brought in on a plate of flames. The pot is broken open with a theatrical flourish and the dish then served.  For Indians, the vegetarian version tasted more like a milder version of sambhar with loads of vegetables. However the testi kebab is supposedly more famous in Cappadocia, and that’s where we were headed the very next day.

9 day trip

Blue Mosque and Tile museums: Of beautiful homes for the dead and the living

Munching on some fresh warm chestnuts, we walked to the Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque just opposite the Hagia Sophia. IMG_2896.jpgThis mosque, in contrast, was more of a PR move by Sultan Ahmed after a crushing defeat in a war against Persia to lead his people to continue to believe in the Ottoman power. Verses from the Quran and names of the caliphs in calligraphy adorn the walls of the mosque. However, personally, the gorgeous stained glass windows and the hand-painted ceramic Iznik tiles are what I could spend hours just to admire and enjoy.IMG_2911

Fun trivia :

  • Something new learnt – Ostrich eggs repel spiders and were therefore then placed in the chandeliers of the Blue Mosque. I’m surprised this is not more common knowledge considering the annoyance of cleaning out cobwebs! I wonder if, after a while, the eggs didn’t get rotten and stink themselves though.
  • Apparently, the 6 minarets were made at the mosque because an architect misheard the Emperor’s request for gold(altin) minarets as six(alti) minarets since the words in Turkish for both are similar.
  • Problems of long-running projects. The sultan had fixed a price for each tile and as time passed and the work was more expensive the quality of tiles diminished.IMG_2918

Note: The Mosque is still used for prayers 5 times a day, so plan your visit accordingly. We entered by 1130AM and by 12PM we saw the entrance doors were closed for prayers at 1PM. You need to take off your footwear before entering the mosque since the carpeted floor is still used for prayers. However, they provided covers to put your shoes in to carry along with you so you can wear the same on your way out. While Istanbul itself has a mix of people covered head-to-toe contrasting with others in bold, skimpy clothes, we’d urge you as a tourist to err on the side of modesty. While being comfortable, do cover up. Long dresses/skirts, regular jeans, long trousers/tights work just fine for women across locations. Carry a scarf along (which works for the sunny weather too). Long trousers are expected of men when visiting mosques, tombs.

We stopped for a while at the Tomb of Sultan Ahmed from the 17th century. Built by the architect of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue mosque it had a sombre version of its grandeur too. It now houses 32 tombs including that of the favourite dowager of the Sultan and various family members.IMG_2922.jpg

After a round of fruit juices, we set out to find the Topkapi palace and lunch whichever of them would come first. The maps were terrible at leading us on a while goose chase till the shore – so we missed the Topkapi palace despite passing by it! However, we needed food by now and stopped at a place for lunch.

The vegetarian option was literally French fries wrapped with cheese, more cheese covering some slices of fresh tomatoes, some fried bell peppers and cream on the side and all of it topped with parsley. Even with all 4 of us(we had 2 friends who had joined us for a few days on this trip) contributing, it was tough to actually finish the plate due to the inordinate amount of cheese we weren’t used to having. The non-vegetarian option was chicken with rice, bread and a side of a salad. A side of ayran(buttermilk) and we couldn’t ask for more.IMG20190929165127.jpg

We headed off to the Topkapi palace next while the rest decided to take it slow and head back to the Airbnb.

There are multiple paths from the main road and the one we took led us to the group of museums first.

Istanbul Archaeology Museum– This was referred to as the Imperial museum when first set up in the 19th century. The highlight was the display of numerous sarcophagi which was a novelty for us to see. The sarcophagi were typically set above the ground level so that friends and family could visit the deceased after they were gone, meanwhile, the limestone inside was meant to speed up the decomposition of the body. They are home shaped structures in which individuals were buried in with the belief that it would be used by them to live in the afterlife.IMG_2962.jpg Several of them were richly decorated in marble exteriors with everything from cherubs to mourning women to a scene of a battle of Alexander the great on their surface. IMG_2969.jpgAdditionally, the museum consisted of busts and statues from ancient temples of Athena and Zeus. But the most special 2 displays have got to be tables with the oldest known peace treaty (between the empires of Egypt and Hittite) and the oldest known love poem. Just goes to show that aspirations haven’t changed over the ages – for immortality, peace and love.IMG_2976.jpg

Tiled Pavillion museum–  This was a favourite of mine and is also referred to locally as the Glass Palace. The Iznik and Seljuk tiles and ceramic utensils have a rich variety of calligraphy, plant and animal patterns.IMG_2995.jpg

The Life Water Fountain has hand-drawn designs and poetry written in an old Islamic calligraphy style is believed to be a masterpiece of tile making from the 15-16th century in relation to tile making. IMG_3005.jpgIt is believed that the sultan sat on the portico of this beautiful structure to watch his sons play cirit(a version of horseback polo still played in turkey to this day). Everything inside the structure itself is stunning and if anyone wants to gift us a house please use this building for design inspiration.IMG_3000.jpg

9 day trip

Turkey- Hagia Sophia – The magical wisdom of the ages

A rickety flight landed us, a sleepy twosome, at Istanbul one evening. The only plus of the dismal flight was that we spent the time without a single magazine or inflight entertainment by learning basic Turkish. So Merhaba to everyone.  We had to board a bus from the airport to get to where we had booked our stay and we had an early peek into the kindness of the Turkish people when the bus driver drove into not one but 2 fuel pumps just to get us our change with not a word of complaint. An hour later we reached Sultanahmet.

We alighted from the bus only to feel we were dropped into the embrace of the history and architecture of Istanbul- right in front of the Hagia Sophia(pronounced Aya Sofiya) looking very inviting in the evening light.  It was also our first view of the friendly cats that are found everywhere in Istanbul. Grinning to ourselves while staring at it all – it was only the strain of carrying our large rucksacks and our sleepy eyes that dragged us across the cobblestone paths to our Airbnb for the night.

Note: the dogs are gorgeous too but didn’t seem to be used to being petted by people, so were a little more aloof. Leave them alone unless one comes to you obviously looking to be petted.

To our delight, we were adjacent to one of the most beautiful mosques designed by the same architect as The Blue Mosque- The 16th century Ottoman mosque- of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha. WhatsApp Image 2019-09-29 at 21.06.23.jpeg

Day 2 :

We were woken up by the azaan since we had left a soundproof window open, so after freshening up decided it was the perfect time to go to the terrace. Even when walking to our Airbnb the steep slope of the area was apparent. The architect of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha mosque has sensibly used the slope to create multi-storey courtyards. The first very prudently to house shops, the rent of which would cover the mosque’s maintenance and the second as living quarters for the residents of the madrasah. All of this was visible to us from our perch on the terrace of our stay but we hesitated to visit the mosque itself since it wasn’t particularly a touristy spot and there was a constant stream of people coming in for prayers so we didn’t want to cause them disturbance. Images online of the interiors also look beautiful though.

We were lucky to reside at walking distance from Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque so happily set out on foot. We decided it was only apt we started the very first day with a Turkish breakfast. We thoroughly enjoyed it, especially, the honeycomb and honey cream which gave it a perfectly quaint end.

We then joined the short queue to Hagia Sofia and bought a general ticket in. One constant amongst the mosques we visited in Turkey is the very, almost industrial exteriors with cement grey walls only slightly softened by the dome. This is hugely deceptive considering the gorgeous art, mosaics, colours and architecture in the inside of them.

The Hagia Sofia has always been my mental image of Istanbul and it was all I ever wanted and more. It’s both moody and magical. The immense chandeliers, the mosaics, the humongous works of calligraphy, the warm yellows, reds, and blues, the light streaming through the tall windows, the juxtaposition of the image of Mary with Islamic verses – it’s like another world where all is quiet and lovely. Even the continuous stream of tourists constantly clicking photos hoping to capture the image for posterity doesn’t deter from the place itself. Or maybe I’m just biased.IMG_2742.jpg

Since it’s construction in 537AD it was first an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, then a Roman Catholic Cathedral and stayed the largest cathedral for a 1000 years after it was built. Currently, the Turkish Govt refers to it as a museum and there are no longer prayers held within its premises. It’s said to have taken more than 10,000 people and shy of 6 years to build. The name Sophia itself refers to the Wisdom of God. All religious pictures and icons were removed in 726 during a period where they were opposed by religious and imperial leaders. Individuals attempting to restore the structure have a challenge today- when unravelling the older images related to Christianity that were covered by plaster,  it would be at the expense of historical Islamic art. It’s a delicate balance that to us, has somehow let both of them shine through.IMG_2781.jpg

If that was not enough, Hagia Sofia continues to mystify historians with its literal hidden depths. Below the floors are tunnelled passages presumably to let a 5th century Emperor avoid the paparazzi or traffic of the time. While covering the expanse of Constantinople(current Istanbul) it contained graves, crypto rooms, and even a section large enough to sail a small ship in!IMG_2848.jpg

 While I don’t encourage ignorance, I’m glad I read further about the history of Hagia Sophia after my visit or my experience may have been marred by some of it. The structure has been damaged and repaired by numerous earthquakes and vandalism by the Crusaders and the Ottoman forces at different points in time. This too, like typical to churches then, was considered a refuge for people from persecution during times of war. However, the Ottoman forces tragically enslaved, violated or slaughtered women, children, the elderly and sick who were within it for 3 full days after capturing the city. It’s ironical that a place that was witness to such horrors was then made the first imperial mosque in Istanbul. Numerous restorations have added minarets, madrasah, soup kitchen, the sultan’s lodge, mihrabs etc to the building itself.IMG_2771.jpg

In addition to the numerous mosaics, there are 3 giant doors of note too.

  • Marble door– My favourite, it has images representing heaven and hell on either side of the door and led to a space used for official meetings.
  • The Nice door– the oldest of the lot and
  • The Emperor’s door– the largest one there solely used by the Emperor and his posse. Above the door is a mosaic artefact of the Emperor taking blessings of Jesus Christ with Mother Mary and the Angel Gabriel on either side. It’s believed to have been made from the wood off of Noah’s Ark! Now that’s a claim I haven’t heard off before.

Before leaving you can’t miss the queue of tourists waiting in line to touch a pillar. Supposed to feel moist to the touch, it’s called the Wishing pillar while touching it is believed to cure all sorts of illnesses. We, however, can’t confirm that since we didn’t join the line, so I guess we will have to deal with the illnesses when they come!

Note: We had read online about the pre-paid card for most of the tourist place entrances but didn’t realise there were multiple choices among them based on how long they’re valid and how many places they cover. So it led to us, as a group, making complex calculations on which of the cards would be “worth it”. Unfortunately, this is hard to decide unless you’re really sure of your plan within Turkey. We still found the card useful if only to avoid dealing with cash and it helped sort of pre-budget entrance fees into our expenses.

Up next: Blue Mosque and Tile museums: Of beautiful homes for the dead and the living