Set in Heaven: Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia)

Ok.  I’m finally going to take it on. Ayasofya (Turkish).  Or Hagia Sophia (Greek). (Both pronounced “EYE-uh sof -EE- uh”, meaning holy wisdom.)  It’s got to be one of the most famous buildings in the world.  And it’s been in my top five of places to visit for years.  I still reel a little bit when I remember that I actually went there.  It’s so influential, and huge, and beautiful, and old.  And intact.  That’s probably the most amazing thing.  It was completed in 537 under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and it more or less stands as it did then.

Aya Sofya, 6th century, Istanbul

Ayasofya, 6th century, Istanbul

The existing building is the third one on the same site. (The other two burned down).  One of my favorite things there was this relief from the second church, innocently sitting outside the entrance in a sort of ditch. Isn’t it beautiful, kind of ancient Near Eastern in feel?

From the second Aya Sofya, 5th century AD, part of front entrance of second church

From the second Ayasofya, 5th century AD, part of front entrance of second church

So it was built as a church by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Justinian.  Then when the Ottomans conquered what was then Constantinople in 1453, they turned it into a mosque.  In the 1930s, Ataturk secularized it and turned into a museum.What is striking about Ayasofya is that you can see both Muslim and Christian art in the same (formerly) religious space. The mihrab, which shows the direction of Mecca, while usually an integral part of a mosque, was tacked onto the apse here, in the same space where the Christian altar would have been.

Aya Sofya, 6th century, Istanbul

Ayasofya, 6th century, Istanbul. The mihrab is in the center of the picture, at the end of the building, a bit off center.

Mihrab, 18th century, Aya Sofya, Istanbul

Mihrab, 18th century, Ayasofya, Istanbul

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Posted in Architecture, Art History, History, Istanbul, Mosques, Museum, Places to Visit, Travel in Turkey | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

Baby, I’ll Drive My Own Car! (Driving in Turkey)

I read a blog post recently about driving in Turkey that was extremely negative and sarcastic, even downright condescending.  I was completely taken aback.  My experience driving in Turkey was fascinating, eye-opening, a window into the culture.  And really, no problem at all.

Driving on the Turkish coast, August, 2012

Driving on the Turkish coast near Canakkale, August, 2012

There were some truths in that negative post, though. If you’ve heard that speed limits are more like recommendations in Turkey, it’s true.  It also seemed to me that they were constantly changing: 50 km/hr, no, 30! no, 70!  Wait, 100!  It takes some getting used to, driving 100.  I felt like a race car driver for a few minutes, until I remembered that this 100 was km/hr, and that’s actually only about 60 mi/hr!

Looks like it could be a road in the US, doesn’t it? (except for the minaret!) Driving near Bandirma, Turkey, August 2012

The most fascinating part of driving in Turkey for me was that when there are two lanes going each direction, people drive in the middle of their two lanes.  And why not?  They always moved over when someone was coming along behind them.  The way they passed each other on a two lane road (one lane going each direction) made sense to me, too.  They’re quite brave about it, but the person being passed will move onto the shoulder if necessary, and a car coming from the other direction will move onto their shoulder, too.  It all felt quite accommodating and civil.

Driving near Ayvalik, Turkey, August 2012

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The Old Streets and Beaches of Ayvalik

Part of our eternal search for beaches for the kids led us to Ayvalik.  For some reason, I was very intent on going to Ayvalik anyway. I was probably seduced by talk of the old part of the city.  The Lonely Planet describes it as “a charmingly crumbly old Greek village.”  Who can resist that?  The Lonely Planet author goes on: “The whole place has an appealingly tumbledown feel to it [when you get away from the typical seafront], with life proceeding at a torpor pace; headscarf-wearing women hold court from their doorsteps, dogs sleep at the roadside, and the shadows slowly grow in the Aegean sunshine.”*  As I’m copying this down, I’m thinking that this description sounds too good to be true.  But it’s not.  It was true!  That’s exactly what it was like!

Streets of Ayvalik, August 2012

Streets of Ayvalik, August 2012

After we found our hotel, we walked down the hill to the seafront for dinner.

Ayvalik, from our hotel, August 2012

Ayvalik, from our hotel, August 2012

Our hotel balcony, Ayvalik, Turkey

Our hotel balcony, Ayvalik, Turkey

It was evening, the sun was starting to go down, but it was still daytime.  And as promised, there were old be-headscarfed women sitting on the steps of their homes, watching the evening go by.  I greeted these old women with increasing confidence as they smiled and nodded their heads, returning my “Merhaba! Merhaba!” (Hello!) As we were walking down the old cobblestone streets to the waterfront, cars and scooters were also negotiating the narrow streets, but we never felt endangered by them.  They know what they’re doing in these places with extremely narrow streets, planned and laid out well before cars existed.

Ayvalik, August 2012

Ayvalik, August 2012

Streets of Ayalik, August 2012

Streets of Ayalik, August 2012

The next day, we headed to a beach recommended by our hotel proprietress: Badavut.  Continue reading

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Unexpected Travel Moment: Holy Peace in the Topkapi Palace (Hagia Eirene)

One of my favorite places in Istanbul was a building that I couldn’t go into.  Inside the first courtyard of the Topkapi Palace sits Hagia Eirene (meaning holy peace), the first church built in Constantinople.  Heard of it?  I hadn’t.  After entering through the gate into the Topkapi Palace,

Topkapi Palace Entrance, Istanbul

you find yourself in the first courtyard, which is free and open — anyone can enter. The courtyard is huge and wooded and beautiful.  Around lunchtime, people sit on the lawns, hanging out, enjoying a picnic, or just lying in the grass.  What better place to while away your lunch hour?

Topkapi Palace, First Courtyard, Istanbul

Topkapi Palace, First Courtyard, Istanbul

Just after you walk in, you see a building on your left, tucked into the corner of the first courtyard. It doesn’t really look like part of the Topkapi Palace.  Probably because it wasn’t. You’re looking at Hagia Eirene, a Byzantine church built in the 4th century CE (at about the same time as Aya Sofya), though most of what we see now dates to the 8th century.

Hagia Eirene door, in the first courtyard of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Hagia Eirene, Painting near door, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

The Topkapi Palace is right next to Aya Sofya, and Hagia Eirene is just inside the palace walls.  Within ten years after Mehmet the Conqueror built the palace, the Ottomans began to use Hagia Eirene as an armory.   Continue reading

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Turkish Kindness and Car Rentals

We rented a car while we were in Turkey last August, and the very kind car rental guy, Ergan,  picked us up at the ferry in Bandirma.  His office was in Biga, an hour away, so he drove us there, where we filled out paperwork and the kids used the bathroom.  While the kids and my husband were using the facilities, Ergan and I looked at each other apologetically.  I did not speak one word of Turkish, and he didn’t speak one word of English.  I’d forgotten how embarrassing it is to be in another country and not speak the language.  Who do I think I am, going to Turkey and not bothering to learn any of the language?  It felt rude.  But by this point, there was nothing to be done about it.  So Ergan and I stand there looking at each other, smiling, embarrassed.  One of us would say something, and the other would smile and shrug and say something back (probably, and for sure in my case, “Sorry, I don’t understand.”  Then, “Again, sorry, I don’t speak any Turkish/English.”)  But really, I have no idea what he was saying, and he had no idea what I was saying.  A young man sitting in the office kept looking at us and chuckling.  I didn’t blame him one bit.  It really was kind of silly!

Outside Bandirma, Turkey, August 2012

When Ergan drove us into town, we turned several times, ending up on a narrow cobblestone street, and I’m thinking, there’s no way I’m going to be able to get us out of here.  The car has a manual transmission, of course, which fortunately I know how to drive and love, but it’s been years since I’ve had the opportunity.  So Ergan and I finish shrugging and smiling at each other, and my husband, the kids, and I get into the car.  Some men who know Ergan hold traffic for us so we can get out, the car lurching because I’m getting used to the stick shift, and I’m functioning (or trying to) on three hours of sleep and some pretty extreme culture shock.  We’d just arrived in Istanbul from the U.S., taken the ferry across the Sea of Marmara, and here we were, in Biga, a town I’d never heard of, driving in a foreign country.  Continue reading

Posted in Kids' Perspective, Travel in Turkey, Travel with Kids, Turkish culture | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Here a Trojan Horse, There a Trojan Horse

My kids’ favorite thing when we went to Troy was the Trojan Horse.  It makes sense that among all of the difficult-to-understand ruins lying here and there, they’d latch onto the super cool Trojan Horse. You can climb up inside it!  What could be better?  (Stray cats and dogs came in a close second.)

Trojan Horse at Troy, Turkey, August 2012

Trojan Horse, Troy, Turkey, August 2012

I love the column at the horse’s feet.  As an American who’s not surrounded by old things all of the time, I’m so curious about the ruins that are here and there, unmarked, just lying around.  Continue reading

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Trust Me: Don’t Miss the New Mosque (Yeni Cami), Istanbul

I’ve been told that the New Mosque (Yeni Cami) is not one of the finest mosques in Istanbul, but it was definitely one of my favorites when we were there last month. Very few tourists gawked at the building.  Instead, people were using it.  I mean, really using it.  People with shopping bags and strollers hung out in the courtyard with their kids,

Courtyard, The New Mosque, Istanbul, 1597-1663

Courtyard, the New Mosque, 1597-1663, Istanbul

people met and relaxed on the steps outside,

The New Mosque, Istanbul, 1597-1663

shoes were shined in front of the building (the man in the white t-shirt with his back to us is having his shoes shined — check out those shiny shoe shine stands!),

Outside the New Mosque, Istanbul, August 2012

and people prayed inside.

The New Mosque, Istanbul, August 2012

The New Mosque was built in the seventeenth century to replace an earlier mosque, thus the name.  Kind of funny to us now, to call something “new” that’s 400 years old. Continue reading

Posted in Architecture, Art History, History, Istanbul, Mosques, Places to Visit, Travel in Turkey | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments