Istanbul, Turkey: Part 1: Mosques and Palaces

For Christmas this year we went to Turkey for nine days with Jeff’s parents and brother. Istanbul, which roughly translates as The People’s City, became the official name of the city on March 28th, 1930. The city had several names before that, the most common being Byzantium and Constantinople. Byzantium comes from the Byzantine Empire (more or less Romans), and Constantinople refers to the control of Constantine. In order to increase global adoption, the city returned all mail that was not addressed to Istanbul after this official adoption date. Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, but it is not the capital.

The next day, Bev’s (Jeff’s mother) colleague’s nephew met us, and gave us a guided tour of a part of the city. Istanbul is huge, being the third largest metropolis in Europe, and home to several globally famous buildings. The most famous I think would be Hagia Sophia, a mosque located in the middle of the city. The building was an orthodox church from 360 to 1453, and then was transformed into a mosque from 1453 until 1931. After 1931, the building became secularized, and in 1935 it was made into a museum. The building has always been an architectural feat, as a byzantine church and as an ottoman mosque. When the building was built as a church, the body of the building was pointing in the direction of Bethelham. When the building was changed to a mosque, the mihrab (like an altar) was placed to face mecca, which means appears to not be a square, because of its diagonal mihab.


One thing that surprised us was a cat sitting in the museum, laying on a spotlight. We would soon learn that stray cats wander around Istanbul without too much trouble, but I was still surprised to see them inside a museum. The spotlight was very warm I’m sure, making it an ideal napping spot for a kitty, and our guide said that this cat is there everyday, all the time. It was very cold outside and in the museum, so I was a little tempted to snuggle with the kitty myself. The book of Islam tells Muslims that animals should not be mistreated because they are capable of praising God.  On the contrary though, traditional Christian belief is that animals are inferior to human beings, so humans can treat animals however they please. Christian faith rationalize this by saying animals are incapable of reason, and that God made animals for human use. Muslim belief could be one reason the cats were able to run around the city so happily. Personally, I’d rather have cats than rats.


One of the impressive parts of Hagia Sophia is the dome. The dome has been reconstructed three times, the current dome having been in place since 562. The dome is extraordinary because the architect managed to create a support structure that fluidly meshed with the square structure of the ceiling. Also, the addition of 40 windows within the dome is impressive, as it makes the dome seem like it is floating.




The next feat of the museum is the mosiacs remaining from the Byzantine era, when the building was a church. When the church became a mosque, the mosiacs were covered in plaster, due to Islam’s ban on representational imagery. The images were restore in 1847-9, with permission of Sultan Abdülmecid by two Swiss-Italian brothers. The rest of the mosiacs were uncovered in 1930 by an American archeology group. There is some controversy over the restoration of the building because in order to restore the Christian artwork, some Islamic artwork must be destroyed. Due to the building’s long history as a mosque and a church, a balance must be found between these two faiths.

The church has several beautiful marble slabs on display, large pieces with a rich mixture of red and white, or green and white. Inside the church are two Lustration urns, each made from a single block of marble. The urns are made to hold oil, and are used for some sort of purification rituals.

Also in Hagia Sophia is a “weeping column” or the “miracle column” the belief is that if you rotate your thumb in the hole of the column your prayers will come true. Another version is that if you rotate your thumb inside the column and that it comes out wet, then your wish will come true. It’s a lot harder than it looks though.

After visiting Hagia Sophia, we ate lunch and then made our way to the Tokapi Palace. The palace was the residence of Sultans for 400 years. The palace is now home to many religious treasures and is the treasury of the Ottoman empire. Cameras were not allowed inside the Palace, so unfortunately there are not any pictures to share with you. We started on the side of the palace which had the religious artifacts, and as a non-religious individual, this side of the palace really irritated me. I was irritated because the design of the exhibit was really poor, we would try to read a huge chunk of text, with small font, in a room with 100 other people, pushing and shoving you to try and read the novella themselves. Then, you slowly moved in a line around the room, with the other 100 people, to finally get a glimpse at a stick that supposedly was Mose’s staff. Then, in the next room, we did it again to get a glimpse at some hairs of Mohammed’s beard. It was a bunch of ridiculous.

After being thoroughly annoyed by the one side of the Palace, the next side really made up for it. The treasures of the Ottoman empire were amazing. There were emeralds and diamonds bigger than I’d have imagined. The necklace in the movie Titanic would of been put to shame by some of these gems. There were whole thrones covered in emeralds and rubies! And several dagger sheaths and hilts, jewelry boxes, and water pitchers. In one instance, a huge diamond was thrown away in the trash, and then salvaged by a beggar. The beggar traded the gem for three silver spoons, and then it was realized that the gem was actual diamond and not a fake. Upon this realization, the gem was retrieved promptly by the sultan. I was much more impressed by this part of the museum, it created a better image of fantasy and adventure than the religious sticks and hair did.

Since we did so much in Istanbul and there is so much to share, I’m breaking the post up into two parts. The next part will include more information about the city and some of the Turkish culture.


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