Suleymaniye Mosque…what a community center!

Built on the third hill of Istanbul, the mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent took 8 years, from 1550 to 1558, to build.  It is a masterpiece of architecture, by the peerless Mimar Sinan. Sinan Sinan, born “Joseph”, in a small town in Anatolia, is of murky origin, with scholars claiming him to be Albanian, Greek or Armenian in turn.  In any case, he was originally Christian, but recruited by the “devshirme” system to be educated in the Sultan’s service as a Janissary.  He may have served in the last campaign of Selim I (” the Grim”), but most of his career was served under Suleyman the Magnificent. A talented soldier and engineer, his lasting legacy is the 374 structures he designed and built. 

This mosque, the largest in Istanbul, stands out as a stunning reminder of his genius.

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The interior is equally impressive, with intricate bronze, inlaid ivory and tiles, and gorgeous calligraphy. IMG_3647[1] IMG_3650[1]IMG_3631[1]

And the fascinating use of Ostrich eggs as spider and bug repellents was new to me.  What a lovely way to keep the critters out!IMG_3636[1]

But finally, the mosque is what it has always been– a community center.  These boys, at what we might see as the equivalent of “Vacation Bible School”….(Vacation Madrasah?) were very cute as they practiced their prayers, especially the young prayer leader, whose voice was strong and determined.  I’m just sorry I didn’t get a similar photo of the girls, who were around the corner in another niche.IMG_3634[1]

(that’s Randall, a fellow Colorado teacher, gesturing at some fascinating sight across the mosque)

My first mosque visit in Turkey was a lovely experience, and the courtyard and cemetery outside the mosque were equally interesting.IMG_3657[1] IMG_3659[1]

Then…it was off to our first cultural, artistic visit…

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A most intriguing cistern , and a little Byzantine “gem” at Chora

For me, one of the most unexpected delights was our visit to the Yerebatan Sarayı, or “sunken palace”…the Basilica Cistern built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this was truly fascinating! Lonely Planet says “it once held 80,000 cubic metres of water” (as our guide Orhan reminded us, “The United States is going metric…one inch at a time!”).

This cool, eerie delight was a sight to see. Be careful on the slippery walkways! We made our way to the end of the cistern, to see the famous Medusa pillars. All you readers of Dan Brown…you’ll know that this is where his latest novel,  Inferno, set its climactic scene.  I was reading that novel, picked up in the Chicago airport, during my Turkish trip, by chance.  My room mate informed me of its setting!IMG_3593[1]IMG_3589[1]IMG_3586[1]IMG_3578[1]

Enchanting.

Next we headed for a Byzantine wonder, the Church of the Holy Savior at Chora.  One of the best preserved examples of Byzantine architecture, icons and mosaics–this was a little wonder.  Sadly, much of the church was cordoned off, as it was under repair, but what was visible was truly lovely.

The earliest version of this church dates back before the 5th Century, though it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times.  The church as it stands dates to the 14th century, as do most of the mosaics and icons.  Chora ChurchIMG_3689[1]Chora MuseumIMG_3678[1]IMG_3711[1]  The word “Chora” derives from a word meaning “outside the city”, so this church was outside the Byzantine walls.  It was beautiful and I’d love to see it again, with more art open to view after repairs are finished!

“Istanbul Not Constantinople”

Ok…now that THAT’S out of the way (Earworm alert!)…let’s get on with the show!

We arrived tired, but excited to meet our tour guide, the illustrious and much mentioned Orhan, whom we found with little problem. “It was my nose wasn’t it?”, He teased. More on him later…

We got on the “pink magic bus” for the first of many times and headed to our fabulous home for the next 4 days, the Park Bosphorus Hotel. This place was dazzling folks. Here’s some dazzled teachers to give you an idea of how dazzling it all was.IMG_3397

After meeting with Güler, Meltem and our Turkish teacher colleagues, Yasemin and Engin, it was time for a much needed sleep!  But NOOO…not before a wonderful terrace social gathering and a bit a of wine and our first taste of Turkish mezze.Park Bosphorus Terrace 1

Our first day of touring Istanbul was a whirlwind! We made our way across the Golden Horn to the Fatih neighborhood, where ancient wonders awaited, as we saw the ruins of a hippodrome, an Egyptian obelisk and a gorgeous ablution fountain photo 5

Fountain at Hagia Sophia courtyard.

Fountain at Hagia Sophia courtyard.

before heading into this ancient beauty, Hagia Sophiawhose secrets we investigated at length, despite, as Orhan said, being “Under repair, as much of Turkey!” I don’t think I was the only one with tears in my eyes as this church, mosque, museum of Holy Wisdom came into view.

Holy Wisdom, Batman! (Or, I’m really here, folks!)

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Ok, this is a “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moment, ya’ll!  Hagia Sophia…really!

So the interior of this place is all I could imagine.  I’ll quote the ever ready Wikipedia for us here:

From the date of its construction in 537 until 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople,[1] except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. The building was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931. It was then secularized and opened as a museum on 1 February 1935.

Impressive history in a nutshell.  A recent controversy arose in April, when an Islamic push began within Turkey to turn it back into a mosque.  Our guide Orhan, a wealth of wisdom as well as anecdotes, informed us that Prime Minister Erdoğan, in a moment of wit (sometimes his wit is a bit TOO sharp) said that he would consider this transition…the moment he began to see that the neighboring (and active!) Blue Mosque was filled to overflowing at Friday prayers!  Touché, Mr. Prime Minister…I’ll give you that one!  Many a mosque in Turkey…but only one Hagia Sophia!

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Words just do not do this “lady” justice, eh?

But we were not done yet!

Arriving in Chicago…

after months of planning and anticipation was fraught with its own difficulties! I managed to leave my purse at a restaurant the night before…with all my travel cash INSIDE it! A quick call to the management had assured me that the purse had been found and safely placed in the manager’s office, but we had to detour a bit on the way to the airport to retrieve it, and I sheepishly owned the eye-rolling and ribbing of my husband, who patiently puts up with my foibles!

Meeting my fellow teachers for the first time was great. Meg, John and Lisa made a particular impression and were great to talk to and share anticipation with. We were all excited to get our journey started, and the sunset, just before boarding our plane, seemed to bode well for our wonderful trip.IMG_3372

The Turkish Airlines amenities were abundant, complete with sleep mask, slippers and socks! Not to mention the above average food! U.S. airlines…take notice! I had a wonderful seat mate, who was traveling to Istanbul to visit family. This personable woman, a research scientist, originally from Iran, but living in St. Louis for 25 years, made a lively companion and guide to Istanbul. She also shared tips on Turkish food and her own connections to Turkey. I couldn’t have asked for a better acquaintance and we have now ended up Facebook friends! The miracle of air travel brings people together, doesn’t it?

“I haven’t been everywhere

…but it’s on my list”—Susan Sontag.

When I first got the news that TCF had chosen me to travel with their Teacher Tour of Turkey, I was amazed and thrilled. I’ve had a fascination with the Middle East and have studied the region with a special admiration for many years, beginning with my first geopolitical awakening, at 16, when I made friends with several college students from Iran while attending a summer science program. They were charming and engaging, had lovely music and introduced me to some of the best food in the world. But their country was on the verge of a change, which would affect my country as well, and I followed the eruption of the Islamic Revolution in Iran with growing trepidation and wonder.

Thus began a life long yearning to “know” other places…to understand the human condition…and to travel in time and place beyond my small world. So TCF has helped to fulfill that continual yearning, and I’m grateful that I will get to see the land of dervishes and fairy towers; swim in Homer’s “wine dark sea” and see, with my own eyes, where the “topless towers of Ilium” once stood. Aerial View of Archaeological Site of Troy

Amazing.