Sultanahmet : a Blast from the past

 The Blue Mosque – Sultanahmet Camii
It’s pretty easy to imagine Aladdin flying his magic carpet around the minarets of the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque in an attempt to get away from the evil Sultan. The mixture of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture and history that is almost 1500 years old makes this place and this city a  must do on your bucket list. Having been at the crossroads of culture and civilization, Istanbul IS the connection between the east and the west. And Sultanahmet is the center of it all…
The  main tourist district has innumerable mosques and museums, but nothing can match the grandeur of the 1500 year old Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque standing on opposite ends of a large square. Sultanahmet square is where you go to watch the tourists and tourists go to watch the locals. The gardens were just about to bloom as the spring was just kicking in. This also meant that the tourists were coming out of the woodwork and buses were stopping off and dropping loads of Chinese, German and Japanese tourists in front of the square. This was usually followed by a rush of     Borat-like men fighting with each other to be the first to sell maps, fridge magnets and other tourist trap knick-knack.

  Sahlep on the square
Along side the central fountain in the square there are vendors selling glasses of a concoction called ‘Sahlep’  which is a thick milky drink consisting of orchid roots, sugar, vanilla and a dash of cinnamon on top. This piping hot drink is exactly what one needs on a cold March day, with the spray from the fountain making it all the more colder. Remember, don't pay more than one Lira for this.

  Hagia Sophia aka Aya Sofia
Visiting the Hagia Sophia at the time that we did was a great idea, considering that the next morning, there were Tirupati-like serpentine queues that extended all the way across the square. Once in, you can’t help but wonder at the significance of place that started off as a basilica, then a mosque and finally a museum. Oh, in the meanwhile it did burn down a few times and saw history being made as the Roman empire made way for the Ottomans and subsequently a secularized Turkey. I will leave you with your wikipedia skills to find out more about the church.

The first thing to do is to climb up a ramp that goes up a couple of floors to the balcony which gives a view of the basilica/mosque floor below and only then does the scale of the structure really hit you. All along the walls are Christian and Islamic motifs  with beautiful mosaics which are constantly undergoing renovation.

The Muezzin’s perch and juxtaposed with an altar, and the Koranic inscriptions next to a mural/mosaic of the Baby and the Virgin Mother really makes you wonder what all the fuss is about religion. With the Aya Sofia now being secular you can at least think about peace in the region. But back in the day, it must have been pretty polarised.
 Heavenly light

 Dome of the Hagia Sophia
Outside the museum,on the opposite end of the square is the Blue Mosque with 6 minarets. Legend has it that the reigning Sultan of the time asked the architect to build a mosque with gold minarets, but was misunderstood as 6. This apparently caused the Minar-gate of the times, since the main mosque at Mecca had 6 minarets. The Sultan promptly rectified this by sending his architect to build a seventh at Mecca.

 The Blue Mosque
Though named the blue mosque, very little of it, if any is actually blue. The exterior domes of grey are arranged in a cascading way, which makes it look like the big dome had children and all the little ones are scurrying about. To enter the mosque, one can join the queue like all the other tourist, or like us, pretend you are a local and enter along with the common everyday folk. Women take note: Carry a shawl or some such thing to cover your hair. Women without covered hair have to necessarily enter through the tourist entrance which can have very very long queues. Although there were separate entrances, both doors lead to the same hall. And I just did not see the point of that.

 These blue tiles give the mosque its name
 Inside the Mosque

Stepping outside the mosque, you reach what was the old hippodrome. Yes. A hippodrome, although you see just vestiges of something that’s usually built while playing Caesar 3.  At one end lies an Egyptian obelisk, complete with hieroglyphs.

And at the other end of the plaza is a fountain that was built in the 1800s as gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II a.k.a the dude who started the Great War. The only impressive part of all of this was the dome of the structure
 Dome of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s fountain
The other major attraction in Sultanahmet is the Basilica Cistern, which served as a reservoir for Istanbul during Byzantine times. This is a huge underground room, filled with water. It was built using pillars from various sources, sort of as a reminder of all that was conquered or destroyed.
The cistern is a wonderful retreat both in summer and winter, with the temperature so far underground remaining almost constant. The dark interiors tested the limits of my camera and luckily having carried my mini-tripod, I was able to take the photo above with an exposure time of almost 10 seconds. At the base of two of pillars are two Medusa heads – one upside down and another on its side. I don’t think this had any significance, and the only criteria the builders used to choose those pieces of stone was the height, width and breadth to fill a gap.

 Medusa’s head as the base of a pillar
With all this history in close proximity of each other, its no wonder that most tourists to Istanbul don’t even make it out side Sultanahment. Besides all the history, there are side streets which have coffee shops, restaurants and bistros which serve anything from traditional Anatolian fare to the pizzas, shawarma and even samosas.
From the center of Sultanahmet, you can find hop on-hop off buses that take you all around the city and sneaky travel agents who claim to offer all in one packages when all they really want to do is take you for a ride. For any tourist to Turkey, starting your journey with Sultanahmet is the best way to immerse yourself in that country’s culture.

Trampled byY Trip at Friday, July 23, 2010


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