Last week, I introduced my new nostalgia column, "Turkey's Hidden Top 10", where I go into some of the hidden gems in the beautiful country that is Turkey. You can check out the 1st iteration here. The previous issue talked about another old neighborhood in Istanbul that houses some of its famous history and cultural diversity.
In honor of summer, this blog is about the Turkish Riviera. Turkey has a long beautiful coastline with some of the most beautiful and active spots on the Mediterranean. If you're looking for a great way to map out your trip here, check out this post.
If you're looking to get a combination of the adventure and relaxation this region supplies, look no further than three little towns: Xanthos, Letoon, and Patara.
This UNESCO Heritage site is a waymark on the Lycian Way, which is the Appalachian Trail of Turkey; but older, hotter, shorter, and with a nicer finish. Xanthos is famous because it was the capital of the Lycian Federation until the invasion of the Persians in the 4th Century BC. What remains are the Lycian Acropolis (the Roman one as well) and many ornate Lycian sarcophagi, the most famous being the Harpy Monument.
It's a surprise there's this much left because after the Lycians found out the Persians were coming, they murdered all the women and then committed mass suicide, with only about 80 families opting out.
Another UNESCO site, Letoon has a history that is closely tied with Xanthos. It's the next stop on the Lycian Way after Xanthos and is an important religious site. You can find Hellenistic Temples and inscriptions written in Lycian, Greek, and Aramaic. Some even detail a visit from Alexander the Great.
The greatest lore surrounds Mithridates VI of Pontus. Wanting to clear a grove of trees on his way to sacking the city of Patara, he has a nightmare about the importance of the trees and the repercussions if he were to cut them down. He relented and they won the battle. The importance of the grove lasted so strongly and deeply to those that lived there that its inhab-itants blessed the site every generation for over 1000 years and was even christened in the 700s.
Patara was the primary port of Lycia, you can see why with their 11 miles (18km) of continuous beach. A dip in the pristine water is definitely called for if you've just finished the Lycian Way. However, the city has its own historical significance. It has many ruins - like a 40 ft. tall lighthouse from the 1st century AD - but it's most famous as the home of St. Nicholas or Santa Claus. This makes Patara a significant pilgrimage site, but I'd prefer just going to the beach.
In 2014, Turkey was quickly becoming one of the top tourist targets in the world. Now, the media makes it out to be another type of target. It was the sixth most visited country in 2015, but is now looking at losing up to $12 billion compared to last year. Not to mention, with everything that is going on politically--Turkey's everyday citizens and beautiful landscapes need some positive press. I'm not going to include "The Big 5" destinations that everyone sees in their inflight magazines or travel brochures. You will learn there's far more to this country than suppressed journalistic freedoms, terrorist attacks and threats, autocratic leaders, and regional "disputes" that could be said about lots of countries (and are definitely still ongoing here and are real issues). It's a place with an immense history and beauty that has been the center of the world for millennia. Napoleon once said, "if the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be the capital." Istanbul was my home for 3 years and the rest of the country lifts the city to its place of prominence.
First off, 'The Big 5'. Let me break them down:
Sultan Ahmet, Cappadocia, Ephesus, Pamukkale, Bodrum & Fethiye are the biggest draws. Most people fly into Istanbul and stay in Sultan Ahmet, then visit Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Tokapı Palace. However, there are so many places that you wouldn't normally find when wandering the old-stone streets of Sultan Ahmet.
Families' then move to Cappadocia. Here you stare at Phallic rock formations, hike through underground cities and ancient Christian valleys. Then you finish it up like any destination worth its weight--wine, sunsets, and tacky pottery (some is quite beautiful, actually).
If you're here in the summer (or British, Russian or German) then you may just head to one of the Turkish Riviera's beautiful turquoise beaches. Bodrum, Fethiye and Antalya are the most famous with their own bits of culture to keep you interested, but what makes these places really worth their salt is setting up camp on the beach and letting the sea slightly cool you from the scorching sun until you recharge with fresh fish and cold drinks.
Turkey's most well-preserved ancient city, Ephesus (Efes, in Turkish) was the Greek capital of Asia Minor and once the 2nd largest city in the world. It's an open museum that is as interesting as it is beautiful. As far as ancient cities go, if Rome is New York then Efes is Chicago. Which is to say that it may actually be better (I come from Chicago and am incredibly biased). It's massive and definitely worth shelling out the extra cash to get the full history. A bonus section shows old apartments from the time and detail the extravagance of the upper class and the depression of the lower. Very close is the Temple of Artemis, or really, a column from it, that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
About an hour or so away, you have Pamukkale and Hierapolis. Pamukkale, or Cotton Castle, are limestone baths that give the appearance of sitting in bathtubs in the clouds the way the Gods are always depicted in Greek myths. It's connected to Hierapolis, the original Florida. An ancient city that people have been flocking to in retirement since the 2nd century BC. The hot springs amongst the ruins are the only ones that I've discovered.
Now that you're caught up on the must see destinations, I'll give you the first place on my list--Kumkapı. Those that have been to this neighborhood know it for its square filled with fish restaurants to lure in tourists. On the other hand, trickling through the windy ravines of streets that flow from this reservoir of rakı, mezes, and fresh fish is evidence of Istanbul's diverse ethnic and religious origins. Still boasting a large Armenian population, it also possesses some of Istanbul's most original churches and mosques.
On my trip I came from the seaside at Yenikapı and I think it's the best way to encounter the neighborhood, though it's probably the opposite that most people will use. When you cross the concrete underpass by Kennedy Caddesi you'll encounter the Armenian Patriarchate and a large Armenian Orthodox church. Together, they represent much of pre-WWI Istanbul with an infusion of traditional architecture of the Ottomans mixed with an Armenian Apostolic style.
As you walk one more block inland you'll notice a stark contrast in the upkeep of the buildings. With run-down shops and homes, the business spills into the street where you can find a plethora of supplies. Anything from socks to booze, and even pork, can be haggled for while strolling down the street; make sure to grab some fruit from the street vendors for your walk.
That walk should take you up the hill a bit more towards Beyazıt and you'll end up at Mother Mary Church. Unassuming from the side, with a plain brick wall, but it's stunning on the inside and a gorgeous classical exterior that helps it sit like an island oasis in a concrete sea of dilapidation and gentrification. If checking out old churches is your thing also check out Aya Kiryoki and Rum Kilise for larger and grander structures, but with slightly less "je ne sais quoi" to them.
Turn towards the Old Town and you'll run into the main square that's filled with restaurants and not so passive waiters trying to get you to sit down. Kumkapı Historical Restaurant is the most famous, but in my opinion you really can't go wrong where ever you go here.
Once you're refueled head out towards Marmara University's campus and check out Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Camii just passed the police station. It's beautifully ornate with a piece of the Kaaba on the inside. You can chat with the caretaker who speaks enough English to give you an idea of the history and meaning of the place, while he'll also throw in pictures of all his grandkids to show you.
When you finally get a word in, ask him how to get to Küçük Aya Sofya and he'll point you there. Close to Sultan Ahmet, you'll come across the church-turned-mosque that actually predates the larger Aya Sofya by a year--being finished in 536 AD--and was used as a template to help them prepare for the much larger and more famous follow up. Due to Islamic law all the interior mosaics have been covered, but the current interior's design can be traced back to as early as 1506.
From here you can follow the path near the water or the streets next to the parks and end at Bukoleon Sarayı, the remnants of a palace from the 5th century. It was one of the few palaces still standing when the Ottomans sacked the city and a wall remains to this day. It's a last little photo-op before heading back into the much more dense Sultanahmet district.
During celebrations many people wave about the colors red, green, and yellow. They have a beautiful hue when the flags wave about and, not coincidentally, these are also the colors of the Kurdistan flag so many Kurds hoist their flags during the parades. In many parts of Turkey this practice can be extremely polarizing. The tenuous relationship between the Turkish government and the Kurdish people has the bloodstains of terrorism and military intervention drowning the diplomacy that is barely treading water.Read More
Chris and I were lucky enough to sit down with improv comedian/jack of all trades, Tyler Denison, to talk about the comedy scene as well as his personal experiences in Istanbul - with some great anecdotes and life lessons thrown in for good measure. Give it a download on iTunes (and us a rating while you're at it!) or if you prefer you can find the link on soundcloud.
A heads up - there's a foul word or two thrown in, but otherwise the content is still pretty PG. (Sorry, Ginny!)
In episode 2, Chris and I delve deeper into the idea of living in Istanbul by talking to long time resident, Tarik. He runs the website yabangee.com, which is a resource for all things Istanbul. Chris and I have been contributors over there for the past 2 years, so we knew Tarik would be a great person to ask about what's really out there in Istanbul for those of us who stayed past the usual vacation period. You can listen here or find us on iTunes by searching Into Istanbul.
Giving us a rating and a comment (or even just a listen) would really mean the world to us. If you missed our 1st episode don't worry you're not going to miss any vital information, but we do provide some more background on what we're doing.
So, if you want to check that out you can find it here.
Thanks and hope you enjoy!
My friend Chris and I have been working on a podcast that documents individual stories from our current home city of Istanbul that pertain to a certain theme that's relevant to not only our city, but to all of you listening at home. Our first episode titled, "Istanbul as Home", relates our own impressions of home as well as that of our friend, Amer, who came to Istanbul from Palestine by way of Syria.
Currently you can catch "Into Istanbul" here on Soundcloud. This episode and future episodes will also be up on iTunes and Stitcher, hopefully very soon.
Our next episode will be, "Istanbul as Worth Discovering". We will be hosting Tarik Yassien who curates the website yabangee.com.
If this is at all intriguing check us out. Or, if you have a topic you want us to cover (or want to join us on air) shoot a message over to email@example.com.
After that if it’s breakfast time check out Betty Blue, but you really can’t go wrong anywhere down here. If it’s lunch, Met Et Doner is rated the 4th best Dönerci in the city. Work off the food by dropping into the art galleries or figuring out a way into Greek Orthodox Church of St. Panteleimon.Read More
Coming around a bend on the Anatolian side between the two bridges is the aptly named Çengelköy. The neighborhood, whose name means hook village in Turkish, is for me one of the most picturesque Bosphorus walks. More than just a pretty view, Çengelköy is famous for its tomatoes, cucumbers, and hot chocolate. Like most neighborhoods in Istanbul it can be a little overwhelming on the first trip, so here’s an itinerary of sorts to help you navigate.
The ideal afternoon starts as Kuleli Asker Lisesi. From here, walk along the shoreline taking in the always stunning view of both the first Bosphorus bridge and Rumeli Hisari. If you’re hungry, there’s a whole assortment of Fish and Raki restaurants along the water.
Keep walking until the path ends and head onto Kuleli/Çengelköy Caddesi where you’ll pass numerous greengrocers selling the famous Çengelköy cucumbers and tomatoes. In my opinion, though, the best bet is to stop at Çengelköy Borekcisi or Erbap Patisserie and take your food to go. Walk down the tiny street, and you’ll find yourself at the morbidly named “Killer,” a 500-year-old plane tree, supported by steel beams now marauding its way to the seaside. Here you can mow down on your food while sipping on tea or turkish coffee at Tarihi Çınaraltı Aile Çay Bahçesi, or if you’d prefer more of buzz, head next door to the hookah lounge and relax under the tree. Don’t worry about the nickname; the steel supports will make sure it doesn’t live up to its name!
From here its time to move on to my favorite part. After eating borek, sipping on tea, and smoking shisha, it’s time to wander a block or two towards the Bosphorus Bridge and go toÇikolata Kahve for the delicious hot chocolate, that tastes just like melted down fudge in a mug.
Once finished, meander down to the waterfront from Çengelköy Sütiş Ağa Yalısı and snap some photos on the concrete pier. If you’ve timed it right you should be here at around sunset, and you get some stunning Bosphorus views, with the Sultanahmet silhouette visible on a clear day.
Finally, if you’re like me and have stuffed yourself thoroughly, it’s time to head inland to Mehmet Çakır Cultural and Sports Center, the Asian side’s largest public sports complex, and work off all that food by swimming in one of the three pools or merely steaming in the sauna.
This article previously appeared on yabangee.com for their Take 5 series here
Like many places in Turkey, there’s a story behind Lake Sapanca’s name. In fact, it derives from a myth that many locals apparently still believe. Sapan is the Turkish word for slingshot, and allegedly an old man carrying one happened across the original town asking for a glass of water. No one was willing to spare one, so on his way out he cursed the entire town to be submerged in a flood. As the story goes, the town was flooded and Lake Sapanca was created.
What To Do
The villagers, awestruck by this prophetic act, deemed this old man with a slingshot worthy of remembrance. Some even say that the original town’s mosque still sits at the bottom of this massive lake.
Regardless of the validity of this story (needless to say, I have my doubts…), I want to thank whatever or whoever created this serene and peaceful reservoir. Located just past Izmit, Lake Sapanca is easily accessible by train, bus or car from Istanbul. The area is loaded with activities for all seasons both on the lake and off, with accommodations that range from camping to luxury spas and resorts. It’s a beautiful weekend destination that made me feel like I was in another world, even though it’s only a short jaunt from the concrete jungle that is Istanbul.
There are a variety of ways to get to Sapanca, the simplest being driving. Having your own wheels is also beneficial because there are nearby areas that can only be accessed by car – it is possible to get these places using a combination of buses and cabs, but that can eat up time and be inconvenient. There’s a high-speed train from Pendik to Arifiye (12 TL) that takes an hour and usually leaves five times a day. You can then take a cab from Arifiye to central Sapanca, which costs around 30 TL and takes about 20 minutes. You can also take various tourist buses. VIP goes directly to Sapanca, while the other companies go to Adapazarı Merkez (approx. 25 TL), where you can get a bus to Sapanca Istasyonu for 3 TL. The bus journey will take you no longer than 2-3 hours. Actually, we found that it took longer to get across the second Bosphorus bridge from Esenler then it did to get from Beykoz to Sapanca.
Where to Stay
On the lake, there’s a lot of high-priced villas and homes for rent, and there are also expensive resorts with spas and pools. The most famous is the Richmond Nua Wellness Spa, but a room will run you around $300 a night. I stayed at a place called Ogun House Hotel that was pretty central, clean, comfortable, had bikes that guests were free to use, and was about a sixth of the price of the nearby spas and resorts. One of the employees even gave us a ride around, explained some of the history and showed us points of interest. But if you want something a little more out in the woods or just really want to escape the crowds, there are a lot of campsites around Kartepe, about 20 minutes from the lake, as well as spots surrounding the lake itself where you can either pitch your tent or pay for an actual site.
On the Lake
Once you venture from your hotel or campsite, you’ve got a plethora of options. Fishing is a big draw here, either from the shores or a boat. Trout (alabalık) is the main catch, and you can find it in restaurants all around the lake. In the summer, swimming is obviously popular along with water skiing, canoeing and kayaking. There’s also little stands all along the shoreline where you can rent paddle boats.
As for villages, there’s the signature Sapanca, with its waterfront lined with cafes – the perfect spot for breakfast. We went to Gulizar, which had quite a large breakfast buffet for 30 TL. In the main traffic circle you’ll find some tea gardens and a bar or two (be forewarned the area is on the conservative side – there aren’t many tekels or bars – so you may want to BYOB). If you travel in the other direction on the waterfront away from the restaurants it will take you to the yürüyüş yolu. It’s a pretty bike and walking path that is a good place for your morning run or just an afternoon lounging in the grass. There are also benches and picnic areas if you prefer to have a cookout. We had dinner at Sasa Harmanlık, which is located right before the start of the bike path. It has decent enough food with a dining section situated on a pier over the water.
Kırkpınar is another place where you can lie in the grass along the shore. It’s about a 20-30 minute bike ride from the center of Sapanca, but definitely worth the trek. There’s a number of tree farms on the way, sporting different types of firs and pines that made the ride smell like a living room during the Christmas season. When you finally get to Kırkpınar there’s a beautiful little strip of grass along the lake, dotted with brides and grooms having their wedding photos taken, where you can grab tea or have a barbecue. If you want to head inland, there’s a lot of farmland and an interesting rural landscape that stretches for a couple of miles. Some of these farms have in-house restaurants and sell their own organic products (although there is debate about the legitimacy of the organic claims at some of these places). Otherwise, to get into the more scenic sections inland you need to hop in a car and drive for about half an hour.
Around the Lake
When you do make it inland – and I suggest you do – the big tourist draw is Kartepe. Mainly a ski mountain and resort in the winter, there’s also a fair amount of trekking to be done on foot or ATV during the rest of the year. I didn’t get to see much in the few days I visited, but I’m definitely going back to explore the views. One side gives you Lake Sapanca with the other showing off the Gulf of Izmit. All of this with vistas of the Samanlı Mountains in between.
Another must see all year round is Maşukiye. Located more towards the base of Kartepe, the area is known for its series of man-made waterfalls that wind around breakfast balconies and cabins. When you get tired of all the people, you can go for a walk on the nearby trails. If you’re more of an adrenaline junkie there are ATV tours that will let you see more in less time (they’re also easy enough for beginners). If that’s too much excitement for you, there’s a pretty mild zip-line before the restaurant area where you can at least get a little rush before you relax at a cafe and listen to the water stream down. My biggest disappointment was that I didn’t take advantage of the paintball courses halfway up the road – who doesn’t love shooting at your friends in a beautiful, natural setting?
Lake Sapanca offers leaf peeping in the fall, skiing in the winter, and boating and fishing in the spring. But whenever you decide to visit, it will always provide you a quiet and peaceful escape into nature.
If you liked this post, please check where it was first published over at yabangee.com where you can see other informative posts about Turkey from myself and other ex-pats and locals.
Fall is a perfect time in Cappadocia (or Kapadokya). It is an ideal climate. Distinct from the sweltering heat in the summer and the bitter cold that makes trekking and ballooning difficult to impossible in the winter. Spring can also be beautiful but can include showers without warning and ruin the idyllic views. Regardless of the season though there are many valleys, cities (above and below ground), and churches that are amazing to see any time of the year. Some locations are essential for a visit to Kapadokya. To get a significant list you can check out mappadocia, but for more in-depth hiking trails you can find numerous other sites online, or you know, a map. I'll be writing a little bit about my opinions on the best hikes and villages a bit later. Below is a small overview of the most famous and best locales in the region. Important to note, Kapadokya is a region and not a specific area; so there are many places to find and explore, but you may need to do a little bit of driving or trekking to get there.
KAYMAKLI (Underground City)
Probably the most fascinating place I've ever been to (and most claustrophobic), Kaymaklı is mostly a set of elaborate tunnels carved out of stone that doubled as homes, meeting areas, and defense fortresses. When walking around, sometimes almost crawling, you can see a winery, food storage, living rooms, kitchens, and ventilation shafts. Dug out by the Hittites over 3,600 years ago it was used as their full-time living space. Later it was used by persecuted Christians and pretty much any culture that had to hide from anyone in this region for the next 2,000 years. This city goes down about 80 meters and originally more, but earthquakes have collapsed anything deeper. I could make a post only about here and its history, but this is just a slight impression of what you'll see. If Kaymaklı is too far out of your way, then Derinkuyu is the deepest of the open sites, and there's also Özkonak. Its tunnels are slightly newer but have communication pipes and areas where they could dump hot oil on enemies in the tunnels, which the other sites don't have.
ALL THE VALLEYS
The most famous features from beautiful Kapadokya are its fairy chimneys, and some of the best places to see them are in Kapadokya's immense valleys that are great for camping or just hiking, especially in the fall. Ihlara Valley is a vibrant green canyon carved by the Melendiz River and flush with wildlife. It's a pretty relaxing walk that totals about 14km. There are many famous fresco churches and tea gardens that line the trail and culminates with Selime Monastery.
Pigeon Valley whose stone walls are lined with pigeon houses that used to fertilize the land runs from Üçhisar to Göreme.
You've got the aptly named Rose and Red Valleys that are connected and lead to many churches and stellar views, as well as crazy landscapes. If you end near Ortahisar, then there are excellent viewpoints near the end of the trail next to Aktepe. Also near Ürgüp is Zemi Valley which has two paths. One takes you up with a view, and the other takes you into a valley with cave churches and green scenery. If you have kids or want a real light hike, try Swords Valley. It's next to the open-air museum in Göreme and still gives you some views of the fairy chimneys and cave churches. Finally, there's Love Valley which is slightly more difficult than Swords and gets its name from its distinct, non-gender neutral fairy chimneys. It's still suitable for children (if they don't make the connection to the valley's anatomical resemblance) and picnicking but gives you some chances to climb around and challenge yourself a little bit if you want.
But not every fairy chimney looks the same and two areas are unsurpassed regarding individuality and beauty. Devrent Valley is the first and is famous for its personified formations like Napoleon's Hat and the Camel. There are numerous other unique configurations, and you could spend a few hours hiking around to find them all. Paşabağ is apparently the location with the highest frequency of fairy chimneys, and they have dark, mushroom-looking heads and slender stone stems.
These were formed from centuries of volcanic and meteorological activity that have eroded away the weaker stone but could do nothing to the more hardened, darker basalt. There are a few vistas to see and chimneys to climb into that provide good photo ops. You can hike around the ridges or look up at the vents in wonderment.
CITIES OF KAPADOKYA
After days of hiking, you may want to reintegrate into society and talk to people. The most significant city (and biggest airport) is in Kayseri. I didn't spend much time here, and there's not a whole lot to do. In general, it's a very conservative city that is a little removed from the more exciting parts of the region but gives you easy access to all the crucial locales and has some of its history as well.
Nevşehir, a smaller province, but the slightly more interesting looking place (has the other, smaller airport for the region). It contains the village of Ortahisar which is built into the side of what looks like falling over wizard's hat and at night looks like Mickey Mouse's from "Fantasia." It's a little closer to everything than Kayseri but a little less accessible from other parts of the country.
The main cities of Kapadokya for sleeping and eating are Ürgüp and Göreme. Ürgüp has Temenni Tepesi which is a hill with a panorama over the entire town and a not so good restaurant but lovely tea garden at the top that used to be the town's public library. There's also a tomb that is sometimes open where you can walk around. Otherwise, in Ürgüp you have Ziggy's restaurant, which is fantastic albeit a little expensive. Up the hill from there, you have Turasan Şarap Evi which is the predominant winery in the area. Here you can buy most of the wine that you'd get at restaurants for a quarter of the price. And of course, you can do a tasting so you can figure out which ones are your favorite.
Göreme is a lot smaller population wise, so you have a lot fewer options for food and nightlife. However, if you stay here, you'll be situated closer to the unbelievable Göreme Open Air Museum which sports the most well-preserved and diversely colored church frescoes. Karanlık Kilise is an extra fee but is a must see. Nearby there's a lot more hiking possibilities and cave churches dotting the landscapes of Göreme National Park. But the way to start the day and catch it all in view is by taking a hot air balloon ride up at sunrise and picking the spots you want to see from the ground.
Finally, for the winter enthusiasts, you have the tall peaks of the Taurus mountain range. The tallest mountain in Anatolia is Erciyes which is about 13,000 ft. or 4,000 m tall. You can climb it, but it is a technical climb and is snow-capped all year-long. Apparently, there are a couple of caves and some inscriptions from ancient cultures near the summit. Or you can just go skiing about 1,200 m down from the top.
The 2nd highest mountain in Anatolia is Hasan (3,268 m or 10,722 ft.) it's about a six-hour climb from the highest point reachable by car and supposedly gives a good view of all of Kapadokya. The last mountain in the region is Aktepe where you get the beautiful views without all the work.
About 1,350 m tall, its erosion is still forming Devrent, Rose, and Red valleys. Sunset point gives you a view of the mountain and all the valleys and is even more spectacular during sunrise when there are tons of hot air balloons flying around.
While this post is a little long-winded it still only covers a fraction of the valleys you can hike, the unique villages you can see, and the history you can let seep into your brain. Hopefully, this gives a little insight into the multitudes of experiences that await you that I hope to delve into later on.
In Greek, it means Holy Wisdom and the building served as a Greek Orthodox Church when it was ordered to be built by Emperor Justinian close to 1,500 years ago. It was the Byzantine's 3rd attempt at a grand church after the 1st two were taken down by fires and riots. Completed in 537 AD, it stands as a landmark of the area's Christian, Muslim, and imperial history. It was converted into a Mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and has been a Museum since 1935.
There's a lot to process when you get in there. So, I'm going to give you a little help with some of the most important locales. Whether you don't want to pay for the audio tour or guide, just want to impress someone with your knowledge of near eastern history, or you aren't in Turkey and want to see what you're missing out on. Here is a view of some of the most impressive sites in the world.
The first thing you'll notice when you finally get inside (Get a museum card, so you don't have to wait in line!) is the Imperial Door. This massive bronze door opened only when the Emperor arrived and sat beneath one of the most impressive mosaics, which I'll mention later and opens up to a majestic view of the lower gallery where most of the attractions stand. This is because churches at this time focused on the east side of their corridors. This trend continued when it became a mosque because Mecca is south-east of Istanbul and therefore the mihrab and other vital facets are located in this area. Above the door sits one of the more famous mosaics, which I'll talk about later. Also, when you enter, there are two massive indents in the floors that were caused by two statues that stood for close to 1000 years.
Where the Imam would lead Friday services, it sits on top of about 40 steps where you can allegedly see the imprints from the original chair. It has an epic stature next to the altar and overlooking the coronation block. It also stands near the mihrab (formerly the altar) in the apse area. When you visit, you'll notice the mihrab is slightly off center. This is because it pointed straight to Mecca (south-east of Istanbul) and was altered from its centered position during the Mosque conversion. Above the altar is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and another one of the archangels Michael and Gabriel (though these images are hard to discern nowadays). The minbar is just an aspect of maybe the most fascinating part of the museum, the apse.
The apse that is mentioned and the picture above incurs quite the crowd in front of it. It was the central area for spectacles at Hagia Sophia. The throne directly faced another area that is of particular importance: The Omphalion.
Ostensibly, it's just a spot on a marble floor with different color tiles and doesn't appear to hold any importance, besides the fact that it's roped off. In actuality, it's the spot of the Byzantine Emperor's coronation. This exact spot was the place for emperors such as Basil I & II, Irene, Zoe, and Alexius, to see their ascension to power.
I find this to be such an important site because even though it has an unimposing appearance. It is the exact spot of the transference of authority for the most influential person of the most potent empire for about 1,000 years.
The Islamic calligraphic roundels that hang from the walls amongst the numerous Christian mosaics are another fascinating aspect of the Museum and provide a contrast between Christian and Islamic history. These roundels are the largest calligraphy plates in the world and spell the names of Allah, Mohammad, and six of Mohammad's brothers. They were apparently placed during Aya Sofya's transition into a mosque and illustrate the separation from Christian art and architecture.
Christ as Pantocrator
What Hagia Sophia is maybe most known for are its mosaics. Just like looking at a Rembrandt painting can tell you about the Dutch Golden Age or Baroque Age, these mosaics fill you in on beliefs and ideas from the Byzantine heyday, as well as their decline. The first mosaic you'll notice (and there's lots of them) is the Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) above the Imperial Door.
Here you'll see Christ seated with (who's probably) Leo VI kneeling before him. Gabriel is on the right side of the frame and Mary on the left. My shitty photography makes it difficult to recognize the book in Jesus's left hand, but the Latin inscription reads, "Peace be with you. I am the light of the world". (John 20:19; 20:26; 8:12). This mosaic dates back to the late 9th or early 10th centuries.
The Deesis Mosaic is probably the most famous and is located in the upper gallery. It marked the beginning of the Renaissance of Byzantine art. It was completed in the 13th century and is notable because of its attention to detail in facial features, vibrant colors, and because it was ordered to be created to mark the end of Roman Catholicism in Constantinople. It shows the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist pleading with Christ Pantocrator for humanity's salvation.
Empress Zoe Mosaic
Another illustrious design is the Empress Zoe Mosaic that dates back to the 11th century. You see Christ Pantocrator surrounded by Empress Zoe who holds a scroll to symbolize all her past donations to the Church, with an inscription above her head reading, "Zoe, the very pious, Augusta." Next to her, is her 3rd husband Constantine IX holding a bag of money to show his donation to the Church. His inscription reads, "Constantine, pious emperor in Christ the God, king of the Romans, Monomachus." Above Christ's head are the letters IC and XC meaning, Iēsous Khristos in Latin. The faces in the mosaic have been scratched off previously and are believed to have been initially created for another Emperor and Empress or just one of Zoe's previous husbands.
Chamber of Warriors Mosaic
The Chamber of Warriors Mosaic is the last one I'll discuss. There are numerous others to see, like the Alexander or Mary Mosaics. The Warriors' Mosaic is interesting because it flanks Mary, with baby Jesus on her lap, with Constantine I holding a model of his namesake, Constantinople, and Justinian presenting a copy of his most celebrated accomplishment, a model of the Hagia Sophia.
There are countless other beauties to behold in and around Ayasofya, including other mosaics that have as rich a history as the ones mentioned above, remnants of the 2nd Hagia Sophia, Tomb of the Sultans, the Library, the Weeping Column, the Marble Door, and many more. I can only suggest you visit this place yourself to understand truly how it feels.
Why You Need to See It
If you've been on the fence about visiting this place, then you may want to take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts. There has been a big push to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, especially after comments from Pope Francis acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. Protests started on the weekend of May 23rd to turn the structure into a mosque again. Causing massive outcries from secularist Turks as well as Greeks who see Hagia Sophia as a significant feature of their religious history.
What this conversion could mean is a few things for visitors. Much like the rest of the famous mosques in Turkey, it will remain open to public visitation (probably) and close only during prayer times. The most significant changes would be the carpeting of the floor, covering items such as the coronation square. Also, the legendary mosaics on the walls will be covered with plaster as the depiction of religious figures aren't allowed. So, some of the more impressive and must-see sights will be forever hidden from view.
While the idea of changing it back to a mosque has been debated for a few years, it's only been talk up to this point so that I wouldn't freak out quite yet. Though, with the current political climate and the rising of Islamist policies from the ruling AKP, I wouldn't put it past them to push forward with this plan.
Sorry if you think writing about a current events situation two weeks after the fact is too much of a delay, but I was on vacation (thanks, Mom!) and am now just getting back into my daily routine. With that said, I've had some interesting days here in Turkey. With one sticking out as one of the strangest that I've had in Istanbul so far. A nationwide blackout occurred on March 31st from 10 am - 4 pm. And by nationwide I mean pretty much every major city lost power. If you were lucky enough to work in a larger facility your day continued as usual (I wasn't). Otherwise, the country and especially Istanbul was chaotic. Many businesses lack a backup generator which halted production and caused up to millions of dollars in losses according to some estimates. Some people were also stuck in elevators for hours. Outside, the city dealt with its own issues as stop lights and subway lines went out of service for as much as five hours. And in a city spilling over capacity at about 20 million people traffic is already an issue on a normal day. Without work to do and nowhere to go the conspiracy theories began to fly. A conclusive reason has yet to be discovered but there have been numerous ideas ranging from the realistic to the absurd and some preliminary investigations leaking details of a cause, but nothing concrete as of yet. I'll give you a brief overview of the most prominent conjectures and let you make your own decision.
Cyber Attack - The most conspiracy theoryish idea, so of course a lot of people believe it. The idea is that Iran somehow took out Turkey's electrical grid. I have no idea whether this is even possible but one of the reasons I've heard as to why people think it was an attack from Iran, besides geopolitical reasons, is because the city of Van had no outages and they receive their electricity from Iran. Besides the fact that this detail would make this the most conspicuous covert operation I've ever heard of; it defies simple logic. Of course Van would go unaffected if it's not on the national power grid, but I digress.
Employee Error - Probably the easiest to swallow (and most likely) for most people. Someone in Ankara probably fell asleep at the wheel, so to speak, or plugged the wrong what's-it into the incorrect thingy and the next thing you know an entire nation is contemplating the End of Days.
Mismanagement - Another idea partially attributed by the Minister of Energy, Taner Yildiz. A single company, TEİAŞ, is responsible for almost all electrical production and distribution in Turkey. Yildiz blamed people for being careless and taking risks without his knowledge. This is an incredibly vague description. The company's head, Kemal Yildir, took responsibility and resigned saying it was a technical issue and he should've been ahead of it.
Technical Issues - Yildiz also said that simultaneous work at two different plants on the same grid caused a surge which resulted in the events of the 31st. He stated it was an operational fault and not a supply one, however. The stability of the system and its ability to bounce back after a possible future similar event was supported by Yildiz. Even though TEİAŞ was unable to restore power for almost six hours just a week ago. I'm not an electrical engineer, but appears that Yildiz is doing some political posturing instead of giving an objective assessment on the status of the grid.
Potential for Nuclear Energy - The other talked about theory I've heard from a lot of locals is that this is a power move being structured by the government to garner support for nuclear reactors. Just days ago, banners went up all around the capital of Ankara advertising the building of nuclear facilities. A lot people view the power outage as a crafty maneuver to sway those who fear environmental repercussions from nuclear energy to look past their hesitancies because of the fear of instability and perhaps their biggest fear, the loss of revenue.
On a more serious note, the largest courthouse in Europe, located in Istanbul, less than a mile from my home encountered a hostage situation simultaneously to the blackout. Two gunmen who claimed to be affiliated with the DHKP-C, a banned Marxist political group that is considered a Terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US, took the prosecutor of the police officer who shot Berkin Elvan hostage with demands of: a public confession from the officer who fired on Elvan, the public naming of four other officers who were allegedly involved, and the gunmen wanting to ensure their own safe exit. After almost a full day of negotiations shots were fired from inside the office. The two gunmen were killed and the prosecutor was shot and died from his injuries at the hospital.
The whole situation, while being sad, raised a more puzzling question. How were these men able to bring guns into such a heavily fortified building? There's the chance that with the blackouts and general chaos of the day the men were able to circumvent security, but this has pushed others to speculate the two events are connected. I'm not going to make that assumption, personally, because I have no way to verify it, but I can say it was one of the crazier days I've experienced in Turkey.
I recently went to Eskisehir, which is a city in Western Anatolia about two hundred miles southeast of Istanbul. Despite Anatolia being known more like a dry grassland plateau, the western section is rugged and green. It's covered in forests and green ridges that contrast starkly with the heavily industrialized Sea of Marmara coastline to the west and the flat urban sprawl of the capital, Ankara, to the east. When I first arrived, I didn't know what to expect, and I was just told it was a fun city and only about a three-hour train ride from my home in Istanbul. It was hyped up by friends as a kind of college town, but I was just looking forward to a weekend away. As soon as we left the train station and made our way down the main street, there was a giant mall. In front of the mall was an, "I 'heart' Eskisehir" sign, much like the famous, eponymous ones in Amsterdam.
At first, I found the structure a cheap imitation. An attempt to make the city seem like a more prominent destination by mimicking a sort of banal tourist stop. I still think about the structures in both towns that way. However, the longer I stayed, the more it accentuated the parallels between the two cities in my mind over the weekend I spent there. Amsterdam's cultural history may be more famous, but Eskisehir's is even more significant. The title means "old city" in Turkish and the founding dates back to 1000 BC. While Eskisehir wasn't home to Van Gogh and Rembrandt or any famous Turkish artists, it does house a Museum dedicated to the artistic glassware that Ottoman art is known for. Amsterdam is probably most well known for its tourist drawing Red Light District, but don't expect anything like that. So, if you want to smoke a joint and buy a hooker, Eskisehir isn't the place for you. For a predominately Muslim country though, you can find a nightlife here that is more open than any other I've seen outside of the typical expat havens and Istanbul. It has a somewhat liberal population, as well as a high number of young people that leads to a pretty big bar scene with quality foreign beers, if like me; you get tired of drinking Bomonti and Efes (The Miller and Miller High Life of Turkey). You can also find pool and ping pong tables at most places, which aren't easy to find in bars in the rest of the country.
Most of these bars run near the Porsuk River. Unlike the iconic Amstel, it doesn't cross every nook and cranny, but still bisects the city. Cafes, restaurants, and various other shops line the river. You can regularly find people sipping on tea or drinking beer or raki with the rattle of dice from a game of backgammon going on. It's an excellent alternative to the packed and expensive tourist trap that is Amsterdam (don't expect to hear people speaking English in Eskisehir as they do in Amsterdam, though). Walking along the river, I couldn't help but feel the same relaxed vibe that I had felt this summer in Amsterdam but with fewer crowds and drunk 18-year-olds.
However, if you've ever been to Amsterdam outside of the Red Light District, you know that much more defines the city than drugs and prostitution. There is an artistic feeling that permeates the air there, and maybe that's what I breathed in while in Eskisehir. Its architecture exemplifies this. When I walked along the river banks, and in the Odunpazari neighborhood I couldn't help but notice the unique houses, similar to the ones that struck me so much when I was in Amsterdam. Amsterdam's homes are noted for their long and narrow style with white trim (seen below).
Odunpazari has a style that is a little different but felt reminiscent of the one in Amsterdam. They looked like inverse images of the typical apartments above. What with them being shorter and broader with inverse color schemes. Nevertheless, I felt like I had stumbled on an older Dutch colony as I walked through.
The structural differences are probably more due to the period they were built, with Odunpazari's neighborhood dating back to about 1000 AD, while the city of Amsterdam was founded approximately 400 years later. There is also more necessity for Amsterdam's tall, thin style because of the need to conserve space, which Eskisehir doesn't have to deal with. Similarly, the Odunpazari neighborhood has numerous mosques dating back to the 1400's and 1500's much like the era most of Amsterdam's classic churches are from.
Overall, the cities provide a lot of similarities and contrasts between Turkish and Dutch culture. There's unique architecture surrounding river banks with elaborate bridges connecting the sides. Religious buildings accentuate otherwise unimpressive skylines. There are apparent differences between the Muslim culture that shaped modern Eskisehir and the social democratic doctrine of Amsterdam, but they share common traits. They are two of the most beautiful places to relax, and they embody a friendly and welcoming nature that makes me wish I could go back.