Return to Turkey

I returned to Istanbul in September 2011. Baha meets me at the airport, all smiles. Back at his hotel, he’s printed out a stack of Islamic designs for my hats, and I show him the hats he asked me to make for him, to sell at his hotel. We start discussing price points and promotional plans.

Price points become really tricky with the exchange rate between USD and TL, and I’m concerned about tariffs and shipping costs. I start to get a little stressed out, so I take a break.

It’s EID and the city is lit up like Disneyland. There are street vendors and kids tossing neon spinners high into the sky. I try to get some night shots of the Ayasofya and the German Fountain. By the time I get back, Baha has put my hats into the glass case he has already built in his dining area.

His hotel is full, so he has reserved a room for me at the Kybele Hotel, where I spend the night admiring the ceiling where there’s a grid of Turkish lanterns, mounted every 10″ and lit up in a festival of colored glass.

I wake up the next morning to a landscape that has changed. Sidewalk cafe tables have been banned by city ordinance. The old hotelier is gone, as is Cihan. Baha is not his sunny self. He walks me through the fashion district near the Galata Tower before we hop public transit to the Rumeli Fortress. It’s a long trip, and the door to the Rumeli is being locked just as we arrive. It’s not the last door that would close on this trip.

The next day, I go back to the Bazaar and am successful in finding the suzuri salesman, who sells me 3 pieces which I intend to cut up for hats. I buy a Turkish designs book, and note the similarities between Chinese and Turkish phoenixes and dragons. I look for the Chora Church, which Baha had suggested the last time I was here. His directions fail me so I hail a cab, but even the cabbie has trouble finding it. He drops me a few blocks away but points in the direction I need to walk to get there.

  • Built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Chora Church was converted into a mosque in 1511, and became a museum in 1945. Unlike other church to mosque conversions, the original mosaics and frescoes were not plastered over.

The mosaics are incredible, with tiles the size of my smallest fingernail and not always square, allowing for fine shading and shaping of the human faces. The domed and vaulted ceilings bring back memories of the Basilica in Venice, but with the addition of windows in the tops of the domes, reminiscent of the Salute Cathedral. I was surprised by the intensity of the colors.

To see my photos of the Chora Church, please see my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

Afterwards, I wander through a residential area of old Ottoman homes, and scale an ancient wall for a panorama view of the surrounds. I stop for a bottle of ayran and turn the corner to find a delightful, huge open air market. Arriving at the water’s edge, I hop a ferry with the intention of going north to Eyup. But the ferry turns south instead.

Rumeli fails, and now Eyup as well.

I return to the Han Hotel and ask Baha about the TurkuaZoo, which is said to have an aquarium where you can swim with the sea turtles. He doesn’t know where that is, so I Google the bus route myself. That adventure ends up as a 3 hour bus ride through another wedding gown district, and reaching the end of the line,forcing me off the bus and onto another going back the direction I came. I never find the zoo and I wonder what plan will fail next…

I find out over dinner that plans for Bodrum have fallen through. Baha suggests alternative destinations for me to visit on my own. “See what is outside of Istanbul for a couple of days. Cappadocia perhaps. Or Ephesus.” He offers to find a tour that I can afford and make those arrangements. I chose instead, the ancient Ottoman capitol of Bursa. I have not felt well for the last couple of days. I would spend the next day sick in bed, and leave for Bursa on the following day.

  • Bursa has a history of some 5,000 years. It was built by Hannibal as a gift to King Prusias, who gave refuge at his court after Hannibal was defeated in his campaign against the Romans. The Citadel is still a significant part of the landscape, and I am taken by the way the modern parts of the city have nestled up to this ancient stone fortification. 
  • Bursa became the capitol of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Orhan Gazi, who is buried here. The city became the cultural center of the scientific world, and was an important part of the trade routes heading West. In recent times it has become a center for textile and automotive production in Turkey.

It’s a 6 hour trip by bus to the Boyoguzel Hotel, a modern business hotel just outside of town. Downtown Bursa is too far to reach by foot, but it’s a lovely day, so I spend the evening walking around, and find the grave of Suleyman Celebi, the author of the Mevlid, an epic poem describing the birth of Mohammed.

Further down the street is a large, elevated cement stage with a proscenium from which hang a pair of oversized Turkish shadow puppets, marking the Karagoz Cemetery. Legend has it that during the construction of the Orhan Mosque, two blacksmiths named Karagoz and Hacivat impeded work by distracting the other workers with their antics, and were beheaded by order of Sultan Orhan, an action he later regretted. In an attempt to cheer up the distraught sultan, his vizier removed his turban and made a screen, and reenacted the antics of the dead blacksmiths in shadow-play. The vizier, Sheikh Kusteri, is credited as the father of Turkish puppet theater, and Hacivat and Karagoz became staple characters.

I stop for dinner at a kebab place where a very enthusiastic cook takes me into his kitchen so I can point to what I want. A stop at the liquor store for a bottle of Raki, and a slow back up the hill, completes my day.

The next day, I hail a cab to Yesil Madrash, the Green Tomb, which turns out to be the furthest point away from the hotel, and with all the other sites lined up in a mostly straight line back up the hill. It is very early yet, so I step into a small bazaar that is housed on 3 floors of an Ottoman home. It’s a lovely place and I am closely attended to by a child who continues to talk to me long after I indicated I do not speak Turkish. I regret not having purchased anything there.

Yesil Madrash is the burial place of Sultan Mehmet I, and his sons and daughters. Unlike Christians, Muslims do not bury their dead in their places of worship.  Mosques (camii) are always separate from tombs (madrash).

  • Commissioned in 1421 it is commonly known as the Green Tomb because of the turquoise-green tiles that cover its exterior. Its interior is a riot of blue tilework inscribed with interlocking rumi and cufic inscriptions.

Upon my return home I chided myself for not making the time to visit Iznik, less than two hours away, and the home of the factories that produced the tiles for many of the buildings I visited in this country.

The video below is a 360 degree view of the interior of this tomb. For additional photos please visit Daveno Travels. 

Further down the street, the Turkish Islamic Museum of Arts fills several tiny rooms surrounding an open air courtyard. There is an extensive array of artifacts, each room seems to be themed with either the type of item (coins) or the items’ usage (prayer items). Assuming that a catalog does not wait for me at the end, I start photographing items, which attracts the attention of a security guard. I am writing notes, and in spite of the language barrier, I figure out that he’s asking me not to lean on the glass. 

There are cases full of ceramics in the outdoor courtyard, and I motion to my camera to make sure photography is allowed. “Yes,” he nods. I continue to photograph everything which continues to rouse their curiosity.  I take a last look to make sure I haven’t missed anything, and wave goodbye.  As I am standing just outside the entrance, my nearly useless map in hand, trying to figure out where next to go, the youngest guard runs up to me and presents me with an English language Bursa City Guide.  “A gift,” he beams. I thank him profusely and sit down with it for the next 20 minutes. Small gestures make such a big difference…

Here are a few of my favorites from this museum.

Just outside of the Yesil Madrash, I find a handful of street merchants. One is peddling small antique trinkets and silver by the ounce. The ring I have not yet found in Istanbul, I find here — a prettily worked silver bezel surrounding an onyx cabochon, and a silver thimble, covered with granulation, which must be the most perfect thimble ever (and which now I cannot sew without).

The Cultural Museum, previously a dervish lodge and then a library, now houses a collection of costumes and textiles. I wander around, completely alone, no guards or attendants in sight. Sunlight streams through the windows and reflects off the cases, which makes photography difficult. I also wondered about UV damage, especially to the metallic thread embroideries. Here are more of my favorites.

Prayers are in progress at the Ulu Camii, so I check out the Kozahan (the Silk Bazaar). Built in 1491, it is stocked to the ceiling with every type of silk scarf, apparel and towel you could possibly imagine. A small import shop at the entrance of another han attracts my attention. I should have bought a lamp here but did not, and the filigree belts which the clerk pulls off the wall en masse for me, also sadly stay behind. Other bazaars sell modern goods for the locals and cheap trinkets for everyone else.

I find a kebab place to eat lunch, and have my first durum which I like a lot, a tortilla filled with a tiny bit of meat, pickle and tomato. I mill around until 2:30 and the end of afternoon prayer. It was interesting to note that in spite of there being a women’s gallery, the only people exiting the mosque are men.

  • The magnificent Ulu Camii was built in 1399, when, to satisfy a promise to construct 20 mosques, Yildirim Bayazid chose instead to build a single mosque with 20 domes and minarets. The center dome is glass, hovering over a 16-sided fountain. The calligraphies were finished in 1904.

Ulu Camii is the largest mosque in Bursa, and is also the most distinctive mosque I have seen in Turkey thus far.

Children run around, and a couple of girls are rolling around on the carpet. Women in headscarves, in spite of the secluded women’s gallery in the corner (there’s no elevated gallery here), prayed in groups of twos and threes, along with a scattering of men. It was interesting to watch ‘only men’ entering and exiting the mosques at prescribed prayer times, but the women entered with the tourists. Men and women prayed here separately but simultaneously on the main floor, with no screens or barriers between them.

I backtrack to the Orhan Camii, where a custodian is vacuuming between prayer services. I quickly take a few photos, pull all of the change out of my pocket and put it in the offering box.

Nearby is the tomb of Orhan Gazi. His turban is perched on his sarcophagus which is overlaid with a heavily embroidered tapestry. The pillar is one of four that support the domed ceiling. The walls are whitewashed with limestone. It was very airy and beautiful.  See more of my photos here.  I find a public park with a directional sign listing distances for neighboring countries (an installation art piece) and several shady benches. I take a coffee break and study my map. A man sits down a little too close to me but does not initiate contact and leaves after about 10 minutes. It was the only time I would ever feel unsafe in Turkey.

Bursa is a city of sultan’s tombs. A silver domed building that had been the chapel of a Christian monastery, was converted to become the burial place of Orhan’s son, Osman Gazi, who died during the Siege of Bursa in the 14th century. The carved sarcophagus is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and surrounded by a brass balistrade. His turban rests on top, as is the burial custom for the sultans in this region.  It is done in blues and whites and is very calming.

I tour the 17th Century Ottoman House Museum, believed to be the birthplace of Sultan Mehmed. You will find those photos here.

I find the Uluumay Ottoman Costume and Jewelry Museum just minutes before it was scheduled to close. The curator gives me a personal tour of room after room of costumes, textiles, jewelry and other artifacts that he has been collecting for the past 50 years. It is housed in an old Ottoman school, only large enough to exhibit a quarter of his collection. Completely accessorized mannequins of folk costumes from all over Central Asia and the Balkans, are displayed on turntables in glassed off sections of the room. Photography is not allowed and of course these things have not been cataloged. But the presentation is exquisite and had I had more time I would have asked to sit and sketch things. The Hurriyet published an article about this museum the year after I was there.

I head back up the hill to the hotel and find dinner at a kebab place about a block away. Seated at a sidewalk table, I watch the relentless stream of traffic just feet in front of me, and watch in awe as a man in a wheelchair bullies his way across the intersection. Taxis pull straight into oncoming traffic and block the flow until they can push their way through.

Motorcycles hop off and onto the sidewalks. Right of way seems to go to whoever is fearless enough to take it. In Istanbul there are crosswalks and walk signals, but those are a rarity here. Women with children and strollers take the same risks and are awarded the same care as anyone else. By the end of the day, I find myself running in front of cars and buses, not being assured that I would make it across the street…

I spend the rest of the evening wandering around the residential areas, admiring the architecture. I have figured out the high-speed ferry, a 2 hour trip which will return me to Istanbul tomorrow morning.

The following morning I hail a cab to the ferry dock. The high-speed ferry is the most efficient but also the most boring route between here and Istanbul, with nothing to see but the flat, expansive Marmara Sea. I purchase a plate of the egg and phyllo dish that is a prevalent breakfast dish here, and coffee with milk, like a latte.  I find a table but discover that the entire ferry is assigned seating.  I locate my seat after sharing that knowledge with the tourists are seated there,  and spend the remainder of the trip writing in my journal.

Today is my last day in Istanbul. I am finally recovered from my maladies and try to cram as much stuff into my remaining hours as I possibly can.  I had hoped to see the Orient Express but it left a few hours earlier. Baha shows me the way to a lamp maker so I can buy an Istanbul-made lamp like those that cover the ceilings of the Kybele and Hotel Han. I spend the rest of my day shopping for hatmaking materials along a “Textiles Row” of shops near the Grand Bazaar, and come home with bags of laces, woven trims and metallic thread appliques.

I take one more walk through Gulhane Park and Sultanahmet Square before returning to the Han Hotel. Baha offers me an hour of his time and a small bowl of chorba, a final gesture of hospitality.  A taxi arrives three hours later. My hats that I had hoped to sell here would arrive in Seattle by DHL a few weeks later.

“Inshallah you will visit Istanbul again some day,” he says, as the door to my taxi slams shut and I am whisked back to Ataturk Airport for my flight home.

“Inshallah…”

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