Friday, May 29, 2009

Istanbul - The Crossroads of Civilization

Our journey to Western Armenia started with a four day stay in Istanbul. This city is the crossroads of multiple civilizations dating back mutilple milleniums. One sees the heavy influence of the early Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottoman Turks and the more recent new Turkey under Kemal Attaturk, after World War I. The people are very friendly and helpful, and the city is crowded now with European tourists. Many of the sites we are visiting have hundreds of school children passing through their doors, visiting historical landmarks that date back many hundreds of years.

On our first day, we rode in two cabs around the old city walls, along the Golden Horn of the Bosporous, to a small church known as Chora Church Museum. Tucked away on a tiny street in a little neighborhood, the original church standing at this location was built in the 4th century, when Istanbul was known as Constantinople (after the Roman emperor Constantine). It was then built outside the walls of the city but suffered heavy damage from an earthquake in the the first millennium. The current structure is a Byzantine Church built in the eleventh century. After suffering damage by the 12th century Crusaders the Byzantines started an effort to completely renovate and reconstruct the church. Under its patron Theodore Metochites, the church was decorated on the inside with magnificent frescoes and mosaics. Over the next six centuries, control of the church changed and in the 16th century the Ottomans took control.

Chora was converted to a mosque, and the beautiful and historic early mosaic depictions of Christian history were whitewashed and covered over. Minarets were added and the structure was used as a mosque until the 1940's, when the historic art work was discovered. Over the next many years, the masterpiece of Eastern Orthodox art was restored. Today, one can see portions of the beautiful work on the ceilings and high on the walls of the small church. (Check out the link on this blog to Brian's Travel Photos to see pictures of Chora Church.)

Our next stop was the historic Grand Bazaar -- the oldest structure of its kind in the world. Built in the 18th century, the Bazaar is a building containing a maze of streets lined with everything from high-end jewelers to silver vendors to rug merchants, to leather stores, to low-end souvenirs to leather shops, to pure junk. One can easily get lost here and, if one is not careful, be drowned in tea and coffee from the shop owners who invite you in for a cup of tea to show you their prized merchandise. Its main street is lined with jewelery stores -- diamonds, gold, silver, stones - you ask for it, you got it!

After spending a few hours roaming the streets of the Bazaar and having a kebab lunch upstairs at Brothers restaurant, we moved on to the Egyptian Spice Market. The ESM is a much smaller version of the Bazaar and older, built in the 17th century. The streets leading to the building are lined with shops and street vendors, much like a flea market. This area is heavily inundated with the locals doing their shopping -- the merchandise is much less touristy and looks like it came from the large ships on the Bosphorous who have brought imports in from Asia.

Once in the Spice Market, we found stalls with teas, lokhum (Turkish Delight), spices, basturma (which we are enjoying for breakfast), and the usual scarves and pashminas, and trinkets (including the famous "achk:" or evil eye jewelry), Shop with Debbie and Susan and you will get the best bargain available in the world! They know how to haggle ... their best snag -- a "dolma roller" -- now, who doesn't want or need a sarma roller -- wrapping those grape leaves is so tedious!

Brian, Lisa and Adi left sisters Debbie and Susan, and Harold, to expore and buy-out the Spice Bazaar, and climbed back up to the top of the old section of Istanbul -- Sultanhamet -- where they rested in the Sultanhamet Park. The Park rests between the Hagia Sophia (another massive Byzantine church-converted to a mosque-museum) and the Blue Mosque -- built by a 27 year old Sultan who died at 28, the year after the Mosque was completed.

Then, it was back to Hotel Dersaadet, a nap and then a fish/rakhi dinner in Kumkapi. Kumkapi is a small neighborhood located near Sultanhamet, where lots of Armenians live and work, and where the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul is located We enjoyed a fish dinner outdoors with the musicians entertaining us with Turkish music. Sounded awfully familiar!!

New find: while sitting at dinner (after a few glasses of Rakhi) Debbie and I noticed a small nearby shop that had cheese and halvah wheels displayed in the window. At 9 p.m. the store keeper was still there -- we got up from our table and walked over to the store and bought a big hunk of the sweet sesame/pistachio dessert. Our waiter took a chunk, heated it with milk, and then baked it in the oven and sprinkled it with ground pistachios. That was one of the most unusual and best desserts I have ever tasted!!

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