Wonders of Turkey: Sirince

Sirince is barely discernible on any tourist maps, or on any internet travel sites.  My husband, Bishara, and I became cognizant of this sweet mountain village a few short miles north of Ephesus when visiting Kas, Turkey on the Mediterranean coast.  As we checked out of the charming Kekova Boutique Hotel in Kas, Bakir, an affable, middle-aged man, and manager of the accommodation inquired where we were going next on our travels.  When we replied “Ephesus,” the historic site on Turkey’s western shoreline, Bakir’s eyes brightened and he remarked, “Oh, while there, you must see Sirince, a nice mountain town very close to Ephesus.  My friends like to go there.”

Retaining Bakir’s suggestion in the corner of our minds, while basking in the remarkable Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus, proved expedient.  Subsequent to our sublime excursion to Ephesus, we promptly forged ahead through the nearby town of Selcuk, location of our hotel, and up a serpentine mountain road into Sirince.  Along the route, we took a detour, as we often do, and rendezvoused with the remnants of a homestead containing penned Columbidae hens, a resplendent peacock atop the coop mocking its feathery compatriots below.

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On the way to Sirince.

Advancing along the circuitous roadway, we encountered the appealing village of Sirince, reportedly settled by the Greeks in the 1400s and later by the Turks, and known for its local fruit wines, Ottoman-style homes, and mountain scenery.  Sirince’s muddle of pebbled streets, red-tiled roofs, tangle of boutique hotels, and festive restaurants and souvenir shops, enticed us into further exploration of the disparate charms of this rustic and alluring pastoral town.

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Sirince, Turkey

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Beginning our sojourn in a converted school building, now housing the Stone School Museum, and Artemis Restaurant and Wine House, the onset of spritzing rain did not deter our enchantment with stores exhibiting multi-colored ceramic bowls, vibrant circular Turkish lanterns, and a diverse blend of multi-patterned women’s scarves.  Although normally tepid shoppers, we buckled, employed the prerequisite haggling, and purchased two handsomely garnished silver Turkish demitasse cups with matching cupolas and saucers, and two ceramic whirling dervishes in mid-stride as mementos of our notable and entertaining time in Turkey.

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The blue eye is thought to eradicate the

The blue eye is thought to eradicate the “evil eye.”

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Our purchases.

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Surveying the humming core of the village, we stumbled upon a hospitable merchant from the town’s diminutive grocery shop, who obliged us by assisting with money exchange, and informing us of a second brother, an artist specializing in unique felt mediums, who owned an artist’s shop on an adjacent hill.  Equipped with the brother, Umud’s, business card, we made our way up the cobblestoned slope, and eventually found the artisan’s secluded family run enterprise.

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Up the hill to Umud’s shop.

Umud’s stern eyes turned tender when we uttered his brother’s name and disclosed that his sibling had encouraged us to visit his uncommon artist’s studio.  Formalities vanished in short order.  His hand resting delicately on Bishara’s shoulder, Umud guided us to an exclusive enclave, his workshop in the rear of the store, and offered Turkish coffee in exquisite miniscule cups.  Wool and cloth material streaked with bold blues and reds alongside wooden tables and benches strewn throughout the unfinished room, the craftsman divulged he was working on a new prayer rug with colorful symmetrical configurations made of felt.  The rug, although incomplete, bore the resolute forms of geometric composition alongside more fluid calligraphy strokes.  The young man revealed additional completed felt rugs and caps, all reflecting his singular conceptions, drying on lines above his workshop.

Our discourse on prayer rugs and traditional designs led to an exchange encompassing Turkish culture and historical influences, and our revelation that we had witnessed a moving whirling dervish event several days before in Istanbul.  Pronouncing his study of Sufism some years ago, Umud related that the conventional whirling dervish ceremony, an outshoot of Sufism inspired by Mevlana Rumi, centered around the counter-clockwise spin, which represents the rotation of the earth.  Enduring, our host divulged that the dervish’s right hand opens towards the sky to receive God, and the left hand extends downwards towards the ground sending the spirit of God to the people of earth.  Our newfound friend reinforced the notion that a whirling dervish performance is painstakingly precise, somber, and pious.

Flush with spiritual enlightenment and feeling grateful for the hospitality, we said warm farewells to Umud, and made our way along the mesh of alleyways to Sirincem Restaurant, a delightful looking eatery with lovely views that drew our attention earlier in the day.  Ali, the young and sturdy-looking owner of Sirincem had been outside the restaurant, on the street, promoting the merits of dining at his establishment; Ali had approached us with promises of fresh pomegranate juice – the crimson fruit grown from his own family’s tree.  While the pomegranate juice swayed me to return later, it was the assurance that sheesha would be provided, which persuaded Bishara.  Sheesha, a nostalgic favorite, routinely conjures up tales of tender moments for Bishara of his early years spent stoking his father’s sheesha coals in the garden of his family home in northeast Jordan.

Arriving at the Sirincem later in the afternoon, we were cordially welcomed by Ali who was clearly pleased with our return.  Steering us to outdoor seating, we declined indicating a preference for sitting inside, as the temperatures had dipped with the setting sun.  Ali persevered with offerings of blankets, encouraging us to loll in the impressive outdoor views of the village and surrounding ridges.  Generosity and hospitality a mainstay of eastern culture, Ali scurried off only to return moments later with three substantial wool blankets; one given to Bishara and two placed gently around my shoulders.  Bishara and I dined on leafy salad grazed with pomegranate paste, delectable lamb shish kabob, dimpled green and black Turkish olives, and piquant pomegranate juice.  Nearing the end of our splendid repast, Ali cautiously notified Bishara that he had only located cherry flavored sheesha rather than the requested apple flavored tobacco.  Bishara’s disappointment apparent, Ali proclaimed he would be back soon and reappeared, self-assured and sanguine, the favored apple tobacco he had cajoled a benevolent neighbor into contributing stuffed in one hand, and a shiny sheesha pipe in the other.

Sirincem Restaurant

Sirincem Restaurant

Driving back down the willowing byways to Selcuk following our savory dinner, we pondered over our momentous eight-day trek through Turkey beginning with a provocative visit to Istanbul, a city rich in sundry cultural influences; followed by stops in Antalya Province, bordering the Mediterranean, with its mesmerizing natural beauty, and Ephesus, an ancient site depicting the nation’s complex history; and culminating with an outing to the pleasing and uncomplicated Ottoman-style village of Sirince, along with a wish to return to Turkey someday.

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Wonders of Turkey: Ephesus

My husband, Bishara, and I had been utterly awestruck by the allure of Kas; a quaint and breathtaking town on Turkey’s southwest coast.  Nestled within the Taurus Mountains and adjoining the Mediterranean Sea, Kas was a scintillating amalgam of prismatic blossoming trees, red-hued roofs, sea craft hovering on glistening waters, and billowing braids of locals and visitors engrossed in the delights of the town.

A four and a half hour road trip from Kas, abounding with striking views of snowcapped peaks, would bring us to our next destination, Ephesus, located in Selcuk just inland from the Aegean Sea within Turkey’s western reaches.  The site of magnificent well-preserved ruins from the Greek and Roman periods, Ephesus, during its heyday, was a bustling metropolis, second only to Rome, in size and influence.

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Taurus Mountains in Springtime

Before journeying back in time to ancient Ephesus, however, we would need to check into our boutique hotel in the historic section of Selcuk.  Despite having GPS, the cobblestoned maze of the old district proved too arduous, and we, ultimately, succumbed to asking locals for directions to the Urkmez Hotel.  Eventually discovering a partially obscured placard for the hotel, we clambered up a flight of stairs to reach the reception area where a diminutive older gentleman in a beige suit sat on a connecting balcony drinking tea.  After alerting the man to our presence, he entreated us to “wait, wait,” and soon returned with a younger man who revealed that the accommodating senior was his father.  A team of two brothers managed the hotel and were obliging in arranging a tour of Ephesus for us the following morning.

Our accommodations, embellished with mosquito netting and swan-shaped towels framing a red carnation atop the bed, a cozy balcony, and handsome view of the Ayasuluk Fortress (dating back to the Byzantine era) on a nearby hillside, were unassuming yet comfortable.

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Ayasuluk Fortress

Abbreviated naps, and a stroll through the old district’s stone streets incorporating a probe of Turkish coffee sets with intricately engraved silver cupolas, were capped by an alfresco dinner at a family owned restaurant where we relished fresh creamy tomato soup, salads, chicken kabobs and rice, amidst intermittent spitting rain, and an abundance of neighborhood vitality.

Although we had looked forward to a conventional tour of Ephesus the next morning, the wait for the 9:00 AM shuttle bus to take us, and other tourists, to the primeval and historically significant site, reinforced our sense that a formal expedition would be far too circumscribed for our personal tastes.  Thus, ten minutes into the wait, we jettisoned our tour group with the vapid excuse that we would take the tour the following day.  Feeling unencumbered, we sought out our rental car, pulled out our brochures and guide maps for Ephesus and kept a conscientious eye on roadside markers.

Serendipitously, a nondescript signboard led us to the caves of “the Seven Sleepers,” a venue, thankfully, not overrun with visitors; in reality, our only human encounter was with a groundskeeper who doubled as an informal tour escort, as we consulted him on a couple of occasions regarding access to specific cave locations.  As is common in Turkey, where eastern and western cultures converge, the tale of “the Seven Sleepers” traverses faiths, and relates the legend of seven Christian youths hiding in a cave near Ephesus in 250 AD to avoid the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius.  Asleep for nearly 200 years, the men awake during the reign of Theodosius II, when Christianity (and monotheism) had come to the fore.

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Cave of “the Seven Sleepers”

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Eager to continue our journey back to the Hellenic era, Bishara and I drove to the proper entrance of the Ephesus grounds.  Feeling culpable over not pursuing a traditional tour, Bishara ensured that I received headphones with a pre-recorded docent dispensing comprehensive historical descriptions of noteworthy sights, designs, backdrops, and such.

Treading from the modern world, (a contemporary roadway), to the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus we found ourselves transfixed by sections of rippled pillars and scattered stones across a swath of dirt and grass, once the backdrop of the State Agora.  This space reportedly housed a temple commemorating an ancient Egyptian god built for the 42 BC visit of Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, and in the first century AD served as Ephesus’ administrative center steeped in state business and official meetings.

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State Agora, Ephesus

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Bordering the State Agora just to the north is the Basilica, where once majestic undulating Roman columns now stand in ruin; markers of a formerly flourishing tract where toga-clad merchants engaged in commerce and bankers in financial concerns.  Members of the city council met in the Odeon, a theatre-style structure, which flanked the Basilica, and doubled as a concert location seating up to 1,500.

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Basilica

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Odeon (with Basilica to the right)

Odeion, Basilica, and Agora (in foreground)

Odeon, Basilica, and Agora (in foreground)

Basilica

Basilica

Steps away, along the eastern edges of the Agora and the Odeon, the Varius Baths are perched on a delicate incline.  Conforming to the Roman Bath design, serving both practicality and sociability, the baths have an intricate network of chambers, including a sweating room, hot room, lukewarm room, undressing room, and a cold room, along with an orderly array of unobstructed latrines.

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Varius Baths

On the other side of the Odeon sits the Prytaneion (municipality building) in the form of two pylons with a stone abridgement on top, a locale where, purportedly, priestesses, and perennial virgins, from eminent families were responsible for the protection of the eternal sacred flame, and Ephesian executive council members held meetings and hailed esteemed guests.

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The Prytaneion (Municipality Building)

The Pyrtaneion Grounds

The Pyrtaneion Grounds

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Temples of Dea Roma and Divus Julius Ceasar (between the Odeon and Prytaneion)

Gingerly making our way over heaps of venerable stones and grassy patches from the Prytaneion to the southwestern perimeter of the State Agora, we encountered the Temple of Domitian, constructed in the name of an emperor, and the Pollio Fountain, formerly bedecked with statues of Odysseus, Polyphemus, and Zeus’s head.  These imposing structures overlooked Domitian Square and the Water Palace, which was built in 80 A.D. and provided storage of, and distribution for, the city’s water supply.

The Temple of Domitian

The Temple of Domitian

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Site of the Temple of Domitian, Pollio Fountain, and Water Palace

The Pollio Fountain

The Pollio Fountain

Ephesians returning from a day’s work at the State Agora in the first century A.D. would have ambled northwestward along a stone pathway past the Memmius Monument, relief of the goddess of victory, Nike, and Hercules Gate, which opens to Curetes Street.  The street so named due to its column bases framing the roadway, displaying the names of priests, or curetes, who were responsible for state and religious interests.  Advancing a short distance along Curetes Street, the townsmen would have observed the commanding Trajan Fountain to the right of the avenue before veering left to their residences on a gentle slope.  Although modest on the exterior, the “houses on the slopes” were the multi-story residences of the wealthy class and were adorned with lavish interiors, including frescos on the walls and mosaics on the floors, multiple latrines, and atriums encircling pools.

The Memmius Monument

The Memmius Monument

Goddess of Victory, Nike

Goddess of Victory, Nike

Hercules Gate

Hercules Gate

Curetes Street

Curetes Street

The Trajan Fountain

The Trajan Fountain

“Houses on the Slope”

Opposite the private abodes stand the striking remains of the Temple of Hadrian containing friezes relating the story of Ephesus’ inception, with engraved images of Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Hercules and the Curetes.  Adjacent to the Temple of Hadrian are the Scholastikia Baths, public latrines, and brothel.  The Baths, a three-storied complex, containing a gymnasia, libraries, and a resting room, accommodated up to 1,000, and allowed townspeople the prospect of relaxing and mingling for protracted periods in the tepidarium after bathing.

The Temple of Hadrian (on left)

The Temple of Hadrian (on left) ~ Curetes Street

The Scholastika Baths

The Scholastikia Baths

Scholastikia Baths and Latrines

Scholastikia Baths and Latrines

Site of Brothel (with Celsus Library in background)

Site of Brothel (with Celsus Library in background)

Looming conspicuously at the end of Curetes Street is the fabled and stately Celsus Library built over the tomb of Tiberius Julius Celsus, Roman senator and General Governor of Asiana.  Constructed by Celsus’ son and grandson, the grandiose structure accommodated 12,000 manuscript scrolls, incorporated an auditorium where philosophers imparted wisdom, and held statues conveying virtue/valor (Arete), destiny/intelligence (Ennoia), knowledge (Episteme), and wisdom (Sophia).

The Celsus Library (Mazaeus and Mithridates Gate to the right)

The Celsus Library (Mazaeus and Mithridates Gate to the right)

Wandering through the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates, (built in gratitude by freed slaves of Emperor Augustus), we entered the Mercantile (or Marketplace) Agora, a pillared and grassy expanse that teemed with shops, merchants, commerce and trade in a bygone time.  Entrenched as the largest trade center in Ephesus, the thriving Mercantile Agora received goods entering through the nearby Aegean harbor.

The Mercantile Agora

The Mercantile Agora

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Just to the east of the Mercantile Agora, Marble Road, once filled with rustling carriages and Ephesian residents in tunics, flowing stolas, and laced-up sandals, connects the Celsus Library and the Theatre, a colossal structure built in the 3rd century B.C. on Mount Pion.  Home of gladiator games, wild animal brawls, concerts and plays, as well as philosophical, political and religious discourse, the Theatre, (largest theatre building in Turkey seating 24,000), was reportedly the site of a sermon by Apostle Paul denouncing idol worship.

Marble Road and Harbour Street Intersection

Marble Road and Harbour Street Intersection

The Grand Theatre

The Grand Theatre

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The neighboring Theatre Gymnasium served the educational pursuits of the players and housed classrooms, libraries, and baths, and was the site of competitions and award ceremonies.

The Theatre Gymnasium

The Theatre Gymnasium Site

Harbour Street, running along a verdant hillside, and stretching from the Theatre to the Harbour, held shops and welcoming parties for visiting kings and emperors.

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Harbour Street

Harbour Street

We concluded our momentous Ephesus excursion in the northwest corner of the city, awash with lush grass, towering conical trees, and vibrant flowers where, it is believed, the first church in Asia was built for Virgin Mary.

Site of Virgin Mary's Church

Site of Virgin Mary’s Church

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Feeling sated, spiritually, Bishara and I retraced our steps through the transcendental Ephesus on the way back to our car.  Turkey continued to inspire and fill us with wonder.

Wonders of Turkey: Kas

My husband, Bishara, and I were excited about our drive from Old Antalya (Kaleici) to the Mediterranean town of Kas.  We had spent a remarkable spring day exploring the sights of Kaleici, a historic and popular tourist destination with restaurants and curio shops harbored in restored Ottoman homes, enchanting boutique hotels surrounded by orange and olive trees, and incredible views of the Mediterranean.

Our drive began auspiciously enough.  After becoming hopelessly lost on the cobblestone streets of Old Antalya, despite having a GPS, we stopped to ask for directions on how to exit the old town.  Persevering and turning a tight corner, our rental car careened into shelves of neatly displayed shoes, sending footgear flying along the street.  The shopkeeper, barely concealing a grimace, stayed surprisingly calm, and simply flagged us on.  Moments later, as we were departing the old town a man, frantically waving his arms, cried out at us in Turkish as we turned right on a road we thought was the way out of town.  Apparently not, as we soon discovered we were on a tram line with a train visible in the distance and headed our way.  Adrenalin flowing, Bishara’s eyes like saucers, we turned off the tram line as quickly as we could.  The GPS lady, remaining calm as ever, continued with “recalculating” our route.  Her directions, however, took us north towards the mountains rather than east along the Mediterranean compelling us, once again, to stop for directions.  The detour did allow us a more extensive viewing of the snowcapped Taurus mountain range, which was glorious.

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Taurus Mountains outside Kas.

Our five hour drive from Antalya to Kas, located on the southwest Mediterranean coast of Turkey, found us taking another diversion along a picturesque mountain road towards the ancient city of Olympos in what used to be the region of Lycia.  Lycia was part of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, and ultimately the Turkish Republic in 1923, although antiquities suggest that the region dates back to the Bronze Age.  In Homer’s tale, The Odyssey, the Greek deity Poseidon, perched in the Olympos Mountains, blew up a storm, in what is now the Mediterranean, to thwart Odysseus’ escape from Calypso’s Island.

While on the road to Olympos, we spotted a Turkish woman on the side of the road baking bread dough on an oversized inverted dome called a saj.  We were both feeling grumbles of hunger, and decided to stop.  The woman’s son, tall, 40ish, and wearing a western style casual suit, stood nearby, and served as our translator, as the woman spoke no English.  After selecting cheese and spinach on saj bread for lunch, the Turkish woman took to kneading a ball of dough on a raised circular wooden platform.  When massaged to the shape and thickness of thin pizza dough, she placed the flattened mixture on the saj grill.  The woman half sat and half squatted, as is so common in this general region of the world, as she stoked the wood timbers inside the grill while tending to our saj bread on the heated dome.  When the dough was sufficiently cooked, the woman sprinkled a mix of white cheese and spinach leaves on top.  We ambled across the two lane road to a covered outdoor majless, our saj sandwiches, salads, and Turkish black tea in hand.  Settling in, cross-legged, on colorful cushions, Bishara and I savored the food and lush surroundings.

Saj grill is on left.

Saj grill is on left.

Outdoor majless.

Outdoor majless.

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By mid-afternoon, we were back on the road to Kas reveling in mountain and vast sea views along the way.  We arrived in Kas at dusk and found our hotel, the Kekova, located a short distance away from the town’s marina.  Due to limited vacation time, our original plan had been to stay one night in Kas and continue the next day towards Selcuk and the historic Ephesus.  The next morning, the dazzling view from the breakfast room terrace of the Mediterranean Sea nuzzled within the Taurus mountain ridges, coupled with the not so gentle nudging from the hotel manager to allow for another day of rest, convinced us to stay a second night.

View from breakfast terrace of Kerkova Hotel.

View from breakfast terrace of Kekova Hotel.

After our breakfast of cheese and breads, sliced cold cuts, hard boiled eggs, local green and black olives, and apple tea, Bishara and I strolled through the town filled with quaint, touristy shops and cafes to the harbor.  Our first stop was at the boat docks, as we wanted to ensure we reserved a boat for a private excursion.  One of the boat captains, attired in bright orange overalls, agreed to take us for an hour long boat ride for 75 TL ($ 38) in the early afternoon.  In the meantime, Bishara and I decided to stop in at one of the many seaside outdoor cafes to share sheesha (huka) and Turkish coffee.

Marina in Kas, Turkey.

Marina in Kas, Turkey.

Sheesha-time!

Sheesha-time!

Our boat ride was superb, a blend of sparkling aqua blue waters sporting mild swells, ancient Lycian structures forged into sheer cliffs, charming coves with sandy beaches and rustic restaurants, and tiers of red tiled roofs atop whitewashed buildings embedded in green laden bluffs.  An unscripted recitation of points of interest by our captain whose great spirit matched his limited English, kept our outing entertaining and informative.

Boat ride in Kas - (Mediterranean Sea)

Boat ride in Kas – (Mediterranean Sea)

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Lycian structure.

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The afternoon continued at a languid pace, with visits to souvenir shops brimming with colorful ceramic Turkish coffee sets, a sumptuous lunch of creamy mushroom soup, chicken salad, apple crepes, baklava, complimentary black tea, a backgammon game, and a prolonged walk through a patchwork of cobblestone streets framed by olive trees, grape vines, and apple trees.

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Kas, Turkey

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Walking back towards our hotel in the early evening, Bishara spied a hilltop restaurant with a blackboard menu highlighting sea bass as its special.  We went inside, climbed some stairs, and found a delightful terrace arranged with informal seating, along with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean and an impending sunset.  A man, seated at one of the tables with a woman and young children, popped up when we stepped onto the terrace, informed us this was his new restaurant, we were his first guests, and we must sit for some complimentary tea.  Bishara and I sat for a while, sipped our tea, and soaked in the beauty.

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Wonders of Turkey: Old Antalya (Kaleici)

My initial research on where we should go when on holiday in Turkey revealed what seemed like endless opportunities.  Although Turkey is less than a tenth the size of the U.S., it is a relatively large nation in the greater Middle East region with an intriguing history and rich culture.  Sites to visit ranged from Pamukkale in southwestern Aegean Turkey with its hot springs feeding calcium-laden terraces (cotton castles); to Mount Nemrut in southeastern Turkey where in 62 BC King Antiochus constructed a tomb surrounded by 30 foot Greek and Iranian god statues; to Cappadocia in central Turkey (Nevsehir Province) with its fairy-like chimneys fashioned from volcanic stone.

View of Mediterranean & Taurus Mountains from Antalya

Following our two remarkable days in Istanbul, which included a whirlwind tour of various Byzantine and Ottoman historical sites such as the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, we chose to focus on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.  We would begin in Antalya, a popular tourist destination on the southwestern coast of Turkey, where we would stay for a day, rent a car and travel west along the Mediterranean shoreline to Kas, a cheerful, picturesque town, and then onto Selcuk and Ephesus.

Our one hour and fifteen minute flight from Istanbul to Antalya on Turkish Airlines was uneventful, other than the nearly two hour delay on the tarmac in Istanbul.  (We were told that there were 24 flights ahead of us waiting to take off.)  Good time for a “cat nap” and a bit of reading.  The stewards on the flight were great, very accommodating and happy that we were enjoying our visit to Turkey.  We were impressed and thankful to see Turtas rental car representatives eagerly awaiting our arrival at the Antalya airport – (although heavily used for tourist traffic the airport is on the small side and very manageable).  The representatives helped us program our GPS, very important in Turkey, as most road signage is in Turkish, and it is easy to become lost in the maze of cobblestone streets in the small towns and old districts of larger cities.

Hadrian’s Gate (Old Antalya)

As we made our way from the airport, the cityscape of Antalya proper came into view, and once within the city it wasn’t long before we spotted Hadrian’s Gate, (built in honor of the Roman Emperor Hadrian), the Fluted Minaret (Yivli Minare), and stone cut walls and structures affirming that we had reached Kaleici (“Old Antalya”).  Our boutique hotel, the Mediterra Art Hotel, was off of a cobblestone street in the middle of Antalya’s historic district.  Simple, yet clean and very quaint, the Mediterra Art Hotel, had a European feel to it and due to its prime location offered a host of opportunities for viewing the sites of this celebrated town.

Mediterra Art Hotel in Kaleici

Our first night we ambled around the immediate vicinity of our hotel, sans map, to get a lay of the land, and were treated to a Turkish hamam (bathhouse), which are prevalent throughout Turkey.  We were greeted by locals and tourists alike on the streets and from open windows of a restaurant bar where music beckoned.  Although tempted by the festivities, we resisted and decided to make it an early night, as we wanted to fully enjoy this attractive city in daylight hours.  Before bedding down, we had a delightful dinner at our cozy hotel restaurant furnished with four unpretentious wooden tables inside and four outside by the pool.  The red house wine served as a savory complement to our cheese roll pastries, salad daubed with olive oil and pomegranate dressing, and lamb over rice with vegetables.

Turkish Hamam in Antalya, Turkey

Dinner at Medeterra Art Hotel

Indications are that present day Antalya was founded in 3rd century BC and early on was part of ancient Rome, later falling under Byzantine, Seljuk Turkish (the Persian poet, Rumi, was among this tribe) and Ottoman rule.  As a result of its illustrious and varied past, old Antalya abounds with an amalgam of historical sites that range from the Hidirlik Tower (built during the Roman Empire), to the Ottoman clock tower and the Kesik Minare (first a Roman temple, then a Byzantine church, and finally a mosque).  Antalya, is a preferred vacation spot not only due to its rich history, but also by virtue of its location, nestled between the Mediterranean sea and the impressive Taurus mountains.  Bishara and I would only have half a day in this appealing town before departing for Kas, so we looked forward to packing in as many of the sights, and as much of the local culture, as possible.

Kesik Minare (Antalya, Turkey)

After a hearty breakfast at our hotel that included an assortment of cheeses, breads and rose jam, black and green olives, mortadella-type cold meats, and soft boiled eggs, we were off to experience the allure of Kaleici.  It was early April, and we were fortunate to be met with Mediterranean temperatures in the high 60s, sunny skies and a meager number of tourists, as we were visiting at a non-peak time of the year.  Since we were limited to only a few hours in old Antalya, we decided to simply wander along the town’s alleyways and cobblestone streets to obtain a flavor of the place.  Restored Ottoman homes, with traditional second story bay windows and wooden windowpanes and shutters, were a prominent feature of historic Kaleici, often serving as hotels, restaurants/bars, and curio shops for vacation goers.  Gates of exquisite boutique hotels opened up to courtyards where poolside brunches were underway beneath massive orange and olive trees.  Bishara and I made sure to visit the cliffs to the west of town where we were enthralled by magnificent views of the Mediterranean sea and Yat Limani harbor.  We enjoyed sweet, flavorful Turkish coffee at Mermerli restaurant atop the craggy bluffs, and marveled at the snowcapped mountains in the distance and aqua blue sea below where boats were docked at piers and bikini clad women soaked up the rays on a nearby beach.

Restored Ottoman houses.

Courtyard of boutique hotel. (Antalya)

View from Mermerli Restaurant.

Mediterranean Sea with Taurus Mountains in background.

We had far too little time in Antalya, but looked forward to our drive to the charming Mediterranean town of Kas, approximately three hours away.

. . . To Be Continued!

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Wonders of Turkey: Whirling Dervishes and Turkish Baths

It was late March and our second, and final full afternoon, in Istanbul, a city which definitely lived up to the expectations placed on it.  We had been enchanted by the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, and amalgam of Byzantine and Ottoman cultural and architectural influences in the two short days we had scheduled in this alluring city.  On this day we would be treated to mesmerizing whirling dervishes, as well as explore an illustrious and historic Turkish bath (hammam).

Whirling dervish performance in Doha, Qatar.

When my husband, Bishara, and I decided to buy tickets for the Mevlevi Sema Whirling Dervish show in Istanbul’s Old City, I imagined we would see an entertaining performance of men spinning in long flowing garments rather than the formal spiritual and religious ceremony we were fortunate to witness in person.  As we had done throughout our stay in Istanbul we decided to walk, map in hand, to the Hodjapasha Cultural Center where the whirling dervishes of Istanbul would be performing.  We had been told by the accommodating staff at our boutique hotel, the Ottoman Imperial, that the easiest route would be a 25 minute walk following the tram line to the Cultural Center.

Tram Line in Istanbul

We liked the idea of walking, allowing us another opportunity to absorb as much of the tapestry of this beguiling city, as possible.  Along the way we encountered quaint cafes teeming with romance and life – white tablecloths over tables for two, couples whispering in each other’s ears, soft candlelight, and Ottoman-style lanterns; as well as the pervasive stalls with vendors selling roasted chestnuts, a sentimental favorite of Bishara’s that remind him of his childhood in Jordan and Lebanon, and corn on the cob.

Bishara couldn’t resist the roasted chestnuts!

We stumbled upon the Hodjapasha Cultural Center in a narrow backstreet nestled among a cluster of Ottoman-style shops and cafes near the Sirkeci tram stop.  The Cultural Center, a converted 550 year old Turkish bath that serviced both men and women, was built in the 1470’s by Hodja Sinan Pasha a vizier to Sultan Mehmed II.  The structure remained a hamam until 1988.

Earlier in the day when walking from the Grand Covered Bazaar, which contains over 3,000 shops with everything from jewelry to colorful ceramic dishware, towards our hotel we discovered another Turkish bath, the Cagaloglu Hammam, built in 1741.  There are around 100 Turkish baths in Istanbul, scattered along many of the city’s crowded streets and alleyways, from smaller neighborhood establishments to those found in five star hotels.  The concept of the public bath made popular by the Romans, and established for  maintaining cleanliness (and later doubling as a social gathering place), was passed along to the Byzantines of the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople and, ultimately, to the Turkish people.

Entrance to Cagaloglu Hammam.

Sidewalk advertisement.

As is the tradition with most Turkish baths, Cagaloglu Hammam offers separate services and entrances for men and women, and a hearty body scrub, massage, and hair washing by assistants.  Visitors lay on hot slabs of marble in steam-filled rooms, and although given a piece of cloth (pestemal) as a wrap, must be comfortable with baring themselves in front of others.  I settled for simply taking photos, as I am definitely on the reserved side.  Although the service at Cagaloglu has received mixed reviews, the hamam is the oldest Turkish bath in service today, and harkens back to the days when Ottomans lounged luxuriously on its marble platforms while being scrubbed by attendants.  The Cagaloglu Hammam appeared as a backdrop in the film, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and the hamam’s brochure claims its guests have included the likes of Tony Curtis, Chevy Chase, Cameron Diaz, and Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Inside Cagaloglu Hammam.

Hammam in Ottoman Era.

Scrubbing and bathing in Hammam.

Turkish Sultans (displayed in corridor of Hammam).

Later in the evening at the the Hodjapasha Cultural Center with its stone cut archways and intricate geometric designs, architecture reminiscent of its days as an Ottoman bathhouse, we were offered refreshments, sodas, sour cherry juice (a popular Turkish drink that I love), and Turkish delights.  Just before 7:30 PM an announcement was made that the performance would begin and a reminder given that no photography or applause was allowed during the whirling dervish ceremony.  We were ushered into a room with seating in the round under a high domed ceiling, a side platform for the musicians, and a circular marble floor where the dervishes would perform their ceremony.  The Mevleviye were established in 1273 in Konya, Turkey and during the Ottoman era their numbers expanded throughout the region.  The Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order (Mevlana is “our leader”) are named after Jelaleddin Rumi (1207 – 1273), a Persian poet and a follower of Sufism, which promotes cleansing of the soul through freeing oneself of bad habits and personal desires, leading ultimately to a closer relationship with God.  The Mevlana and Mevlevi Order achieve this through the Sema Ceremony, which incorporates elaborate music and chanting, the dervishes, and a sacred journey from the mind and ego to love and unity with the divine.  Just as the universe and our world is based on revolving motion – from our solar system, to blood and oxygen circulating in our bodies, to the most basic element of our world, the atom, the spiritual state is attained through the whirling of the dervishes.

Mevlevi dervishes. 1887.

Mevlevi dervishes in 1887. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bishara and I took our assigned places in a fully packed room, where layered brick formed more imposing archways and a hushed silence seemed to belie a heightened level of expectation.  The ceremony, which continues today as a cultural heritage performance, began with five men, the Mutrip (members of the Sema band), in black robes and long felt cone-like hats soberly entering the room, bowing, and walking, one by one, to a small elevated stage. The Mutrip is comprised of musicians who play the kudum (small kettledrum), ney (reed flute), yayli tambur (long necked stringed instrument with a bow), and kanun (lap harp or zither).  The unique musical repertoire (ayin), which incorporates chanting of poetry and religious passages, accompanies the dervishes in their whirling dance.  Rumi is reported to have said, “In listening to music, the soul leaves its normal orbit and enters higher spheres.”

Whirling Dervishes

Whirling Dervishes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifteen minutes into the music I caught sight of the first dervish entering the room.  Somber and reserved, the lead dervish was followed by four more dervishes all dressed in black cloaks and the same long felt hats worn by the Mutrip band members.  One of the men carried a red sheepskin, which was placed on the floor near where the dervishes would perform, symbolizing birth and existence.  The men hung their heads and moved piously single file into the room.  Removing their black robes (signifying an awakening to the truth) revealed the dervishes long billowing white frocks.  Reaching the center of the stage, with arms crossed over their chests and hands over opposite shoulders, the dervishes began to turn around one by one, beginning with the lead dervish, and bowing to the dervish behind them.  After the first dervish completed his bow he began twirling counter-clockwise on his own axis and around the circular arena, with the others following, symbolizing the spin of the earth and the solar system.  Each dervish, in turn, released his arms gracefully from his torso with his right hand open in front of him and his left hand, palm down, behind him.  I learned later from an artisan in the small mountain village of Sirince, (near Ephesus, Turkey), who crafted the felt hats worn by the dervishes, that the uplifted right arm symbolized reaching upwards to the divine, while the left arm directed to the earth projected a spiritual gift for those observing the Sema ceremony.  The dervishes continued spinning, each producing seamlessly smooth motions, while in a prayerful, meditative type of trance.  Throughout much of the ceremony, an alternating dervish remained twirling in the center of the circle of spinning dervishes, with eyes of the remaining four trained on the central dervish.

The Mevlevi Order or the Mevleviye are a Sufi ...

Mutrip Band (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Turkish whirling dervishes of Mevlevi Order, b...

Whirling dervishes of Mevlevi Order, bowing during the Sema ceremony at Chicago Turkish Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Workshop at TFF.Rudolstadt

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The dervishes followed a ritualized pattern of twirling for close to fifteen minutes, when they gradually slowed the velocity of their exquisite spins until their arms were, again, criss-crossed against their chests with hands over their shoulders, and when at rest with heads hung low, began solemnly bowing, once more, to each other.  Following the bowing sequence, the lead dervish, launched into a fresh slow twirl, releasing his arms into the air with his counterparts following suit.  And the cycle of twirling and bowing would continue for another three quarters of an hour, all the while accompanied by the Matrip’s musical repertoire.  With each spin, dervishes abandon more of their human egoism, and move closer to ultimate truth, love, and a union with the divine.  The end of the ceremony saw one of the dervishes collect the red sheepskin, kiss it, and each dervish, one after the other, back out of the room, bowing before exiting.  The Matrip members did the same; one by one the cloaked musicians backed out of the room, and bowed before leaving the arena.

Bishara and I left the ceremony chattering away about the captivating performance and our newfound knowledge of the Whirling Dervishes.  Although the charming Ottoman-style restaurants beckoned us during the chilly walk back to the Ottoman Hotel Imperial, our hotel’s Matbah restaurant was a bigger draw; we just could not pass on the warm hospitality and luxurious cuisine fashioned after meals served to sultans of the Ottoman period.  Of course, we were not disappointed.

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Wonders of Turkey: Hagia Sophia and Covered Bazaar

Our second day in Istanbul was as exceptional as our first.  Slipping into the Matbah restaurant adjacent to our hotel (the Ottoman Imperial), our day started with a Turkish breakfast that included bread, a variety of fresh sliced cheeses – white (Beyaz Peyniri), yellow (Tel Peyniri) and herbed (Otlu Peyniri), bologna and cold cut style meats, green and black olives, hard boiled eggs, baklava, and brownie cakes.  Following the meal, our waiter was kind enough to serve us complimentary Turkish coffee on a silver platter along with a Turkish Delight.

Breakfast at Matbah Restaurant (Ottoman Hotel Imperial)

One of the prime reasons for staying at our hotel was its location – right across a cobblestone street from the Hagia Sophia, or St. Sophia Museum, a remarkable structure with a complex and intriguing history.  The Hagia Sophia provides a true display of why Istanbul, and the larger Turkey, (bordered by countries like Greece to the west and Iran and Azerbaijan to the east), is known as the gateway between East and West.  Strolling through Hagia Sophia’s Imperial Gate, the visitor spies a mosaic above the gate depicting a Byzantine Emperor kneeling before Christ, and just steps away through the main entryway broad designs of Islamic calligraphy and Ottoman oil lamps.

Hagia Sophia

Imperial Gate of Hagia Sophia – (Notice mosaic above gate with Byzantine Emperor kneeling before Christ.)

View beyond the Imperial Gate. (Hagia Sophia)

Spanning the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Hagia Sophia has gone through several transformations during its long and illustrious history.  Originally called the “Great Church” in the mid-4th century when it was first constructed in what was then Constantinople, this cathedral was decimated in 404 AD by fire resulting from riots caused by a dispute between Empress Aelia Eudoxia and the Patriarch of the church.  Another basilica was built and completed under order of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II in 415 AD, however, this second structure was also destroyed in 532 AD due a revolt that beganat the nearby Hippodrome.  The cathedral was rebuilt a third time by Emperor Justinian I and was dedicated in 537 AD, and once again in 562 AD after earthquakes resulted in necessary restoration efforts.

Ruins from Second Church – (Near entrance of Hagia Sophia.)

The church remained the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople until 1204 when commanders of the Fourth Crusade captured portions of the Byzantine Empire and converted the church to a Roman Catholic Cathedral during the Latin Empire.  In 1261 the Byzantines took back Constantinople and the cathedral remained a Greek Orthodox church until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, renaming it Aya Sofya Mosque.  The building became a museum in 1935.

Hagia Sophia (lower gallery)

Mihrab facing Mecca.

Stained glass windows above Mihrab. (Hagia Sophia)

Passageway

Urn carved from single piece of marble.

On this beautiful spring day among other awestruck visitors with cameras at the ready, my husband, Bishara, and I marveled at the elaborate designs on the interior of the multiple domes, marble pillars and granite colonnades, Hellenistic urns, golden Islamic calligraphy emblazoned on imposing circles, colorful stained glass windows, captivating passageways, ottoman oil lamps providing a subtle glow to the open space, and the collection of mosaics in the majestic upper gallery.  I could almost envision an empress of the Byzantine Era and members of her court seated in the upper gallery watching the ceremonies below, or, years later, the men of the Ottoman Empire assembling for the call to prayer in the wide expanse of the lower gallery.

View from upper gallery in Hagia Sophia.

Seraphim Mosaic (Hagia Sophia)

Deesis (Entreaty) Mosaic – Upper Gallery of Hagia Sophia

Comnenus Mosaic

The Empress Zoe mosaic.

Virgin and Child mosaic.

Archangel Gabriel mosaic.

We were fortunate to have a sunny April day, with brisk temperatures hovering in the mid-50’s; perfect walking weather.  From the Hagia Sophia we followed the tram line to the Grand Covered Bazaar, which took us past streets adorned with Turkish Delight and ceramic shops, Turkish bath houses (hammams), and quaint outdoor cafes with gatherings of people sampling spinach and cheese pides and sour cherry juice.  Bishara, definitely the more domestically inclined of the two of us, (I can barely boil water), persistently inquired about the colorful and intricately designed ceramic Turkish bowls as we rambled along the approximately one and a half mile route between the Hagia Sophia and Covered Bazaar.  Most importantly, Bishara was on a quest to find the lowest prices in the city for this traditional Turkish dishware, proudly, unabashedly, and masterfully using his refined haggling skills acquired through having spent his formative years in the Arab world.

Turkish Delights Shop

Streets of Istanbul (near Grand Covered Bazaar)

Turning off a tree-lined pathway, we encountered the Nurousmaniye gate, one of the nearly half dozen entranceways to the Grand Covered Bazaar, a sprawling complex of over 3600 shops and 60 streets populated with shops and stalls selling jewelry, hand woven carpets, multi-colored Ottoman-style lanterns, beaded necklaces, colorful ceramic dishware, confections (Turkish Delight is quite popular), fabrics, the typical “touristy” coffee mugs and t-shirts, leather jackets and handbags (in a separate distinct section), and so much more.  The Grand Bazaar was established in 1461 under the auspices of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, and was a major trading center between Europe and Asia during the Ottoman Empire until its commercial dominance abated in the nineteenth century due to competition from Western Europe.  At the height of its trading activity in the Ottoman Era the Grand Bazaar had streets named for the occupations represented in the shops that included textiles, jewelry, guns, carpets, silver and copperware, silk, crystal, armor and weapons, furs, old books, and shoes.  Serving a more utilitarian purpose, wealthier traders stored their valued gold and silver possessions in cramped safes in the covered bazaar for a reasonable price.  Meandering through the patchwork of stores amongst the masses of shoppers, one can easily envision specters of Ottoman merchants from a bygone era, turbans atop their heads, offering traders hot tea, conversation, and the opportunity to sample their wares.

Nurousmaniye Gate, Entranceway to Grand Covered Bazaar – (Notice Ottoman Empire emblem on top of gate)

Main thoroughfare of Grand Covered Bazaar.

Love Turkish Delights (Grand Covered Bazaar)

After covering a healthy portion of the labyrinth of covered tiled streets and tangle of shops we stumbled upon a confectionary store with assorted flavors of Turkish Delights ranging from mixed fruits, to rose, pistachio peanut butter, and hazelnut.  Bishara artfully bargained and purchased seven boxes of the delectable gel-like sweets, a favorite of mine, as well as two cans of Turkish coffee, a primary staple in our lives back home.  Reaching the innermost arteries of the Bazaar, Bishara became positively gleeful when we happened upon several ceramic stores, and one, in particular, where he was able to work his haggling magic and obtain a super discounted rate for five colorful and beautifully designed ceramic bowls.  Bishara was in heaven! . . . Thank goodness Bishara loves the kitchen, cooking, and culinary treasures or we’d both go hungry.

Bishara was in heaven.

Satisfied with our shopping excursion we wandered along Nuruosmaniye Avenue back towards our hotel, where there were even more shops.  On the way we passed the ever-present stands of roasted chestnuts and corn on the cob.  Bishara felt compelled to buy several bags of roasted chestnuts, divulging that they brought back sweet memories of Christmas holidays in both Jordan and Lebanon.  Feeling entirely “shopped out” we opted for sheesha and Turkish coffee on sedu-style cushions at a café near our hotel.  A great way to wind down after an eventful two days.

Time to relax.

Smoking sheesha.

Wonders of Turkey: Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque

Turkey, commonly known as the nexus between East and West, was everything we had anticipated, and more.  With merely a week to explore this historic and culturally rich country, we settled on focusing our attention on Istanbul, Antalya and the Mediterranean coast, and Ephesus.  Our first stop was the fascinating Istanbul, a blend of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, palaces housing artifacts from the time of Moses as well as Sultans from the Ottoman Empire, a Grand Bazaar holding over 3,000 shops, and countless other sights and events of interest. A visitor could easily spend a week in Istanbul, itself, which is likely insufficient to view all that the city has to offer; we had scheduled two days.  Based on sage advice from friends who had visited Turkey, and Istanbul, several months earlier we booked a hotel in “Old Istanbul” near Sultanahmet Square, a location that staged chariot and horse racing events in a hippodrome during the Byzantine Era, and which is a stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia allowing us to forgo a rental car and simply walk while touring the city.  Not only was our hotel, the “Ottoman Hotel Imperial,” strategically located, but the service and offerings were exemplary.  After arriving, we were immediately upgraded to a larger corner room with wonderful views of Hagia Sofia, (right across a cobblestone street), multi-tiered traditional Turkish housing, and quaint shops and restaurants.  One of the hotel staff also kindly laid out all of the sights to see, and things to do, in a two-day timeframe.

Our Istanbul Hotel

View from Hotel Room (Traditional Multi-Tiered Turkish Houses in Background)

April Blossoms & More Traditional Turkish Houses

Istanbul’s roots are steeped in a wealth of history with the city enduring Greek, Roman, Latin, and Ottoman rule before Turkey became a republic.  Istanbul, originally named Byzantion, or Byzantium, in 657 BC by ancient Greek colonists after Byzas their king; became “Nova Roma” in 330 AD (for a short time) after Constantine the Great relocated the Roman Empire capital from Rome to what would eventually be called Constantinople.  The city remained Constantinople through the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire beginning in 395 AD to the end of the Ottoman Empire (1453 – 1922), during which it remained a capital city, and was renamed Istanbul in 1923 when the Republic of Turkey was established. We had a lot of ground to cover in Istanbul and our first stop was the magnificent Topkapi Palace, the home of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries, and now a museum.  We planned our trip to coincide with the Easter holiday timeframe, early April, which meant that we had to sustain some cold (upper 40s/lower 50s Fahrenheit) temperatures and sometimes rainy weather, but that did not dampen our spirits.  The Topkapi Palace, built in 1459, is a patchwork of structures, courtyards, and gardens.  During the Ottoman Empire, the palace’s harem, manor houses, kitchens, mosques, hospital, school, library, Treasury, and Imperial Mint all evolved rather organically over the several hundred years from the time of its first inhabitant, Sultan Mehmed II, until its last resident, Sultan Abdulmecid based on the needs and tastes of the particular Sultan in power.  The palace courtyards all held a special purpose, such as Divan Square (second courtyard) where ceremonies were held marking a sultan’s accession to the throne; and the Inner Palace (third courtyard) where the sultan spent most of his time outside of the harem, and included the Treasury and various pavilions.  The palace kitchens, which were located behind the pavilions in the second courtyard, were quite extensive with 20 chimneys and over 1,000 cooks and helpers.

Topkapi Palace – Gate of Salutation

On the day we visited, a Friday, the palace grounds were swarming with Turkish schoolchildren indulging in their country’s history and treasures.  While there was some jostling, elbowing, and obstructed viewing at times, we were able to see most everything of interest, including gold thrones and cradles, ceremonial clothes and carriages of the sultans, jeweled helmets, an armor and weapons collection, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, and exquisite gems.  The sacred relics housed in the Hirka-i-Saadet building were remarkable, and purportedly include Prophet Mohammad’s footprint, tooth, swords, and threads of his beard, as well as Moses’ staff.  The relics were collected, and brought back to Istanbul, after the conquest of Egypt in 1517 by Yavuz Sultan Selim.

Topkapi Palace – Gate of Felicity (Entrance to the Third, or Inner, Courtyard)

Entrance to Hall of the Sacred Relics

Imperial Council Hall Entrance – Chamber Where Leaders of the Ottoman Empire Held Meetings

Dome of Imperial Council Hall

Inside Imperial Council Hall (Topkapi Palace)

Hearth (Imperial Council Hall)

Imperial Council Hall – The Sultan could watch the proceedings through this window from the Imperial residence without being seen.

Tower of Justice – Adjacent to the Imperial Council Hall

A particular treat was the Topkapi Palace’s Imperial Harem, especially since there were no schoolchildren at the site allowing for a more leisurely viewing.  The Harem included the private residences of the Sultans, their wives, children, Queen Mother, concubines, servants, and eunuchs.  The Queen Mother (once a concubine of the Sultan’s father who rose through the ranks) ran the harem, and, therefore, was an influential figure in the intricacies of harem life, and sometimes the political life of the Ottoman era.  The harem was a maze of apartments, passageways, great halls, secret doors, courtyards, mosques, baths (hamams), sprinkled with a healthy dose of Ottoman intrigue. 

Hall of the Ablution Fountain – Entrance to the Harem Guarded by Eunuchs

Courtyard of the Eunuchs with Entrance to Harem at Far End – School of Princes is on Second Story

Entrance to the Harem – Three different passages beyond the entrance lead to the Court of the Concubines, the Court of the Queen Mother, and the Sultan’s quarters.

Courtyard of the Sultan’s Consorts & Concubines

Harem – Ottoman Fireplace

Apartments of Queen Mother (Valide Sultan)

Accommodations of Queen Mother

Queen Mother’s Residence

Latticework in Queen Mother’s Quarters

Courtyards of the Apartments of the Queen Mother

Cesmeli Sofa (The Hall with a Fountain)

Alcove in Hall with a Fountain (Harem)

Tile Work in Sultan’s Quarters

Sultan’s Bedchamber

Sultan’s Residence

Sultan’s Accommodations

Apartments of the Crown Prince/Twin Kiosk

Courtyard of the Favorites

On our way from Topkapi Palace to the Blue Mosque we slipped into a boutique hotel restaurant, adjacent to renovated 18thcentury multi-tiered Turkish homes and the Topkapi Palace, and enjoyed what seems to be a staple of Turkish cuisine, creamy tomato soup (Domates), along with salads, and a vegetable omelet.  It started pouring rain, and thankfully my practical husband packed an umbrella and rain hat from home, which came in handy for our jaunt to the Blue Mosque.  Fortunately for other tourists, there were ubiquitous street vendors selling umbrellas of every hue.

The Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, and originally named Sultan Ahmet Mosque, after the ruler who ordered its construction, sits alongside the Bosphorus, connecting the Black Sea and Mediterranean, and is the site frequently seen in Istanbul travel photos and tourist brochures.  Named the “Blue Mosque” because of the azure glazed tiles along the interior walls, it is located at one end of the Sultanahmet Square, and is one of the few mosques in the world with six minarets.  At one time, the Blue Mosque was part of a larger complex that included a public kitchen, a bazaar, a Turkish bath, schools, a hospital, and an inn for travelers, which, unfortunately, have not been preserved to present day. Upon arriving at the Blue Mosque we were asked to take off our shoes and place them in plastic bags, which we carried with us.  Entering the mosque we were treated to a dazzling blend of Ottoman and Byzantine architecture and clusters of crystal Turkish oil lamps suspended throughout a wide open space with geometrical and colorful stain glass windows and intricate Iznik tile work lining the walls.  The tile work depicted flower groups, such as tulips, violets, hyacinth, carnations, and jasmine, as well as tree and branch motifs, like cypresses and leaf formations.

The Blue Mosque

Inside Blue Mosque

Iznik Tile Work of the Blue Mosque

Our dinner later that night in our hotel’s Matbah (“kitchen” in Arabic) restaurant was a fusion of Turkish hospitality and a feast for the palate.  I had a hot soup with yogurt, dried fruit in a tomato base, and a salad with pomegranate sauce, also quite popular in present-day Turkish cuisine.  We also shared hummus, stuffed grape leaves, a spinach and garlic dish, and delicious olive and walnut paste served with bread.  The Matbah is known for preparing meals that replicate those served to the sultans in the Ottoman Empire.  Dishes like Goose Kebab, Grape Molasses Stuffed Quince, Lamb’s shank dressed with eggplant puree on phyllo dough, and Sour Cherry Stuffed Vine Leaves.  At the end of our meal, our amiable waiter served us complimentary Turkish coffee in a specially engraved silver holder with a top to retain the heat, and instructed us to make sure we cleansed our mouths with water (a common ritual in Turkey) before drinking our coffee.  We were also treated to a Turkish Delight, oftentimes a rosewater or fruit flavored gel-like sweet covered with powdered sugar.  I was even presented with a faux pearl pendant at the end of the meal.  A perfect ending to our first day in Istanbul.

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