March 8, 2015
Since many museums are closed on Mondays, and today was Sunday, our plan was to visit more museums today and then do some city walking tomorrow. We were up not too early, and after breakfast we headed out for the day, with the first stop being the Great Palace Mosaic Museum. To get to the museum you have to go through the Arasta Bazaar and then out a back exit, which is a bit peculiar, but it isn’t hard to find the signs.
İstanbul is entirely built on top of the ruins of earlier versions of the city, so several decades ago an excavation revealed a collection of tile mosaics dating back to probably the 6th century. The archaeologists restored quite a lot of them and gathered them together in this museum. Many of the pieces were damaged or in small fragments, but there were large areas of intact mosaic. Despite some of the reviews on TripAdvisor, we were both very impressed with the quality of the mosaics. The colours were muted because the pieces are actual red, brown, tan, cream, and green marble. In a few places there were semi-precious stones embedded in the mosaics.
The patterns formed showed various animals, trees, hunting scenes, children playing games, and household chores. One large section also had a border similar to a carpet. It was amazing to think of people making these mosaics out of bits of coloured stone the size of your little fingernail, considering the massive area that they covered.
It didn’t take us long to look at the mosaics, so we were soon on our way to the Blue Mosque (officially known as Sultan Ahmet Mosque). Following Rick Steves’s book we read about the different areas around the mosque before we approached the tourist entrance. Here we followed the line of people to the door, where we had to stop and take our shoes off. Rosemary had brought her pashmina shawl with her, so she didn’t have to use one of the headscarves they had available to lend to tourists.
The interior of the mosque is huge. The dome itself measures 110 feet in diameter and is 141 feet high. It is decorated with more than 20,000 ceramic tiles, most of which are a rich blue colour, giving the mosque its popular name. Unlike Hagia Sophia, which is quite dark inside, the Blue Mosque has 260 windows which help to illuminate the interior. Today was very grey outside, but inside the mosque it was quite bright. The large centre area is reserved for men, and women pray behind screens at the back or upstairs; the mosque is oriented so that everybody faces Mecca when they pray.
Back outside we headed over to the Archaeological Museums. Yes, there are three of them! The first building was devoted to the treasures found at Troy. The building was undergoing a renovation so trying to follow Rick Steves’s tour proved to be too confusing and we never did see the Alexander sarcophagus which was supposed to be the highlight, but there were three floors of artifacts. We saw lots of friezes and statues which were in remarkably good condition considering they were over 1,500 years old. However after a while we started to tire of the huge volume of museum cases, so we ducked out and carried on.
The next building was the “Tiled Kiosk”. This pavilion contained some of the finest examples of Selçuk, Ottoman, and other styles of tiles. There were several alcoves which were tiled from floor to ceiling with beautiful blue tiles. In display cases we saw oil-burning lamps, dishes, and other ceramic items. This building was much smaller and so it was much easier to look around.
The last building was the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which had things which were 4,000 years old or more. There were Babylonian friezes of lions, bulls, donkeys, and snakes, along with items from Assyrian temples and old Sumerian tablets. It was amazing to realize that people could still read and understand the chicken scratches on those old tablets. In one of the rooms were marble sculptures from the Bronze Age and earlier; some of them were dated back to 3000 BC!
It was well after 1 pm now so we decided to have lunch at the café in the museum grounds. We both had rice pudding and hot chocolate, which turned out to be quite expensive compared to the simits we had been buying from street vendors.
It turned out that the Grand Bazaar was closed today, so our alternative plan was to walk over to see the Spice Market and the Süleymaniye Mosque. It wasn’t a long walk and once we got to the Spice Market we found a large mosque which turned out to be the New Mosque (built in the 17th century). The Süleymaniye Mosque was up on the hill not far away, so we made our way up there. The tombs of Süleyman and his wife Roxana were closed, so we went in to have a look at the interior of the mosque. It was closing for prayers in ten minutes, but we didn’t really need that long. It was another mosque with a monumental dome, much like the ones we had already seen.
Heading back we passed through the University area, including a seedy area with various people selling used clothing, shoes, and dubious-looking electronics. Finally, after following the tram line the wrong way for a while, we found our way back to the B&B.
There were plenty of restaurants in our area, so we chose a different one tonight. It was pricier than the others we had eaten at, but the food was very good. At another table we overheard a man talking and learned he was from Toronto. He came over and spoke to us, telling us he was building a house on the island of Kos in Greece. (He also told us that he didn’t like the Canadian tax system.) He had recently sold his business and was now retired. We were finished our meal and were waiting for our tea when the next thing we knew, a tray with three pieces of baklava and a dish of ice cream arrived at our table courtesy of him. It was a nice treat to end the meal.
After paying our bill we walked back up to the Blue Mosque to take some night photographs and on the way back from there we stopped by the Arasta Bazaar and watched part of the performance of a whirling dervish, accompanied by three musicians on traditional instruments. It was very interesting watching his spinning technique.