21-29 September 2015. We go full circle in Turkey – from Istanbul to Ephesus, to the Mediterranean coast, to Pamukkale and Konya, to Cappadocia, and finally back to Istanbul.

One day we are having lunch in a park near Topkapi Palace. On a bench to our right I notice a conservatively dressed young couple. I watch them for a long time. I can’t hear them, and wouldn’t be able to understand them if I could, but their body language is clear enough for anyone to understand. He is coming on way too strong. She is not having any of it. They are young, probably still teenagers. She is resistant to his persistent advances and keeps turning from him. At one point while she is partially turned from him she pulls her knees up to her chest and hugs them. It’s all too much for her. He takes her hand from time to time, but each time she eventually takes it back. At times they are silent, not looking at each other, but the connection, the tension is evident. Obviously she has agreed to meet him, maybe even clandestinely, or perhaps it is has been arranged by their parents that they are to marry. Either way she is not happy with his advances. It is too much, or she’s decided she doesn’t like him as much as she originally thought. When they get up and leave he tries to take her hand and she firmly pulls it away. It is probably her first time ever agreeing to be with a boy. And then wishing she wasn’t.


In contrast, the two on the bench to our left obviously love each other and want to be together. They are animated. They are paying attention to each other. Their body language speaks of intimacy, and the joy of being together. The difference between the two couples is remarkable. I felt like I was watching a scene from a play.


We spend hours and hours exploring Topkapi Palace. I’ve been to several palaces: the Doge’s Palace in Venice, Versailles near Paris, Alhambra in Granada, and the Vatican, among others. Topkapi is surely one of the grandest of all. There is beauty all around me highlighting the extraordinary creativity of the human spirit.

Topkapi was constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, and was expanded by subsequent rulers. It served as the home of the Ottoman sultans and their court until the middle of the 19th century. It’s a massive walled complex containing many buildings which enclose courtyards that were the hub of daily life. Interspersed are trees, gardens and water fountains. At its peak 4000 people lived in this city within a city. There were mosques, huge kitchens, a mint, bakeries, hospitals, schools, libraries, barracks, and secret passageways so royalty wouldn’t have to mix with the hoi polloi. For four hundred years the Ottoman sultans lived in this rarified environment created to protect them and cater to their every whim.

The collections on display there include clothing, fabrics, and sacred coverings, silverware, portraits, glassware, porcelain, jewels, copper, gold plate, arms and weapons, and calligraphic manuscripts.

In the treasury are the jewels of the empire. It is an astonishing collection of objects made from or decorated with gold, silver, rubies, emeralds, jade, pearls and diamonds. The most famous exhibit is the Topkapi Dagger. The dagger was featured in Dassin’s 1963 film Topkapi. It has three massive emeralds on the hilt and a watch set into the pommel. The Kasikçi (Spoonmaker’s) Diamond is a teardrop-shaped 86-carat stone surrounded by dozens of smaller stones. It is the fifth largest diamond in the world, and absolutely breathtaking.

All the items in the treasury, apart from their monetary value, were also thought to have spiritual value. They were originally kept in drawers and were taken out when the sultan came to worship them in a special ceremonial ritual.

Tales abound of lustful sultans, ruthless courtiers, beautiful concubines, and perfidious eunuchs. Popular belief would have it that in the harem the sultan would indulge in debauchery at will. The reality was a little more prosaic. The harem, one of the largest, grandest, and most richly decorated complexes in Topkapi, was the imperial family quarters. The word ‘harem’ means ‘forbidden’ or ‘private’. Every detail of Harem life was governed by custom, responsibility and ritual. There the sultans supported as many as three hundred concubines, four legal wives, and their children.

The valide sultan (the mother of the reigning sultan) ruled the harem. She frequently owned sizeable estates and controlled them through black eunuch servants. Her influence on the sultan, in the choice of his wives and concubines, and on matters of state, was often profound. I can only imagine the power plays, the politics, and the intrigue that abounded in Topkapi during its heyday.

Exploring the palace and grounds there are many highlights and much beauty to be seen. All day I am thinking of the people behind the beauty – those who created the tiles, the carvings, the painted ceilings. It is all such perfect work, intricate and gorgeous. There are several photos showing the decoration in more detail in this post.







Although surrounded by all this exquisite beauty, best of all for me is being able to touch and turn the pages of an illuminated manuscript of the Koran with its velum pages and delicate detailed design and calligraphy. I first learned about illuminated manuscripts in high school and have always been intrigued by them, wondering about the hours of painstaking focus and patience that must go into making them. What did they do if they made a mistake? Did the scribes ever make a mistake? How did they draw those designs so perfectly? Also most of these books would have been made by candlelight. Human beings are extraordinarily clever. We can even get to the moon and back, but I’m more impressed by the dedication and devotion and artistic aesthetic required to make an illuminated manuscript by hand in the half-light.

I first saw actual illuminated manuscripts under glass in a museum in Sienna. I saw another, under glass, in the Mevlana Museum in Konya. In Topkapi, for the first time, I actually get to see one naked, to touch it, to turn the pages. I am spellbound by its beauty.

Turkey has been a secular state since it was founded in 1923. Over 95% of the population is Muslim however headscarves are banned in the public arena such as law courts, public schools and the civil service. Headscarves are also prohibited in official photographs. The issue has been hotly debated for decades. Currently about 50% of women wear headscarves (tesettür) and a long cover-all coat to meet the Islamic code of modesty.



Many Turkish women dress in regular European clothing, but it was the range that caught my attention. Turkish women are to be seen dressed in everything from short shorts and a tank top to full burka with even the eyes hidden behind mesh – and everything in between. Four young women walk by in a group. They are maybe in their late teens or early twenties. Two have tight jeans, short-sleeved tops and bare heads. The other two have tight jeans, long-sleeved knee-length tops, and headscarves. I wonder if they are married and that is the reason they are more covered.

Turkish women can be seen in a “little black dress”


or a very big black dress,


although these women are almost certainly tourists from Saudi Arabia:



The other things that catch my attention are the way trendy young women have turned the headscarf into a fashion statement,




and that even brides wear a richly decorated version of the tesettür. It’s likely that her groom has never seen her hair.



Girls pre-puberty have no such societal constraints,



but strict Muslim women, even at the beach, where almost everyone is wearing just about nothing, are covered from head to toe.



And then there are those who defy categorization.


And women who live in the country, like rural woman everywhere, are more plainly dressed.


Suleymaniye Mosque sits atop one of Istanbul’s seven hills, dominating the skyline. It is an unmistakable iconic landmark for the entire city.


Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent, it was built by 3,500 craftsmen between 1550 and 1557. Although it is not the biggest of the Ottoman mosques, I am still impressed by its size and splendor. It is 59 metres (194ft) long, 58 metres (190ft) wide and the main dome is 53 metres (174ft) high. It’s huge! The interior is one of golden spaciousness and soaring beauty.


Photo by Don Read
Photo by Don Read



At night we go to the Hodja Pasha Cultural Centre for a performance of traditional Turkish dance. It is held in a five hundred and fifty year old converted Turkish bathhouse. The performance is completely engaging, professional, beautifully costumed, fast-paced, and exciting. We enjoy every minute of it.

There is an incredible female belly dancer. I’ve never seen a professional belly dancer before. Her ability to control different parts of her body, and perfectly in time to the music, is breathtaking. I’m captivated. I didn’t know belly dancing could look like this, every quick or slow movement of the hips, feet and arms perfectly timed to the drums. The rhythm changes from time to time and the dance is obviously meticulously choreographed to follow it.

Later there comes a male belly dancer! I didn’t know there was any such thing, and my introduction is to see one of the best. Like the woman his dance is intricately choreographed and he dances as if he has control of every single separate muscle in his well-toned body. There is also a troupe of about six men and five women who are all superb. They show many different styles of traditional regional dances. No photos are allowed but I include some photos from the brochure to give an idea of the performance.




Next couple of posts: A cattle-slaughtering annual holiday, the aromatic spice market, the Grand Bazaar, the waterfront, nargile pipes, Chora Church, Agia Sofia, and more. Istanbul is full of treasures.

Hodja Pasha Cultural Centre
Belly dancer at Hodja Pasha video
Male belly dancer at Hodja Pasha video

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.