23-30 September 2015. In Greek it’s Hagia Sofia, meaning holy wisdom. In Turkish it’s Ayasofya. The Byzantine cathedral of Ayasofya is the most visited tourist attraction in Turkey. In all of Turkey. In popularity it outranks all other museums, Topkapi Palace, the ancient ruins at Ephesus, the Blue Mosque, and the extraordinary landscapes of Cappadocia and Pamukkale. I’m not sure why.
Like all major tourist attractions it’s best to arrive early. We’ve also read that it’s best to go upstairs first. So we do. It’s cavernous, and surprisingly dark, but we get a good view down into the vast space below.
We’re on the same level as the exquisite stained-glass windows. Looking around there are pockets of beauty everywhere hidden in the dingy gloom.
Ayasofya was built 1500 years ago as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral in what was then Christian Constantinople. Its dome is second only in size to the Pantheon in Rome and soars 55 metres (180 ft) above the marble floor. Sultan Mehmet II converted it to a mosque in 1453. In 1935 it was converted into a museum by Ataturk’s secular government.
It is a truly epic building and I wish I could have seen it like this:
Instead literally half the interior space is filled from floor to balcony level with scaffolding covered with black cloth, which completely prevents any experience of the monumental grandeur of the space. The cloth is thick with dust. Clearly there has been no progress on restoration for a very long time.
Down on the ground floor, weaving in and out of the crowds and tour groups, I make my way to the nave, in front of the scaffolding.
And as we wander we discover delightful pockets of glowing beauty.
In 2015 there were 3.47 million visitors to Ayasofya. At 30 Turkish Lira each, the income from Ayasofya was over 35 million US dollars. In 2014 it was even more. Restoration is ongoing. Sporadically. According to Zeynep Ahunbay, a professor of architecture at Istanbul Technical University and known as Ayasofya’s guardian angel, “For months at a time, you don’t see anybody working”, and “one year there is a budget, the next year there is none”.
Ayasofya is a religious and political football. Muslims want it returned to a mosque, Christians want it reconsecrated as a church, and Ataturk’s secularists want it kept as a museum. The fight for funding gets kicked around by the three factions. No one faction trusts the other. There have been demonstrations in the past. Somehow a delicate balance is maintained, but it means that allocating funding for restoration is a political hot potato. The paint is peeling and flaking, there is extensive water damage, marble panels are covered in grime, windows need repairing and warped frames need to be replaced. The restoration work required is as monumental as the building. Added to that, Istanbul sits on a fault line so the building is extremely vulnerable to earthquakes. We may lose it forever before there is any more work done to restore it to its former magnificence.
What once was glorious is now a crumbling old pile, poorly maintained and thick with dust, descending into decay. It’s not wabi-sabi. It’s not even shabby chic. It’s just plain shabby, with the inescapable feeling of grimy neglect. But what do I know. We all see things differently. A close friend was in Istanbul just last week and said Ayasofya was her favourite. I suspect it could have been mine too without the scaffolding.
In the crowded Spice Market
we choose one of the eighty-five shops selling spices, Turkish delight, dried fruits and nuts, ceramics, copperware, and souvenirs.
Inside the shop we experience Turkish hospitality at its best. We are offered pomegranate tea, and apple tea, and a snack of mixed nuts and dried fruit,
while the enthusiastic salesman shows us bundled dried-flower balls.
The balls are made of dried white tea leaves with flowers hidden inside – jasmine, carnation, chrysanthemum, calendula. All this is bound together with a fine silk thread. When dropped into hot water the bundle unfolds into a delicate floating flower revealing its concealed beauty: a swirling tea dance in a goblet.
We didn’t get to drink this concoction, but we did get to try many of the salted or sweetened nuts, and a myriad of dried fruits. The salesman was very attentive and courteous. He was also disappointed when we only bought 100 grams of salted pistachios.
We also didn’t try the famed Turkish natural Viagra, mesir macunu – a concoction of forty-one spices originally blended to treat a sultan’s mother who had a serious disease. It apparently grants increased energy and a feeling of wellness.
To the Turkish, the Spice Market is known as Misir Çarsisi, meaning Egyptian Bazaar. In the 1660’s, when the market was built, goods from Egypt were taxed. It was this tax that paid for the building, hence the name. Misir Çarsisi was the last stop on the Silk Road bringing silks, spices, and other goods from China, India and Persia. It was constructed as part of Yeni Cami, known as the New Mosque. The rent from the shops paid for the upkeep of the mosque and its many charitable activities. Today the market is frequented by both locals and tourists alike.
Unlike Ayasofya, the Spice Market is bright and alive. From the jewel tones of the Turkish delight and dried fruit to the vibrant colours and rich aromas of the spices, the gorgeous ceramics and the traditional lamps, the Spice Market is a feast for the senses.
We save the Grand Bazaar until last. I don’t remember why, but we don’t go until our final day in Istanbul. We had read that it has become very touristy. It has. And it hasn’t. However many tourists there are roaming this vast complex, however many shops are dedicated to serving their needs and desires, nothing can erase the history and significance of it. Nothing can erase the feeling of other times, other lifestyles. It is steeped in stories. There is a modern overlay, but the structure itself has seen the changes of hundreds of years.
The Grand Bazaar has been an important trading centre since 1461. It is the oldest, and one of the largest, covered markets in the world with sixty streets and more than four thousand shops. As well as the shops the labyrinthine complex houses mosques, ablution fountains, two hamams, police stations, banks, and several cafés and restaurants. It is a small town, and a rabbit warren that invites you to get lost among its grand central colonnaded spaces, endless streets, and narrow hidden alleyways.
There is everything for sale from gorgeous fabrics, lush embroidered dresses, belly dancing outfits, jewellery, ceramics, spices, leather goods, antiques, copperware, silverware, and carpets.
And if you look for them there are mysterious staircases to take you to hidden places like this coppersmith’s workshop adjacent to the crumbling ancient city walls.
And up another set of stairs we find this leafy courtyard of offices.
We keep trying to find a way up to the roof to see the rooftop walkway of Istanbul made famous in the movies Taken 2 and Skyfall but each time we ask we are told it is no longer allowed. It is only after we have left Istanbul that I remember I had made a note of where to see this walkway, if not walk on it. Now I don’t even have that note. Everything I have read about it tells me that you need to know a local to get to it. It always seems to involve a man with a key.
To finish off the tales of this vibrant cosmopolitan city I include some more street scenes of Istanbul:
This is the final post about Turkey. We spent five weeks there. There were some disappointments: there was no water in the terraces of Pamukkale, the Sufi dancing that includes women was cancelled due to a public holiday, and Ayasofya was remarkable for its state of disrepair. But it is an extraordinary country with much to offer. Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities. The landscapes of Pamukkale and Cappadocia are unique and incomparable. The intense sunlight and azure seas of the Mediterranean resort towns make them the perfect places to explore the coast. And the country is filled from east to west with antiquities. We feel as if we only scratched the surface.
Other posts about Turkey:
Istanbul not Constantinople
A Mosque, Some Mosaics, and a Whole Lot of Raw Meat: the streets of Istanbul
Next several posts: The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – Amman, Petra, the Dead Sea, and Wadi Rum.
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.