My Stray Cat Expedition in Istanbul, Turkey – Day 3, part 2 (continued from Day 3, part 1)
Dr. Arnold Plotnick
(click pictures to enlarge)
Dr. Arnold Plotnick
(click pictures to enlarge)
We finally came up to the gates of the museum.
Once inside the gate, there were more cats to be played with. Like this real sweetheart outside the main hall of the museum.
After playing with this little sweetie, I went into the main hall and marveled at the artifacts, especially the museum’s star exhibit, the Alexander sarcophagus. It’s called the Alexander sarcophagus because that’s Alexander the Great portrayed in the battle and hunting scenes on the sides, although the sarcophagus was really carved to hold King Abdalonymous of Sidon. The sarcophagus was discovered accidentally by a villager who was digging a well. It is one of the most important classical works ever unearthed, and it is in amazing shape after being buried for 2000 years.
A short walk to the building next door, and we were at the Tiled Kiosk, which contained some of the finest examples of Selcuk, Ottoman and regional tiles ever assembled. Take a look for yourself:
Finally, we checked out the third part, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, with a small collection that offered an exquisite look at the ancient cultures of the Near and Middle East, mainly Mesopotamia. My favorites were the Babylonian friezes that once decorated the gate of the ancient city of Babylon (in what is now Iraq).
You would think that after Topkapi Palace and this three-building museum, we’d be done? Hardly. Our next stop was the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.
Built for the sultan by the great architect Sinan in 1557, the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent is just as impressive as the Blue Mosque in its sheer size, architecture, and design. Getting there was tricky, though. The mosque is on a hill near Istanbul University, and climbing the uphill streets was exhausting. It was enjoyable, though, because it’s in the Beyazit neighborhood which we’ve visited before, and it was charming. On the walk, I ran into a very sweet kitty resting on a ledge.
The uphill trudge seemed to last forever, and my legs were protesting, but our goal was visible off in the distance.
The mosque has an outer courtyard, a cemetery, and an inner courtyard. Unfortunately, the cemetery was closed. I was bummed, because the cemetery has Suleyman’s mausoleum, built by the best stonemasons and marble-workers in the empire, and I was really hoping to see it. Roxelana’s mausoleum is also there, and while not as impressive as her husbands, it’s supposedly pretty noteworthy as well. The metal door of the cemetery was definitely locked; I tried it several times. I did notice a few cats inside the cemetery walls, munching on some dry food that was left by someone. These cats were skittish. They were hand-shy, but they weren’t camera-shy.
The mosque’s interior was much more subtle than the Blue Mosque. Compared to the blast of color and fancy design in the blue mosque, the interior of the Suleyman mosque is tranquil and puts people at ease. The décor is pastel and the stained glass windows are very tasteful.
The dome of this mosque was really somethin’. Sinan the architect apparently struggled his whole life to engineer a single dome that could span an entire building without bulky support arches and pillars. This mosque was an important milestone in his quest. He used four irregularly shaped “elephant’s feet” pillars to support the arches and the dome. The dome, flanked by two semi-domes, is 90 feet in diameter.
Lovely, isn’t it?
By this time, it’s 5:30 p.m. We have one more stop on the itinerary: the Chora Church, on the edge of town. The trademark art form of the Byzantines is the wall mosaic, and this small, underrated church is home to some of the best examples of late-period Byzantine mosaics anywhere in the world.
The church was quite a distance away, and mass transit would be difficult. We decided to splurge and take a cab there. The streets were hectic, but being a New Yorker, I stepped into the busy street and, spotting a cab with its light on, threw out my arm and hailed it like a pro. I pointed in my book where I wanted to go. The cabbie, who spoke zero English, indicated through hand signals and guttural grunts that traffic was wicked and that we’d be taking the back roads. We then embarked on a truly memorable cab ride, as our cabbie drove completely maniacally through the most colorful streets of the city. I saw old men gathered around a small table drinking tea and playing backgammon; mothers in full head scarf and burkha walking their children home from school; delivery men carting huge loads of cargo on their backs; kids playing soccer while a few stray cats munched on kibble near the dumpster. It was a whirlwind tour of the REAL Istanbul. We came to a screeching halt at the church at 5:58. The guard let us in, then locked the gate. We were the evening’s last entrants.
The church is really old – it dates back to the year 1100 – and you can really feel that ambience. There were many mosaics on the walls and ceiling, but my guidebook tried to focus on 40 of the most interesting and/or important ones. I tried to follow the tour and explanations in the book, but it was just too confusing, and I put the book away and just gawked and marveled at the mosaics without having to know the specific details of the scenes depicted. I don’t think I would have had time to see each one, anyway, since this was the last hour that the museum was open.
After the church, it was dinner time, and we had reservations for a fancy restaurant right next to the church, called Asitane. I had read that this was a popular restaurant, and that reservations were a must. So I made reservations online, from New York, three weeks prior. Dinner wasn’t until 8:00, and it was 7:00, so we decided to stroll the neighborhood. This was really cool, because we were on the edge of town, in a very non-touristy area. Of course, this being Istanbul, I got to encounter many a friendly feline while strolling, including this big ol’ tomcat with a nice face. Note that his right ear is snipped, again confirming that they do trap-and-neuter in Istanbul.
As for the dinner at fancy-shmancy Asitane, I wasn’t all that impressed. Yes, the outdoor garden was beautiful, and the tables were set very nicely. The musicians in the corner providing soft Turkish violin music were wonderful, and the lighting was perfect. The food, however, was a little nouveau for my tastes. I didn’t come to Turkey to sample a tablespoonful of hummus, or a tiny nibble of eggplant artfully decorated on a stark white plate. Give me greasy street food anytime! The saving grace of the meal, of course, was the cute kitty at the tableside who charmed a few pieces of chicken from my plate.
Darkness had descending upon Istanbul by the time dinner was finished, and we realized we were in a strange neighborhood very far from any mass transit. We started walking somewhat aimlessly, and miraculously, we found a cab. Our cabbie zoomed through the streets of this weird neighborhood (do all Turkish cab drivers drive like maniacs?), back toward Taksim square, our final destination. As we drove up one busy street, I could see a cat up ahead prepare to cross the street in front of us. The cabbie wasn’t slowing down. As we got closer to the cat, it dashed across the street, and I let out a worried, “whoa slowdown stopstopstop!”, fearful that he would crush the poor kitty. Naturally, the cat made it across the street just fine, and the cabbie just smiled, said something in a very reassuring Turkish tone, and patted my leg. He found it funny that I was worried about the cat, but not in a condescending way at all. He let me know that he knew the cat would be okay, that he’s been doing this for years. It was kinda a cool moment.
We finally made it back to the hotel around 10:00. A quick shower, a little relaxing, and then… Istiklal street, of course, to drink with the locals!