My Stray Cat Expedition in Istanbul, Turkey – Part 3

Today turned out to be one of the most exhausting days of the trip.  We decided to tackle the famous Topkapi palace. This is the place where the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror decided to set up shop after capturing Constantinople.  It ended up serving as the sole administrative palace for Ottoman sultans for more than 400 years.  It housed several thousand people, a city within a city.  Not too shabby a place to store one’s stuff.   The day started out nicely enough, with me noticing a woman using her headphone cord to play with a kitten on a bench in Sultanahmet Park. Cute!  

A short walk through the park and past Hagia Sophia, and there it is.  The palace is huge! There are four courtyards, as well as the harem.  After going through the Imperial Gate, you find yourself in the first courtyard.  This courtyard is a wide space that was reserved for public officials, civil servants, and service personnel.  As you continue through this courtyard to the actual palace, you pass Hagia Irene, an early Christian church.  This church, on the Topkapi Palace grounds, served as the main church of Constantinople until Hagia Sophia was built. The church supposedly has a stark and beautiful interior, but alas, it is not open to the public.   As I continued the rest of the way through the first courtyard to the main palace entrance, I spotted a couple of pretty well-fed cats sunning themselves on the grass.   I finally came up to the Gate of Salutation, also known as the Middle Gate.  

Reminiscent of European castles from the Middle Ages, this is where you buy your ticket. Once you go through, you’re in the palace complex’s second courtyard.  This courtyard was a ceremonial courtyard, host to centuries of coronations, successions, and other major benchmarks.    The Harem is one of the most popular sections of the palace.  

My guidebook said that if there is no line at the Harem entrance, we’d be wise to visit it now.  So we did.     The word “harem” refers to two things: the wives, favorites, and concubines of the sultan, and the part of the palace where they lived.  Contrary to the images in the heads of most westerners, the Harem was not the site of a round-the-clock orgy. In fact, it was a carefully administered social institution that ensured the longevity  of the Ottoman Empire.  It also required an additional, separate 15 lira fee to get in.  Hmmph!   Next to the Harem was a small café/restaurant.  Hovering around the entrance were a few cats.  While purchasing my entry ticket, I watched one  of the café workers put down a saucer and fill it with milk.  Another  instance  of kindness toward the strays.  

The cats lapped up the milk excitedly.  Actually, the alpha cat (the calico) ended up drinking first, while the others waited for her to finish.  What a diva.    The Harem tour was a one-way route that allowed good glimpses of about 20 rooms, letting us gawk at the stunning tile work, the wives’ and concubines’ courts, the mother sultan’s private apartment, and the grand reception hall. After that, we finished perusing the rest of the second courtyard, including the Divan (the council chamber where the viziers got together to discuss state affairs) and the Imperial treasury’s armory (a very interesting collection of weapons).   Next on the tour was the third courtyard, which had the Reception Hall, the Library of Ahmet III, and the Imperial Treasury.  By this time, my feet were killing me.  The palace is immense, and it really becomes sensory overload after a while.  The treasury, however, was pretty neat.  It contains a drool-worthy collection of the sultan’s riches, including the famous Topkapi dagger, lying on  a burgundy pillow.  This dagger was created in the palace workshop as a gift for the shah of Iran, but the shah was killed in an uprising, so it never got to him. The dagger is covered with diamonds and three huge emeralds.  The plot of the 1964 film “Topkapi” ,with Peter Ustinov, centers around the theft of this dagger. Photos weren’t allowed, but of course I managed to sneak one when the guard wasn’t looking.  

We finally finished touring the treasury, only to be confronted with…the fourth courtyard!  By this time, we had our fill with the palace, and we were starving.  So we breezed through the fourth courtyard, which included the circumcision room , the kiosk, the Baghdad pavilion, the Revan pavilion, and the tulip garden. Finally…lunchtime!    I had read about a restaurant called Cankurtaran Sosyal Tesisleri, with outdoor tables affording a great view of the Bosphorus and the Asian side of Istanbul.  The restaurant was an easy walk downhill from the palace.  The restaurant was a gem. It had excellent food, great prices, a lovely outdoor courtyard with the promised great view, and to top it all off, a few kittens dashing around the grounds.  I ordered their signature dish, the Topkapi kabob, a mixture of chicken, veal, mushrooms and tomatoes, topped with cheese. While waiting for my dish to arrive, I ended up befriending one of the cutest cats of the entire trip, an adorable  black kitten maybe 11 or 12 weeks old.  He was very playful and trusting and came right over when I called.  He sat on my lap during part of my lunch, with me sneaking him an occasional piece of my kabob.   

After lunch, we headed back uphill to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.  This was a great museum, with intricately carved sarcophagi, tons of Greek and Roman sculptures, beautiful Iznik tiles, and an actual chunk of the chain that the Byzantines stretched across the Golden Horn.  I liked the way the museum is laid out.  It is divided into three parts: the Museum of Archaeology, the Tiled Kiosk, and the Museum of the Ancient Orient.

The weather was beautiful, and the walk to the museum was truly lovely.  It was situated just on the edge of the first courtyard of the Topkapi palace.  Walking through the grassy courtyard to the museum allowed me to encounter many cats on the way, including this sleeping black and white beauty.  Notice where I’m pointing: at her ear.  It’s snipped!  Evidence that they do indeed practice trap-neuter-release in Istanbul.  

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!  

CONTINUE TO The Istanbul, Turkey Stray Cat Adventure – Part 4

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