Turkey- August 1999
See the Town (Part I)
We had a big day ahead of us and woke early with a wake-up call. I looked in my suitcase and realized I was in a woman's worst nightmare. Halfway across the world with nothing to wear. What could I have been thinking? I thought to myself, digging more and more frantically through the piles of clothing. The temperature would pass 100 perhaps 110 today and we would need long clothing to visit the mosques. So, I punted and grabbed the next thing I came across. And again, we performed the same ritual as with every event we expect to need cameras or film for. We muttered and rearranged, packed and called all our equipment by name.
I was really looking foreword to the ancient artifacts and sights we had in store today. I had read the travel brochure a million times and still couldn't keep track of everything I we had lined up. Hippodromes and Mosques, Church of Divine wisdom and palaces- the names sounded so enchanting I couldn't wait.
We headed to breakfast and found Mel and Mark, whom we had met in the airport in Frankfort. You should have seen the big buffet the staff had spread on our behalf. It looked like a grocery store photo-op. Piles of fruit and breads and jellies covered 2 tables. Stylish rich fabrics were folded all around the thirty bowls heaped with cereals. This was interesting. We would spoon the unidentifiable crispies from the many selections with giant wooden carved spoons. Plus, we saw the one single time we would see ice in use in the country of Turkey, under the pitcher of lukewarm milk. The Turks were definitely a fruit loving people. There were varieties of melons cut and carved in ways I hadn't seen before. I was personally partial to the little chocolate filled pastries, myself and loaded up.
Then Salih, our bold and charismatic host in Turkey arrived to announce himself and prepare us for the day. Salih couldn't enter the room without a scene. His big barrel chest and valiant speaking voice were confident enough even before you added his vibrant personality. I kept looking at him trying to remember what movie I had seen him in, since his style so much resembled that one colorful character you see in each exciting international adventure film. Today he wore an extra-extra large T-shirt from Notre Dame. Naturally, several guests asked him where it came from. He explained in a voice fit for the crowd that a guest of his mailed him a shirt from his college one year and ever since, a guest will mail him another from whatever college he went to. So now, you see, If you would like me to wear the shirt from your university, you must mail me another one from your school. Now this way to the busses! He held a hand in the air and began to walk away. We all followed him instinctively as if hypnotized by the man's hand.
This was a very crucial passage, as we chose which bus to ride to the first destination. We would not be allowed to change, so that our guides could keep better tabs on who was left behind. So, we gathered and consulted with our handful of close friends and collaborated on a bus choice. What fun! I thought. Not only were we to visit all the marvelous sights of this colorful town, but we would do it in the company of some of our most dear friends. Fred and Pat, Bob and Wendy, Chris & Kenny, Ken, Mike, Curtis, Connie would go with us everywhere. So the bus rolled away and we immediately began chatting so loudly we wouldn't hear the guides descriptions until she admonished us to quiet down at least three times.
The hotel directly to the south was the place Agatha Christie stayed during her creation of the Orient Express. Nesli noted that the place was definitely worth exploration. As the bus approached a tiny intersection and swung to turn down an alley-sized opening, I cringed at the space available to make the move. Our attention was directed to the line of a hundred or so people waiting in line outside a big stone building. This was the American Embassy and the line was for those wanting a Visa to leave. The bus twisted and wound around through innumerable streets on its way to the other side of Golden Horn. The busses ended up pulling to the roadside in what seemed like a town commons or park area. Collecting our water bottles and camera equipment, we hopped off in excitement ready to view our first artifacts.
At the center of the park, we joined a gaggle of other groups clumped around stone monuments poking up from the ground. I was suddenly struck with a silent disappointment thinking that all we would be shown was a collection of worn, illegible stones. Nesli was good at rebuilding the picture of the scene that existed almost 2000 years ago on the grounds and as we moved along, I began to find more and more interest in the stone and bronze pieces. Vic chuckled and pointed to the back of a guard with walkie-talkie to his mouth. Tourism Police was printed in huge letters across his back with an official looking emblem in gold. Turns out that the country takes the industry so seriously that each tour guide must be licensed with the state to be sure that the history is represented correctly and that guests are treated professionally. I had read about this earlier, but had no idea that patrolmen were actually on the beat to enforce the regulation. Fred was misbehaving again. Come on, you two! Shouted Vic to the two giggling stragglers.
Our course soon brought us to the doors of a monstrous stone edifice. This was the famous Blue Mosque and one of the largest ever built. Nesli explained several of the concepts of mosque construction and the Moslem religion so that we would understand why every one had an enormous walled courtyard and a covered fountain for washing hands in the center. She also noted that proper attire for entering the mosque was to remove your shoes, and to have ones legs and arms covered. Not to fear, though, since they would politely supply us with stylish Velcro cloths for wrapping ourselves in, as well as plastic shoe-bags for transportation of the footwear from entrance to exit. The line of a few hundred was now engaged in the same ritual of wrapping, and limping between shoes and blue polyester towels juggling from hand to hand. But we all eventually staggered into the enormous building. I didn't even reach for my camera. This was again, one of those instances which film could not do justice. Granted, the wall-to-wall people made breathing difficult in the hot people-wrappers; but the experience was beautiful. Hand painted blue tiles lined the walls inside of the enormous walls and ascended up into oblivion. Each direction you could turn your head brought more and more details to stare into and examine. Archways, ancient Arabic writing, symbols and shapes all built and kept over thousands of years. Every item on every surface was ancient. But every ancient item was still in use today in the same way as when built centuries ago. Ok, not everything. Webbed overhead at a height of about 10 feet hung an elaborate maze of oversized twinkle lights. Thousands and thousands of little globes once each held a candle, but now each housed a light bulb to light the center. I looked around and around, trying to imagine the fantastic task of trying to light, extinguish or maintain the literal millions of lamps of just this one building.
I was now getting lost in the suffocation of the heat, the bodies and the jumbling of names and dates in the history of the building. For each group of twenty or so visitors, there was also another licensed tour guide all reciting all the information about the same building at the same time in any respective language necessary. The man ahead at the rope line was speaking Japanese and the fellow to our immediate left was French. It never dawned on me that all the other tourists would be visiting from all sorts of other countries with other sorts of languages. Nevertheless, I couldn't do the heat in the closed space any longer and waded toward the door. I stopped for a moment turning to notice the lack of windows and doors on the building. While my first reaction to such monstrous construction, I failed to realize that the place was not closed. I discovered that not only was it kept open in the summertime, but in the winter as well. No heat. Oooh. I muttered, shook my head and walked out. Vic turned to see what I saw, shrugged and followed. We passed found the pile of blue garments and shoe bags on the other side and quickly shed ours, hoping for a stone or block of wood to sit and replace our shoes. ìI guess we tip them here. Vic said, pointing to the tiny carpet covered table. There was an interesting collection of bills and coins, but I saw nothing that would indicate what the standard for gratuities was. How about two times potty money per person? We concluded that this would be a socially acceptable amount and tiptoed off towards a better chance for a breeze.
Two very friendly gentlemen must have picked up on our lack of direction and asked if we needed help finding anything. I shrugged and politely told them that we were fine. But they were much too friendly to let the conversation end at that. The two kept chatting about how nice the mosque was and what else we could find nearby. The general indication was that the stables and all of the interesting sights continued down the nearby road which led to the back of the building. ìI don't like this said Vic. It just feels funny. We cautiously headed down the cobblestone drive that took us into the service entrance are of the building. We tiptoed nervously to the edge of the entrance and poked our heads around the corner each way. Carpet pushers! I exclaimed when I saw the bundle of shops erected in the shadow of the building. We both chuckled in nervous relief and turned back the other way, agreeing not to try that kind of thing again. A good number out of our group had also jumped ship and were now waiting for us when we crested the hill again. What's down there? asked Ken. Nothing. we answered.
So we all clustered and passed the only remaining water bottle among us while trying to find anywhere to sit in the blazing heat. Whoever decided to install that short, bench level iron fence was a masochist. It had nothing but pointed spires and no act of bodily contortion would allow any human to rest more than a foot on top of it. I watched hundreds try. After an eternity of fifteen minutes in August Turkish heat passed, the rest of the group emerged and we were allowed to move on. Amazingly, the moment we stepped off the mosque grounds we were mobbed by a comical brigade of street vendors. Yo-yos, postcards, flutes, tour books, flowers and scarves were all waved in front of us in a way not unlike a football player trying to reach the endzone. The cacophony of banter and warbling flute demonstrations was deafening. I clicked the camcorder onto record as it hung under my arm hoping I could capture the alien harmony. The disappointing bit was that I wanted to buy one of these flutes, but wouldn't be caught dead pulling out cash in front of this crowd. This was the strip, though. A path lead directly across the street from one great national monument to the other. Once we reached the walk, I glanced up to see the Hagia Sofia. It looked the part with a giant dome and minarets of a Turkish mosque, but with a dripping of a half washed away ten year old hot pink plaster wash. The front lawn was manicured with a huge floral walkway. Small tree height Crepe Murtles bloomed in a tropical pink and some white flowering bushes tried to take over the rest of the lawn. I expected to see the dome open like an aviary to see hundreds of birds burst from its opening. We crossed yet another filthy and smelly street and reached the entrance gate. We stood with the group waiting as our guide purchased our tickets. Noticing the inordinate number of fallen stones and pillars that lay in disrepair surrounding it, depressed me that such a beautiful monument would lack attention. It seems that as proud as the country is of her nations treasures, that it is just not feasible to restore each stone and each artifact of each museum. The whole country is built on the ruins of other civilizations. There would be no town if it was all restored. Looking up at the unusual color, I asked Nesli why the building was reddish pink. She squinted as if she really dreaded the question that came from every group who she ever hosted. As if she mumbled it embarrassed under her breath we could only gather that red represented fertility and that a restoration attempt had failed in durability. I looked closer and did see the original blood red of the intended color tucked high up in its eaves and watched the downspouts water paths take the color away with them. The Hagia Sofia is also called the Church of Divine Wisdom. Nesli told us. It was first a Catholic church, but the Moslems converted it to a Mosque and covered all the mosaics and Catholic images. We have since returned it to a church and have been restoring it as a museum. She explained before we entered that we would not be able to enter the center area, since it was still under construction to restore the dome. It has fallen twice during earthquakes. she said. Turkey is on a major earthquake fault and we have a large one about every hundred years. We are actually quite overdue for one today. she said with a wink and turned to enter.
On that note, we all looked nervously up at the enormity of the marble that surrounded us with fresh thoughts of tremors and collapsing buildings over our heads and went inside. Each new monument we were taken to included a similar ritual from our hosts. We were always brought a few feet inside where we would stand for fifteen minutes while we listening to the brief history of Turkey and this particular famous place. I never felt that five feet inside the door was not the place to present this lecture. At that moment, I had absolutely no interest in what was told concerning this place. I wanted to look around. I shot a number of pictures of the gorgeous gold and painted mosaic tile pictures that covered the domed ceilings of the entry. I had no idea how to capture them with any justice, but shot anyway. I peered through the construction barriers and under the yellow tape at the center hall. I have never in my life seen so much scaffolding arranged together in one place. The further I lowered my head down to see the room, the taller it became. Finally, I plopped myself down just to wrench my neck under the barrier and stare in amazement at the scale of the room. Just then, a door slammed somewhere in the building. It had to be a door the scale of the entire church, since I felt its impact in the stone I sat on. It puffed a soft breath of air past me almost unnoticed and I jumped to my feet with a knee-jerk reaction. I looked around and saw that the group had left me behind and completely alone. But I didnít feel alone. I put my hand back down to the cold stone floor and felt it again for vibration. Nothing. Prickles rose on my spine and I scurried back to the group. Nesli was leading the quickly disintegrating group around the construction to the altar area of the church. We passed a line of people in front of a stone pillar. At the pillar, a man had his thumb pressed into a hole in the rock and was twisting it around. The guide couldnít point out features as fast as the remaining followers could ask about them. Finally, she told us that we would be allowed to stay in the building and meet outside an hour later. ìLook!î I shouted and pointed to a golden sitting room literally hanging from the wall near the altar. Tin sculptures hung in along the edge of one balcony, but to the other side, hand sculptured marble traced the edge of the floor above. ì These were drilled with each hole by hand.î Nesli explained, seeing us point to the hundreds of square yards of lacy trim. ìWhatís with the rock?î I asked, pointing to the line of people waiting to touch. She told us the story of a Prince who found health and happiness when he made wishes and touched the stone. ìNow it has been touched so much that a hole has worn into it. They say because it is wet, it is blessed.î She smirked and finished, ìbut it is wet because it is a stone and has water wicked inside.î ìCan we go up there?î Bob asked, pointing to the next level balcony, nearly a hundred feet up. She offered directions to the stairs as I was drawn again to the construction walls in the center. I bent my neck up again gawking up into the dome a few hundred feet up. I waited for another sound as the building stood stubbornly not wanting to exert herself again after all she had endured. There was so much work to be done to restore it; and would take a lifetime to complete. Not noticing the tears streaking my face, I suddenly caught myself resolving myself to stay on this spot for the rest of my life to help restore it. I shook my head quickly and turned back to my comrades. ìThis way.î said Vic and I followed. I glanced back once more to ask the question I knew the church held the answer to only to be hurried away with no response. So I smothered myself in the cool beauty of itís construction and stamina. Swirls of color in the marble were cut and placed in mirrored sections along the walls like paneling in pinks, greens, brown and blue. A low archway led us to a poor cobblestone ramp within the south wing of the building. It wound up and looped back on itself, where we met a parade of visitors coming and going representing each continent. The hallway had no modern lighting but was lit well enough by careful windows tucked into corners and walls. It held a smell almost like animals, but not as fowl as the city streets and felt as old as stories in the bible. I blinked away glimpses of ancient bare feet and sandals with carts and canes for invalid worshipers hobbling up the difficult path to prey. Naturally, the next level was emptier and we were free to wander and gawk to our hearts í content. Vic and I stood for a moment and pointed out letters carved into each carved marble post, placing guesses on what each could represent. I stopped a minute. ìVic. Touch your forehead to this wall.î Reluctantly, he did and agreed that it was extremely cool. ìThis is the place to hang-out in Turkey.î I said. ìYeah, but there wonít be a total eclipse here.î he answered. ìTrue.î I conceded and traipsed along behind him and our friends. Bob and Wendy were well ahead of us but stopped to look at something and Vic and I shot ahead. I pointed out across the abyss of the center scaffolding and said ìLook, Frank Lloyd Wright meets Turkey.î Vic came over and smiled at the sight. Through the side, the complex metal bars did resemble the geometric patterns. He chuckled and shot another picture. I bumped into another hurdle when I encountered a doorway that needed acknowledgment. It was set into a wall of pure granite that stood eight inches thick. The frame of the opening was carved in meticulous detail in a six inch trim out of the brownish stone. I rubbed my fingers across the smooth and feely surface rimming the doorway. To the end of our course, we found several mosaics cut into the back wall of the Church with tiny tiles of color and mostly pure gold. Images of the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the baby Christ stretched in sparkling color in eight foot sections abreast the wall. I know that at some magical moment during the daytime, sunlight will come through a special window and strike these pieces and sparkle with an unearthly glow.
With nothing further to explore, we wandered reluctantly back the other way. Not to be disappointed, though, our path was equally interesting on the way out. I noticed a tiny window to the north that perfectly framed the Blue Mosque across the street. We crossed paths with Bob and Wendy, commenting about the devastation that an earthquake would cause if we were by chance caught inside. We'd be dead. No question. Said Bob in classic Bob styling, turning quickly the other way. We wandered slowly back to the stairway, soaking in every ounce of cool refreshment from the building. I stopped once more on the way out to see if the line to touch the rock was gone. You wanna? asked Vic. Absolutely! I blurted and stepped behind the couple in wait. It looked like the custom also included the trick of twisting your hand a complete 180 degree turn without removing your thumb from the center. I think it was just a ploy to take a longer turn touching the rock. I stepped up, bent my hand backwards and injected a thumb. I closed my eyes and stuck out my tongue to complete the circle while wishing vague thoughts for my family's health and happiness. Bob and Wendy were now in line behind us and asked how we liked the convenience of the ramp entrance to the upper area. That must have been the handicap Mosque access bill of six hundred and ten he laughed and stepped up for his turn on the rock.
~ ©1999 Jennifer Dudley Winter