18 October 2009

Back To My Story

After the distraction of senators behaving badly, I am now returning to my intrepid travels to Istanbul.

Arriving late in the day after a long flight is actually smart. While I got some rest on the flight, it was not more than 2 hours overall, and so when I went to bed five four hours later (around 230 pm back home) I fell asleep readily and slept rather well.

The hotel had a nice breakfast included, spread out on a rooftop lounge that was where guests met.

But once dressed and fed I set out to cover the usual tourist haunts, the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya, among others. But as the whole city was new, I was instantly distracted by a cemetery.

I love cemeteries, as they are generally quiet, rarely busy, and open a different door into a new culture. This cemetery, marked with shadows, grew up around a late Ottoman sultan's tomb. The sultans often built themselves lavish octagonal mausoleums in which they placed their coffins and those of their family. I visited several over the week. Of course, people wanted to repose in good company much as they wish to live in good company, so public officials (pashas) and men of means sought to be buried nearby. This one is halfway between my hotel near the University and the ancient square that stands between the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque.

While people do visit cemeteries, and this one had a notable cafe attached, the current denizens are cats. Cats fill the corners of Istanbul. They are the favored domestic animal, at least the one not eaten. For some reason dogs are unpopular in Islamic countries. There is no rule against them, but there is a broad cultural distaste that means I saw very few canines and abundant felines. I should add that urban cats are common in Rome as well. Time and again Istanbul reminded me of Rome. Cats among the ruins was just the first indicator. The second was how ancient ruins are everywhere, a stray column, a crumbling wall, and yet the modern city simply wraps around them. Unlike the US where the old is scraped completely away, modern lives next door to ancient in a way I find consoling and appealing. Only Boston has a vestige of this in the United States. Quebec City has its old town, which evokes Old World life, but everywhere I have been in Europe the ancient is never far away. It may not be in good shape, but it is there and visible and usually preserved.

This fellow here is one of the half dozen rug merchants who approached me whenever I got close to the tourist sites. They are all well versed in English and so eager to sell that they volunteer as tour guides to get your ear. This fellow found me in the old square (you can see the Ayasofya behind him) and counseled me to go to the Blue Mosque first, as tour groups mob the Ayasofya in the morning. He insisted on walking me there, striking up conversation and trying to get me to look at his wares. I was warned of their persistence and that it was perfectly acceptable to decline often and firmly.

Crossing through the park that was once part of the Palace of the Byzantine Emperors, I turned around to get this photo. Classic, predictable, even hokey, the sight was still impressive. To know that this was both the largest church and the largest building in Europe until Michelangelo's St. Peter's of the 16th century, to know that it was 1000 years old then and is almost 1500 years old now, and that it was built when Rome itself was tumbling into a ruin that would reach a nadir of 40,000 inhabitants (less than one tenth its size in the first century) is to have your perspective on history and time and culture jolted to one side. Byzantium was Rome, New Rome officially, Constantinople by common parlance, Constantine's City, and so central to the world that people simply called it "The City," which in Greek is "sten polin," the origin of the word Istanbul.

BTW, you can click on any of these photos and see them in their larger original format. My skills are minimal, but it is a decent camera.
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