Crossroads Tour – Sleepless in the Sultanahmet

It’s a sleepless night in the Sultanahmet. I have lost my camera charger and after tearing my room apart, I give up looking for it at 1 AM. Jackhammers have been pounding past midnight to demolish the building next door, and a steady stream of bricks are heaved into the dumpster below my window until about 2 AM. Morning call to prayer wakes me up at 4:30 AM. I’m so sleep deprived and exhausted that I’m barely functional. And now I cannot unlock my door to leave my room

I sit down with a pen and paper and use my Turkish phrase book to translate my question about my camera charger.  I collect everything I need for the day before I finally outsmart the lock on my door and head downstairs to breakfast.

The weather is overcast, much like my mood. I’m mentally fatigued from my ears being filled with languages I cannot interpret. I cannot get onto the WIFI for the Google maps I’m depending on. I should have bought a head scarf yesterday so I could visit the mosques today. Maybe Istanbul is too challenging for me. Maybe I should buy a plane ticket home, if I can ever get online.

It’s not even 9 AM.

I need to figure this out. I pick up my guidebook and plan my day. The Cistern is just down the street from Hotel Han, that’s easy. I decide to leave my camera at home to conserve the battery for the remainder of the week.

  • The Yerebatan Cistern was built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian. It contains 336 marble columns arranged in 10 rows, supporting brick archways which in turn support the ceiling. A network of aqueducts and cisterns were built in Constantinople to guarantee a water supply when the city was under siege. The Yerebatan Cistern is (as of this writing) the largest publicly accessible cistern in Istanbul.

Among the Corinthian and Ionic columns is a pair of Medusa heads which are thought to date back to the Roman era. My favorite version of the story is that they were placed here as a protective talisman for the building. One of the heads was placed upside down, the other placed on its side so that people could look upon them without being turned to stone. There are fish in the water.  It is very calm and cool here, and I start my book collection in the gift shop.

The Yerebatan Cistern, photo courtesy IstanbulClues.com

Further down the street is Sultanahmet Square, a lovely stretch of fountains and gardens that form a courtyard between the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and the Blue Mosque.  As I’m walking, an older Turkish gentleman matches my stride and strikes up a conversation.

The fountain between the Blue Mosque and the AyaSofia, a shot I took later in the week.

His English is very good. He tells me he’s a retired history teacher, and happy to see Americans here. I ask what is fee is, but he just wants to show me his family rug shop after he has shown me the cathedral, which I need to hurry to see since it closes today at noon for sabbath prayers. With some hesitation, I say OK.

He rushes me to the mosque and pushes me to the front of the line. We bag our shoes in the plastic bags we are handed at the door, and he proceeds to give me an informative tour of the Blue Mosque. 

  • The Blue Mosque was built by architect Mehmet Aga, a student of Mimar Sinan, over a span of eight years during the early 17th century. The building combines elements from both traditional Islamic and Byzantine architecture and is unusual for it’s six minarets.
The Blue Mosque. Photo credit: http://www.youramazingplaces.com

This is my first visit to a mosque and I am surprised at how light and airy the interior is — a radical departure from the dark churches in Florence.

My guide points out the stained glass windows, and points out the elephant’s feet columns which I would later learn are a predominant feature in many mosques, a weight bearing detail that allows for large expanses of space to be uninterrupted by columns. He points out the sultan’s gallery, and tells me that the ceilings are painted rather than tiled. It is pretty overwhelming, and just like I did in Venice, I start to cry.

We exit and I follow him to his family’s rug shop. Having been through this process yesterday, I think I’m better prepared for this visit. Unbelievably, we arrive at the carpet shop I was at yesterday! I refuse to go in.  “I bet you work for Mustafa, with whom I spoke yesterday.” And when he confirms it,  I say, “Thank you for the tour. And goodbye!”

I return to my hotel room for a rest. I crack open my laptop, and remember that it has a webcam. Oh yeah, a second camera… It’s harder to use but at least it’s something if I can’t find a new battery charger for my camera.  I lay on my bed, lining my head up with one of the motifs on the bedspread which circles my head like a halo. Oh look, I’m a Turkish Bodhisattva : )

I head downstairs for lunch, where I meet a new concierge, a younger man who asks me how things are going. I tell him it’s OK. Well, except for the construction… and the morning prayers… and I’m running on about two hours of sleep, and the missing camera charger. He seats me at a table and pours me a cup of coffee. He asks me what my program is for today, and starts suggesting sites I should see. I am so tired…

I drink my coffee, and he pours me another cup. He asks for my netbook and fixes my WIFI connection. He offers to make reservations at a Turkish bath or perhaps a cruise to the Black Sea. He replaces my map with one from his drawer. Then, he sits down with me and starts circling sites on it, “my program for the day.” His name is Baha, the hotel manager. He will take me to the camera store after I finish my coffee.

Baha walks with me for several blocks to a camera store that I would have never found on my own. At the camera shop, he handles the transaction. There’s some banter about the price, and the charger has to come from a different store. Baha introduces me to the shopkeeper as an American guest. Another man there identifies himself as Iranian and reaches out to shake my hand. A salesmen pulls out a stool for me to sit on. Thinking that Baha’s work is done here, I expect him to leave, but he doesn’t. And so we wait.

My attitude is starting to readjust. The charger finally arrives and we leave the store. I ask Baha about the Topkapi Palace and he takes me there. We walk past what I think is the palace, but which is actually the park surrounding it. Baha points and says ” Must see it. It is huge, like city.” He drops me off and takes my charger back to my room.  I am grateful for his ‘going that extra mile.” It’s not a level of service I have encountered anywhere else thus far.

  • This is an excerpt from my original travel journal. The full text for this day, which includes historical notes and traveler tips, is available for your literary pleasure at AugustPhoenixHats.com.

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