Sunday, 30 October 2016

From Venice to Istanbul and Back

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - where Christianity & Islam converge
(Venice, Italy) A couple of weeks ago, I spontaneously decided that I had to take a plane trip outside of Italy. I had not been out of the country for ten years, and wanted to see if I had regained my right to freedom of movement -- a topic that needs a book, not a blog post to examine. Simply, I wanted to go out of Europe, get my passport stamped, get a breath of fresh air, and come back home.

After checking a bunch of cities and airfares, I decided to go to either New York or Istanbul, leaving on Thursday and returning on Sunday; the decision rested on whether an old friend was free to meet me in New York. He was not, so off to Istanbul I went, despite some well-meaning friends who said that I was crazy -- Ataturk Airport was the target of a terrorist attack on June 28 that killed 45 people and wounded more than 230 others, and Turkey is under a state of emergency due to the attempted coup on July 15, 2016.

Istanbul in the evening
I am happy to report that the trip could not have been smoother. I slid through all the checkpoints at Marco Polo Airport, and boarded a direct Turkish Airlines flight (did you know they have been chosen by Skytrax as the "Best Airline in Europe" for six consecutive years?) that zoomed me to Istanbul in 2 1/2 hours, including a nice meal and large selection of movies. I picked The Big Short, which I had never heard of before, which shows how out of the loop I am considering that it was nominated for five Academy Awards and is about the housing bubble and financial crisis.

Mother Goddess in Istanbul Archaeology Museum
I also chose Istanbul because it was familiar. I had been to Turkey twice before, fascinated by the ancient symbol of the female divinity, Cybele, a Mother Goddess that stretches back about 12,000 years -- a lot of that research ended up in my second novel, Harley's Ninth. Plus, Venice and Istanbul aka Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman Empire, have a long, complex history. And, it was inexpensive. (CAT TRAVEL TIP: try to travel during wars and coups because the prices go way down.)

View from Rooftop Terrace of Levni Hotel, Istanbul
I picked a boutique hotel right in the center, the Levni Hotel & Spa, that had a roof terrace with spectacular views, a warm and welcoming staff, and a terrific Turkish breakfast buffet with exotic offerings and honey dripping from the comb. The location could not have been better -- it was within walking distance to most of the major sights, and steps away from the new Marmaray metro system that zooms you underneath the Bosphorus strait in four minutes, connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

Grand Bazaar
It had been about 15 years or so since I was last in Istanbul, but I felt immediately at ease. The first afternoon I walked around, inhaling the exotic scents in the air, listening to the Islamic call to prayer resounding from the minarets on the mosques, and chatting with the shopkeepers. Everyone was friendly and eager to express how they felt about the political situation, which I knew very little about. Even if they didn't agree with their president, Receo Tayyip Erdogan, who used to be the Mayor of Istanbul, they said they took to the streets to protest the coup because they loved their country, and didn't want to lose it to a foreign power.

Basilica of San Marco in Venice
Although Italy is Catholic Church Headquarters with the Pope down in Rome, and church bells ringing constantly throughout the day, it is a secular republic. The Republic of Venice herself was more influenced by Constantinople than by Rome, which is why the architecture here has an Eastern flavor.

And although the majority of people who live in Turkey are Sunni Muslims, and there are calls to prayer wailing from the mosques throughout the day, it, too is a secular republic. The first President of the Turkish Republic, Musttafa Kemal Ataturk, abolished the Ottoman Caliph, who was also the Sultan, the supreme religious and political leader, on March 3, 1924, and the last caliph went into exile. It would be sort of like abolishing the Queen of England, who is also the Head of the Church of England (Americans don't have this system:-) 

INTERESTING ASIDE: If the Imperial House of Osman were still in existence, the current Caliph would be Bayezid Osman, who is now 92-years-old, lives in the States and used to work in the New York Public Library.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque aka the Blue Mosque
Later the first day, when I finally made it to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which Westerners call the Blue Mosque, it was closed except for prayer, so I said I wanted to pray, which was true -- even though I was obviously not a Muslim -- and they let me in. You must take your shoes off and put a scarf over your head. The interior was radiant, with hand-painted blue tiles covering the walls.

Inside the Blue Mosque - Photo by Cat Bauer
Inside the Blue Mosque - Photo: Cat Bauer
Sultan Ahmed I ascended to the throne in 1603 when he was only 14-years-old. When he was 19, he commissioned the architect Sedefkar Mehmet Aga to build the mosque based on the design of the Byzantine Christian church Hagia Sophia, located a few minutes away. The mosque was constructed in about seven and a half years, from 1609-1617; Sultan Ahmed was so dedicated to his project that he personally worked as a laborer.

Hagia Sophia
The next day, I went to the Hagia Sophia, which means "Holy Wisdom." The Hagia Sophia was constructed as a Greek Orthodox Christian church under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537, which I find astounding. How did they built such a masterpiece in four and a half years?!

Constantine the Great mosaic in Hagia Sophia c. 1000
HISTORY REFRESHER: Roman Emperor Constantine I reunited the Empire under one emperor in 324, and was the first Roman emperor to legalize Christianity, eventually becoming a Christian himself. He did not consider Old Rome for his capital because of its declining infrastructure and dusty old monuments like the Colosseum and Circus Maximus. 

Constantine decided to found New Rome, or Constantinople, on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which was strategically located on the European side of the Strait of Bosporus, and closer to the geographic center of the Empire (can you image how humongous the Roman Empire was?). 

So, unlike pagan Rome, Constantinople was inspired by the Christian God aka Jesus Christ, although Constantine constructed plenty of temples to pagan deities. He died in 337 CE. In 391, Emperor Theodosius the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
According to legend, Venice was founded at noon on March 25, 421. Before that, it was a bunch of islands in a lagoon, inhabited only by fishermen. Venice became a Byzantine territory, and then grew into a Republic.
The Western Roman Empire ended in 476.
The Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453.

Jesus on the throne with 
Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos & Empress Zoe donating money
11th Century Mosaic in Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia remained Orthodox until 1204 when Constantinople was conquered by the Fourth Crusaders, led by the wily Venetian, the blind, 90-year-old Doge Enrico Dandolo -- who died in Constantinople and was buried in the church. It was then converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral, which it remained until 1261 when the Byzantines reconquered Constantinople, and put it back the way they wanted it -- Greek Orthodox.

Marker of the tomb of Enrico Dandolo
When Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, he ordered that Hagia Sophia be turned into a mosque (and destroyed Enrico Dandolo's tomb). Then, the mosque morphed into a museum in 1935 under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led the Turkish War of Independence and transformed Turkey into a modern republic, becoming its first President.

It's an architectural miracle that Hagia Sophia is even standing after nearly 1500 years, let alone after going through all that chaos!

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Another reason I went to Istanbul was that I really wanted to experience the hamam, or Turkish Bath again, an experience that had a profound affect on me so many years ago. I stumbled on the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, which was built by the architect Sinan in 1584, and established by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Sultan Selim II and mother of Sultan Murat III.  

By researching this post, I have just discovered that there are several theories as to who Nurbanu Sultan was, and one of them is that she was Venetian! She was prominent under the era known as the Sultanate of Women, when women of nobility exerted strong political power in the Ottoman Empire. The most powerful women were the Sultan's mother, whose title was Valide Sultan, and his wife, whose title was Haseki Sultan. As a wife and a mother to two sultans, Nurbanu was both Haseki and Valide Sultan, a strong diplomatic force, communicating with the likes of Catherine de Medici, and maintaining relationships with European countries. 

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Back to the beautiful energy of the hamam. Men and women are divided into separate baths, which is a good thing because there is something truly divine about the female Turkish energy. They are strong, motherly and kind, with an impish sense of humor. First I was led upstairs to the dressing rooms, where I took off my clothes, put on a pair of black panties, wrapped a towel around me, and stepped into a pair of rubber slippers. 

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Then I was led into the hot room, and directed to lie upon the impressive marble slab among mostly Turkish women, who were in various stages of being scrubbed and washed. Naked except for the panties, I gazed up at the sunlight streaming through the circles in the dome and relaxed, listening to the chattering of the Turkish women. 

After about ten minutes, a lovely woman whose name sounded something like Susan used a loofa mitt to scrub the dead skin off my body. Susan did not speak much English, but she did manage to tell me that she was the mother of three using hand language. 

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Next, a bucket of bubbles was poured over me, which made me feel like a child being pampered by a loving mother. Susan washed and massaged my body, then led me over to a marble basin, where she washed my hair.

After that, I was led upstairs for an oil massage. Waiting for me was Halime with a grin on her face, eyes full of joy, who greeted me as if nothing could delight her more than to give me a massage. Halime had the perfect touch, and hit all the right spots, humming a Turkish tune the entire time. She struck a deep chord within me, sharing such beautiful feminine energy that it made me teary-eyed. It was the Mother Goddess come to life. In fact, the experience was so enchanting that I went back the next day and did it all again.
Inside the Harem

There were so many other rich experiences, too many for this post. The Sultan's Palace and its Harem, the Archaeology Museums, more mosques, the spicy food, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the Bosphorus, the streets filled with tame cats -- and tame dogs -- the Turkish coffee, the Turkish tea, the Turkish Delight, the silks, the gold, the mosaics. 

Istanbul was the perfect place to dash off to, that ancient city that spans both Europe and Asia, exotic and quixotic, crammed with the history of humanity. None of the internal turmoil within Turkey touched me at all; I was obviously American, and was welcome everywhere I went.

Turkish cats watching a big cat sneak up on a kitten in a tree
On the way back to the airport, I decided to try the new rail system, the Marmaray, which was about 30 seconds outside the hotel. I had to make one switch, and ended up chatting all the way to the airport with a Turk named Ali who lived in London. I remarked how friendly everybody was, and he said, "It is because you are a guest, and it is part of our culture to be good hosts to our guests."

When we arrived at the airport, we stopped outside for a smoke. A stranger came over and asked if we needed a light. "You see?" Ali said. "He doesn't know you or me. He only saw us searching for a lighter."

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Another reason I went to Istanbul was that I really wanted to experience the hamam, or Turkish Bath again, an experience that had a profound affect on me so many years ago. I stumbled on the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, which was built by the architect Sinan in 1584, and established by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Sultan Selim II and mother of Sultan Murat III.