Monday, 29 December 2008

Back to Istanbul...

So, my next stop after the Cisterns was Hagia Sophia. This was built in 537 and was, for the first 900 years of it's exitance a Christian Church - indeed, as Constantinople was the centre of the Byzantine Empire it was considered one of the most important and holiest places in Christendom, and until St Peter's was built in Rome in (I think) the 15th Century, it's dome was the largest in the world.

It has some wonderful mosaics, and the whole thng is staggering in size. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the church became a mosque, so many of the mosiacs were painted over (which, fortuitously, protected them) and others, most particularly the angels below the dome, were defaced, with their faces being removed.

After Ataturk established modern Turkey in 1923 the Mosque was deconsecrated and is now open as a museum - it is still under repair, and I have to admit that I found the size of the scaffolding almost as impressive as the size of the building itself. I also found it astonsihing to think of the age of it, and the skills of the architects, masons and artist who created it, back in the 6th century, almost 1000 years before most of the great cathedrals in europe were built.

As with most of the buildings and public spaces in Istanbul, it has it's own cats...

After the first evening's explore, I got up early in order to visit the Blue Mosque - (which is more properly the Sultanhamet Camii.)

Everyone seems to recommend going early, partly as it is less busy, and also (as far as I could see) there are fewer people there to pray, so you do not feel so much that you are disturbing anyone. There are signs requesting visitors to dress suitably, to remove shoes and for women to cover their heads, and also asking people not to disturb or take photgraphs of those who are at prayer. Not, you would think, unresonable requests. From a religious point of view I find it hard to belive in any god, and still harder to belive S/He would care how I dress or whether or not I have my head covered, but it seems to me that if I am visiting, somewhere which is considered sacred, and I am doing it not out of any religious belief but becasue it is beautiful and I want to gawp at it, then it is only polite to keep to the rules.

Judging by some of the other tourists, this wasn't eveyone's view. It did make me cringe a little, to see how rude and disrespectful some of the tourists were, particulalry as the Turkish and other Muslim visitors remained so polite to them!

The mosque itself is simply stunning. The outside is impressive in size, but comparatively plain, and, becasue of the domes, appears comparatively squat if what you are used to are Norman and Gothic cathedrals. But inside... It's simply breathtaking. As the name implies, a lot of the interior is blue, particulalry the tops of the walls, which are tiled, but a lot of the decor is red, too. It's just so delicate and intricate.


Saturday, 27 December 2008

Christmas Cheer

Interrupting the sagas of Turkey to talk about the saga of tukey instead! Firstly, Happy Merry to everyone.

Tybalt and I are spending the holiday with my parents - it's thier first christmas in their new house, and the first time Tybalt has been there, so the first few hours were spent exploring, after which he decided where the best vantage point was...

My younger sister, and my brother are both here too - and elder sister (with partner) will arrive for New Year.

We had a fairly quiet christmas day - gifts with champagne, giant dead turkey, more gifts, vast amounts of choclolate, phne calls to all cousins, aunts and uncles, the Dr Who Christmas special and failed attempts to answer the questions in the King William's College Quiz

Boxing Day, we had a lazy moring (To recover from all that exhausting eating and present opening) then went for a walk at the seaside, which was lovely - bright sunshine, and enough wind to fly a kite (How fortunate that someone had had the forethought to find a tiny, pocket-sized Kite for my papa's christmas stocking...

And discovered my inner long-jumper

Then back home for more relaxation...

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

In which I get lost in Istanbul for the very first time

As it was necessary to connect via Istanbul to fly from the UK to Dalaman (my sister's local airport) I decided that, rather than just spending a few hours in an airport, I would break the journey on my way home for a whistle-stop tour of Istanbul. I was due to arrive in Istanbul around Friday lunch time, and leave again on Monday so it was always going to be a quick whip around the highlights rather than an immersion into the life of the city, but I took the view that that was a good way to start- maybe I shall have the opportunity to come back again, for a longer visit, one day.

As with the holiday itself, the trip started with a few hiccoughs but it improved…

It began with my having to get up at 6 a.m. – not a major problem in ‘work mode’, but a bit of a shock to the system after a week of being on holiday. K&C nobley got up in sympathy in order to see me off, and their neighbour drove me to the airport. The drive was nice – the trip to the airport involved some roads with spectacular views from the mountainside down to the sea, and doing it as the sun came up was lovely. The airport was fine, too. There was only one flight leaving that morning, so I had no worries about finding the correct gate, and although all refreshments in the airport were grossly overpriced, even by airport standards, that didn’t matter as I didn’t require any.

The flight was packed, and although I did end up seated just in front of a small & frustrated child who spent the entire flight expressing its feelings by whining and kicking my seatback, the flight is only an hour.

The difficulty arose when I arrived at the airport to find no sign of the car from the hotel which was supposed to be meting me. I’m not sure that there is anything more dispiriting. I was loath to try to get a taxi instead, as one hears horror stories about horrendous overcharging, and I started to fret that if they had not sent the car, they had, perhaps forgotten me altogether and there would be no hotel room either – none of which would have been insurmountable, but not what one looks for when arriving, alone, in a foreign city. 1 hour and several phone calls later a car did turn up (Apparently the booking for the car had been overlooked, and then it was further delayed because it went to the international terminal instead of the domestic one . Kudos to the very nice lady at the airport information desk, who was very helpful explaining on my behalf to the hotel where I was, after their English and my 3 words of Turkish failed to bridge the communications gap!)

It was a relief to get to the hotel and to discover that it did, as promised, have a view of the Sultanhamet Camii (Blue Mosque) from the bedroom window, and that I was booked in (although as early December is low season, I’m sure I would have had no trouble even if my booking had been lost)

Pausing only to dump my suitcase and unearth a guidebook I set out to explore Istanbul.

It may be worth mentioning at this point that I have no sense of direction whatsoever. In fact, I have, if possible, a negative sense of direction, which allows me to get lost even in places I have been to before, and to have a certain amount of trouble simply retracing my steps to return to my starting point. The last few times I have been on holiday I have been with a friend who has a much better sense of direction than I do. (Not difficult. It would be quite an achievement to have a worse one) So I did set off with the very real sense of adventure that you get setting out into uncharted territory with no real certainty of ever finding your way back again. I had hoped that the Blue Mosque would prove a useful navigational aid, by sticking up and being obvious and easy to see from all around, but unfortunately it doesn’t and isn’t.

One of the advantages of having no sense of direction is that you quickly become inured to the feeling of being lost, or at least mildly misplaced. And then it (Mostly) stops being scary, and end up finding your way around, albeit usually but very circuitous routes and with a tendency to end up in the same place more than once.

And sometimes, via interesting places. . .

So, having wandered past the Hagia Sophia (of which more later) and the Blue Mosque (also, more later)

I went to the Yerebatan Saranici (Basilica Cisterns). These were built in the 5th Century by the Byzantines, who wanted a secure supply of fresh water. Now, the cistern is kept almost empty so that people can go in to see it. . . The Byzantines were very good at recycling – most of the pillars were re-used, including the famous Medusa head- there are, it appears, 2 schools of thought about this – one is that the head was put in upside down so that Medusa could no longer turn people to stone. The other is that the pillar just fitted better that way. . .

I like the first suggestion better.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Pamukkale, winter catches up with us

Having spent most of the day at Aphrodsias our next stop was Pamukkale, which is the site of an extraordinary natural phenomenon, albeit one with added classical ruins. You will have to bear with me because my knowledge of geology is limited in the extreme, but what I do know is that there are hot springs, and the water / soil it flows through is rich in calcium, with the result that the springs deposit travertine (which seems to be a kind of chalk) on its way out. The result is a series of pools and odd formations, a little like land-locked clouds, covering the whole of one side of a hill above the town of Pamukkale. As I am coming to expect in Turkey, the Romans got here first, (In about 200 A.D) and built a spa town called Hieropolis at the top of the hill, where the springs are. There is also a cave which vents deadly poisonous gas, apparently, but these days you are no longer permitted to throw members of your party into it see whether the gods are feeling kindly disposed toward you….
They believed that only the eunuchs who served in the temple there were immune.

Until recently, visitors used to be allowed to bathe in the pools of travertine, but due to concerns about ecological damage this is no longer allowed, and you are also required to take off your shoes if you want to walk down the hill on the travertine.Having arrived at about 3.30, we started from the bottom and walked up: Bizarrely, there was no-one at the bottom to say we were supposed to have taken our shoes off, so we didn't. (But we were all wearing fairly soft soled shoes, so I don't think we would have done any more damage than in bare feet)It was getting dark by the time we got to the top, so after a quick look around and taking some atmospheric sunset pictures, we walked back down again - this time we did take our shoes off, which meant very chilly feet, as it was fairly cold to start with, due to the height and the time of year, and when you add to that the sun having gone down .

However, I'm sure that the chalk/travertine exfoliating pedicure will catch on soon, and the advantage to being cold is that once your feet start to go numb you don't notice the occasional pebble underfoot so much!It really is an extraordinary phenomenon.(It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) Pamukkale translates as ‘Cotton Castle’ and that’s a pretty good description of the way it looks from below. From further away, it is less impressive as it looks rather light an oversized quarry, until you get close enough to see the formations.

Having worked up healthy appetites with our brisk walk up and down the travertine, we headed back to our hotel (Nice, although not as quirky as the last one) – happily, K&C had had the foresight to prepare and bring some pre-mixed gin & tonic to sustain is as we changed and waited for supper. . .

We had not had time to look around Hieropolis, or to see or visit the antique pool, which is the one place you can now swim in the spa waters. We spent a lot of time during the evening debating whether to go back in the morning (influenced in part by the fact that this would mean paying the entrance fee a 2nd time, (20ytl (about £9 / $13) each, plus the same again for the pool itself)
However, we decided that it would be fun to do. Actually, to be completely honest, I decided that I would like to do it, and the other 2 agreed. Overnight, they changed from considering coming to watch, and mock, and take pictures, to deciding to come swimming too, and afterwards admitted that they were glad I had, as they were pleased to have done it, afterwards…

We were a little disconcerted when we came out of the hotel after breakfast to find ice on the car windscreen – considering that only a little over 48 hours earlier we had been sitting on the sea front in t-shirts drinking chilled beer. . . and of course more of a shock to K&C’s systems than to mine, as I was only enjoying a frost-free respite, whereas they have been in Turkey since September, and so it was their first frost of the winter. After a short detour to an ATM (as we discovered that the hotel didn’t take cards, and we had no cash – they must have decided that we did have honest faces, though, as they had no problem with all three of us plus our baggage disappearing to find an ATM, despite their knowing nothing of us but an e-mail address…) we went to the ‘top’ entrance to Hieropolis, where you can get in without having to walk all the way up the travetines again, and went in to the antique pool. The pool is an open air one and it on the site of the old Roman healing pools (The springs were, it would appear, believed to cure just about anything, and are still trumpeted as being good for you, a claim which is, to my mind, only slightly called into question by being displayed immediately under a big sign warning that youshouldn’t go in the pools if you have high blood pressure, heart problems, and a whole list of other symptoms. . .)
It still contains large chunks of the original masonry, so you can recline on original marble pillars while you bathe, if the fancy takes you.

As it was very cold, and the changing areas completely unheated, we changed extremely fast. I had discovered when backing for the road trip that I had only packed my skimpy ‘wearing into the Hamman’ bikini, not my swimming costume, and was regretting the loss of the few inches of extra coverage that this would have given, and the potentially lower heat loss as a result.

Then we got into the pool.

Where the water temp. is around 36-38 degrees centigrade (about 96-100 Fahrenheit). And it was wonderful.

As well as being hot, and full of (possibly healing) minerals, the water is absolutely crystal clear. For most of our swim, we had the pool to ourselves (there was one man, who I think may have been an employee, who was in the pool when we got in and for the first 15 minutes or so) It really was amazing.

When we got out, the chill was very noticeable, and we may have broken some world speed records for getting dry and changed. I have to say, though, that once out an dry it felt great – I’ve never had a proper Scandinavian, rolling in the snow sauna, but I suspect that may feel quite similar, and for much the same reasons!
We didn’t have time to visit the whole site at Hieropolis so contented ourselves with walking back down to the car-park, through the Necropolis – it would appear that the healing waters were not successful for every visitor, and so a lot of them ended up being buried here. For reasons of hygiene, no burials were allowed in the city of Hieropolis, so they are all in the Necropolis, and some have been engulfed by the travertine.


But interesting.

Saturday, 20 December 2008


From Selcuk we went to Aphrodisias – about 175 Kilometres from Ephesus. It’s a lot further inland and much higher up, (about 1,900 feet above sea level) which meant it was much colder, although most of the day was bright and sunny we definitely needed coats!
The city is on plateau in the hills so there are stunning views in all directions, and it was almost deserted.

If Ephesus is impressive, Aphrodisias is utterly mind-blowing. It covers an even larger area (and there are huge areas which haven’t yet been excavated.
Historically, it was named for Aphrodite and as it was sited near several marble quarries it became famous for sculpture. The temple of Aphrodite was turned into a Christian church in the 5th century, by moving walls and pillars to almost turn it inside out.

The gates / portico from one end is still standing, together with quite a few pillars – it must have been an immense building. They know, from inscriptions, that the temple, and the theatre, were paid for by a leading citizen named Zoilos, who is believed to have been a freed slave – possibly a slave to the Emperor.

Most of the ruins date back to the 1st & 2nd Centuries AD, and most are still in situ although some of the carvings have been moved into the museum or to Istanbul.

These are the original masks from a frieze above the stage in the theatre, which have been moved under cover

There is a stadium, which could seat around 30,000 and is one of the largest and best preserved in the world –

It still has the original entrances through which the participants would enter – one of these has been excavated so you can see the original ground level, several feet below the current level.

The whole structure is huge, and so well preserved you can still see the carvings on some of the seats saying who they were reserved for, and the places where ropes were fixed (for awnings?)

There are the remains of the agora (market places) and Baths, and houses.

And there was another Amphitheatre – even better preserved than the one at Ephesus. As it was almost deserted I gave in to my inner drama queen and took the opportunity to give it my best Shakespearean soliloquy (To be or not to be, since you ask. It’s the only one I know well enough to do without prompting)
I doubt that it would score highly in terms of acting ability but it’s an amazing feeling, and the acoustics, even without the rear wall, are amazing!

It's too small and far away to see properly, but that is me on stage (wearing my ‘Graveyard Book’ Neverwear shirt!)

There were pomegranate trees among the ruins – they had shed all their leaves, but the fruit were still on the trees, burst open like flowers.

And there were, of course, more archaeological cats.

We also went into the museum, where some of the more delicate statues and carvings have been moved, including most of the originals from the Sebasteion (Temple of Deified Emperors) which included one of Claudius (who I always think of as Derek Jacobi) conquering Britain.
On a few of them you could see traces of colour, where the stautes were originally painted (very garishly, if the research is to be believe

Apparently, builders in the 1st century were no more reliable than they are today – there is archaeological evidence that some of the statues were put up in the wrong place, so they have the wrong ‘captions’!

This entire place is stunning - I found it more so than even Rome or Athens - perhaps because it is less familiar. The really amazing part is how little of the site this represents. There were various ditches and other holes in the ground which (to the untrained eye) seemed to be natural rather than man made; you'd just look down and see half a classical pillar sticking out - there were also a group of 6 or 7 pillars standing amidst a clump of trees and brambles, which didn't seem to be important enough to be fenced off or labelled...

This (below) is the Sebasteion - the reliefs on the building to the left are copies (the originals are in the museaum, but the rest of the building is original. And roughly 2000 years old.