Sunday, April 1, 2007

Turkish Delight

Istanbul is hard to sum up in words. It acts one way and then, without warning, surprises you with hidden delights. The tiny alleyways with children playing soccer, the cluttered houses and gleaming boutiques, the bars, cafes and restaurants tucked into side streets and lining broad avenues - you could wander this city for a year and see a new mosque and eat in a new place each day.

Yesterday, we saw both the Blue Mosque and the Haga Sofia, and the contrast could not be more apparent - as was intended. It was a grey, rainy day, and the Sofia was a cold, almost brutal marble structure with a soaring dome - unfortunately somewhat obscured by scaffolding. There are massive pillars and the remnants of old, gilt Byzantine mosaics. Even the remains of the Islamicization that took place after the conquest are massive wooden wheels with the names of Allah, the Prophet, and the first four Caliphs.

By contrast, the Blue Mosque is an almost weightless structure of thin, gold-topped minarets with an airy, lofty interior. Carpeting and careful lighting make it seem far more delicate and open, and from the exterior it appears to be made of porcelain or glass next to the heavy brick and stone of its Christian counterpart.

Today, on the other hand, was sunny and gorgeous. We wandered the streets of Sultanahmet, visiting a number of other major and minor mosques. Ottoman architecture is very regular and elegant on the outside, so we began to get a sense of deja vu as we approached each, but the interiors differed wildly. The lovely weather meant we had some great views of Istanbul.

The greatest sight I have seen was last night as I walked back to the hotel by the Blue Mosque. Fireworks went off over the Golden Horn, glittering in the rainy night sky. They startled the flocks of seagulls that nest around the Mosque, which took off simultaneously, and were lit up by the Mosque's floodlights so that it looked like hundreds of golden arrows soaring over the spires.

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