I don’t know whether Mum expected to have the day off for her birthday; if so, she was grievously mistaken. We’d bought the 72hour Museum Card and we were going to use it!
Our first stop for the day was Chora Church and I wasn’t going to get ripped off by taxi drivers trying to get there. I’d been there before and so knew that we could take the tram to Eminonu and a bus from there. We walked under the bridge to the little bus hub there and Mum was amazed at how many buses there were, thinking that this must be the main bus station. She hadn’t seen the main bus station, obviously, something that would have to be corrected!
We got on a bus and I asked the driver to let us off at Kariye Muzesi, the name in Turkish for Chora Church. There was an American guy on the bus who I assumed was going to the same place – why else would you be taking a bus into the middle of the suburbs away from all the sights – and so when we got to the stop we let him know to get off. It’s only a few minutes walk to the church, which from the outside doesn’t look overly impressive. It’s a mid-sized Byzantine structure, and the church as it stands today was built in the 11th century CE. Like many Byzantine churches, during the Ottoman period it was converted to a mosque and the mosaics and frescoes plastered over. Chora isn’t the place to come if you’re looking for grand architecture – that’s why you visit Aya Sofia – but if you’re looking for magnificent mosaics it’s an absolute must-see. The frescoes and mosaics are in remarkable condition and are truly exquisite. Some depict scenes from the Old Testament, while others show the usual scenes of the Last Supper, the Judgement, the Raising of Lazarus and so on. The mosaics also depict the lives of Jesus and Mary, and images include a deisis, Mary with the baby Jesus and the Assumption [Dormition] of the Virgin Mary. It’s well worth visiting and makes the mosaics in Aya Sofya look childish.
Here’s a bunch of photos. Even on my second visit I went a little photo crazy and found the church as beautiful and exquisite as my first time.
We took the bus back to Eminonu and met an old Turkish man on the bus who spoke almost no English but wanted to talk to us anyway. We stumbled through the basics of where we’re from and so forth before a young girl on the bus started translating for us. He got off the bus a bit before we did though – probably a good thing as he was very taken with me and particularly my red hair.
We reached Yeni Camii, the New Mosque – so called as it’s only about four hundred years old – at prayer time and decided to revisit later. Instead, Mum decided to feed the poor, starving pigeons that hang around the steps by all the old women selling seed.
We visited the Spice Bazaar, and that took a bit longer than expected. We managed to dodge most of the shops…until we came upon one that was handing out samples of various lokum or Turkish Delight. Seriously, is a person expected to turn down free sweets? Of course, once we’d bought a giant bag of mixed lokum made with hazelnuts or walnuts or pistachios with rose or pomegranate or orange, the free tastings became a little more costly. I got my first card with a phone number for the day there. We struggled to pass any shops after that. Everyone had something to try, or some tea we had to smell, or something else that required audience participation.
We were, of course, bailed up by a number of shop assistants offering dried teas, spices, sweets, perfumes, scarves, Turkish Viagra…just about anything you could want and plenty more that you didn’t. Mum took advantage of everyone telling her to treat their shop like her home and took millions of pictures…I took a few myself so I probably shouldn’t judge. I had many offers of Turkish lessons from young guys and apparently broke about fifteen hearts – although having half a brain I recognise this for what it is. Still, we had a good time and came out with bags full of lokum, nougat, dried fruits, pistachios and other sweets while dispensing insh’allah’s and vague promises to return before leaving Turkey.
We wandered through the local market behind the Spice Bazaar, full of things that tourists don’t want like ropes and household goods and awful jewelery, before heading through the streets up to Suleymaniye Mosque. I was really hoping it would be open, as when I was last in Turkey it was closed for renovations and I’d got in trouble with one of the guards when I tried to slip through the fence set up. I was not to be disappointed. It was open, and it was magnificent. I actually found it much more beautiful than the Blue Mosque, as blasphemous as that may sound.
Scarves tied around our heads we entered, one more to be surprised by the fact that more than half of the foreign women had not covered their hair; one was even wearing a miniskirt. I was pissed off at this as there was a sign at the visitor’s entrance that very clearly stated that women must cover their hair, and that arms and legs must be covered. Apparently people can’t read [there were signs in a few languages], or more likely choose to ignore a sign that they feel unfairly inconveniences them for a few minutes – despite the scarves and wraparound skirts that could be freely borrowed at the entrance.
Inside the mosque, as in all that tourists visit, there is a barricaded area for tourist so as not to interfere with people praying. These have big signs on them saying that visitors may not proceed beyond that point – just in case the fact that the barriers are there, without a gap, is not enough. Nonetheless we saw a woman – inappropriately dressed of course – climb over the barrier and walk around in the prayer area. Not only did she ignore both the sign requesting proper dress and the sign restricting access, but she entered what is meant to be a men-only area; women have separate areas in which to pray at the back of the mosque. My greatest disappointment that day was that the security guards in there did not pick her up and throw her out. The naive tourist card can only be played so far. I guess I believe that rules apply to everyone equally and get annoyed when something thinks that they transcend rules…and courtesy.
The interior of the mosque was very light in comparison to the Blue Mosque, and the tiling was more subtle. The design of the lighting was similar in that it had the low hanging brass chandeliers, but the mosque seemed far more open and airy than the Blue Mosque, which felt much heavier. I loved the stripes painted around each archway and the gold detail painted in the domes. This was my favourite of the mosques in Istanbul.
We left the Suleymaniye Mosque and found some stray cats on our way to the Grand Bazaar. Finding stray cats is not much of a challenge in Istanbul. I should admit that I don’t really like the Grand Bazaar It’s not as interesting as the Spice Bazaar and it most definitely doesn’t smell as good! It’s big, sure, but you need to have a lot of energy to go there. To be fair, the level of hassle was not as great as during my last visit, and was nothing compared to Morocco. It seemed to me like most of the young guys working there have been replaced with older men, and I have to say that I appreciated the lack of ‘Hello Sweetheart’ and ‘Hello my Baby/Lover/Beautiful/Gorgeous/Future Wife’ bullshit compared with 2010. I was not, this time, forced to give anyone a 45 minute lecture on how to talk to women and stop them from selling anything in that time. Which was a good thing, as I really wasn’t in the mood. There was lots of junk, as usual, from fake designer handbags and jeans to leather jackets to tourist crap to tasteless souvenir tshirts to overpriced carpets and pretty much anything else that you can imagine. Bolts of truly hideous sequin-covered fabric, pewter ‘real silver’ costume jewellery, sheesha pipes and shoes – if you want it, chances are you’ll find it in the Grand Bazaar. My favourite thing there was a fat ginger cat we found sleeping on some stairs in the ‘gold street’ part of the bazaar. I should also note that the Grand Bazaar is an absolute maze, and the only place where I’m just about guaranteed to lost my bearings. It didn’t help that we entered from a weird spot – had we entered from the main street I would probably have been able to find it again.
When we left, we picked a random street and walked until we found something familiar. In this case, it was Yeni Camii, the New Mosque next to the Spice Bazaar in Eminonu. Not quite where we’d intended to go – having vague intentions of going back to the hotel or going to get food – but it was worthwhile as we ended up finally visiting the mosque’s interior. It was beautiful; darker again than Suleymaniye and the Blue Mosque, but this was likely due to the fact that it was dark outside and thus no light was shining through the windows. We sat in the mosque for some time, watching a couple of men and a younger boy praying and taking in both the architecture and the decoration. I really don’t get why everyone makes such a fuss about the Blue Mosque – I much prefer both Suleymaniye and Yeni Camii to it. Plus, there’s no ridiculous lines for those two.
Our long day ended with dinner at a little restaurant I’d visited previously and knew was good. We were most definitely not disappointed. While I cheated and didn’t go for Turkish cuisine [I’d picked the restaurant in 2010 based entirely on the fact that they sold overpriced but DELICIOUS fajitas], Mum had a lamb guvec or casserole with almonds and apricots and all sorts of unbelievably tasty things. Washed down with a few mojitos, I think we had a lovely dinner. Back at the hotel, Mum called home to speak with her husband for her birthday. Her birthday was well and truly over back in Australia, and I’m not sure how much Dad appreciated being woken up at six!