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The Küçüksu Pavilion

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Built in 1857 as a lodge for Sultan Abdülmecid I, the elaborate facade of the Küçüksu Pavilion looks out over the Bosphorus Strait from the Asian side of Istanbul. Though its days as a summer retreat for Ottoman rulers may be a thing of the past, the pavilion has been meticulously preserved and now serves as a museum.

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As is evident from the first glance, the pavilion was built during the Ottoman craze for all things European. The architect, Nigoğayos Baylan, had studied in Paris and the pavilion’s highly-stylized facade belongs to the Rococo style which was, at the time, très à la mode. Baylan was of Istanbul’s Armenian minority, reflecting the trend among the Ottoman court to eschew Muslim architects for Christian, and western-oriented, points of view.

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic, all palaces and royal lodges were possessed by the state. The Küçüksu Pavilion underwent a long period of restoration and was re-opened in 1983. Happily, the government proved to be a top-notch caretaker. The building is in splendid condition, with original furniture, and looks brand new both inside and out. It’s hard to say whether the pavilion is more impressive for its exterior, with its ostentatious and finely-wrought detailing, or for the baroque elegance found within.

The pavilion consists of four equal-sized rooms on each floor, decorated with colored glass which casts a strange light across the floors and furniture. Heat was provided by fireplaces, each of which is individually designed and built from a different-colored Italian marble. The Küçüksu Pavilion is often referred to as a “palace”, which is certainly in fitting with its opulence, but not quite correct: it was never intended for sleeping and was designed without a single bedroom. (I’d have been fine on the couch.)

Before we visited, I had glanced only briefly at a brochure describing the pavilion as an “Ottoman hunting lodge”, and hadn’t seen any pictures at all. So arriving at the gate, I was blown away. The fact that this incredible building appears only very rarely in “must-see” lists of the city just underlines the ridiculous abundance of sights in Istanbul.

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April 27, 2013 at 7:17 am Comments (2)

The Aqueduct of Valens

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Despite the tumult of centuries, the ravages of war, fire and earthquake, and the construction of a megalopolis around, along and even through it, the Aqueduct of Valens is standing tall. Built by the Roman Emperor Valens in 378 AD, the aqueduct is among Istanbul’s most amazing ancient relics.

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The Greek settlement of Byzantium was never able to truly flourish, despite its strategic position, for one important reason: a lack of drinking water. It’s surrounded on all sides by salt water, but no river flows into the city. After the arrival of the technologically-advanced Romans, a network of canals and aqueducts was built to pipe water in from the outlying hills, and deposit it into hundreds of underground cisterns, such as the Yerebatan Sarnıçı.

The water was still flowing when the Ottomans took possession of Istanbul, and the city’s new Turkish rulers did an excellent job conserving the aqueduct and making necessary repairs. Let this be a lesson to all you other crumbling, ancient wonders — as long as you stay useful, people will take care of you! Today, of course, the aqueduct serves no purpose other than aesthetic, but what a sight it is. For many visitors, ourselves included, it’s the first awe-inspiring scene presented by Istanbul; the shuttle bus from the airport to Taksim Square passes directly underneath.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the aqueduct is how it’s been woven into the fabric of modern Istanbul. In other cities, such a historic wonder would be cordoned off and observable from afar, but Istanbul has neither the time nor the patience for such niceties. Istanbul must get on with things. And so, Atatürk Boulevard, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, is built right through the middle of the aqueduct.

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April 25, 2013 at 1:30 pm Comments (3)

The Remains of the Hippodrome

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An arena nearly half a kilometer long, packed with 100,000 howling fans. The emperor seated with his family in the imperial loge, disinterestedly following the proceedings. Hundreds of golden statues, columns, monuments and treasures decorating the track. And the thunderous sound of 32 horses, galloping under the whip’s cruel crack. Oh, to experience the Hippodrome during Constantinople’s Golden Age!

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Little remains of this once great public arena. The Hippodrome, built in the 3rd century, had fallen into disrepair long before the Ottomans claimed the city in 1453, and the new rulers of Istanbul had little use for chariot racing. But the arena’s general shape survived in the form of Sultanahmet Square, and one chunk of its massive retaining wall is still visible in the southeast corner. So it’s not difficult to get a sense of the Hippodrome’s former size.

Of the many monuments which were once lined up along the track’s spine, only three remain. Coming from the south, the first of these is the Walled Obelisk: 32-meters in height and with the appearance of a mid-game Jenga tower. It had been covered in gilded bronze until the Fourth Crusade, when Europe’s Christian soldiers decided to end their “holy quest” by sacking their Christian brothers in Constantinople. By the time they were done looting, the Crusaders had stripped the Walled Obelisk bare.

Meters away is the Serpentine Column: a strange spiral of weathered bronze. There had originally been three snake heads atop the column, which was taken from Delphi at the command of Constantine the Great. This is one of humanity’s oldest Greek treasures, crafted in 478 BC as an offering to Apollo, following the legendary Battle of Plataea in which an over-matched alliance of Greek states defeated the powerful Persians of Xerxes I. The column’s snake heads were lopped off sometime during the Ottoman regency of Istanbul, but one can still be seen in the city’s Museum of Archaeology.

The Serpentine column’s age is impressive, but the Hippodrome’s third monument is even older. A lot older. The Egyptian Obelisk was originally erected in Luxor sometime around 1450 BC. That’s about three and a half millennia ago. Give or take a century. Made of red granite, it’s in unfathomably good condition, despite being moved to Constantinople by Theodosius in 390 AD and re-erected in the center of the Hippodrome.

The obelisk is covered in bizarre Egyptian hieroglyphs and its nearly perfect condition just adds to its mysterious aura. Many believe it to be imbued with magical powers and, while I’ve never been one to buy into mysticism, it’s hard to remain completely skeptical while in its presence.

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March 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm Comments (2)

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The Kksu Pavilion Built in 1857 as a lodge for Sultan Abdülmecid I, the elaborate facade of the Küçüksu Pavilion looks out over the Bosphorus Strait from the Asian side of Istanbul. Though its days as a summer retreat for Ottoman rulers may be a thing of the past, the pavilion has been meticulously preserved and now serves as a museum.
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