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Sirkeci Station and the Orient Express

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Favored by the kings, statesmen and spies of Europe’s tumultuous 20th century, the Orient Express is almost definitely the most famous line in the history of trains. It linked the capitals of Western Europe to the Ottoman Empire, with a terminal stop in Istanbul’s magnificent Sirkeci Station.

Sirkeci Station Istanbul

Today, Sirkeci Station retains only a fraction of its former glory. Built by a Prussian in the “European Orientalist” style, the building is beautiful, but has an atmosphere of decrepitude. It’s old and dusty; a forgotten relic. The room where the upper crust of European society once waited on their departures, is now the hang-out of a rough-looking group of unemployed men. The former office of the Orient Express has been converted into a drab museum dedicated to the line’s glory days. And the main entry hall of the station is today used as a stage for touristy whirling-dervish performances.

Things weren’t always so dreary. When it debuted in 1883, the Orient Express was an instant hit. The Ottoman Empire had long been fashionable across Europe, and now there was a luxurious means of visiting it. With a route cutting through so many different countries, the train was a natural breeding ground for intrigue. Famous spies such as Robert Baden Powell and Mata Hari were among the passengers on board. And in 1929, there was a murder aboard the train while it was stopped by a snow storm; an event which inspired Agatha Christie’s most famous book.

The museum is rather drab, and the experience of visiting Sirkeci is akin to walking around a graveyard. But we still enjoyed being there. We’d just watched the movie based of Christie’s novel (the 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot), and it was fun to be in a place of such historical importance. This is where Western visitors were first introduced to the Ottomans; in its heyday, it must have been quite a sight.

It’s a shame that the Golden Age of rail travel is over. Were it still an option, I might prefer the slower trip by train, rather than plane. Squishing into the middle seat of a low-cost flight to Paris has none of the glamour of strolling onto the Orient Express. And choking down airline food while being elbow-jabbed by the fat Polish guy next to me is decidedly less romantic than a taking a seat in the restaurant car across from the erudite and charming Polish count whom the CIA has tasked me with seducing. Sigh. I guess was born a couple of generations too late!

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May 28, 2013 at 1:06 pm Comments (4)

The Istanbul History of Science and Technology in Islam Museum

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The Istanbul History of Science and Technology in Islam Museum needs a new name. Look, Disneyland wouldn’t be nearly as popular if it were called “The Anaheim Place of Enjoyment and Fun with Cartoon Characters Theme Park”. Yes, we know exactly what to expect from the Istanbul History of Science and Technology in Islam Museum, but by the time we’re done saying its name, we no longer feel like going!

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While Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, the world’s most advanced learning was being done by Islamic thinkers. In the West, we like to pretend that humanity’s higher scientific achievements all happened after the Renaissance. But the IHSTIM (I’m not typing that out again) is there to remind us that Copernicus wasn’t the first to look toward the stars. Descartes didn’t exactly invent the scientific method. And one the first tasks of Renaissance-age medicine was the translation of Arab medical texts.

Most of the items on display in the IHSTIM are modern reconstructions of historical devices, based on plans and blueprints, and not the ancient models themselves. That was initially disappointing, but it’s actually better to examine the intact replica of an antique Armillary sphere, for example, than the rusted old remains of an original. The museum had a ton of exhibits; we particularly enjoyed the ingenious clocks, which used elements like water and fire to keep track of time. The celestial globes, the models of early observatories, and strange mathematical devices like beautifully-designed astrolabes were also worth spending time at.

The museum was larger than I expected, and we were visiting toward the end of a long day spent in Gülhane Park, so we eventually succumbed to fatigue. Turns out that there’s a limit to the number of antiquated sextants a person can admire before losing interest. But still, the museum is certainly worth a visit, especially for anyone with curiosity in scientific history.

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May 28, 2013 at 7:28 am Comments (2)

The Rahmi M. Koç Museum

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There were experiences I expected to have during our time in Istanbul: eating delicious döner and baklava, visiting mosques, and ferrying across the Bosphorus. But exploring the innards of a decommissioned WWII-era submarine? Nope, I wasn’t expecting that one.

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Found on the northern banks of the Golden Horn, the Rahmi M. Koç Museum is definitely not on the list of typical Istanbul tourist experiences. This is Turkey’s first museum “dedicated to the history of transport, industry and communications”, and it offers a comprehensive tour through the world of machinery. Although the museum is geared toward kids, Jürgen and I had an excellent time. We explored old trams, climbed up into the cockpit of small military planes, saw early bicycle designs, guessed at the makes of antique cars, and even had the opportunity to enter a submarine.

The US sells its decommissioned military equipment to its allies, so sometime after WWII, Turkey ended up with some of our old submarines. One of these, the USS Thornback, sits in the water just off the shore from the museum. Built in 1944, the Thornback battled the Japanese during WWII, and would go on to serve 28 years in the Turkish Navy. We paid a little extra for a tour of the boat, led by Mr. Ahmet Malalan, a former sailor.

This was my first time in a submarine, and I felt strangely elated. Like a kid, I wanted to touch everything: the torpedo chutes, the radio dials, the big red buttons. But I kept myself in check and behaved like a self-respecting adult… until I saw the periscope. There was no resisting that.

The Rahmi M. Koç Museum provided an unexpectedly fun day. Anybody interested in industrial artifacts, or perhaps those who’ve had their fill of mosques and ancient art, should make the trip.

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Rahmi M. Koç Museum – Website (English)

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May 23, 2013 at 12:35 pm Comments (0)

The Fethiye Museum

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Located in the neighborhood of Çarşamba, just up the road from the Yavuz Selim Camii, the Fethiye Museum preserves some of the best Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul. It’s small and difficult to reach, so most tourists skip right over it in favor of the similar and better-known Chora Museum.

Fethiye Museum Istanbul

The Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos (All-Blessed Mother of God) was built sometime in the 11th century by Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Ducas. By the time of the Ottoman conquest, the Pammakaristos had become one of Constantinople’s most important Orthodox churches and, sensitive to the feelings of their new Greek citizens, the Ottomans initially left it alone. They even made it the temporary seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. But in 1592, to celebrate of the Ottoman annexation of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the church was finally converted into the Fethiye Mosque.

During renovations in the 1950s, beautiful 14th-century mosaics were uncovered in the parekklesion, or side chapel, and these became the focus of a museum which opened in 2006. Under the dome, visitors can admire a depiction of Christ Pantokrator ringed by twelve prophets from the Old Testament. There’s also a large mosaic panel of Jesus’s baptism, and representations of various Biblical saints, including a deesis with Mary and John the Baptist.

The Fethiye Museum is a like a delicious Byzantine Mosaic hors d’oeuvre, before the more filling main course served up at the nearby Chora Museum. The mosaics in the Fethiye aren’t as expansive as those of the Chora, but the experience of visiting is more pleasant. We were the only ones inside the church on the Thursday afternoon we chose for our trip, and able to explore in peace.

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Related Post: The Grand Palace Mosaic Museum in Istanbul

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May 22, 2013 at 8:39 am Comment (1)

Inside the Hagia Sophia

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The Hagia Sophia isn’t just the best-known tourist attraction in Istanbul, or one of Europe’s most cherished landmarks… it’s one of the greatest buildings in human history. This church, nearly 1500 years in age, was once the center of Byzantine faith, later reborn as the predominant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, and today has found a new purpose as one of the world’s most popular museums.

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We spent nearly three hours inside the Hagia Sophia. There’s a lot to see, and all of it is fascinating. This is the kind of place where even the floors, doors and walls have stories to tell. I’m serious: this circular pattern in the floor marks the Omphalos, where Byzantine emperors were crowned. That massive wooden door is the Imperial Gate, reserved for the entrances of the emperor and his family, and rumored to have been made from the wood of Noah’s Ark. And there in the wall, you’ll see one of the church’s magnificent Byzantine mosaics.

These mosaics have survived the centuries in superb condition, thanks mainly to Muslim sensitivities. Human representations are disallowed in mosques, so the mosaics were covered up and thus protected during Ottoman rule. The mosaic above the aforementioned Imperial Gate depicts Emperor Leo VI on his knees before Christ. There’s a wonderful Deesis mosaic in the upper gallery, with Mary and John the Baptist imploring Christ to forgive humanity. And the mosaic of Mother Mary with baby Jesus in her lap, in the dome of the apse, is marvelous. But our favorites were those of the four seraphim, God’s guardian angels, in the dome’s supporting pendentives. During restorations in 2009, one was discovered to have a face hiding underneath its protective golden shield.

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Impressive as the mosaics are, they can’t compete with the church’s dome: a true architectural wonder. Measuring in at 55 meters in height and 32 meters in diameter, with 40 windows that allow in abundant light, this dome was by far the largest ever attempted when it was constructed. Especially with the two half-domes which exaggerate its size, the dome creates an illusion of immense space. Standing down at ground level, looking up, it’s hard not to feel insignificant.

Yes, standing in the center of this church, looking up at the massive dome and its seraphim, admiring the giant Arab calligraphy, considering the number of emperors and sultans who have passed through here, and who have probably stood exactly where you’re standing right now… it’s very hard not to feel insignificant. Because, and it takes maybe an hour inside the Hagia Sophia before you start to genuinely grasp this, you really are insignificant. Look up again at that dome. Think about how long ago it was built, and then try to say aloud “My life has worth”. Ridiculous. You’re a tiny drop in the ocean of human history. You, your silly problems, your proudest accomplishments… they mean absolutely nothing.

Wow. Thanks for ruining my day, Hagia Sophia. But despite the small existential crisis, our visit here was one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul. Unforgettable.

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May 21, 2013 at 1:45 pm Comments (4)

The History of the Hagia Sophia

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Were we excited to visit the Hagia Sophia? It’s just one of the most legendary buildings on the planet. The largest church in the world for a thousand years. The scene of some of history’s most decisive moments. A breathtaking architectural achievement on a scale unthinkable for its day. Yes, I suppose it’s fair to say that we were excited.

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Ever since arriving in Istanbul, I’d been eagerly anticipating our visit to the Hagia Sophia. Scratch that: I’d been eagerly anticipating a visit since 1984 when, at the age of seven, I read about it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now the long-awaited day had finally arrived, and it was every bit as amazing as I had hoped. The instant I stepped inside the Hagia Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, I felt transported into another world.

The building we see today is actually the third church built on the site. The first, completed in 360, was destroyed during a riot in 404, and no trace remains. And the second church was burnt to the ground in 513 during the infamous Nika Riots. One of worst riots in history, this popular outburst of rage resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of half of Constantinople’s buildings. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian, though, emerged unscathed and more powerful than ever. With a free rein to rebuild the city as he liked, he started with the Hagia Sophia.

Completed in 537, Justinian’s new church was immediately hailed as an unprecedented architectural achievement. The empire’s greatest mathematicians and physicists had been brought in to supervise and consult on the construction, nothing on the scale of which had ever been attempted. The Hagia Sophia was by far the biggest church in the world, and would remain so for nearly a thousand years. It’s almost unthinkable. Try to imagine how otherworldly and groundbreaking a modern-day skyscraper would have to be, to remain unsurpassed for the next millennium. I don’t actually think it’s possible, anymore.

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Despite its preeminence, the Hagia Sophia hasn’t been immune to the passage of history. It exists, after all, in one of the most tumultuous capitals on earth, and has had as many masters as Istanbul has had names. First and foremost, it was a Byzantine church and the center of the Orthodox world. For a brief interlude, from 1204 to 1261, it was converted into a Roman Catholic church, following the Fourth Crusade which crippled Byzantine. The marauding crusaders even installed a prostitute on the patriarch’s throne, in mockery of the Eastern faith.

Luckily, the next masters of Constantinople would treat the church with more respect. After sacking the city in 1453, the Ottoman forces under Mehmet II the Conqueror enjoyed three days of pillaging, but the Hagia Sophia was mostly spared. The church had been as famous in the Arab world as in the Christian, and it had been Mehmet’s lifelong ambition to see it converted into a mosque. During the long eclipse of the Byzantine Empire, the church had fallen into a deplorable state, but the Turks restored it to its former glory. For the next 500 years, it served as the most important mosque in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1935, the nascent Turkish Republic recognized that the Hagia Sophia was more important as a monument of our shared cultural heritage, than as yet another mosque. On the orders of Atatürk, it was converted into a museum. A good move, in my opinion. Today, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, and certainly among the most impressive we’ve ever visited.

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May 19, 2013 at 2:14 pm Comments (3)

The Rezan Has Museum

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Set in the basement of an old tobacco factory on the southern shore of the Golden Horn, the Rezan Has Museum presents an interesting walk through Turkey’s archaeological history, from the copper age to the arrival of the Selçuks.

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The former Cibali Tobacco and Cigarette Factory is today home to the Kadir Has University. The factory dates from 1888, but was abandoned for decades before being purchased by a foundation which, following the examples of the Istanbul Modern and Santralİstanbul, discovered a contemporary use for the historical building. The conversion from factory to university was beautifully realized and won the 2003 Europa Nostra award, which honors the “safeguarding of Europe’s cultural and natural heritage”.

During the restoration, the site was realized to have an even older history than believed, when both an Ottoman hamam and a Byzantine-era cistern were discovered in the basement. The remains were preserved as well as possible, and became the setting of the subterranean Rezan Has Museum.

For an archaeology museum, an ancient underground cistern is about as atmospheric a setting as one could hope for. The permanent collection is small, but nicely presented, and takes the visitor on a chronological journey through the ages, from Copper Age tools and jars to the oil lamps and weapons carried by the Selçuk Turks on their march through Anatolia. There’s ancient medical equipment and a fascinating collection of decorative belts worn by the mysterious and short-lived Kingdom of Urartu.

It’s great to see Istanbul making such constructive use of its cultural heritage, instead of razing these historic buildings to the ground. The Rezan Has Museum is just as fascinating for its archaeology exhibits, as for the wonderful restoration of its ancient cistern.

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Rezan Has Museum – Website

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May 7, 2013 at 3:55 pm Comments (0)

The Panorama 1453 History Museum

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The Conquest of Constantinople was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the most important event in Turkish history. On May 29th 1453, Mehmet II breached the Theodosian Walls, and the Ottomans began a lengthy reign as one of the world’s most powerful empires. Today, near the exact spot of the Byzantine Empire’s final stand, there’s a museum which recreates the battle in stunning detail.

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The Panorama 1453 History Museum is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. A massive dome is painted on all sides with a 360° depiction of the siege, immersing visitors into the battle. The detail is amazing. Scenes of sword fights, Byzantine archers firing from atop the walls, soldiers pouring down hot wax onto their enemies, giant siege engines carrying marauding Turks, and literally hundreds of other figures create a feast for the eyes. In the foreground are replicas of the cannons used to attack the wall, and to the west, you can spot the conquering Sultan himself. Sitting atop his horse, Mehmet II cuts a noble figure as he surveys the destruction of the walls with grim satisfaction.

We visited on a Saturday afternoon, and were in agreement that the only thing more amazing than the museum itself was its popularity. Maybe it’s not surprising that a museum celebrating their people’s greatest victory should be a hit with Turks, but this place was packed. So full, that it was difficult to even move around. Luckily, this didn’t really detract from the experience; to the contrary, being squished in among such an enthusiastic crowd only intensified the patriotic spirit which the museum tries to whip up.

A strange and dynamic tribute to the single most significant day in the history of Turkey, the 1453 Museum is definitely worth a trip out to the land walls.

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May 2, 2013 at 4:40 pm Comments (2)

A Walk Along the Land Walls – Day One

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Stretching for six kilometers from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the Land Walls of Theodosius II protected Constantinople from invaders for over a thousand years… until the arrival of the Ottomans and their giant cannons in 1453. The walls have survived largely intact to the present day, and walking along them is an exciting way to see a different side of Istanbul.

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We started at the Marble Tower, marking the southern end of the walls at the Sea of Marmara. The tower provides a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the fortifications: impressive despite the ruinous state, and able to be climbed… although the piles of trash and human poop should discourage comprehensive exploration. The walls, with their towers and protected nooks and crannies, make attractive shelters for vagrants; they’re fine during the day, but we kept away from dark corners and would suggest avoiding the walls entirely after dusk.

From the Marble Tower, we crossed the busy Kennedy Highway to begin our journey north. Throughout the day, we’d have to cross a number of roads, and would switch from walking either inside or outside of the walls, depending upon where the most accessible sidewalk happened to be. Occasionally, the easiest path was on top of the walls themselves.

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The Walls of Theodosius II were originally constructed in 417, but destroyed 40 years later by a massive earthquake. Bad timing, since Attila the Hun was marching towards Constantinople at that very moment. In a panic, the city recruited everyone to assist in the rebuilding effort, and new fortifications were ready within two months. These new walls consisted of three separate layers and 96 towers and were unbreachable by 5th century military technology. Attila didn’t even try.

We had an incredible time walking along the walls, especially in the sections where we could clamber up to the top and gain a view over the city. There was plenty to see along the way. The old neighborhood of Yedikule, parks, mosques, ancient gates like the Belgrade Kapı, and museums.

West of the wall’s Silivri Gate, we found a path leading through a cemetery to the Zoodochos Pege, an old Orthodox Church that harbors a sacred spring. After exploring the courtyard, we followed marble stairs into the basement where the spring is found, complete with fish swimming around in the holy water. According to legend, a monk was frying fish in a pan, when he was told that the Turks had breached the nearby walls. Disbelieving, the monk scoffed that this was “as likely as the fish in my pan returning to life”. Which they promptly did, jumping from his pan into the spring where they remain to this day. To the Turks, the Zoodochos Pege is known as the Church of the Fish (Balıklı Kilise).

At six kilometers in length, it’s easy to walk along the entire length of the walls in a single day, but by the time we’d reached the halfway point at the Topkapı tram stop, we were exhausted, and decided to save the second half for another time.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Marble Tower | Belgrade Gate | Zoodochos Pege

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May 1, 2013 at 4:34 pm Comments (4)

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)

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Sirkeci Station and the Orient Express Favored by the kings, statesmen and spies of Europe's tumultuous 20th century, the Orient Express is almost definitely the most famous line in the history of trains. It linked the capitals of Western Europe to the Ottoman Empire, with a terminal stop in Istanbul's magnificent Sirkeci Station.
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