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The Sakıp Sabancı Museum

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Housed in a 19th century mansion in the neighborhood of Emirgan, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum features a permanent collection dedicated to calligraphic art, along with outstanding temporary exhibits. This was one of the surprise cultural highlights of our time in Istanbul.

Sakip Sabanci Museum

Sakıp Sabancı was one of Turkey’s most successful businessmen, and among the wealthiest people in the world. The son of a cotton merchant, Sakıp never completed high school, but nothing could stop him from clambering to the top of Turkey’s largest business conglomerate. He was a famous figure throughout the country, a colorful and extroverted staple of Istanbul society, and a grand patron of the arts. The museum which carries his name opened in 2002, just two years before his death.

We only decided to visit the museum after finding ourselves with extra time in Emirgan. “Just a quick stop”, we figured. “In and out in a half-hour!” Yeah right. The Sakıp Sabancı Museum deftly conceals its true size; from the coastal road, we saw only the lovely mansion set atop a hill, and completely overlooked the massive modern annex attached to it. We ended up spending about two hours there.

A path leads from the coast up to the house, through a courtyard studded with sculptures and a variety of trees. The mansion itself contains the museum’s permanent collection. The first floor has rooms dedicated to Mr. Sabancı’s legacy, and others which preserve the mansion’s original furniture and decorations. The second floor is dedicated to the art of calligraphy, with old manuscripts and Korans.

The Korans and calligraphy were nice, but the Sakıp Sabancı Museum has become known for the world-class temporary exhibits displayed in the annex. During our visit, we saw one called “1001 Faces of Orientalism”. The fascinating collection spanned three floors, bringing together painting, film, photography, posters, books, clothing and more, in an effort to understand the West’s 19th-century obsession with the Ottoman Empire and Orient.

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Sakıp Sabancı Museum – Website

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June 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm Comment (1)

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 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 Sak?p Sabanc? Museum Housed in a 19th century mansion in the neighborhood of Emirgan, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum features a permanent collection dedicated to calligraphic art, along with outstanding temporary exhibits. This was one of the surprise cultural highlights of our time in Istanbul.
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