Getting There - Aneel's Travelogue

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Highlights Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, 07 January 2010 9:05pm

I set out to see a couple of the Big Ticket sights of Istanbul today: the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapı Palace, with a stop at the Underground Cistern along the way.

The Hagia Sophia was amazing. The sheer scale of that dome is stunning, and the interior space is so large that you don't mind the fact that there are hundreds of people there with you. There's a giant scaffolding taking up about a third of the space under the dome. At first I was upset by its presence, but I came to realize that it's the thing that gives you a sense of scale. You can look up into it and see flights and flights of stairs going up to the part they're currently restoring, and only then do you realize just how huge those painted Seraphs are.

I'm not sure I agree with the restoration choices they've made. A lot of the decorative elements are things like panels of variously colored or patterned marble. Where panels are missing, they've put up painted panels of vaguely similar patterns. From a distance, they look fine, but up close they look cheesy. Perhaps they're not done better to prevent visitors from mistaking the reproductions for the originals.

I grabbed a chicken kebap and then visited the Underground Cistern. It's much larger than the Portuguese Cistern in El Jadida, and would be less atmospheric, if it weren't for the music being played. There are fish in the water, but no obvious plant life. I suppose they must be being fed...

I walked over to the Topkapı Palace by a slightly different route than my guidebook describes, so I was confused for a bit because the "first" courtyard of the Palace is actually outside of the entrance. The palace was interesting, but not attractive.

Unlike in Morocco, where I agreed with most of the decorative choices, the Ottoman style just rubs me wrong. It's too ornate, too disorganized. Maybe part of the problem is that mismatched tiles have been inserted in the process of restoration, but it seems like even the intact parts just have too many patterns on each wall, with no underlying unifying scheme.

Some of the most interesting parts of the museum were the displays of objects: ridiculously gigantic diamonds, boxes full of half-inch diameter emeralds, and jewel-encrusted daggers. One gallery is devoted to the possessions of the prophets. Maybe you were wondering where the rod was that Moses used to part the Red Sea? Or the patriarch Abraham's cooking pot? Or Mohammed's beard? In the Topkapı Palace, of course.

I took the tram and then a funicular railway to Taksim Square and had dinner off of the busy shopping street I walked down yesterday. It was a delicious meal, and I got to drink blackberry sherbet. According to my guidebook, Ottoman sultans didn't drink water with dinner, opting for sherbet instead.