I’m sorry to say to those of you reading this that you are either going to have to read this in instalments or settle in with a large cup of tea (or vodka, pending on your preference). Our first official day in Turkey as a group was a very long, tiring and enjoyable day. We spent the day in Sultanahmet, aka the Old City to explore Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque (which is referred to in Turkey as the Sultanahmet mosque). We were also supposed to go to Aya Sofya, but it is a museum and museums are closed on Monday so we gave that a miss until Tuesday.

While that seems like we made quite a dent in the most popular places for tourists to visit in Turkey it is literally a miniscule scratch on the surface of Istanbul, and sort of like taking a tiny drop out of the ocean that is Turkey.

Anyway, so to start of our day we received a wake up call at 6.30 IN THE MORNING! Those of you who know me know that I don’t do mornings. I was unaware that a 6.30 am actually existed until yesterday. I tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t so got up and wandered aimlessly around my room and then realised exactly WHY I don’t do early mornings. I don’t know what to do with myself and there is no point in getting up that early. We didn’t even have to be in the lobby until 9am to leave for Sultanahmet. So I eventually got ready to go out and headed down to the hotel restaurant where we had a traditional tourist Turkish breakfast. I say traditional as they did have the Turkish food, but it is also a tourist hotel as we also had eggs, potato and some sort of salami. So what exactly is a traditional Turkish breakfast? Pastries are a big thing here. I’m not complaining. There is also this bread thingy (I really need to find out the name of it) that is like a bread roll only it is made with cheese and spinach on the inside. You take this bread roll and you eat it with “white cheese” (feta), cucumber, tomato, olives and meat. The buffet says “salami – ham” and “chicken -ham” which confused me to no end as Muslims don’t eat ham (it isn’t halil, or kosher, for those of you who don’t know halil). Apparently it is just chicken or salami that is shaved like ham would be. Regardless, it is a very delicious meal.

Topkapi Palace

From there we headed to Sultanahmet. The Old City has an insanely rich history. The Byzantine empire (which wasn’t called the Byzantine empire until historians gave it that name for reasons that will be revealed shortly) built a giant wall along the waterfront of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus to keep out intruders. Eventually a road was built on the outside (that’s how you get into Sultanahmet) and this road is called Kennedy Caddesi, which means Kennedy Avenue in English. It was named after President JFK. I have no idea why. I asked our guide about this and he said it was named after JFK, I asked why and he had no idea, he just said because he’s a US president, but they don’t have any other streets named after US Presidents. So bizarre. I attempted to google it but to no avail and google translator was no help when I Turkey wikipedia’d it.

We arrived at Topkapi palace and started outside this beautiful fountain. It was very similar to a random building that I saw surrounded by tulips on my trip to Ortaköy and I found out that there are literally hundreds (around 600) of these apparently spread throughout Istanbul. Apparently Ottoman leaders loved to build these amazingly beautiful structures. It truly never ceases to amaze me the amount of detail and artistry that goes into the old architecture. Once again we saw dogs and cats just running amok. I really cannot get over this sight of feral, but not feral, dogs just lounging around in the grass and the middle of footpaths and roads, enjoying the day. Since then I’ve seen dogs wandering across major roads, peeing in flower beds next to major road exits, sleeping outside buildings, hanging out watching the fisherman and just generally enjoying life.

While standing outside the fountain we discovered (courtesy of our tour guide) that there were 3 main Sultanahmet’s, which literally means “Sultan Ahmet”. This is very similar to the British royals and their Henry I, Henry II, Henry III and so on. It was Sultanahmet III who had this particular fountain built.

We turned to check out the main entrance we would be using to get into the palace. This not insignificant doorway, flanked by armed guards doing their compulsory military service, was called the publicade. This was the very same entrance used by the civilians of the Ottoman empire who desired an audience with the sultan of the time to seek solutions to their problems. Think about the scene in “The Emporer’s New Groove” when the peasants go to see Emporer Kuzco and Yzma is telling the peasants that they should have thought about the fact that they might go hungry before they became peasants and then gets fired. This entrance was used until the 1500’s when the Ottoman empire expanded significantly to North Africa, Eastern Europe and large portions of the Middle East. The reason it was no longer used regularly was because the sultan would travel to these different locations to see his other subjects and help to rectify their problems. Long story short, it was a really nice door.

We walked into the 1st courtyard where subjects would await their audience with the sultan and it was amazing. It was a very large courtyard with the greenest grass I have ever seen in my life and tall, graceful trees and flowerbeds full of tulips lining the walkways. Tulips in particular are a theme throughout decorations and buildings in Sultanahmet as they are a symbol of the Ottoman Empire. We walked straight through this first courtyard to another not insignificant doorway. Through this door was a relatively small chamber (the size of my flat) with the infamous mandala art that mosques and Turkish artistry in old buildings are famous for. These mandala’s and ceilings are insanely intricate and amazingly beautiful. Did I mention that they are also gold plated? There is a lot of gold in this palace and it isn’t paint. There is enough gold plating in this palace to buy all of Britain.

Anyway, moving through this chamber we went through more armed security and entered into the second courtyard, also called The Court of the Divan (the council) or The Court of Justice. This was named as such due to the fact that it was a building off this courtyard where the Vizeers would meet. The Vizeers were similar to Ministers in Parliamentarian countries. They were appointed advisors of many different issues to the Sultan. It was also in this massive courtyard where special ceremonies would take place. Apparently if there was any special event or ceremony they could fit 5000 people in this courtyard (standing room only). One wall of the courtyard contained the kitchens (we didn’t get to go into the kitchens unfortunately to check them out) and apparently there would be food galore for these events. Can you imagine an extravagent event where they fed 5000 people? They must have been well practiced however as they fed the 1000 employees of the palace every day.

The far corner of the courtyard had a chamber (also the size of my apartment and split into 2 by a window and archway, similar to my living area) where the vizeer’s met to discuss issues, similar to parliament or congress today. One side of the room contained seats all along the wall where the secretaries would sit and record everything that went down and the other side of the chamber was where the vizeers would meet. Despite being mirror image designs of one another the decorative walls were completely different. Different artistry, different colours, different everything.

From there we headed to the next enormous doorway. This one was slightly different in that there was a covering over the patio immediately before the doorway. This was where the sultan would sit during ceremonies and there was even a little marked off spot where they would put the sultan’s throne for the special occasions. This door led to the sultan’s haram. Now I know what you are thinking. Lots of scantily clad women hanging out, waiting to be called at the sultan’s every whim. I’m sure there was plenty of that as well, but haram literally translates to “privacy” in English. This portion of the palace was the sultan’s private area of the palace. When visiting members of other empires, or governments or businesses came to call they would not enter this area. Business wouldn’t pass the Court of Justice in this direction. We were led into a smaller, but equally as beautiful and magnificent courtyard.

Before discussing the intracacies of the haram I need to describe this “small” chamber between the courtyards. Inside was held this four poster giant king sized bed, which wasn’t actually a bed. It was a throne. displayed in front of the throne were the most amazing throne covers (or any sort of cover I’ve ever seen). One of the smaller covers was a beautiful silk cover made with silk and gold thread. It was also inlaid with pearls, rubies and diamonds. The second ginourmous throne cover was made out of a blood red velvet sewn with golden thread and had the most beautiful designs also made of pearl, rubies diamonds and silver. I imagine if we had seen a quill that the sultan used it would have been gold plated and ruby encrusted and worth more than my life.

The chambers off of this courtyard housed ancient caftans worn by the sultan’s for ceremonies and beautiful objects owned by the empire such as jewelery, pitchers, vases, daggers, swords and other beautiful, insanely expensive (at the time, they are all priceless now unless you want to sell them on the black market) and probably useless objects. The caftans were all ceremonial and beautiful and OOOOOOOOOLD. I don’t mean “My great, great, great, great grandfather wore this once upon a time.” I mean, these were perfectly preserved items of clothing from before 1300 AD. I think the youngest caftan we saw was from the early 1500’s. They must not have moths in Turkey. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures in this area, but I am going to try and get a book on Topkapi Palace before I leave to scan some pictures in and post them online.

The next chamber we visted held some of the expensive, priceless and useless objects spoken about above. I’ve never said “wow” so many times in such quick succession. We’d come up to one exhibit and say “oh, wow. That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen” only to come to the next exhibit to say “oh, wow. That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” only to say the same for the next item. There were jewel encrusted goblets, daggers (such as the supposedly infamous Topkapi Dagger) which I would never want to use for fear of dirtying it, to gold plated swords that looked so heavy I can’t understand how they would have been able to lift it in the first place to solid jade figurine’s and vases. I have never seen so many jewels and diamonds in my life, and I frequent Tiffany’s, Cartier and Cerrone. There was one display with a pearl necklace that in today’s terms (minus the ancient history of it) would be worth a minimum of about $50,000 and it looked cheap and pale in comparison to the necklace hanging above it that had some of the biggest rubies and emeralds I’ve ever seen in my life and lined with diamonds and gold. I imagine it would have weighed a ton.

After this there was one more chamber of jewels and we saw the world’s second largest diamond (at a whopping 86 carats) called the spoonmaker’s diamond as it was found by a spoonmaker and apparently traded for 3 wooden spoon’s. When they all found out what it was the spoonmaker wanted paying for it and the guy who got it obviously didn’t want to pay up so the matter was taken (through the publicade probably) to the sultan who paid him handsomely for his find.  Needless to say, any man who proposes to me with anything less than 86 carats had better rethink his strategy :P.

From there we went to the “summer house” part of the palace, complete with circumcision room. Yes, a circumcision room. In Islam, as in Judaism, all boys are circumcised. For some reason this specially dedicated room is in the summer portion of the palace. There was a small doorway (in comparison) leading to this area and the difference was immediately noticable. While the area was still just as magnificant and grand as the rest of the palace, it was also much smaller and had a markedly more intimate feel to it. I was reminded of those beautiful Japanese gardens you see in movies like “Memoirs of a Geisha”. Small, intimate but movingly beautiful (note: there was actually no physical or asthetic similarities to a Japanese garden).

There was a beautiful little flowerbed immediately to our left as we walked down the steps which led to a small yard with more of that shockingly green grass and a small house, which may have been a servants quarter of some sort it was so quaint. Maybe it was a home for one of the sultan’s mistresses. Apparently the sultan’s weren’t allowed to do the whole love and marriage thing (hence the mistresses) as the purpose of women in their lives was to produce an heir so the sultans weren’t distracted from running the empire. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what the house was for as the next very small doorway led to another patio with a room titled “Circumcision Room”. This patio was built around what I imagine was once a functioning pool of water as there was a beautiful and intricate fountain smack dab in the middle of this hole in the marble.

There was another domed room on this patio overlooking the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus that I would love to have as a reading room. There were small fireplaces and a very comfortable looking seat at each window. It was very intricately decorated with beautifully painted tiles and these rectangular mosaic inlays made of pearl and tortoise shell. Apparently you can get little jewelry boxes emulating those inlays,  but if they were real pearl and tortoise shell I wouldn’t be able to afford them anyway :(.

This particular relic of the ancient world was an amazing visit and I’m glad we went in the morning before it got way too busy (it was already super busy at 9.30 in the morning). It was absolutely fascinating seeing how the other half (or .000000000000000001%) lived. Almost the entire time Aerosmith’s “Jaded” was going through my head. I have this image in my head of the sultan’s being insanely jaded, but after learning more about other parts of Sultanahmet this particular idea has been slightly quashed, but that will have to be put into my next post as I think this one is getting particularly long and I need to get some sleep.

Pictures of Topkapi palace can be seen in this facebook album here and the first photo of this album as well.