Western Turkey - Personal Journal
- Saturday, 4 April 1998
The next morning as we were taking a walk after breakfast, a woman
leaned out the third story window of an old building, vigorously shaking out a
sheet, perhaps a bedspread. She posed for a moment, looking out at the animals,
and we really wanted to take a picture, but weren't sure if it was o.k. We
didn't want to offend. Later we asked Meli, and she told us it would have been
fine. "If they don't want their picture taken, they will let you know." "It is
a good idea," she said, "to point to the camera and ask, 'Picture?' Then don't
be surprised if they, especially the children, start saying 'Address, address!'
" They want to give you their address so you can send a copy of any pictures of
them you take of them.
About lunch time we we bought two simits from a street vendor. Jim
called them Turkish bagels. We ask him how much and he indicated they were
200,000 each. That must be the "tourist price." We ordered two and Jim gave him
a 500,000 TL bill. He ask for another 500,000 bill for the second simit. Jim
responded with a rather sharp NO! The vendor waved us off as if we had just
robbed him. We suspect a local person would have paid no more than 50,000 for
each bread ring. We had just paid 500,000 for two and decided that we should
make sure we always had smaller bills so change would not be necessary.
We walked across the street and bought two cans of Coke for the
posted price of 150,000 each (about 60 cents). Jim paid with a 1,000,000 bill
and got the correct change of 700,000 with no problem.
Back by the hotel we picked up four oranges at the same little
market we had visited two days before. This time three little girls were
minding the store. Previously we dealt with an older man. The girls weighed the
oranges, talked among themselves and ask for 300,000 lira. Based on what we had
paid two days earlier we felt that was a bit high. After some bargaining we
settled for 200,000. We felt uncomfortable dickering with three girls who were
probably around 10 years old but we would have felt even worse if we had not
tried to get a more reasonable price.
Our hotel host at Otel Aya Sofya served us apple tea and
instructions on how to avoid getting lost. Although we were members of the same
tour, on this first day we were still strangers to one another, and we spread
out on our own, sometimes two couples joining together.
Our tour was scheduled to officially begin at 5 pm. Julie,
Raquella, and Mahmut had arrived but Meli's plane was late, so we started
without her. Apple tea was served as we all sat around the hotel lobby. Julie
explained the community journal process. Nancy Spengler agreed to be the
journal monitor and make sure it was properly passed on each day. We
volunteered to be the editors. Tour members will take turns keeping notes and
writing the day's happenings in the journal. The editors' job is to type, proof
and make sure everyone gets a copy.
Suddenly it seemed as if a wind had blown the door open and Meli
came in, in high heels and high gear, talking as she headed for her seat. Our
first glimpse of Meli was of this burst of energy that rearranged the
atmosphere around herself. She poured out information and stories, including a
story about the other Otel Sofya just down the street, and the missing body of
a wealthy person.
Our little hotel seems to have been at the very heart of a drama,
a competition between businessmen. The other hotel owners apparently concocted
an elaborate scheme; first to try to get money to upgrade their hotel, then to
discredit our Otel Sofya, but it backfired. They had stolen the body from its
grave, and demanded money for its return. They were discovered, and their hotel
is now closed. I'm not certain what happened to the body of the wealthy person
that had been stolen. Hopefully he was returned to rest in peace.
Very soon we were on our feet and trying to keep up with Meli the
dynamo who set off at high speed toward the Blue Mosque. When we finally all
caught up to her, she told us she deliberately walked fast to time us, and to
see if we could keep up. But she promised she would always stop and wait, so no
one gets lost.
We found that frequently Meli would tell us something, and then
say "remember" because it will come up later. She was not kidding. All the
layers of history are spread out across this fabulous country and bits and
pieces are found in all kinds of places. Meli began uncovering the layers for
us at the Blue Mosque. "Observe," she commanded, "the cascade of the domes.
Look for the harmony." This is something repeated many times. The harmony in
architecture is a theme we will see everywhere we go.
We didn't have to cover our hair with scarves in this mosque, but
we did have to take our shoes off and put them in plastic bags before we were
allowed to step on the carpet. It's a balancing act, to take off your shoe
between the time you lift your foot from the concrete and set it down on the
carpet, then repeat with the other foot. During the trip there were a few other
opportunities to practice this art. (Keeping the plastic bag in our daypacks
was also a good idea. Not all mosques have them, and you don't really want to
leave your shoes piled by the door, nor do you want to carry your dirty shoes
in one hand. And they will get very dirty!)
A Meli rule is that when we go into a site, we are to first listen
to her lecture and take pictures afterwards. She wasn't always successful at
getting us all together for the lectures, but having this rule did help keep
most of us together.
In the Blue Mosque, our first lecture told us the story of Ahmet
I. He became sultan in 1603 at age 12. At age 18 he decided he wanted to build
a mosque with grandeur greater than of Hagia Sophia. Ahmet was despondent
because he knew of no one who could design and build such a grand structure
since Sinan the great architect was now dead. Ahmet I had a wise vizier,
however, who told him that he had such a man, who knew math and geometry, who
was a poet, a musician, and an experienced artist in mother-of-pearl, and who
had been an apprentice of Sinan.
This architect was summoned and set to the task. The grandeur of
the mosque, according to the philosophy of the architect, was more than just
size. He imported fine marble from Anatolia, and beautiful tiles from Iznik. He
built 283 beautiful stained glass windows, and put six minarets around the
mosque. In addition to the large central dome, he built smaller domes cascading
all around. The entire mosque is a harmony of form and design, extending even
to the outer court where there are colonnaded domes for the masses of people
who would be unable to get inside during special events.
Meli told a story about the minarets. The sultan told the
architect that he wanted the minarets to be "fortin" or gold. The architect
claimed he misunderstood and thought the sultan had said "forta" or six. So now
there was a problem. The mosque at Mecca had six minarets, and it would seem
that Ahmet's mosque was now greater than that of Mecca. So the Sultan arranged
for a seventh minaret to be built on the mosque at Mecca, and made the
architect responsible to see that it happened.
While marble was being brought from Anatolia, it became clear that
a road was needed, and so that was built also. Tiles, the beautiful turquoise
blue tiles, were brought from Iznik. The Iznik tiles are made of quartz, so
they are glass rather than clay. It is from these lovely tiles that the mosque
gets its popular name, the Blue Mosque.
The most difficult part was the central dome. The architect was
worried about whether he would be able to accomplish it, and prayed to Sinan
for help. The answer came, "That is why we have apprentices. Do what you know,
and it will work."
Meli pointed out to us one of her "remember" items. In one dome
there is a green medallion with a double cross overlapping. "Remember it," she
says, "you will see it again."
The Blue Mosque was built during the years 1609 - 1616. Ahmet I
died in 1618 at age 27. He had built his monument, as Meli says emperors do,
according to his own ego.
Meli turned away from history for a moment to take a pulse of the
people around her. "Why are each of you on this tour?" she asked and continued
without waiting for an answer, "How many would like to learn about Islam?" She
called for a show of hands. Many hands went up, and the lecture moved smoothly
from a history lesson to a lesson in religion, blended in with the architecture
of the building in which we stood. The stone floor under our feet was cold, and
some were feeling the cold acutely, but we all remained to hear the next
It is part of Islamic belief that a human being is a masterpiece
of perfect art. We are made in the image of God, we are His workmanship, and we
should not feel ourselves to be inferior to Him, but rather a reflection of
Him, as well as His creation. The construction of domes in churches and mosques
places God symbolically at the top - it is considered to be the "seat of God."
Someone asked Meli about the placement of strings of lights not
far above our heads across the mosque. "The lights," she tells us now, "are
placed low to help us to not feel insignificant." (Some of us would rather have
had the openness of the dome, because the strings of lights mar the beauty of a
photograph, like telegraph poles and wires do in a landscape. Some perhaps,
would have liked to have that feeling of insignificance against such a
Islam is iconoclastic, Meli says, meaning no human figures can be
represented. That is why the art in the mosques is geometric, and has symbolic
rather than literal interpretations of spiritual meanings. There is a sign over
the entry in Arabic which Meli translates for us, "The best worship is
working," a philosophy which lends value to the everyday tasks of life.
Meli told us a story about the restoration work that was done on
the Blue Mosque, which took 17 years to complete. Buttresses that were required
to support the dome have blocked some of the 283 beautiful stained glass
windows that represent the "light of enlightenment".
Over the years, a great many beautiful carpets had been layered on
top of each other on the floor. During the restoration a decision was made to
replace them with a matching design across the entire floor. The new design is
logical, the design being perfectly proportioned for a praying person to always
know where the feet go and where the head goes, but to Meli it is very sad.
She told us that when she came in during the reconstruction and
saw all those beautiful carpets piled carelessly in a corner, she cried for a
month. "Those carpets for all these 400 years listened to the prayers and
received the tears of all the people who came here to pray. And they just threw
them out." We were beginning to see the passion of Meli as she shared some of
her deepest feelings with us.
As we were leaving, she pointed out the symbol of the tree of life
that is depicted over the door. She mentioned its significance as recorded in
the Book of Genesis, as well as in the Book of Revelation's letter to the
church at Ephesus. It is one of those "you'll see it again" things. The tree of
life is ubiquitous in the art of carpets, pottery and mosaics of the Anatolian
The shops outside and near the mosque support the mosque, Meli
told us. But they do not take in enough money to take care of all the
We played the name game outside. Still strangers to each other, we
began to know at least what name each one is called.
Dinner was in a lovely old home that has been converted to a
restaurant. It has, of course, a story to tell, and Meli the storyteller told
it well. The man who lived here was an artist who created many beautiful
paintings. After he died, his wife would not part with his paintings, nor let
them be taken away. Her children decided to make the home a restaurant, leaving
their father's art on the walls. So they did it, and then learned how to run a
Salads, bread and bottles of water were already on the tables when
we arrived. "The water is included," Meli said, but any other beverages are at
our own expense. As each course was served, she described what we were eating.
This was to be her standard for the entire trip. And it's a good thing. Most of
the meals are unfamiliar dishes to we Americans, but all the food is delicious.
Sometimes we complained that we were given too much! Perhaps our strongest
complaint, especially during the early part of the trip was that meals come so
late. It was not that we were going hungry, it was because we Americans are
accustomed to eating early and digesting our food prior to going to bed. Some
of us have trouble sleeping when go to bed with a full stomach. It is one thing
I don't think Meli really understood about us.
The Turkish way seems to be big meals, late at night, eaten
slowly, and stay up even later. But maybe they have siestas in the heat of the
afternoon. That is their lifestyle, and they are as accustomed to it as people
at the North Pole are to 6 months of night and 6 months of sunshine. We, on our
whirlwind tour, do not have time for afternoon naps, and two weeks is not
enough time for us to adjust our eating habits quite so drastically.
But the tour was on, and there were more things to see and do and
learn and experience than we could possibly cram into the days allotted to us.
So we groused about late dinners but we were not late for breakfast! There was
much more yet to come. We took our vitamins, rested when we could, and tried to
stay healthy. Unfortunately one tour member brought a virus from home.
Eventually most members of the group came down with varying degrees of illness.