22 April 2010

I lost my heart in Istanbul

Less than a week after my return from Berlin, our April vacations began. Vive la France and her glorious six weeks of paid vacations!

My boyfriend would be joining me for the second half of my break, and I decided to pencil in a solo trip to Istanbul for the first half. We would rendezvous at Charles de Gaulle airport the same day and begin our Parisian holiday.

After reserving a budget flight and a cheap, centrally located hostel, I was ecstatic to finally venture to the land of 1,001 minarets, which had enchanted me ever since taking an art history class on the history of Byzantium. This hunger to visit Istanbul was only heightened when I studied the literary and art movement of “Orientalism” which occurred in France in the late 1700’s. Lured by visions of reclining female Odalisques, turquoise tiled mosques, whirling dervishes, mysterious eyes peering through the window lattices of the Sultan’s harem, splendid byzantine Mosaics, and of course, all the kebab I could eat, I bid farewell to Metz and set forth for the only city on earth situated on two continents!

Istanbul was all I could have imagined and more. After checking in to my hostel, I ventured up to the 5th floor rooftop terrace to discover the most incredible view of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Sea of Marmara, overflowing with ships and leaping dolphins. It took my breath away, and just then, the call to prayer, or Adhan, began. It began with a single voice from the minaret of a tiny mosque just below, and then a voice from the direction of Hagia Sophia joined in. The six minarets of the Blue Mosque joined in, and suddenly, I was embraced from all angles by voices singing the same thing, overlapping one another until their words were indistinguishable.

" There is no God but Allah; Muhammad is God's Messenger; salvation is found through obedience to the Will of God, of which prayer is an important expression."

Each individual voice, so different, yet the same, combined to form a single, haunting, otherworldly voice, surrounding me completely. The voice of heaven, without a doubt. Gradually, the voices dwindled to a few, and finally one, who lingered on his last note, before gently disappearing. Five times a day, I would pause to listen to the call to prayer, which would send chills down my spine before eventually lulling me into a state of spiritual rest. It was such a pleasure to wake up each morning by the most beautiful sound on earth.

The Blue Mosque was a glorious sight to behold. Outside, men were seated on low stone stools along the mosque, washing their feet, hands, and heads in preparation for prayer. My eyes turned upwards. Voluptuous, sensual, with several domes flanked by six slender minarets, she is even more captivating inside. After removing my shoes and covering my hair with a scarf, I entered one of the most amazing interior spaces I’ve ever seen. Blue, turquoise, and red painted tiles adorn her walls. Islamic art does not depict figure of animals or human figures, and instead features calligraphic and abstracted floral forms. Because of this, your eyes are more inclined to take in the view as a whole, rather than focus on individual details of, say, stained glass windows or mosaics in a Christian church. This effect is stunning and elegant. I sat down on the carpet off to the side, silently observing male worshippers beginning their prayers in the direction of Mecca. Females worship separately. I discerned a pattern of standing, sitting, and prostrations, during which each one would silently recite passages of the Koran. I was reminded of the ritual of a Catholic Rosary, where one recites a series of prayers, while meditating on an intention. Stunning.

I was also taken with the lavish Topkapi Palace, the home of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire and the location of the infamous Harem. The turquoise tiled corridors, breathtaking gardens surrounded by arcades, jewels and the luxurious harem fueled my imagination. I imagined the life of the Sultan, the concubines who lived to stimulate him mentally, visually, and physically, and the eunuchs who ensured the loyalty of the cloistered women. In addition to wielding sexual prowess and unmatched beauty, concubines were expected to be exceptional musicians, dancers, and conversationalists. A concubine who managed to become a “favorite” or bear the Sultan a son wielded considerable power within the harem.

Wandering the ancient race track of the Hippodrome, passing the fabled Serpent column, the Obelisk, the column of Constantine, surrounded by minarets, I was walking through the slides of an art history lecture, seeing things I never imagined seeing firsthand.

Another breathtaking sight was the Basilica Cistern (Sunken Palace), an ancient underground reservoir built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Walking a narrow platform beneath of ceiling supported by 336 columns, each 9 meters high, I gazed down to see large fish coming up for gulps of air. The space is very dark, with sparsely spaced red lighting, which enhances the mysterious atmosphere. Dripping water from the cavernous space above occasionally landed on my face, refreshing me from the exterior heat. Traditional mystical Sufi music echoed in the caverns, and again, the excitement shivered down my spine.

Hagia Sophia was the true reason for my pilgrimage to Istanbul.
She epitomizes glittering Byzantine splendor. When the city was still Constaninople, Hagia Sophia was constructed as an Orthodox church, epitomizing the glories of Byzantine architecture and mosaics. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1402, the mosaics were whitewashed, and the church became a mosque. In recent years, the mosque was converted to a museum, and the spectacular mosaics uncovered. I spent close to three hours examining every mosaic. Hagia Sophia is HUGE, one of the largest churches on earth, and stepping inside and standing beneath the main dome is not to be missed. Surrounded by gold, and a combination of Christian mosaics and Islamic Calligraphy, I was in paradise. I was awakened from my dreamlike wanderings when I was approached by a camera crew from an Arabian TV station who asked me to participate in a documentary to be televised in several middle-eastern countries. I agreed, and was interviewed on my opinion of Hagia Sophia reverting back to a Christian church, since that was its original function. Apparently, many believe that the Islamic ornamentation be removed. The host of the interview was in traditional Islamic dress, a kaftan and hat I saw frequently in Egypt. I reflected a moment, and provided the most diplomatic answer possible. The fact is, Turkey is now a predominantly Muslim country. This is because of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in the 1400s, and this is historic fact. If Hagia Sophia is kept a secular museum, it will belong to all people, and serve as a history lesson for the great eras that Constantinople/Istanbul has witnessed. If anything, keeping Hagia Sophia as a museum will provide a lesson in tolerance and bring various faiths together. I gestured toward women in headscarves and westernized tourists, and expressed my joy to see the cultures converging in this historic place. The host tried to bait me a bit, by telling me it was wrong for the Muslims to invade and deface a Christian church, since it was against the prophet’s teachings, but I remained steadfast in my opinion saying that every religion has witnessed mistakes by its followers, and that history should be remembered. The answer seemed to please him. He concluded the interview by telling me he was optimistic about the presidency of Obama, and that this historical event brought tears to his eyes.

The pleasures encountered in Istanbul are simply too numerous to list. The countless cups of apple tea offered by merchants as I haggled for carpets. The wafting scents of saffron, cinnamon, and ginger in the spice market. The narrow labyrinth of passageways of the underground Grand Bazaar, where merchants peddled jewelry, musical instruments, antiques, bronze lanterns, teapots, and hand-painted porcelain tiles (You WILL get lost in the maze of the underground bazaar, and that is the greatest pleasure of all.) The seamless fusion of ancient and modern architecture. The abundance of public gardens, filled with tulips (which originated in turkey, NOT the Netherlands!) The hospitality and friendly banter of the Turkish people. The street food: fresh squeezed pomegranate and orange juice, hot corn on a cob, baklava, kebabs, delightful slightly sweet pastry rings covered in sesame seeds, and turkish delight! A cruise down the Bosphorous straight, a narrow waterway that separates the continents of Europe and Asia Minor. To be able to set foot on two continents multiple times in the same day!

A trip to a whirling dervish hall captivated me all the more. The whirling dervishes are not entertainers, but members of the Mevlevii Sufi order, a mystical brotherhood of Islam. They believe that surrendering their existence and binding their hearts completely to God is the closest way to oneness with Him. As the dervishes entered the floor, bowing to one another in acknowledgement of the Divine Truth in their hearts. Their arms were crossed on their chests, indicating Unity with God. Then they started to spin, slowly at first, one at a time joining in until all were in unison. One by one, they extended their arms, gradually, right hand open, left hand turned downward. This signifies that we receive from God, give to man, and keep nothing for ourselves.

Transfixed, I noticed that their eyes were closed, their heads bent to one side. Their garments billowed as they spun, obscuring their feet. I began to wonder if they even had feet, since they seemed to be hovering above the ground. Faster and faster they spun, and I was more and more convinced that these men where no longer in control of the orbit of their bodies. They had surrendered to a higher power, which was guiding their heavenly dance. Indeed, their hearts were spinning around God.

If I had come to Istanbul without speaking French, my experience would not have been the same. In my hostel were two French guys, Benjamin and Mickaël, who I befriended and spent several evenings smoking shisha, sipping apple tea, and engaging in French conversation. My western appearance earned me an abundance of unwelcome male attention in Istanbul, but when I was in their company, it was like having body guards or as they put it “grands frères" (big brothers.) They were lovely, hilarious and friendly, and their presence gave me the peace of mind to go out at night and experience Istanbul illuminated in gold lights.

One day, in the company of an American artist named Mark, we enjoyed a day excursion to the ancient city walls that surround Istanbul, and wandered along the endless fortifications, stumbling across secret alcoves, climbing towers with spectacular views of the city and even an ancient tomb. We dared one another to crawl inside, where we discovered two intricately carved sarcophaguses in the greek style. This was not a tourist attraction, just one of countless anonymous tombs that one can find all over Turkey. We got creeped out and left shortly. We decided to walk the top of the wall, where we met a turkish man watching a high school football game below. He told us the score, offered us some nuts, and bantered with us for awhile.

After wandering for hours, we found ourselves several kilometers from the city center, in a slightly dilapidated residential area. We were starving. We attracted a number of stares from locals, who seemed much more traditionally dressed here than in the city center. Barefoot children trailed us in the streets, and whispered about us, giggling excitedly. We eventually came across a small outdoor turkish restaurant with only one table. Why not? After being bombarded with tourist traps, this was an authentic experience! They spoke no English or French, and us no Turkish, so we pointed to the menu, not sure of what we’d receive. Inside, the employees bustled about excitedly, occasionally peering out the windows to gawk at us. You could tell they weren’t accustomed to tourists. I joked with my three male companions that they were my “harem of men.” We were definitely off the beaten path. For pennies, we were served an amazing lunch of fresh veggies, bread, and sort of flatbread topped with meats and cheeses. We have no idea what it was called, so we declared it delicious. Around us, locals pulled carts of produce. We were suspended in time.

Nature called after hours of wanderings and several cups of apple tea, so I signaled to the owner of the restaurant for toilets. He beckoned for me to come with him, so Benjamin accompanied me for protection. The man led us to a tiny mosque, and pointed to a door! Cool! We got to go to the toilets in a mosque! As we were about to head back into town, we asked for “Hagia Sophia,” so we could find our way back. The man laughed as if it would take us a long time, and pointed the direction out. Mark thanked him and told him he looked like Robert DeNiro. He seemed to understand and he beamed. The whole unexpected situation made me laugh. Getting lost was the best thing that could have happened to us.

Another night, we met two lovely French speaking Algerians, with whom we enjoyed rowdy banter around an outdoor table at a simple kebob restaurant. We were presently joined by two turkish musicians, and the mixture of English, Turkish, and French flying across the table was something to behold. Even the restaurant staff joined in our fun, posing for photos, chattering away with us. The old violinist began to play traditional Turkish folk songs, while we kept time with our hands on the table. The laughter was boisterous, the food delightful, and the fresh evening air, sublime. I would have given anything to continue that night forever. It was one of those spontaneous evenings that can only occur when you travel. Ideal for my last evening in Istanbul.

Of all my travels this year, and possibly ever, my voyage to Istanbul has had the most unexpectedly profound effect on my life. She is my new muse, inspiring me in art, music, spirituality, and thought. Her taste, her smell, her essence still lingers all around me, and I'm intoxicated. I sense that my love affair with Turkey is only just beginning.

Muslim men washing before prayer.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

Kariye Camii / Chora Church

Kariye Camii / Chora Church

Kariye Camii / Chora Church

The Basilica Cistern (Sunken Palace)

Delicious Turkish pastries. Slightly sweet, covered in sesame seeds.

A typical Turkish bathroom.
I know you're dying to ask. The answer is yes. I did.

Watermelon Vendor.

The Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

A Mosque

The Harem of Topkapi Palace

Imperial Tulips at Topkapi Palace

Trying Shisha for the first time with my French friends,
Benjamin and Mickaël

Mark, Benjamin, Mickaël, and I.
We were completely lost on the outskirts of Istanbul.
We loved every moment of it.

We stumbled upon an underground ancient tomb,
hidden in a cavern beneath the ancient city fortifications.

Socializing with an awesome Turkish guy who was watching a
football game from the top of the city fortifications.
He told us the score and shared nuts with us!

Section of the city fortifications.

Egyptian Spice Market

Egyptian Spice Market

Cruise on the Bosphorous Strait, which
separates Europe from Asia Minor.

Cruise on the Bosphorous Strait, which
separates Europe from Asia Minor.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Grand Bazaar

Strawberry vendor

Gorgeous Turquoise and Blue tiling, famous in Istanbul

I befriended a lovely Turkish Calligrapher
This piece I bought says "Allah"

No longer strangers:
American, Algerian, French, and Turkish friends.

Wandering the streets of Istanbul with Benjamin and Mounir

13 April 2010

Easter in Berlin

Taking advantage of a four day Easter break and a budget airline, Kathy and I jetted off to Berlin.  Immediately, we were struck by how massive the city is.  Because of the enormous damage during WWII, most of the beautiful architecture has been replaced by modern structures. Unlike Munich, which recreated its original buildings after being bombed beyond recognition, Berlin has transformed into a modern, international metropolis, and is in a continuous state of reinvention.

While not conventionally beautiful, Berlin houses a wealth of art and history museums, and continues to be a leader in the world of art and design.  We wandered through a number of exciting museums, including the Gemäldegalerie, which houses one of the most important collections of European art in the world.  We also toured the Bauhaus, a famous design school.  As a graphic designer who studied the Bauhaus extensively, it was very much a pilgrimage for me.  A trip to the astoundingly beautiful Charlottenburg Palace (heavily restored after the war) was a highlight of our trip.  Kathy and I agreed that it is in many ways comparable to Versailles.

A free walking tour brought us to important sights like The Brandenburg Gate in Potsdam, the embassies, the site above Hitler’s former bunker where he ended his life, remaining sections of the Berlin Wall (which ironically are protected by fences), Checkpoint Charlie (name given by Western Allies to crossing point between East and West Germany during the Cold War), The Fernsehturm (TV Tower) the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral), and many others.  We found the Holocaust Memorial and the underground memorial to the book burning particularly moving.  Although admittedly, I dozed off during the Easter Sunday Mass at the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Hedwig, we did enjoy a rousing performance (in English) of the Halleluia chorus from Handel’s Messiah. 

A culinary highlight was visiting the world's largest chocolate house, Fassbender & Rausche, where our senses were tantalized by chocolate sculptures of German monuments, and every imaginable form of chocolate.  We dined at the upstairs cafe, on warm, flakey apple strudel bathed in white chocolate. 

In the midst of incredible history and sights, my favorite moments were spent at the table, over coffee or dinner, when we could just relax and talk about anything under the sun. 

While we barely scraped the surface of the lively city of Berlin, it was a lovely experience with a great friend to be cherished forever!

Brandenburg Gate

Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral)

Catholic Cathedral of Saint Hedwig

Fountain of Neptune

Checkpoint Charlie

Mural extolling the "glories" of socialism

The Bauhaus!

The Bauhaus

Charlottenburg Palace

Charlottenburg Palace

Gardens of Charlottenburg Palace

Brandenburg Gate, Potsdam

Chocolate reproduction of Brandenburg Gate at 
Fassbender & Rausche

Fassbender & Rausche chocolate house

Fassbender & Rausche chocolate house

Remnants of the Berlin Wall

Holocaust Memorial

Inside Holocaust Memorial

St. Marienkirche and the Fernsehturm (TV Tower)

Alexanderplatz, surely named after me!

Kathy at one of the Opera houses

Apple strudel in white chocolate sauce at 
Fassbender & Rausche chocolate house!
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