Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Turkey | Istanbul | Mehmed II and Hagia Sofia

I suppose everyone has had the experience of waking up in a place other than one’s usual abode and experiencing momentary befuddlement as to where one actually was. Such a feeling often happens while traveling. The period of mental discombobulation lasts five or at most ten seconds and then it suddenly dawns on one that of course you are in this or that place. But this experience was lasting longer. I awoke in a small room, laying full clothed in narrow single bed on top of a red bedspread. The windows were covered by white curtains and there was a tall dresser of blonde wood along one of the walls. On a floor was a large suitcase with the top flung open. Obviously this was not my sleeping den in my beloved hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi. But where was I? My mind drew an absolute and complete blank. I tried to concentrate my thoughts. When I had last been in Zaisan Tolgoi? Why was I no longer there? My immediate past seemed to have disappeared completely. A disconcerting panic began to well up in my mind. I threw back the curtains at one of the windows and beheld a courtyard surrounded by large trees bedecked with fully grown leaves. Obviously this was not Mongolia where I imagined that I should be. Again I tried to focus. Why was I not in Mongolia? How had I left Mongolia and where could I possibly be? The thought suddenly arose that perhaps I had died. Was I in Heaven? Or perhaps, Heaven forbid, Hell? My panic crescendoed as this state of utter mental confusion went on for at least forty-five seconds, possibly even a minute.

Then it dawned on me very suddenly. I was in Istanbul, Turkey, in a room at the Kervan Guesthouse, next to the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, directly across the street from Hagia Sofia, for over thousand or so years the largest church in the world, and now the axis mundi of the tourism in the city.  I had flown here from Ulaan Baatar via Beijing. The plane from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing was three hours late and I had caught the Beijing to Istanbul flight when it was already boarding. For ten hours we had flown westward following very roughly the course of the main trunk of the old Silk Road: from Beijing westward over the Gansu Corridor, then over Xinjiang and southern Kazakstan, passing right over the Aral Sea and the northern part of the Caspian Sea, then Georgia and the Caucasus to the northern shore of the Black Sea, which we then followed the whole way into Istanbul. 

I soon discovered that my luggage had not made the transfer to the final leg of my flight, which was not surprising, since I myself had barely made it. It was still in Beijing. As I was sitting in Turkish Airlines office filling out a lost luggage report a public service announcement came on: “Don Croner please report to the Information Desk. Don Croner please report to the information desk . . .”  I got the forms filled out as quickly as possible and hurried to the Information Desk. The owner of the Kervan Guesthouse, the esteemed Mr. Turgut Bataray, had sent someone to pick me up but having waiting almost an hour for me this person concluded that I was not coming and had already left. I took a cab to  the Sultanahmed district of Istanbul where the questhouse is located and checked in. It was still very early in the morning so I thought I would just lay down and rest for a bit before going out to look for breakfast. Not surprisingly, since I had taken only a brief catnap on the all night flight, I immediately fell asleep, later waking in my befuddled state. 

It was May 29th, the day Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. I had flown to Istanbul to commemorate this day with a visit to Hagia Sofia, which played a special role on that fateful day. As you know, Hagia Sofia was dedicated on December 26, 537, by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. For 916 years it served as an Orthodox cathedral and had acquired a reputation as one of the great architectural monuments in the world. On the late afternoon of May 29th, 1453,  the twenty-one year-old Sultan Mehmed II at the head of the Ottoman armies which had just conquered Constantinople after a prolonged siege rode through the street of the defeated city to the doors of the Hagia Sofia. Here he dismounted and gathering a handful of dust sprinkled it on his head as an act of humility before the Face of God. That very day he converted Haghia Sofia into a mosque, and Constantinople, the city  named after the Byzantine emperor Constantine, became Istanbul. 

The guesthouse is full and all the nearby cafes are packed with people. I asked the waiter if many of these people had come to Istanbul to commemorate the fall the old city in 1453. He seemed a bit surprised that I would ask about this. Almost everyone—here he indicated the patrons of his restaurant with a sweep of his arm—are with tour groups who are attending the Formula I motor car races being held this weekend on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. They take ferries over in the morning, spend the day watching the races, then return to the European side in the evenings. Was I here for the Formula I races, the waiter asked me? No, I said, I did not know about the Formula I races. I had flown from Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia the night before to commemorate the day Constantinople had fallen to Sultan Mehmud  and the Ottomans. The waiter just shrugged and walked away. He no doubt meets a lot of strange people working in a place like this. 
Hagia Sofia
Interior of Hagia Sofia
Pulpit installed in Hagia Sofia after it became a mosque
The Blue Mosque, across the square from Hagia Sofia