Showing posts with label Istanbul. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Istanbul. Show all posts

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Turkey | Istanbul | Snow Storm

From Antalya I wandered back to Istanbul, where I thought I would stay for a day or two before wandering on. Instead I got caught up in one of the Biggest Snowstorms In Recent Memory. At my hotel there was at least sixteen inches of snow on the ground and reportedly there were 120 centimeters (47 inches) in some parts of the city. All this in a city built on hills (seven of them, like Rome) and not that well equipped for handling snow. Over 800 flights were cancelled in and out of Istanbul’s two airports. This was quite a contrast with Istanbul In January of 2014 when the temperatures reached the low 70s F. and irises were in bloom.
Hagia Sophia in the snow. This was the first morning of the blizzard, when only about six inches of snow had fallen (click on photos for enlargements).
Palm trees taking a beating during the blizzard
Blue Mosque in the distance
For the first time in all my years of coming to Istanbul the famous fish sandwich restaurants near the Galata Bridge were closed.
The fisherman on the Galata Bridge were still out in force. It would take more than a blizzard to drive them off. 
Crampons and iceaxes would have come in handy on the steep streets of Galata, north of the Golden Horn.
View from my hotel
My hotel in Istanbul
 Istanbul’s legendary street dogs were given temporary shelter from the storm at an up-scale mall (not my photo).

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Turkey | Istanbul | Hagia Sophia | Enrico Dandolo

From the Obelisk of Theodosius I wandered east through Sultanahmet Square, soon passing by the the Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain, an octagonal domed structure built by the German government in 1900 to mark the German Emperor Wilhelm II's visit to Istanbul in 1898. Near here would have stood the starting gates used for horse and chariot races in the old Byzantine Hippodrome which occupied the area now taken up by Sultanahmet Square. 

Mounted above the starting gates were larger-than-life size copper statues of four horses. Their provenance is unclear (an Entire Book has been written on this issue and the horses in general) but they were probably made in what is now Greece and used to ornament some monumental structure there. Greece having been subsumed by the Byzantines, Theodosius II, the same Theodosius who built the Land Walls, expropriated the horses and had them moved to Constantinople, where they were used to ornament the Hippodrome. When the Crusaders and Venetians sacked Constantinople in 1204 the horses were claimed as war booty by the Venetians and taken to Venice, where they can still be found today.
 An artist’s rendering of the Hippodrome starting gates. The horses can be seen on top of the gate in the middle. The dome of Hagia Sophia is behind, to the right  (click on photos for enlargements).
Leaving Sultanahmet Square I arrive at the entrance to Hagia Sophia, the immense church built in the  a.d. 530s by Justinian I. It is now a museum. One of the architectural wonders of the world, it is visited by millions of people a year—3,574,043 visitors in 2014. Usually around opening time there is a line of several hundred people waiting to get in. Today, three days after the suicide bombing at the nearby Column of Theodosius, there is no one in line. I have been inside Hagia Sophia several times, but each time it was crowded with hundreds, of not thousands of people. I thought today, when it would not be so crowded,  might be a good day to visit again. Inside I was surprised to find several hundred people, almost all of them members of tour groups. They had apparently arrived right at opening time and used a special entrance reserved for guided groups. I spent an hour or so wandering around the ground floor, studying the many stone pillars ransacked from various lands conquered by the Byzantines, and then climb the broad stone staircase to the South Gallery. 
Hagia Sophia
On the east wall of the western buttress in the South Gallery can be seen the mosaic known as the Deesis. It probably dates to the fourteenth century. John Freely, author of Strolling through Istanbul, considers it “one of the very greatest works of art produced in Byzantium.” Only part of the mosaic has survived, but we can see Christ in the middle flanked by Mary and St. John the Baptist.
The Deesis: Christ in the middle, Mary on the left; St. John the Baptist on the right
Detail of the Deesis
Everyone who visits the South Gallery stops and gazes at the Deesis, most taking photos with their smart phones or iPads. Almost no one notices a small tombstone set level with the floor at the base of the buttress facing the Deesis. Most walk by it without a glance. Few realize that it is a memorial to the man who instigated what may well be the greatest crime ever perpetrated in the name of Christianity. I am speaking of Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo and Sack of Constantinople in 1204. John Freely:
Set into the pavement just opposite to the Deesis is the tomb of the man who ruined Byzantium. Carved in Latin letters on the broken lid of a sarcophagus there, we see the illustrious name, HENRICUS DANDALO. Dandalo, Doge of Venice, was one of the leaders of the Fourth Crusade and was the one chiefly responsible for persuading the Latins to attack Constantinople in the years 1203–4. After the final capture of Constantinople on 13 April 1204, Baldwin of Flanders was crowned in Haghia Sophia as Emperor of Rumania, as the Latins called the portion of the Byzantine Empire which they had conquered. But the Latin Emperor did not reign supreme even in his capital city, for three-eighths of Constantinople, including the church of Haghia Sophia, was awarded to the Venetians and ruled by Dandalo. The old Doge now added the title of Despot to his name and thereafter styled himself “Lord of the fourth and a half of all the Roman Empire.” But proud Dandalo had little time to lord it over his fractional kingdom, for he died the following year, 16 June 1205, and was buried in the gallery of Haghia Sophia. After the Conquest, according to tradition, Dandalo’s tomb was broken open and his bones thrown to the dogs.
 Memorial to Enrico Dandolo
Detail of Enrico Dandolo
 We might assume that whatever marker covered his tomb was also destroyed. The current tombstone was installed later, when and by whom is it not clear (if anyone has any information about this please let me know). Thus the marker here in the South Gallery is not actually the grave of Enrico Dandolo (or Dandalo; both spelling occur in the literature) but rather a memorial to him. From the memorial I walk over to the balcony and gaze down on the hundreds of people milling around the floor of Hagia Sophia. The scene on April 13, 1204, would have been quite different. We have the account of the Byzantine historian Niketas or Nicetas Choniates (1155–1217), who was an eye-witness to the Sack of Constantinople:
What then should I recount first and what last of those things dared at that time by these murderous men? O, the shameful dashing to earth of the venerable icons and the flinging of the relics of the saints, who had suffered for Christ's sake, into defiled places! How horrible it was to see the Divine Body and Blood of Christ poured out and thrown to the ground! These forerunners of Antichrist, chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens; some they smashed, taking possession of the ornaments embellishing them, and they set the remaining vessels on their tables to serve as bread dishes and wine goblets. Just as happened long ago, Christ was now disrobed and mocked, his garments were parted, and lots were cast for them by this race; and although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth.
The report of the impious acts perpetrated in the Great Church are unwelcome to the ears. The table of sacrifice, fashioned from every kind of precious material and fused by fire into one whole-blended together into a perfection of one multicolored thing of beauty, truly extraordinary and admired by all nations-was broken into pieces and divided among the despoilers, as was the lot of all the sacred church treasures, countless in number and unsurpassed in beauty. They found it fitting to bring out as so much booty the all-hallowed vessels and furnishings which had been wrought with incomparable elegance and craftsmanship from rare materials. In addition, in order to remove the pure silver which overlay the railing of the bema, the wondrous pulpit and the gates, as well as that which covered a great many other adornments, all of which were plated with gold, they led to the very sanctuary of the temple itself mules and asses with packsaddles; some of these, unable to keep their feet on the smoothly polished marble floors, slipped and were pierced by knives so that the excrement from the bowels and the spilled blood defiled the sacred floor. Moreover, a certain silly woman laden with sins, an attendant of the Erinyes, the handmaid of demons, the workshop of unspeakable spells and reprehensible charms, waxing wanton against Christ, sat upon the synthronon and intoned a song, and then whirled about and kicked up her heels in dance.
It was not that these crimes were committed in this fashion while others were not, or that some acts were more heinous than others, but that the most wicked and impious deeds were perpetrated by all with one accord. Did these madmen, raging thus against the sacred, spare pious matrons and girls of marriageable age or those maidens who, having chosen a life of chastity, were consecrated to God? Above all, it was a difficult and arduous task to mollify the barbarians with entreaties and to dispose them kindly towards us, as they were highly irascible and bilious and unwilling to listen to anything. Everything incited their anger, and they were thought fools and became a laughingstock. He who spoke freely and openly was rebuked, and often the dagger would be drawn against him who expressed a small difference of opinion or who hesitated to carry out their wishes.
The whole head was in pain. There were lamentations and cries of woe and weeping in the narrow ways, wailing at the crossroads, moaning in the temples, outcries of men, screams of women, the taking of captives, and the dragging about, tearing in pieces, and raping of bodies heretofore sound and whole. They who were bashful of their sex were led about naked, they who were venerable in their old age uttered plaintive cries, and the wealthy were despoiled of their riches. Thus it was in the squares, thus it was on the corners, thus it was in the temples, thus it was in the hiding places; for there was no place that could escape detection or that could offer asylum to those who came streaming in.
O Christ our Emperor, what tribulation and distress of men at that time! The roaring of the sea, the darkening and dimming of the sun, the turning of the moon into blood, the displacement of the stars—did they not foretell in this way the last evils? Indeed, we have seen the abomination of desolation stand in the holy place, rounding off meretricious and petty speeches and other things which were moving definitely, if not altogether, contrariwise to those things deemed by Christians as holy and ennobling the word of faith.
Such then, to make a long story short, were the outrageous crimes committed by the Western armies against the inheritance of Christ.
The Crusader State established in 1204 by Enrico Dandolo and his co-conspirators lasted until 1261, when Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantines. But a candle always flickers most brightly one last time just before it goes out, and Byzantium soon proved itself to be a spent force. On May 29, 1453 Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror entered Constantinople and claimed it for Islam. He himself rode into Hagia Sophia and ordered that it be turned into a mosque. After 1123 years Byzantium was gone forever, and what is now Turkey became part of the Muslim geosphere.

As John Julius Norwich put it in Byzantium: The Decline and Fall, volume three of his magisterial history of the Byzantine Empire:
There are few greater ironies in History than the fact that the fate of Eastern Christendom should have been sealed—and half of Europe condemned to some five hundred years of Muslim rule—by men who fought under the banner of the Cross. Those men were transported, inspired, encouraged, and ultimately led by Enrico Dandolo in the name of the Venetian Republic; and, just as Venice derived the major advantage from the tragedy, so she and her magnificent old doge must accept the responsibility for the havoc that they have wrought on the world.
Among the vast amount of loot claimed by Enrico Dandolo were the four copper statues of horses that graced the Hippodrome. As mentioned above, they are now in Venice. While standing there overlooking the floor of Hagia Sophia I decide I must go to Venice to see the horses and the birthplace of Enrico Dandolo, the man who has had such an incalculable effect on world history.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Turkey | Istanbul | Hippodrome | Obelisk of Theodosius

The morning after my Arrival In Istanbul I emerged from my hotel slightly before daybreak.  A slight drizzle was falling as I walked up past the remnants of the Miliarum Aureum, or Golden Milestone, which during Byzantine times was used a zero reference point for the milestones on the many roads which extended throughout the empire. A modern signpost next to the ruins shows the air miles to Moscow, Berlin, Paris, and other points of interest. I crossed what the Byzantines called the Mese, the main thoroughfare running through old Constantinople, now called Divan Yolu, into Sultanahmet Meydani, or square. Istanbul is not an early rising town, at least not here in the main historical and tourist district. Not a soul can be seen on Divan Yolu except for one taxi driver asleep in his car and the square is also empty except for two police cars parked near the Column of Theodosius, where the suicide bombing took place three days earlier. The historical center of a city said to have over fifteen million residents is eerily deserted. 

The square is about 950 feet long and 190 feet wide. It is flanked on the southwest by the Sultanahmet Mosque, or Blue Mosque, built between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmet I. With its vast central dome and cluster of half-domes and its six minarets it is surely one of the most iconic mosques in the world. On the northwest is the old mansion of Ibrahim Pasha (1493–1536), grand vizier of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1523–1536). Reputed to be the biggest personal residence ever built in the Ottoman Empire, is it now an art museum. (Ibrahim paid for his extravagance with his live; Suleiman had him executed in 1536 for, in effect, getting too big for his breeches.) On the southern end of the square are the buildings of Marmara University. 
Sultanahmet, or Blue Mosque (click on photos for enlargements)
Running in a line down the center of the square are three monuments that predate the Ottoman era. At the southwest end of the square is a 104-foot column of rough stone said to be been erected by Theodosius the Great (a.d. 347–395) or Constantine the Great (a.d. 272–337). It was later sheathed with gilded bronze plaques by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 912–59). The bronze plaques were reportedly stripped off and claimed as booty by the Crusaders and Venetians who sacked Constantinople in 1204. The middle monument is the famous Serpent Column which once graced the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in what is now Greece. The brass column, which consisted of thee intertwined serpents, was cast to celebrate the Greek defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Plateae (479 b.c.). The bronze shields of Persian soldiers killed in the battle were reportedly melted down and the metal reused to cast the snake memorial. The names of the thirty-one Greek cities who participated in the Battle of Plateae were inscribed on the bottom of the column. Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople, appropriated the column from the Greeks, by then subsumed by the Byzantine Empire, and used it to adorn his new capital. It may have first been placed in the courtyard of nearby Haghia Sophia and only later moved to the Hippdrome. Originally the three snake heads at the top of the column supported a golden bowl. The golden bowl disappeared during the sack of the city in 1204. Later the heads were broken off under unclear circumstances. It has long been rumored that In 1700 an employee of the Polish Embassy to the Sublime Port chopped off one of the heads for a souvenir. Another eventually ended up on the Istanbul Archeological Museum, where it can still be seen today. Thus only the snake column without the heads can now be seen in Sultanahmet Meydani. The third monument in the square is the Obelisk of Theodosius, where the suicide bombing took place.

The Blue Mosque and the residence of Ibrahim Pasha were built during Ottoman times. The three monuments that now stand in Sultanahmet Meydani were placed there during Byzantine era, when the square and the surrounding area were occupied by the Hippodrome, a huge stadium where horse and chariot races and other sporting events were held. It also served as the city’s social center and as a forum for the airing of political disputes. The three monuments marked the spina, or central line, which ran lengthwise through the middle of the Hippodrome. The original Hippodrome (from the Greek hippos, horse, and dromos, pathway or track) was built by the Emperor Septimus around a.d. 203. In 324 Constantine the Great established Constantinople as his new capital and embarked on a building spree during which the Hippodrome was renovated and enlarged. The new version was considerably larger than current-day Sultanahmet Square, measuring about 1575 feet in length and 385 feet in width. It could reportedly seat 100,000 or more people, making it as big as the largest football stadiums today in the USA (Michigan Stadium, in Ann Arbor, seats 107,60; AT&T Stadium [Jerry World], home of the Dallas Cowboys, seats a mere 80,000). On the southeastern end of the stadium was the Kathisma (Emperor's Loge), where the reigning Byzantine emperor and his family and court sat. The Kathisma could be entered directly from the Great Palace of the Byzantines—long since gone; Sultanahmet Mosque now stands on part of the area once covered by the Grand Palace—and thus protected from the hoi polloi, who were not slow to express their disfavor toward unpopular emperors. The square northeast end of the stadium hosted the Hippodrome Boxes, which served as the starting gates for the chariot races. Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates (1155–1217), who must have visited the Hippodrome many times, reports:
 . . . in the Hippodrome there was a tower which stood opposite the spectators; beneath it were the starting posts, which opened into the racecourse through parallel arches and above were fixed four gilt-bronze horses, their necks somewhat curved as if they eyed each other as they raced round the last lap.
These larger-than-life statues of four horses have survived; as we shall see, they have had a long and intriguing history.
Byzantine Constantinople, showing the area around the Hippodrome
The drizzle has turned into a pelting rain, and a keening wind sweeps through the square as I approach the Column of Theodosius. One of the cops in the two cop cars nearby briefly glances my way, then quickly goes back to his newspaper. Turkish flags have been attached to the railing around the obelisk and mourners have left a heap of red carnations. Signs, mostly in German—it had been confirmed that eleven of the twelve people killed in the attack were German tourists—have been placed atop the carnations and tied to the railing.  The suicide bomber, it turned out, was twenty-eight year-old Nabil Fadli. Born in Saudi Arabia, he grew up in the town of Manbil in northern Syria, an area currently under control of ISIS.  He had entered Turkey on January 5, 2016, claiming to be a refugee from the conflict in Syria. It was eventually determined that he was an ISIS soldier and probably had entered Turkey specifically to carry out the suicide bombing. Tourists may have been targeted as a means of striking a blow to the tourist industry and thus the Turkish economy in general. It appears unlikely that Germans had been specifically singled out. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Memorials left at the base of the Obelisk of Theodosius
The stated goal of ISIS is to create a new world-wide Caliphate. The last Caliphate to claim universal leadership of the Islamic world had been overseen by the Ottomans, with the sitting sultan holding the title of Caliph. The secular government of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924, leaving the Islamic geosphere as a whole without a recognized leader. ISIS now intends to right what is perceives to be this historical wrong. The bombing here in Sultanahmet Meydani, less than a hundred feet from the entrance to the Blue Mosque, one of Islam’s greatest monuments, is an attack not only on the Turkish state, which had outlawed the last Caliphate, but also on the mainstream Islamic world that has so far failed to recognize the Caliphate headed by ISIS. 
Entrance to the Blue Mosque
A few people have begun to wander through the square, probably locals on their way to work. They scurry by the obelisk without a glance, their heads down against the glancing rain. Terrible as this bombing has been, it was not the worst Turkey has seen recently. In July of 2015 more than thirty people died in a suicide attack near Turkey’s border with Syria. In October of 2015 suicide bombs at a peace rally in Turkey's capital of Ankara killed more than 100 people. Suicide bombings have been woven into the fabric of everyday life. I stand and stare at the obelisk, on whose four sides are carved Egyptian hieroglyphs oddly enough celebrating the victory of Egyptians over the inhabitants of Mesopotamia—now partly controlled by ISIS—over 3500 years ago.

The obelisk had originally been erected by Egyptian pharoah Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 b.c.) at the Temple of Karnak, the immense religious site at Luxor, on the right bank of the Nile 315 miles south of Cairo. Thutmose III, sixth pharaoh of the Eighteen Dynasty, was one of Egypt’s greatest military leaders. He led at least seventeen military campaigns, capturing some 350 cites. He advanced south in Nubia, in Black Africa, reaching the Fourth Cataract on the Nile, 750 miles south of Cairo as the crow flies, and invaded what are now the countries of Israel, Jordan, Syria, northern Iraq, and southwest Turkey. Over fourteen hundred years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth he created what could be called the world’s first superpower. One campaign took him  through what is now Syria and then beyond the Euphrates River into Mesopotamia (now Iraq), then ruled by the Indo-Aryans known as the Mitanni. 
Thutmose III
To celebrate the crossing of the Euphrates and his victory after the Mitanni Thutmose erected one of the several obelisks that would mark his reign. Carved from granite, this obelisk was originally ninety-eight feet long and weighed some 800 tons. Around a.d. 357 Constantius II, the son of Constantine the Great, had this and another obelisk from Karnak transported, presumably by barge, down the Nile to the port city of Alexandria. One of the obelisks was then taken to Rome, where it was erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus. Known as the Lateran Obelisk, it still stands there today. For reasons unknown the other obelisk remained in Alexandria until 390. During the reign of Theodosius I it was shipped to Constantinople and eventually erected on the spina of the Hippodrome. At some point in its journey from Luxor to Constantinople the obelisk had broken into two or more pieces. Only the top sixty feet of the column was erected in the Hippodrome. The granite used to make the obelisk must have been very hard. The column shows no signs of age, and the four rows of inscriptions on its sides are so clear and sharp they could have been carved yesterday. 
The Obelisk of Theodosius 
For 3500 years the obelisk has existed, bearing witness to the greatness of Thutmose III and the eventual fall of Pharaonic Egypt; the subsumption of  Egypt by the Roman Empire; and the rise of Byzantine Empire around Constantine the Great’s capital city, which he wanted to call the New Rome, but then had to settle for having it named after himself. It witnessed all the momentous events which took place in the Hippodrome, including the Nika revolt of 532, when rebels tried to seize the crown of Justinian I. The insurgences unwisely gathered in the Hippodrome, where on Justinian’s orders his loyal troops led by the generals Belisarius and Mundus blocked the exits and then waded into the crowd, killing some 35,000 of them. According to legend many of the dead were buried where they fell on the floor of the Hippodrome, which means I might at this moment be standing on their remains. The obelisk stood as a silent witness when on May 29, 1453 Mehmed the Conqueror led his troops into  Constantinople. He rode into Haghia Sofia, just a few hundred yards away and  claimed it for Islam, thus bringing to an end the 1123 year-old Byzantine, or East Roman Empire, and initiating the Ottoman Empire. The obelisk also kept its silent vigil when the Ottomans fell and the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished. And now it has witnessed the deaths of twelve visitors to Istanbul by a suicide bomber hoping to further the cause of a new Caliph arising in Syria and Mesopotamia, the same lands conquered by Thutmose III 3500 years ago, and whose defeat by Thutmose caused the obelisk to be erected in the first place. The Wheel of Time grinds slow, but fine. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Mongolia | Aral Sea | Turkey | Istanbul

Threw my Airbook, Kindle, and a camera into a bag and wandered off to Istanbul. I figured I could buy toiletries and whatever extra clothes I needed when I arrived in the city. The Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-900 ER lifted off from Chingis Khan Airport in Ulaanbaatar at exactly 12:49 p.m. The flight was completely sold out. I always enjoy the flight from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul via Bishkek. The flight path follows much the same route as the old Silk Road and passes over numerous Silk Road cities that I have had the privilege of visiting. On clear days the flier is presented with a fascinating  panorama of the deserts and mountains of Inner Asia. 

Unfortunately I would not be seeing much today. We encountered cloud cover just outside of Ulaanbaatar that stayed with us until the approaches to Bishkek.  I was disappointed that I could not see the Tian Shan, to my mind the most noble of all the world’s mountain ranges. Oh, I know that some people rave on about the Himalayas, the Karakorams, and the Pamirs, and even the Alps in Europe, the Andes in South America, and the lowly Rockies in North America have their partisans, but for me the Tian Shan represent the ideal of mountains. They are the mountains of my dreams. I mean this quite literally. I first time I ever saw them looming about the deserts of the Zungarian Basin I realized that I had in fact seen them many times before in my dreams dating back to when I was a small boy .

We touched down in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, at 4:49 p.m. UB time, exactly four hours after leaving Ulaanbaatar. Passengers are required to get off the plane and take all their carry-on luggage with them while the plane is refueled. The transit lounge is a long hallway lined with duty free shops, with heavy emphasis on hooch and perfume. Perhaps of most interesting thing for sale is what purports to be Kyrgyzstan honey. Now we are the only flight in transit. On the return leg of the Istanbul–Ulaanbaatar flight, when the plane stops at Bishkek at around three in the morning, the transit lounge is a beehive of activity with passengers from all over Inner Asia waiting for their forward flights. 

The plane lifts off from Bishkek at 6:03 p.m UB time, for a layover of one hour and fourteen minutes.  It’s another 2337 miles to Istanbul, with an estimated flight time five hours and fifteen minutes. Although there had been clear skies on the approaches to Bishkek we soon encountered cloud cover again. After two hours or so the clouds suddenly disappeared, and down below, just off to the south could be seen the remnants of the Aral Sea. 
 Our flight path over the Aral Sea shown in red. The southern shore what is now the Northern Aral Sea could be seen directly below as we flew over. When this photo was taken when the eastern lobe of the Southern Aral Sea (in light green-blue) still appears to have some water in it.

Fed by the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, two the greatest rivers of Inner Asia, the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest inland sea, or lake, in the world ((26,300 square miles), after the Caspian Sea (saline), Lake Superior (fresh water), and Lake Victoria (fresh water).  Starting in the 1950s huge amount of water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya were siphoned off for irrigation projects in what was then the Soviet Union. The lake began shrinking and by the first decade of the twentieth century it had been reduced to about one-tenth of its original size. Some have termed this the biggest ecological disaster in recorded history, although because it occurred in a part of the world that relatively few people knew or cared about it has not received a lot of publicity. 
Map of the Aral Sea dating to 1853
After water levels dropped the Aral Sea split into four separate lakes: the north Aral Sea; two separate basins of what was once the southern part of the Aral Sea, and a small lake between the north and south portions.  In August 2014 it was recorded that for the first time in modern history the eastern basin of the southern part of the sea had completely dried up, leaving only three lakes. This now dry eastern basin is now called the Aralkum Desert. See Aral Sea's Eastern Basin Is Dry for First Time in 600 Years.
Before and after satellite photos of the Aral Sea. The photo on the right, taken recently, appears to show the eastern lobe of the Southern Aral Sea completely dried up. 
 We fly right over the southern shore of the northern lake. Off to the south can clearly be seen the elongated western lobe and the now dry eastern lobe of what was once was once the Southern Aral Sea. Several Mongolians pulled out smart phones and iPads and began taking pictures of what remains of this once great sea. It is indeed a sobering sight. The drainage system of the Aral Sea—the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya—ranks with the valley of the Nile and Mesopotamia as the birthplaces of civilization. Egypt and Iraq remain in the headlines, but the drainage of the Aral Sea, the core of Inner Asia, has in large part been forgotten. It remains the linchpin between China and Europe, however, and could play an ever-increasing role in world affairs as the twenty-first century progresses. The Wild Card is Global Warming, and what effect it might have on the already fragile water resources of the region. See Central Asia Must Unite to Revive the Aral Sea.

Usually this flight goes right over the middle of the Caspian Sea, the largest land-locked sea or lake in the world, but for some reason we now fly directly over its northern shore. I try in vain to spot Astrakhan, certainly one of the most charming cities in Russia, located on the Volga River near where it flows into the Caspian Sea. 

Soon we encountered cloud cover again and it did not clear until we were over the Black Sea about an hour out of Istanbul. The plane soon veered south over the eastern end of Anatolia and out over the Sea of Marmara, where the Prince Islands could be seen directly below. We touched down in Istanbul at 11:20 p.m. UB time (5:20 p.m. Istanbul time), for a total flight time of ten hours and thirty-one minutes. The distance was 5728 miles. There was no one in line at the Express Immigration Lane (I was flying Business, which allowed me to use the Express Lane), and I had to wait only thirty seconds for the train to the Zeytinburnu metro station where I caught the M1 Metro to the downtown area.  Soon the Theodosian Walls loomed up on ahead. As the incomparable John Julius Norwich points out in Volume 1 of his magisterial three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantium: The Early Centuries:
It is one of the clichés of Constantinople [Istanbul] that it should, ideally, be approached by the sea. Only then, we are told, can the uniqueness of its geographical position be properly appreciated, to say nothing of that famous skyline of dome and minaret which has symbolized, for as long as any of us can remember, the Mysterious East. With this opinion we cannot easily disagree; but, for those of us on whom Byzantium will always cast a more powerful spell than Islam, there is another approach every bit as satisfying and very nearly as spectacular. No one, surely, whose first arrival has been by road from Edirne, can ever forget that first astonishing sight of the Land Walls, looming up from the surrounding plain . . . 
Theodosian Land Walls near Topkapi Gate
Being a land man myself I tend to agree with Viscount Norwich. The three mile-long Theodosian Land Walls, built in the fifth century, are one of the world’s great historical monuments, and I always experience a certain frisson of excitement when seeing them again after an absence of several months. Anyhow, my hotel is just inside the land walls. I got ready to get off at the Pazartekke metro stop, the closest to my hotel, but inexplicably the train just went by the stop without stopping. What fresh hell was this? I wondered. Surely the train driver could not have just forgotten to stop. I got off at the next stop and took the metro back the same way. Again we whizzed by the Pazartekke stop, but this time I noticed yellow tape blocking the entrances. Apparently it was closed for some reason. So I get off at the first metro station outside the walls and start hoofing it back. A four-lane freeway runs parallel to the land walls, but fortunately there is a pedestrian overpass leading directly to the Topkapi Gate. So I am able to enter Istanbul on foot via the historic Topkapi Gate instead of via the more mundane metro line. Attila the Hun (r. 434–453) once tried to enter Constantinople (Istanbul) via this gate, but was repulsed and finally had to give up altogether his investment of the city.
The historic Topkapi Gate
I receive a friendlier welcome. Just inside the gate the proprietor of a tea shop waves at me. I often have tea here in the morning when I stay in this neighborhood. Further down the street two shopkeepers greet me. A man on the street stops and stays in English, “Welcome back!” The waiter at the corner restaurant, where I often eat, is outside having a smoke and he gives me a polite nod. I feel like Jason returning from the Wars. 

The receptionist at my hotel doesn’t speak English (it’s one reason I stay at this place); he just smiles and hands me the key to my room, which is the same room I have had the last ten or more times I stayed here. I pay in cash and he doesn’t bother asking for ID. So I am back in Istanbul.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Turkey | Istanbul | Mongol Invasion

I entered a Portal on October 9 and after having spent several weeks in a Parallel Universe emerged just recently in Istanbul, which as cognoscenti know contains a Portal Connected to Shambhala. I reappeared in Istanbul just in time to meet up with my pal Ms. Saraa from Ulaanbaater, who had flown into town on Turkish Airlines for a few days of shopping and R&R.
Ms. Saka at her hotel (click on photos for enlargements)
We hit the streets running. I must say I experienced a different Istanbul than the one I am accustomed to: namely the shopping scene. First we visited the Historia Mall, a huge new complex just up the street from the Aksaray Metro Station. Thank Heavens they had a Starbucks! I parked myself there while Ms. Saka hit the stores. She had already advised me that she did not like people peering over her shoulder while she was shopping. It had recently dawned on me that I knew very little about the Achaemenids who ruled much of what is now Iran and surrounding countries from 550 BC to 330 BC, when their empire was conquered by Alexander the Great. I had brought my Kindle along (actually I never go anywhere with it), and now I took the opportunity to get up to speed on the Achaemenids by reading Matt Water’s marvelously entertaining Ancient Persia: A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 BCE.

I had already reached the sack of Persepolis by Alexander the Great when Ms. Saka reappeared. After three hours of shopping she had found nothing she liked. So we moved on to the mammoth Forum Shopping Center a few stops further out on the Aksaray-Airport Metro Line. They too had a Starbucks! I finished Ancient Persia and moved on to Alexander the Great and the Conquest of the Persians. By the time Ms. Saka  appeared three and a half hours later Alexander was dead. Still she had found nothing she liked.

The next day we went to the Russian shopping district near the Laleli Mosque, not far from the Grand Bazaar. Many of the stores here are wholesale. Ms. Saka finally got down to business. She bought at least fourteen dresses, several pairs of boots, and other assorted items. I spent an enjoyable day listening to women from Russia and the former Soviet republics haggle with beleaguered sales clerks. Although I have not lived in Russia for years I was able to at least get the drift of most of the conversations. There following three more days of whirlwind shopping. Then finally to the Spice Market area where Ms. Saka bought raisins, apricots, dried cranberries (for kidney ailments), walnuts, both shelled and unshelled (her mother believes tea made from the shells of walnuts are good for the bones), cashews, almonds, and various other fruits and nuts. That concluded the shopping portion of Ms. Saka’s trip. 

Now for sightseeing. This was Ms. Saka’s first visit to Istanbul so we hit all the high spots, starting with the square between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, certainly one of the world’s most iconic tourist venues. 
Ms. Saka and Hagia Sophia, built in the 530s AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. 
Ms. Saka and the Blue Mosque, built  between 1609 to 1616 by Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I
The Blue Mosque at night
We also visited the Basilica Cistern, built in the 520s AD to store water for the area around Hagia Sophia. The underground cistern has 336 columns and reportedly can hold over 100,000 tons of water. 
The Basilica Cistern
Two of the columns in the cistern rest on bases with carvings of Medusa. This one is on its side. No one know why. 
The other Medusa is upside down. Again, no one knows why.
Ms. Saka upside down
The Yeni Cami, or  New Mosque, near the Spice Market, completed in the 1660s
Courtyard of the New Mosque
Ms. Saka buying simit from a simit seller
Of course no trip to Istanbul is complete without seeing the Whirling Dervishes at the Mevlevi Hall in Galata, across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmed where Ms. Saka was staying.
Performers prepping for the dance
Whirling, whirling . . .
The morning after the Dervishes we left for Büyükada, the largest of the Prince Islands, located in the Sea of Marmara about an hour’s ferry ride from the main part of Istanbul. 
Ms. Saka at the Ferry Dock
On the ferry to the Prince Islands
Ms. Saka
Ms. Saka at the Büyükada (Big Island) ferry station
Ms. Saka strolling the streets of Büyükada. No cars are allowed on the island, so it’s either horse carriages, bikes, or on foot. 
Back in Istanbul we visited the famous fish restaurants near the Galata Bridge. Thoroughly sated by Istanbul, Ms. Saka caught the next plane back to Ulaanbaatar. She had arrived with only the clothes on her back but returned with 85 pounds of loot (that’s 38.5 kilos to you insufferable decimal-heads)—not a bad shopping trip!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Turkey | Istanbul | Theodosian Land Wall

While wandering through Istanbul I stayed in a hotel in the Topkapi district, hard by the Theodosian Land Wall of Istanbul. This area is about three miles west of Sultanahmed, the heart of old Istanbul. The hotels out here are a lot cheaper than closer to the center, and the pace is a lot less frantic, especially on the quiet side street where I am staying. There are numerous small restaurants and tea shops in the immediate area if one cares not to roam, but it is only a fifteen or twenty minute ride on the metro to the Area of the Grand Bazaar and Sultanahmed, in case one wants to immerse oneself in the hubbub of the city. And of course Topkapi is a convenient starting point for wandering along the ancient Theodosian Land Wall of Istanbul. 

As John Julius Norwich points out in Volume 1 of his magisterial three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantium: The Early Centuries:
It is one of the clichés of Constantinople [Istanbul] that it should, ideally, be approached by the sea. Only then, we are told, can the uniqueness of its geographical position be properly appreciated, to say nothing of that famous skyline of dome and minaret which has symbolized, for as long as any of us can remember, the Mysterious East. With this opinion we cannot easily disagree; but, for those of us on whom Byzantium will always cast a more powerful spell than Islam, there is another approach every bit as satisfying and very nearly as spectacular. No one, surely, whose first arrival has been by road from Edirne, can ever forget that first astonishing sight of the Land Walls, looming up from the surrounding plain . . . 
The Theodosian Land Wall was constructed during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450 A.D). According to one account the wall was completed in 413 A.D. In the following centuries innumerable invading armies, including those led by Notorious Badass Attila the Hun, would throw themselves against the Land Wall, but no one ever succeeded in breaching it until May 29, 1453, when the Ottoman armies led by Sultan Mehmed II broke through and seized the city. Thus the Land Wall had stood involiate for at least 1040 years. 

The Land Wall extends from the Sea of Marmara on the south 3.4 miles to the Golden Horn on the north. Topkapi, where I stayed, is about in the middle, making it a convenient starting point for walks to either end. 
 The heavily restored Theodosian Land Wall near Topkapi (click on photos for enlargements)
  The Theodosian Land Wall near Topkapi
 One of the many towers in the wall
 Unrestored ruins
Unrestored ruins and a section of restored wall
 The wall has suffered through many earthquakes in its 1000 year-plus history. Whether this crack in a tower is a result of an earthquake is unclear.
 Tower in the Wall
  Tower in the Wall
  Tower in the Wall
 Section of wall
Section of the Land Wall approaching the Golden Horn. This part of the wall was built later and is not considered part of the Theodosian Wall. 
Some areas along the outside of the wall are now used as truck gardens
 Truck gardens
  Truck gardens
 Produce from the truck gardens
 Flower beds and markets along the outside of the wall
 Street running along the inside of the wall
 One of the numerous gates in the wall

  One of the numerous gates in the wall
Topkapi Gate. My hotel was just inside this gate.