From the Gateway to the East


A few weeks before heading to Istanbul, a city perched on the borders of both Europe and Asia, it was appropriate to see and hear Montreal-based Kiya Tabassian and his ensemble, Constantinople, perform Dalla Porta D’oriente (“From the Gateway to the East”) on their early musical instruments at in Victoria.  Here’s a sample.

Earlier this year, at International Guitar Night, Cenk Erdogan played a fretless guitar.  While we have only two semitones in western music – sharp and flat – Turkish music incorporates 12 tones which are achieved with the fretless guitar.

I’ve just arrived in Istanbul from Barcelona, and was immediately struck by how modern the city is, the vast amount of construction taking place, and the extensive green spaces being used by all ages.  When we got to the hotel, what a view – the Aya Sofia and Blue Mosques:


When I saw the itinerary, I didn’t know how we could see all the main buildings in one day, not realizing that they are all on one central square, Sultanahmet Square. The city has a long and complex history, so we dug in, beginning with the Museum of Archaeology.

Most important in the collection are two fragments from the Kadesh Treaty, the earliest known peace treaty, formed between Ramses II of Egypt and the Hittite King Hattusilis III made in 1269 BCE and discovered in Kadesh, Syria.

“Now I have established good brotherhood
and good peace between us forever.  In order
to establish good peace and good brotherhood
in the relationship between the land of Egypt
with the Hatti land forever.”

                                                                  – Ramses II, Egypt


The Ishtar Gate was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in about 575 BCE by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II on the north side of the city. It was part of a grand walled processional way leading into the city. The gate, being part of the Walls of Babylon, was considered one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. Once per year, the Ishtar Gate and connecting Processional Way were used for a New Year’s procession celebrating the beginning of the agricultural year.  It lasted 12 days starting at about March 21st, our first day of spring.   I had seen a large portion of the gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, but Istanbul’s Museum of Archaeology has the lions, dragons, and bulls.



We also saw the beautiful Roman “Columned Sarcophagi of Anatolia” dating from 140 to 260 AD.




Topkapi Palace

The Ottomans became an independent state at the beginning of the 15th Century (around the same time as the Renaissance in Florence).  There was swift development in politics and culture and a rapid expansion of territory.  In 1453, they took Istanbul, in 1517, they took Egypt and in 1526, they entered Hungary.  By the time of the reign of Suleyman I (1520-66) the Ottoman state was a vast and powerful empire including large parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. 

Constructed in 1459 by the Ottoman emperor Mehmed the Conqueror, the palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. Female members of the Sultan’s family lived in the harem, and leading state officials, including the Grand vizier, held meetings in the Imperial Council building.

During Ottoman times the Second Courtyard was used as a gathering place for courtiers and would have been full of peacocks and gazelles.  The Sultan, seated on the gold-plated Bayram throne, held audiences here. The French ambassador Philippe du Fresne-Canaye, wrote an account about an audience:  Extrait des Lettres et Ambassade.  

We visited the library.  The inscription over the door reads:

“My friend, take learning seriously and declare,
O my lord increase me in knowledge.”
–    Surah al-ta-fa, 20:114

There was also a surprise.



The kitchens were interesting.  Whenever the Sultan travelled, the kitchen was packed up and travelled with him.


Eventually the many wars and battles the Ottomans engaged in depressed the economy.  The Palace fell into disuse in the 1800’s but the Treasury and a few other functions remained.  At the end of the first world war, the empire suffered a complete economic collapse.   In 1923, when a new independent Republic of Turkey was formed, the palace was converted into a museum.

Time Out

We had a delicious lunch at The Pudding Shop – a delightful restaurant having nothing to do with pudding now but has been in business for 60 years.  In the 1960’s when all the hippies were on their spiritual quest from London to Kathmandu, they could get a good meal and have their mail forwarded to its address – the mail would be held for them for months.


Hajia Sophia

The Church of Holy Wisdom (Hajia Sophia), built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 537 AD, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site best known for its beautiful mosiacs.  After the Ottoman conquest, the cathedral was converted into a mosque.  Even though the mosaics depicted Christ and other human depictions, thankfully most of the mosiacs were preserved.  Since the rise of Ataturk, the building has been a secularized museum.


Flying buttresses support the roof of the mosque.


The baths are next to the mosque.


The vast interior is difficult to capture in a photograph, especially ith parts of it under restoration.

Most of the glowing Byzantine mosaics are seen from the upper galleries reached by a series of stone ramps.

Having ensured his mother got to see the mosaics up close, a son lovingly helped her back down all the ramps.


Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmet I was just 13 years old when he was enthroned in Istanbul, a city that spans Asia, Europe and Africa.  Despite his lack of military, political or administrative skills, he managed to leave a legacy in the form of one of the finest mosques in the heart of Istanbul.

Despite an untimely death by typhus at age 27, he left behind two wives, 9 sons and 5 daughters.  Seven of the sons were murdered, eliminated as a threat to the throne or on the throne; three of the murdered sons had taken the throne and two of them were responsible for the murders of their brothers.

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, was completed in 1617.  It has six minarets which at the time matched the main mosque at Mecca.  (In response, a seventh minaret was added to the mosque at Mecca.). It faces its rival, the Hajia Sophia, once a Byzantine cathedral, creating one of the most magical city skylines in the world.

The nickname of the Blue Mosque came from its interior.  Sultan Ahmet had ordered the use of traditional motifs on its tiles, including cypress trees, tulips, roses, and fruits to evoke visions of a bountiful paradise. The lavish use of tile decoration on the interior was a first in Imperial Ottoman mosque architecture.   Unfortunately for us, the interior was lined with scaffolding and netting, but I am always grateful that such important historical monuments are being protected and restored.  Here are views from the net.



New Rome

In 334, when Constantine became emperor, the Roman Empire was vast and difficult to govern from Rome. There were many incursions by Persians in the East and the Emperor needed to be close by to diffuse them.  His predecessor had declared that the capital of the Empire was wherever the Emperor was, but Constantine wanted a new permanent capital and headquarter for the Christian faith.

Constantine found a perfect site in a thousand year old Greek colony halfway between the Western and Eastern parts of the Empire.  Located on the trade route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, there was trade in amber, wood, oil, grain and spices.  It had a deep water harbour and, surrounded by water, was defensible on three sides.  Constantine declared this “New Rome,” but the people called this city “Constantinople.”

Hippodrome and Obelisk

Construction began at breakneck speed – the whole city was built in six years.  There were baths, a university, a forum, a new Senate House, a new palace, mansions for the rich and a vast hippodrome.  At the Hippodrome, bread, clothing and money were given to spectators.  There were lavish chariot races and circusses with gymnasts and high wire acts.  There is nothing left of the Hippodrome, only the vast open area where it once stood.  This is known because of the record of the obelisk installed in the centre.  An ancient Egyptian obelisk from Pharoh Thutmose III, the Obelisk of Theodosius, was shipped down the Nile from Karnak Temple at Luxor and Constantine had it installed at the hippodrome.



Yerebatan Sarnici (“Cistern sinking into ground”)

The Yerebatan Cistern is the largest of hundreds of ancient underground cisterns in Istanbul.  The enlarged cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople, the Topkapı Palace was used into modern times. Constructed by Byzantine Emperor Justinianus I in 527 AD, it covers 980 square metres with walls 13 feet thick.  The ceiing is supported by marble columns.  It was featured in the 1963 Bond film, To Russia with Love, the Dan Brown book and film, Inferno, and the Assassin’s Creed:  Revelations video game.  Because of Inferno, I found the cistern pretty creepy, especially with the sound of dripping water and the occasional large drop falling on me from who knows where.  The creepiness wasn’t alleviated by use of a huge broken-off marble fragment from another site – an upside-down “Medusa” – as a sturdy base.   As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy to photograph down here.


I can’t resist including this marginally-related final bit of music to end the day.  😄



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