Thursday, October 30, 2008

Topkapi Palace

After leaving the Blue Mosque, we walked across the street to the Four Seasons for lunch which was lovely and delicious. It was mostly typical lunch fare, salad, pasta, cake for dessert, but the food had a decidedly Turkish flair. Our salad was accompanied with a side-dish that consisted of seaweed wrapped around a rice and vegetable mix. It was good, but not really my thing. For vegetables, it was very rich. The pasta was excellent, and it had a very spicy tomato sauce. Finally, the chocolate cake was more like a mouse-cake and OMG it was good. Hang on, I need a second here....

Mmmmmm....chocolate mouse.....

OK, I'm back. So after lunch we walked around the Topkapi Palace. The place is huge, and since I can't levitate, I couldn't a picture of a whole thing, but here is a model:

See, it's pretty large.

Anyhoo, here is some info from wiki:

he Topkapı Palace ( Topkapı Sarayı) is a palace which was the official and primary residence in the city of Istanbul for the Ottoman Sultans, from 1465 to 1853. The palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments and is a major tourist attraction today. The name directly translates as "Cannongate Palace", from the palace being named after a nearby, now lost gate.

Initial construction started in 1459, ordered by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople. The palace is a complex made up of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. At the height of its existence as a royal residence, the palace was home to as many as 4,000 people, formerly covering a larger area with a long shoreline. The complex has been expanded over the centuries, with many renovations such as after the 1509 earthquake and 1665 fire.

Topkapı Palace gradually lost its importance at the end of the 17th century, as the Sultans preferred to spend more time in their new palaces along the Bosporus.

After the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1921, Topkapı Palace was transformed by government decree in 1924 into a museum of the imperial era. The palace is full of examples of Ottoman architecture and also contains large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armor, and murals, as well as a display of Ottoman treasure and jewelry.

This is the first courtyard and it is the largest of the three contained within the palace. It served as an outer park.

At the end of the first courtyard is the Gate of Salutation leading into the second courtyard. It's unknown when it was built, but it is clearly Byzantine rather than Ottoman (listen to me, like I know the difference). I think it looks a little Disney, no?

Here is Kent and Chris in front of the Gate of Salutation.

This is the entrance to the Royal Treasury, located inside the third courtyard. Inside are amazing jewel encrusted weapons, arms, crowns, necklaces, and other pieces of jewelry. And also the....

Spoonmaker Diamond. It's an 86-carat pear-shaped diamond also known as the Kasikci. Surrounded by a double-row of 49 Old Mine cut diamonds and well spotlighted, it hangs in a glass case on the wall of one of the rooms of the Treasury.

Its origin is not clear. Like many historic diamonds, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. Rasid, the official historian of the Ottoman court, describes its origin:

The jeweler consulted another jeweler who knew immediately that the pretty stone was really a precious diamond. When the second jeweler threatened to disclose the whole matter, the two men quarreled bitterly. Another jeweler heard the story and bought the diamond, giving a purse full of money to each of the angry jewelers. But now the Grand Vizier, Kopruluzade Ahmed Pasha, has heard of the gem. When Sultan Mehmed IV is told of the affair, he orders the stone be brought to the palace, and he takes possession of it. Whether he paid for it is not revealed. And, of course, no one knows what history preceded it being thrown into the garbage heap."

A more probable story is that in 1774 a French officer named Pikot bought the diamond from the Maharajah of Madras in India and then took it to France. Somehow thieves got wind of the gem and robbed Pikot.

Let me just tell you, this thing in real life is HUGE. I saw the Hope Diamond the other day, and that is beautiful (and blue!), but this thing seems twice as big. It looks like one of those huge diamonds in the movies that is too big to really exist, but this one is real!

Here are some more buildings as you walk around (I won't bore you with the details, this post has gone on quite long enough, don't you think?.

The first courtyard also contains the kitchens for the palace. On display are many pieces of china with intricate decorations. They appear so delicate, but at the same time seem durable. I guess they would have to be to last hundreds of years.

As you walk out of the first courtyard, there is a stunning view of the Golden Horn and the other side of Istanbul.

As is the usual story, we merely scratched the surface of Topkapi Palace. We could have spent an entire day just there, and there are still tons of outer buildings that we didn't get to, not to mention the interior rooms in the Sultan's and harem's living quarters! But we gotta save some stuff to do next time, right?

Coming up tomorrow: Hagia Sophia!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Blue Mosque and the Hippodrome

After leaving the Chora Museum, our bus drove us across town (through the ancient wall that used to surround the city and past the Roman aqueducts) to the Blue Mosque. While walking to the Mosque, we passed through the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The Hippodrome was a large racing-track (horse and chariot) when Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

In the center of the Hippodrome is the Obelisk of Theodosius. It was originally erected in 357 AD in Alexandria, Egypt and was later moved to the Hippodrome in Constantinople in 390 AD by Theodosius I.

It was originally 30m tall,but the lower part was damaged in antiquity, probably during its transport or re-erection, and so the obelisk is today only 18.54m. Between the four corners of the obelisk and the pedestal are four bronze cubes, used in its transportation and re-erection. Each of its four faces has a single central column of inscription, celebrating Tutmoses III's victory on the banks of the Euphrates in 1450 BC.

But enough of the history. The thing is massive. And amazingly beautiful. It's pure white and the carvings are extremely detailed. Don't be believe me? Check it out.

Next in the Hippodrome is the Serpent Column. Which has one of the coolest stories EVER.

Remember the movie 300? It was all about the Persian army invading Greece and the Spartans fighting back. Turns out, the Greeks won. And they melted down the shields and weapons of all the Persians they defeated and cast them into a huge bronze spiral column in the 5th century BC. And that column was then erected in the Hippodrome. Awesomeness.

So, now we come to the Blue Mosque.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) is the national mosque of Turkey, and is a historical mosque in Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey and the capital of the Ottoman Empire (from 1453 to 1923). The mosque is one of several mosques known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. It was built between 1609 and 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. Like many other mosques, it also comprises a tomb of the founder, a madrash and a hospice. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque has become one of the greatest tourist attractions of Istanbul.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is one of the two mosques in Turkey that has six minarets, the other is in Adana. When the number of minarets was revealed, the Sultan was criticized for presumption, since this was, at the time, the same number as at the mosque of the Ka'aba in Mecca. He overcame this problem by paying for a seventh minaret at the Mecca mosque.

Prior to entering the mosque, we were told that we all looked ok (shoulders and upper legs covered), but we would be expected to take our shoes off. Our tour guide specifically told us that we would not need to cover our heads. She then distributed these nifty plastic bags from Carnival so we would have someplace to hold our shoes as we walked around the mosque. As she was handing them out, I swear to god, one old lady asked, "is this bag to put over our heads?"

I'll just let that one sink in for a moment.

When we stepped inside the mosque, I was first extremely surprised by the plushness of the carpet. Of course, if everyone is running around without shoes, it would kind of need to be. The next thing that surprised me, was how small the inside of the mosque seemed. Of course it was still several stories high, and we were only allowed in a small area, but it was surprisingly intimate. And with the thick carpets and the blue tile everywhere, it felt warm and comforting, more so than any other house of worship we had visited during our vacation.

The mosque contains over 20.000 handmade ceramic tiles and more than 200 stained glass windows. If you look at the third picture above, you can see how on the large column on the right there are tiny squares. Each one is a single hand-painted tile.

So, in short, the Blue Mosque rocks. I would have loved to take a full tour of it and hear all the history, but we were on a schedule and many more places to visit before the day was through! Coming up tomorrow: The Topkapi Palace.

And now apropos of nothing: why the hell am I craving Rice Crispies all of a sudden? Like every night before bed, I want nothing more than a bowl of Rice Crispies. WEIRD. But in other news, I have managed to resist the siren call of my Halloween candy. I'm giving myself Friday to pig-out, but until then I am being a good girl.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Istanbul and the Chora Museum

The next stop on our cruise, and the one I was most looking forward to, was Istanbul.

Istanbul from the water. The large mosque on the far left is the Blue Mosque, on the right is Hagia Sophia.

Here are some quick facts from wiki:

Istanbul (historically Byzantium and later Constantinople; is the largest city of Turkey and the third largest city in the world. The city covers 27 districts and is located on the Bosphorous Straight and encompasses the natural harbor known as the Golden Horn, in the northwest of the country. It extends both on the European Thrace and on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, and is thereby the only metropolis in the world which is situated on two continents. In its long history, Istanbul served as the capital city of the Roman Empire (330–395), the East Roman (Byzantine Empire)(395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922).

Me again: as you can see, Istanbul has been under the control of lots of different cultures. This has made the entire city a virtual hodge-podge of culture; we call New York a melting pot, but Istanbul is the real deal. Almost every ancient building in the city has served numerous masters, and the houses of worship have gone through periods of being pagan temples, christian churches, synagogues, and most are now mosques.

Turkey, while a Muslim county, is extremely proud of its status as a secular democracy. It has taken it's cue from the West for decades, and is actively seeking entrance into the EU. The people there value their secular government and consider themselves Western. For what it's worth, I felt completely safe walking around in the city, definitely more so than in Naples. Everyone there was extremely nice, maybe too polite, since those sellers in the Grand Bazaar are looking to take you to the cleaners. :o)

The first stop on our 10 hour tour of the city was the Chora Church/Museum.

From wiki again: The Chora Church ( Kariye Müzesi, Kariye Camii, or Kariye Kilisesi — the Chora Museum, Mosque or Church) is considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of a Byzantine Church. In the 16th century, the church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman rulers, and it became a secularised museum in 1948. The interior of the building is covered with fine mosaics and frescoes.

The large tower on the left is called a minaret. It has a small balcony at the top and is where the call to worship is given. The number of minarets indicates the size and importance of the mosque.

As we walked around the outside of the museum, we noticed something really weird. There were stray cats everywhere. We saw at least 5 just outside this one church. Turns out cats in Istanbul are like squirrels here. They are just everywhere. I guess they didn't have Bob Barker over there telling them to spay or neuter their pets.

When you walk into the museum and look to your right, you see this hallway covered in amazing mosaics dating from the early 1300s.

As you look up into the museum's main dome, you see the various scenes of the Virgin and Child.

This is the mosaic of the Koimesis, the Dormition of the Virgin. Before ascending to Heaven, her last sleep. Jesus is holding an infant, symbol of Mary's soul.

As you can see, many of the mosaics have been damaged, probably in earthquakes. But they are still amazingly beautiful.

Coming up tomorrow: the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque (my favorite thing in Istanbul!).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New Mixer!

I love getting new appliances. I was really excited when I got my dishwasher, but now I have a new mixer too!

And it's red.

Cherry red to be specific.

Now I won't develop carpal tunnel syndrome when I do all my holiday baking! Seriously, I can't wait to dig into mixing that butter and sugar with this bad boy. No longer will I have to worry about snapping the handles off my wooden spoons as I try to mix sugar cookies!

Oh, mixer. Never leave me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Are you ready for some more ruins? Because they just keep coming! But first...after departing from Pompeii and Naples, Chris, Kent, and I thought we should get some well-deserved time off. So the next day, while the ship docked outside the Turkish town of Marmaris, we decided to stay put and do nothing. Which specifically consisted of laying outside in the sun on the main deck and sliding down the giant twirly slide. Wheeee! Oh, and relaxing in the whirlpool, of course.

But after a day of relaxing, it was back to work when we arrived at Izmir, the gateway to the ancient city of Ephesus.

From wiki:

Ephesus was a city of ancient Antolia. During the period known as Classical Greece, it was located in Ionia.

Ephesus hosted one of the seven churches of Asia, addressed in the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John might have been written here. It is also the site of a large gladiator graveyard.

The city was famed for the Temple of Artemis (completed around 550 BC), which was destroyed by the Goths in 263. The emperor Constantine I rebuilt much of the city and erected a new public bath. The town was again partially destroyed by an earthquake in 614. The importance of the city as a commercial centre declined as the harbour slowly filled with silt from the river.

Me again: Ephesus was one of the most important cities in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Ephesus was really interesting to see after visiting Pompeii, because the cities were ruined in exactly opposite ways. Pompeii was destroyed in a split second, when it was covered in ash and pumice when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Ephesus, on the other hand, experienced a slow decline, being damaged by several earthquakes and having its population slowly dwindle as the Roman Empire switched to Christianity.

Our tour's first stop was the Izmir Museum, where many of the treasures of Ephesus have been placed. It was actually kind of disappointing to learn that many of the things that are in Ephesus right now are plaster replicas. So it makes me glad that we got to see the real stuff.

The most impressive thing we saw in the museum was the statute of Kybele. Kybele was originally a Phrygian goddess of the earth and fertility, whose cult later moved to Greece. She was kind of morphed into the goddess Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt who was also the goddess of fertility.

The things hanging around her neck are not breasts, but actually bull testicles. Wiki says it best here: Some ecstatic followers of Kybele/Cybele, known in Rome as galli, willingly castrated themselves . For Roman devotees of Cybele Mater Magna who were not prepared to go so far, the testicles of a bull, one of the Great Mother's sacred animals, were an acceptable substitute, as many inscriptions show.

When you walk into Ephesus, you're at the top of a hill, and walk down through the city. Being at the top of the hill mean you get stunning views of the Turkish countryside.

Visitors to Ephesus walk on the city's original marble streets. All I can say, is that I'm glad it wasn't raining that day. You guys all know how easily I can topple over.

The main street of Ephesus leads you right down to most impressive building in the city, the Library of Celsus. More on that below.

Walking down the main drag on your right is the Temple of Hadrian. It is one of the best preserved structures in the city. It was built before 138 A.D by P.Quintilius and was dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian, who came to visit the city from Athens in 128 A.D. The facade of the temple has four Corinthian columns supporting a curved arch, in the middle of which contains a relief of Tyche, goddess of victory. The side columns are square. The pedestal with inscriptions in front of the temple, are the bases for the statues of the emperors between 293-305 CE, Diocletian, Maximian, Constantius I, and Galerius; the originals of the statues have not been found yet.

Authentic Ephesus toilets!

Ok, here we go with the Library of Celsus. More wiki:

The library of Celsus was completed in AD 135. The library was built to store 12,000 scrolls and to serve as a monumental tomb for Celsus (a former consul). It was unusual to be buried within a library or even within city limits, so this was a special honor for Celsus.

The building may be considered important today because it is one of the few remaining examples of an ancient Roman influenced library. It also shows how public libraries were not only built in Rome itself, but also all throughout the empire. After a massive restoration project, which is considered to be very true to the historical building, the front facade of the building was rebuilt and now serves as a prime example of Roman architecture on public buildings. It is also almost certain that some early literary collections were housed in UK locations during the occupation as reference sources for travelling Roman leaders. Local texts of interest would also have been housed in such places if not destroyed. Locations like Verulamium (St Albans) and Caesaromagus (Chelmsford) are reputed to have been sites of such Roman libraries.

Across from the library is a tunnel that leads to...

...the brothel! So the learned men of Ephesus could tell their wives they were going to the library, when they were really just going to get laid. Some things never change, eh?

Chris and Kent, claiming ownership over this column.

At the edge of Ephesus is a Roman amphitheater. You can clamber all over the rocks, but there are signs to warn you of the danger.

Like this one. Awesome.

And here we are at the edge of the city. At the end of the day, I still have trouble believing that I actually made it to Turkey. It's one of those places I have always wanted to visit, but the fact that I actually made it there is pretty amazing. And wait until you see the pictures from Istanbul! We'll probably spend a couple days talking about it, so strap in!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Things to do in DC: Great Falls National Park

I've lived here in the Washington, DC area my entire life (except for those 7 years I spent at college and law school but those don't really count because I wasn't there ALL the time, right?), but there are still a lot of things I haven't done around here or just haven't done in a long time.

One thing I have never done is visit Great Falls Park. From their website:
At Great Falls, the Potomac River builds up speed and force as it falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through the narrow Mather Gorge. The Patowmack Canal offers a glimpse into the early history of this country. Great Falls Park has many opportunities to explore history and nature, all in a beautiful 800-acre park only 15 miles from the Nation’s Capital.
When I got back from Italy, I wouldn't say I was jet-lagged, but I was on Italy-time so I woke up at 7 in the morning Saturday and Sunday mornings. Admission to the park is $5 per car (which seems a bit steep to me), so I took advantage of my ticket by going both mornings. The park has 3 viewing areas for the falls, each affording a different perspective, and several miles of hiking and walking trails.

Now, I'm not a hiker. All you have to do is look at me to know that I am not a big hiker. But after tromping around Europe for three weeks, I figured I could handle some of the trails. Turns out, I was actually right! I looked at the map, but honestly, where the trails started was kind of difficult to figure out so I just decided to follow my nose. Of course, the trail I picked I later found out was probably the most difficult, but it wasn't all that hard. In the words of the park's map, the River Trail requires "some scrabbling over rocks." Which is actually pretty accurate. I wouldn't say the trail was flat, but it was only kinda hilly. And there were quite a few places where I had to pick my way over various rocks, but it was actually fun. It made me feel like a pioneer, roughing her way through the wilderness.

On the way back that first morning, and on the second morning, I took the way easier trail that follows the old canals that were built along the Potomac. When I took the trail on Sunday morning, I walked north to the Aqueduct Dam that was built in 1855 by the Army Corp of Engineers to provide water to the District. It provides the border between Great Falls Park and Riverbend Park.

I was surprised by the amount of history in the park. I thought it was just some trails that ran alongside the falls, but the canal trail (as well as the Riverwalk Trail) was full of signposts providing history about the canals that were built at George Washington's insistence after the Revolutionary War. Washington hoped to make the Potomac navigable all the way to the Ohio River Valley to increase trade and transportation times. The remains and explanations for the functioning of the canals is actually pretty interesting, especially since I had no idea they even existed!

So, in conclusion, Great Falls Park is definitely worth visiting, but in the future, I will probably try to get some friends together to "hike" (or really, walk over some uneven ground) to help with the $5 charge, which is a bit steep. This would also be a great picnic and cook-out spot!

Check out some pics:

The Falls (from viewing area #2)

Aqueduct Dam

Heading into Mather Gorge (just south of the Falls).

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Alright, we have finally set sail from Rome and have reached our first port of call: Pompeii!

While our vacation was super fun, it was definitely exhausting. For our excursions, we were up at the crack of dawn, or sometimes earlier. Here's a picture of the mountains around Naples at sunrise.

Here's a city street in Pompeii. The three stones in the middle of the street were used for crossing when water ran high. Here is some basic info on Pompeii from wiki:

Pompeii is a ruined and partially buried Roman town-city near modern Naples and Caserta.

Along with Herculaneum, its sister city, Pompeii was destroyed, and completely buried, during a long catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius spanning two days on 24 August, AD 79.

The volcano collapsed higher roof-lines and buried Pompeii under many meters of ash and pumice, and it was lost for nearly 1700 years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748. Since then, its excavation has provided an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city at the height of the Roman Empire. (me again: important to note, Pompeii was NOT destroyed by lava. In fact, our tour guide made clear that the lava never reached the city. That's why the ruins we have are so amazing.)

In the Roman homes, there are beautifully kept wall decorations, such as these frescoes.

Here is a wall fresco depicting the goddess of victory, Nike. She's the figure in the middle with wings, like the shoes.

Running along the streets are the original lead pipes that provided the homes and shops and running water. While people joke about how the Romans all died of lead poisoning, in fact, the water running through the pipes would calcify, creating a barrier between the walls of the pipes and the water. So no lead got into the water.

Here's a view of the Pompeii forum (the center of town) looking through the entrance arch.

And a better view of the Forum.

At the one end of the forum, is the Temple of Jupiter, with Mt. Vesuvius in the background.

Ok, this is kind of morbid. The destruction of Pompeii and its people was so sudden, that the people were covered in ash right where they stood or sat. The ash formed a protective casing, and the bodies decomposed inside. But when the city was excavated, the archaeologists were able to make plaster casts of the spaces inside--death casts. It really helps put a human perspective on the natural disaster.

On the opposite end of the Forum from the Temple of Jupiter is the Basilica, the courthouse. Except in Pompeii, if you were found guilty of pretty much anything, it meant you got the death penalty. Hi, Justice!

Coming up tomorrow: we'll take a brief break from my trip photos to start a new regular segment...stay tuned!