Aya (Hagia) Sofia and Sultan Ahmet
Two of the most amazing monuments in Istanbul. There they are facing each other over the centuries, competing with each other. Aya (Hagia) Sofia or Saint Holy Wisdom is over 1,500 years old and still standing. Before the Vatican, before Notre Dame, before Westminster Abby, before the Sagrada Famila, there was Aya Sofia. It was the model to be duplicated throughout the centuries and surpassed. It was the symbol of Orthodoxy before the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Fatih Mehmet. Still, after all these years, the symbolism of this edifice is still lingering. When, the Pope visited Istanbul to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch, the media were watching to see if the Pope would pray in the Church. He did not for do so would have caused turmoil in the Middle East. Before that, several young Muslim men decided to pray in Aya Sofia. They were detained. Aya Sofia is now a museum. Before it was one of the chief mosques in Istanbul, during the Ottoman times. Built by Justinian in the 6th Century, it remains as one of the most amazing architectural monuments in the world. Before the Vatican, it was the largest church and had the largest dome.
Now when you go into it, it is cavernous and somewhat lifeless. There are still phenomenal mosaics, but they are just a piece of what was there before the Crusader's looted it and the rest of the city. You have to have a good imagination to make this somewhat sterile environment come to life. I always imagine that on special occasions that there would be chanting, the swell of incense, and the royal family looking down at the spectacle. This is where the Emperors were crowned and where the high holidays were celebrated. It was site where 'heritics” were killed because of their errant beliefs. Then in the Ottoman times, this was one of the major mosques which rivaled Sultan Ahmet, Suleymania, Fatih and Eyup.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque is an active mosque. It has not the sterile environment of Aya Sofia. One thing that makes the difference is the light. The mosque is designed to be lit by natural light. It is commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque because of the blue Iznik tiles. Iznik tiles were made only in Iznik (former Nicaea of the Nicean Creed). Everyday it is filled with tourists gazing up at the dome. You feel somewhat daunted by its size.
However, besides these descriptions as there are much better ones in guide books, this area has been part of my activities while in Istanbul. This is what happens when you live in a place and are not just a tourist. However, you feel like a tourist here, more than any place else. As you go by a restaurant, always the hawker outside stating something like “My friend, come inside”. And..if you dare look at the menu, you will be sorry because before you know it you are being led inside. Out of principle, I don't even bother with places where I am being pressured. I have a couple of favorite places in the are and do not bother with the rest. This was the area that I first stayed in as a tourist about ten years ago and I always try to find the hostel I stayed in but it is gone I think. Once when several of my friends were visiting and buying tourist gifts, a man approached us and stated “Are you from America?” My normal inclination is to just not say anything and keep on walking. My friend stated to me, 'You are so rude (under her breath). Well, he proceeded and at the end of his diatribe...”I have a carpet shop, not very far away from here...maybe you would like to visit?”. I said to my friend, I told you. This was mild. Some can be abrasive, if you refuse to make a comment and ignore them. In Aksaray, not very far away (but a different atmosphere) they switch to Russian, since there are many Russians who come there for business. In the central area (called the Golden Horn), if you walk a few blocks in any direction the neighborhoods change in character. The natives are very much aware of this and one does not need to say more the name of the neighborhood and its context..positive and negative.
It follows, if I discuss Sultan Ahmet/Aya Sofia area, I have to discuss Aksaray. Maybe later, I will discuss Kumkapı because it is also an interesting area but often overlooked. I was planning to do an article on this area, but now I must concentrate on other things. Maybe in a further section, I will extract some of the article for the readers of this blog.
Aksaray is the transportation hub of the area. It is where you transfer to the Metro or tram. It is not my most favorite place in Istanbul, as there are too many people, pick pockets and some pretty shady looking people. Plus, it is not the most pedestrian friendly place. Many places are not in Istanbul, but this is the subject of another section so I will discuss this later. I used to meet a friend at the simit place in the area. (A simit is kind of a big bread stick for those readers unfamiliar with Turkey. I am not a big fan of simit unless it is warm and fresh.) At this place, you could watch the variety of people passing between the Metro and the tramway. This was usually the meeting place for my friend and I to take John Freely's book Strolling Through Istanbul and discover Istanbul. This is an excellent book. The most detailed one I know on Istanbul. I would have never known about some of the details of Istanbul without it. (One of my planned projects...well real long term one... would have been to create a Geographic Information System for the Golden Horn and Galata with descriptions and coordinates so that they could be used in a navigator system (GPS). I hope that someone else will do this later.) Other than a meeting place and a place to change transportation modes, I really don't like this area. In the last two years, I have found ways to avoid going through this area.
Aksaray is one of the most diverse areas in Istanbul. Other areas were historically diverse, but now they are just shadows of their past. Aksaray has a mixture of populations living and working in the area. There are large populations of Russians and others from the Caucasian regions (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia). Most of these have come since the end of the Cold War and are primarily involved in the textile business in this area. It starts in the area of Lalali and ends at Kumkapı. (Probably, doen't mean much to those unfamiliar with Istanbul. But, trip to Google Earth might help. I looked for a good map of Istanbul showing the neighborhoods, but could not find one. I could prepare one later, if I can find time.)