Saturday, June 21, 2014

Byzantine İstanbul in 10 iconic monuments

Byzantine İstanbul in 10 iconic monuments

(Photo: Sunday's Zaman)
March 30, 2014, Sunday
Long before it was İstanbul or even Constantinople, the great city that is now Turkey's undisputed cultural capital was Byzantium, the city on the Bosporus founded by Megaran colonists in 637 B.C.

As the Roman Empire became larger and more unwieldy, it was on this eastern city that the eyes of Emperor Constantine alighted in 330. Given his stamp of approval, it was renamed Constantinopolis and went on to become the heart of the Byzantine Empire that evolved out of the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire.

Today traces of the Byzantine era litter Old İstanbul inside the battered old land walls. The most conspicuous and most visited of those traces is, of course, the great church of Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) that bestrides Sultanahmet Square. But with many of the old buildings given new uses (specifically the churches as mosques) and with no museum devoted to the city's Byzantine history, it can be hard for the casual visitor to imagine how things once were. Click on to find out more about the Byzantine city, then head straight for these great sites to dream of the distant past.

Hagia Sophia Museum (Aysofya Cami)

Why? Finest surviving monument to early Byzantine era

Unmissably large, Hagia Sophia looks as if it must always have been part of the scenery. In fact, the building you see today was the third church on the site and owes its existence to a riot in 532 between the supporters of opposing chariot teams in the nearby Hippodrome that makes the more recent troubles in Gezi Park look like a storm in a teacup. By the time the dust had settled, not just the second Hagia Sophia but also two other Byzantine churches had been burnt down.

The great emperor Justinian moved fast to make good the damage, commissioning Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus to build a replacement so imposing that no one would remember what had gone before. Completed in 537, it boasted the largest dome in the world, which quickly fell victim to an earthquake in 558 and had to be rebuilt. That dome and its sturdy supporting pillars created a great sense of space that is harder to appreciate now that the scaffolding required to “restore” the building has been reinstalled in the nave.

No visitor to Hagia Sophia will be able to forget the glittering mosaics dating from the ninth to the 13th centuries that are dotted about the interior. The church stands mainly, though, as a monument to the grand ambitions of an emperor who left his mark in buildings scattered all over Western Anatolia and Thrace.

Chora Church

Chora Museum (Kariye Cami)

Why? Finest monument to the 13th-century Byzantine Renaissance

Built on a far more petite scale than Hagia Sophia, Chora Church, out near the Land Walls at Edirnekapı, was built in the 11th century when this part of the city was still rural. Expanded in the 13th century, it was given a lavish interior decoration scheme by a wealthy statesman called Theodore Metochites whose preposterous taste in headgear was immortalized in one of its many mosaics.
Today Chora is the best place to come to inspect the evidence of a Byzantine artistic renaissance that took root in the city after the Latins who occupied the city from 1204 to 1261 were finally turfed out. Visit soon since the building is scheduled to close for extensive restoration.

Fethiye Cami

Why? Second only to Chora Church as a place to admire late Byzantine mosaics

Should you be thwarted in your efforts to visit Chora Church, then head east along Draman Caddesi in search of the Fethiye Cami, which started life in the 12th century as the Monastery of the Theotokos Pammakaristos but, like the Chora Church, acquired a lavishly decorated extension in the 13th century. Nothing here can quite match the staggeringly lovely frescoes of the Chora's Parecclesion chapel, but the dome mosaics depicting the Pantocrator and the Virgin Mary are a stunning reminder of the glory that was Byzantium.

Monastery of the Pantocator (Zeyrek Cami)

Why? Burial place of some later Byzantine emperors

High on a bluff above the Golden Horn at Unkapanı, the Byzantine Monastery of the Pantocrator has been under restoration for so many years that most people have probably forgotten what it used to look like. That work looks as if it may finally be nearing its end, which means that visitors will once more be able to appreciate a basically 12th-century monastery that grew in increments to become one of the most important in the city and the burial place of some of the Komneni emperors. The monastery owed allegiance directly to the emperor rather than the patriarch and possessed a famously rich treasury until it was raided by Crusaders in 1204. Some of their booty now forms part of the altarpiece of St Mark's Basilica in Venice.

Küçük Ayasofya Cami

Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus (Küçük Ayasofya Cami)

Why? Oldest intact Byzantine church in city

It would be easy to assume that Hagia Sophia was the oldest surviving intact church in İstanbul, an honor that actually falls to the much smaller Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus, on the shore of the Sea of Marmara downhill from the Arasta Bazaar. Built in 527, the interior of the church featured a two-storey octagonal colonnade embellished with wonderful capitals and lengthy inscriptions that mention Sergius but not Bacchus. Some people object to recent restoration work inside what is now a mosque; others will be too stunned by the beauty of the colonnades to complain.

St Mary of the Mongols

Why? The only city church that never became a mosque

On the hilltop near what was once the vast redbrick Greek High School for Boys in Fener, St Mary of the Mongols is worth visiting not because it is the most beautiful of the city's surviving Byzantine churches, but because it was the only one that was never turned into a mosque, courtesy of Atık Sinan, the architect who worked on Fatih Cami for Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror; a copy of the decree permitting its survival hangs on the wall. The church is open on Sundays. At other times ring the doorbell for admission.

Great Palace Mosaics Museum

Why? A glimpse at the glory of the Byzantine Great Palace

While coachloads of tourists descend on beautiful Topkapı Palace it's hard to remember that an even bigger Byzantine palace, or collection of palaces, once stood in what is now Sultanahmet/Cankurtaran. Bits of it crop up whenever new building work is carried out but the single most stunning reminder of what has been lost can be seen in the Great Palace Mosaics Museum, beside the Arasta Bazaar. Not only do the mosaics shown off in situ suggest the lost splendor of the palace building, but they also hint at the way of the life of the Byzantines too with men shown hunting, fishing and farming, while children dressed in the colors of the most revered chariot teams play games.

Yerebatan Sarnıcı

Yerebetan Sarnıcı

Why? Most impressive reminder of the Byzantine water system

 Today it may be one of İstanbul's most atmospheric sights, but the popular Yerebatan Sarnıçı (Cistern) was once just a prosaic piece in the complex jigsaw of aqueducts and reservoirs required to bring water from the Thracian forests into the city. People may gawp in awe now at the upside-down carving of Medusa used as a column base, but its position shows that the builders saw it merely as reusable rubble for their latest project. The Aqueduct of Valens that straddles Atatürk Bulvarı was another piece in the same puzzle.

Land Walls

Why? Constantinople's protection until 1453

Coming in from Atatürk Airport visitors catch a passing glimpse of the great walls that once ringed the Byzantine city and protected it from its enemies right up until 1453 when Mehmet the Conqueror punched his way through them with the help of a Hungarian-built cannon. With time on your hands, you might like to walk the length of the walls from Mermerkule on the Sea of Marmara to the soaring towers at Ayvansaray on the Golden Horn. In doing so you will pass the renovated shell of Tekfur Sarayı, part of the lost Blachernae Palace to which the Byzantine emperors retreated after they recovered the city from the Crusaders in 1261. The walk is best done in company.

Church of St John the Baptist of Studion

Why? Battered remains of a once hugely productive monastery

Today only the outer walls survive in Samatya (Kocamustafapaşa) of what was once one of the most important monasteries in all of Byzantium, with a scriptorium in which monks produced some of the finest illuminated manuscripts. The church is slated for restoration. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it could be turned into a museum of Byzantine history?


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Coasting 3: The Turkish Mediterranean

Coasting 3: The Turkish Mediterranean

Alanya (Photo:Sunday's Zaman)
March 23, 2014, Sunday

Stretching from Datça in the west to Adana in the east, the Mediterranean shoreline is perhaps the most quintessentially Turkish part of the coast and certainly the most photographed.

 The western part of it from Marmaris to Antalya is the heartland of the Blue Cruise -- actually invented in Bodrum just round the corner in the Aegean -- the part of the coast picturesquely dubbed “the Turkish Riviera” or “the Turquoise Coast” in tourist brochures. It's an area of dramatic natural beauty with soaring mountains dropping sharply to an azure sea and with the awe-inspiring ruins of several different civilizations -- the Carians, Lycians and Romans in particular -- within easy reach of the beaches.

The Mediterranean coast splits naturally into two sections, with Antalya as the break point. West of Antalya tourism dominates everything in a string of resorts ranging from the big full-on offerings of Marmaris-İçmeler and Fethiye to the smaller holiday centers such as Dalyan and Kaş. East of Antalya, Side and Alanya are equally popular holiday resorts. After that the mountains soar ever higher, the coast road narrows and hotels virtually dry up until you near the big conurbation of Adana-Mersin-Tarsus.

The western side of this stretch of coast is served by airports at Bodrum, Dalaman and Antalya; the eastern side by the airport at Adana.

Knidos ancient theater

Datça, Bozburun

Reşadiye and Bozburun peninsulas

West of Marmaris an open jaw of land looks poised to swallow the isolated Greek island of Simi. Forming the northern part of the jaw is the Reşadiye Peninsula, which runs out to Datça, a mini-Marmaris of a port resort that makes the best base for visiting the wonderful Greco-Roman ruins at Knidos. The prettiest places to stay lie just inland from the sea in Eski (Old) Datça while the most unabashedly luxurious hotel is the Mehmet Ali Ağa Konağı, a gloriously restored Ottoman mansion also inland in the pinprick settlement of Reşadiye. In summer, boats cruise to Knidos and Simi and there's a ferry to carry you north to Bodrum without backtracking.

The southern part of the jaw forms the Bozburun Peninsula, which runs out to the isolated harbors of Bozburun and Söğüt via a string of small beach resorts at Hisarönü (great for watersports), Osmaniye and Selimiye, an almost circular bay that looks set to become the next big thing in tourism. The peninsula's largest resort is Turunç, another mini-Marmaris that is ideal for family holidays.


Marmaris and İçmeler

By far the biggest resort at the western end of the Turkish Mediterranean coast, Marmaris, glories in a reputation for brash and boozy holidays as typified by the night-time offerings of Barlar Sokak (Bar Street). Recently, however, it has smartened up its act, with some fine new waterside hotels replacing others that were definitely past their sell-by date. A small 16th-century castle forms the centerpiece of a picturesque quarter immediately behind the harbor.

In summer, water taxis skim across the bay to İçmeler, which is not much more than a resort extension of Marmaris without the large bazaar and residential quarter of the older town. Better beaches and bathing opportunities are available on daily cruises to the offshore islands and Cleopatra's Beach, or on excursions east to Dalyan and sandy İztuzu beach.

Dalyan and Sarıgerme

Midway between Marmaris and Fethiye, Dalyan has everything going for it with its tranquil riverside setting overlooked by picturesque, mini-temple-shaped Carian tombs signposting the way to the impressive ruins of ancient Kaunos and with a flotilla of boats waiting to ferry visitors upriver to the beach at İztuzu. It's a great place to take a holiday if your tastes run to something less frenetic than Marmaris.

East of Dalyan and accessible by minibus from Ortaca is Sarıgerme where a lovely stretch of sandy beach has been protected by pushing most of the hotel development inland.



Fethiye is a marvelous place to stay with an excellent mix of hotels in all price ranges, a splendid harbor, slight archeological remains dating back to Lycian and Roman times and a rambling bazaar that incorporates a market where you pick your fish, sit down at one of the surrounding restaurants and wait to have it cooked for you.

Fethiye also makes the perfect base for visiting lots of nearby attractions including the long stretches of sandy beach at Ölüdeniz where hang-gliding off nearby Baba Dağı (Mt. Baba) is almost de rigueur. At Kayaköy you can explore the ruins of the abandoned Greek village of Levissi that provided the inspiration for Louis de Berniere's novel, "Birds Without Wings," while the ruins at Xanthos and the Letoon further east form one of Turkey's UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites. Cruises from Fethiye will carry you to the Sunday market at Göcek, a favorite with the yachting fraternity, and to Butterfly Valley, which is more of a hit with backpackers.

Kaş and Kalkan

The twin resorts of Kaş and Kalkan, midway between Fethiye and Antalya, offer complimentary attractions. Kalkan is low on historical monuments but does have lots of charming cafes and restaurants in bougainvillea-draped houses overlooking the harbor. Kaş, on the other hand, boasts an ancient theater and impressive Lycian tombs scattered about town to supplement a range of hotels and pensions to suit all pockets alongside the upscale shops of pretty Uzun Çarşı.
Boat trips from Kaş cruise to Kaleköy, one of Turkey's prettiest villages, with a ruined castle sitting atop a hill running up from a glorious, fish-restaurant-ringed harbor overlooking the submerged remains of a Lycian settlement. Day cruises also take visitors to the attractive Greek island of Kastellorizo (Meis). Both Kaş and Kalkan make great bases for visiting the ruins of a basilican church at Demre (Kale) which claims to have been the last resting place of St. Nicholas -- the original Father Christmas -- and to Patara, which has one of the finest stretches of sand in all of Turkey, with Lycian and Roman ruins set back behind the dunes as a wonderful added extra.

Olympos, Çiralı and Adrasan

Olympos and Çiralı are non-identical twin resorts in the Beydağları National Park west of Antalya. Olympos, with its famous “treehouses” -- mainly cabins actually -- is super popular with backpackers while Çiralı finds favor with older travelers, especially those of an environmentally conscious frame of mind. Both resorts offer access to the mysterious, inextinguishable flames on the mountainside known since ancient times as the Chimaera and both offer access via a lovely beach to the ruins of ancient Olympos, still half-buried in thick undergrowth.

Adrasan is harder to get to and less developed although it does feature a fine line in restaurants where you eat at tables set up over a river. All three resorts are close to the Olympos Teleferik, a cable car that goes up the flanks of Tahtalı Dağı (Mt. Tahtalı) that is most easily reached if you have a private car.


Like Fethiye, Antalya has everything going for it as a holiday resort. Action is mainly centered on the town's beaches of Lara and Konyaaltı, although many people prefer to stay in all-inclusive holiday-village developments in nearby satellites such as Kemer, Beldibi and Belek, the latter especially popular with golfers. Independent travelers tend to head straight for Kaleiçi, the walled inner city that features a fine choice of hotels and pensions in restored or imitation Ottoman mansions within easy reach of a lovely harbor.

The Antalya Museum showcases finds from many local archeological sites and is worth a visit either before or after touring the ruins at Perge, Side and Aspendos, the latter home to a restored ancient theater that forms the centerpiece of the annual Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival. Even more beautiful are the mountainside ruins of Termessos and the beachside ruins of Phaselis, currently threatened by a planned hotel development. From Antalya, many people also venture east to Köprülü Kanyon to join thousands of others in a flurry of whitewater rafting.

Side and Alanya

The last sizeable package-holiday resorts on the Mediterranean coast lie east of Antalya in Side, where the hotels and pensions wrap themselves round extensive and impressive Roman ruins and overlook a lovely stretch of sandy beach, and in Alanya, where beaches are severed from the hotels by the busy coast road but where impressive Selçuk ruins look out to sea from the hilltop and at shore level an old Selçuk shipyard has been beautifully restored. Recently work has begun on regenerating some of the crumbling Ottoman housing stock to provide Alanya with some unexpected boutique hotels.


East of Alanya the motion-sickness-inducing coastal road winds its way to Anamur, a small beach resort more popular with Turks than foreigners but offering the best access to the ruins of the abandoned Byzantine site at Anamarium and to the remains of impressive Mamure Kalesi, both sites on beaches.


Nearing the Greater Adana conurbation, Kızkalesi is also more popular with Turkish tourists but dominates a fine stretch of sandy beach with the ruined “Maiden's Castle” floating picturesquely offshore. If you want to explore the many ruins in this area, including the dramatic remains of Kanlıdivane and the more delicate ruins of Uzuncaburç-Olba Kızkalesi probably makes the best base.


Turkey's fourth-largest city is an unlikely holiday destination for anyone, although some might want to use it as a base for visiting Tarsus, an increasingly attractive town with much more than its associations with St. Paul to offer. The small beach resort south of Adana at Yumurtalık boasts an offshore “Maiden's Castle” on a smaller scale than the one at Kızkalesi. It, too, might make a base for visiting Tarsus if you don't mind having to backtrack through Adana.


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