Monday, July 27, 2015

Gülhane: A park for all seasons

Gülhane: A park for all seasons

Gülhane: A park for all seasons
View from Setüstü Çay Bahçesi (Photo: Pat Yale)

High up above the point where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosporus and the Golden Horn, enthusiastic tea drinkers sit around samovars on tables lined up to catch a magnificent view that was once the preserve of the sultans. This is Setüstü Çay Bahçesi (Top Terrace Tea Garden), a corner of Istanbul's wonderful gülhane Park that goes remarkably unvisited except by the locals.

Over the last 18 months, much has been said about the lack of green spaces in İstanbul. Statistics have been rolled out to make the case. Yet Gülhane Park rarely gets a mention despite the fact that it is nestled right in the heart of busy Sultanahmet, the throbbing heart of the city's tourism industry.

The reason for the park's relative anonymity isn't hard to find. It started life as the outer garden of Topkapı Palace, which meant that high walls had to shield it from the gaze of plebeian passers-by. Even today there are only a few gaps in those walls, so many visitors rush past without thinking to glance behind them. Yet, for my money, an hour or so spent wandering around the park can be one of the most rewarding, inspirational experiences of a trip to İstanbul.

Gülhane is a true park for all seasons. While it's true that it peaks early when the tulips bloom during the April Tulip Festival, their passing is soon forgiven when roses flower in the marble-lined flowerbeds at the back of the park. In autumn, when the leaves start to fall, the park takes on an air of melancholic grandeur. Even in winter this is a great place to come to stroll between the ghostly white trunks of the trees marching along both sides of the main path and to observe the frantic activity in the centuries-old heronry filling the canopy.

The park is a place to come to relax and listen to parakeets that screech across the sky. It's a place to bring children to play in surprisingly imaginative play areas. And it's a place to admire temporary art pieces that pop up from time to time.

Those tourists who do drop into the park often do no more than stroll up and down the main thoroughfare. But the park keeps its cards close to its chest. To discover all that it has to offer you need to get away from that magnetic main path. Do that and you'll discover two small museums, two minor historic monuments and even a statue with a history behind it.

Alay Köşkü (Parade Pavilion)

The nicest way to get to the park is to stroll down Söğütçeşme Sokağı, a cobbled street of pastel-colored houses that runs between the walls of Topkapı Palace and the back of the Hagia Sophia. The second nicest way is to wander downhill from the first courtyard of the palace, passing the İstanbul Archeological Museum. In either case, you'll find yourself at the congested main entrance to the park where hawkers gather to sell corn on the cob and cotton candy to visitors.

Once you've passed the barrier leading into the park you should turn sharp left and mount the ramp that runs alongside the wall. This leads up to what is now the Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar Edeyibat Müze Kütüphanesi, a small literature museum and library (closed at ???ON??? weekends) named after Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-62), one of Turkey's most revered writers, whose “The Time Regulation Institute” was recently published in English.

Long before it became a library, this little gazebo built right onto the walls was the Parade Pavilion, from which the sultans could watch the city's many festivities, including the colorful Procession of the Gilds, memorably described by 17th-century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi. Çelebi writes, for example, of the furriers parading with “the furs of sable, ermine, marten, red squirrel and Russian silver fox… the neck furs of duck, swan and goldfinch… and the furs of astrakhan lambskin, all worth hundreds of thousands of kuruş [Ottoman currency].” It's likely that the original was built for Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror of Constantinople, although the current model dates back only to 1819, when the reforming Mahmud II was sultan.

Even if you're not much interested in Turkish literature, it's worth coming up here to get a sultan's-eye view through the windows at the enormous roofed gateway on the other side of the tramlines. This was the Sublime Porte, where visitors hoping to see the grand vizier would wait to be received with the result that ambassadors came to be described as accredited to the Sublime Porte rather than to the Palace. The current gateway dates back to circa 1840.

Museum of the History of Islamic Science and Technology

If you leave the library and continue walking around the park wall in a clockwise direction, you will pass a small lake with a bridge -- which makes a popular posing platform -- and then an electricity box decorated with some of the typically swirling miniatures that were the hallmark of the late Nusret Cölpan (1952-2008).

Eventually you will arrive at the Museum of the History of Islamic Science and Technology (closed Tuesdays), which is housed in what was originally a stable block. The subject matter might sound of rather specialist interest, but the museum is worth visiting not least for its beautiful presentation. Come here, too, to learn the history of the İstanbul Rasathane, the observatory that today plays a big role in earthquake preparation. It was originally the handiwork of a Syrian called Takiyüddin (1526-85), who founded the first such space in Tophane in 1574 before being obliged by the religious authorities to move on.

Goths Column

If you cross the park and head uphill towards the Setüstü Çay Bahçesi, you should come to a clearing with, in the center of it, one of the city's four remaining Roman memorial columns. An inscription on the base of the column refers to a victory over the Goths without indicating which one, leading historians to postulate that it could have been erected during the reign of Claudius II Gothicus (r. 268-70) or Constantine the Great (r. 306-37). One historian recorded that it had been topped with a statue of Byzas, the founder of Byzantium, which would make perfect sense given that the Topkapı Palace was built over the site of the original Byzantine one.

Byzantine church

If not much can be said with any conviction about the Goths Column, even less can be said about a cluster of unexcavated ruins that you'll find if you head back down towards the main path through the park. Broken columns, tumbled capitals and heaped-up stones might suggest that this was the site of a small Byzantine church, perhaps dating back to the reign of Constantine. How odd that it should sit there virtually ignored.

First statue of Atatürk

After pausing for tea at Setüstü, it's worth following the perimeter of the park counterclockwise and downhill to the exit on the Bosporus side at Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point). Here amid a great deal of building paraphernalia stands the very first statue ever built of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was erected in 1926, three years after the founding of the Turkish Republic. There he stands gazing across the water towards Kadıköy and the site of the original settlement of Chalcedon, founded by the Megarans in circa 635 B.C. Given that Islamic tradition frowned on representation of living things, the statue was the work of Austrian sculptor Heinrich Krippel.

Çinili Köşkü (Tiled Pavilion)

If, instead, you leave Setüstü and continue to follow the walls of the park in a clockwise direction, you will find yourself passing behind the elegant Çinili Köşkü, built in 1472 for Sultan Mehmed II, probably so that he could watch bouts of cirit, a Turkish sport not entirely unlike polo. While not nearly as lovely as the front, which offers access to a part of the Archeological Museum, the back of the building is nevertheless studded with beautiful turquoise tiles that reek of Central Asia.

The main entrance to the park faces the Zeynep Sultan Cami on Alemdar Caddesi. It's open daily from dawn to dusk.
Keywords: gülhane , Istanbul

Monday, July 20, 2015

Turkey’s 12 best mosques

Turkey’s 12 best mosques

Turkey’s 12 best mosques
Sultanahmet Camii (Photo: Sunday's Zaman)

A mosque is a mosque is a mosque, right?
Wrong! You could perhaps be forgiven for thinking in this way while traveling around Turkey, where too many modern mosques are mere cut-price, cut-down copycats of the great Mimar Sinan originals. In reality, though, Turkey is home to a huge variety of mosques, many of them truly splendid. The following are some of the country's finest mosques but have also been chosen as representatives of different styles.

Ulu Cami, Diyarbakır

Dating back to 639 and the period when the newly invigorated Arabs were pouring north from what is now Saudi Arabia, Ulu Cami in far eastern Diyarbakır is believed to be the oldest mosque in Anatolia. With its elongated courtyard surrounded by the mosque itself and several porticoes, its design has more in common with those of Aleppo and Damascus than it does with later Turkish designs. The mosque has gone through many re-buildings over the centuries and is now undergoing meticulous restoration.

Alaaddin Cami, Konya

The most familiar Turkish mosque design features cascading domes and semi-domes framed by minarets but many of the oldest mosques in the country have a much less showy appearance. As with their caravanserais, the Selçuks tended to focus all their decorative efforts on the portals of their mosques and on the mihrabs inside which usually sat amid a sea of columns, often utilizing pieces of Roman masonry as capitals and bases. Alaaddin Cami in Konya, the original Selçuk capital, boasts an unusually elaborate exterior although its interior is fairly typical, Buried in the courtyard behind it are some of the Selçuk rulers.

Ulu Cami, Divriği

After the Selçuk Sultanate of Rum (Konya) collapsed many different emirates (beyliks) developed in Anatolia. Remote Divriği became the capital of the Mengücek Beylik, one of whose rulers, Ahmed Şah, commissioned an Ulu Cami of such splendor in 1228 that it is now one of Turkey's world heritage sites. What makes his Ulu Cami so special is the Cennet Kapısı (Heaven Gate) that took the usual Selçuk emphasis on portals to such wildly elaborate extremes that it is often described as Rococo in appearance. There's nothing else quite like it in Turkey although a copy has been added to a modern mosque at Bulancak, near Giresun on the Black Sea.

İsa Bey Cami, Selçuk

Tourists who choose to visit the ruins of Ephesus from Selçuk rather than Kuşadası also get the opportunity to appreciate another masterpiece of the Beylik period: the huge and lovely İsa Bey Cami, built in 1375. Despite its position on the far western side of Turkey, this mosque bears some comparison with the Ulu Cami in Diyarbakır, having a large courtyard in which the congregation once prayed out of doors. In general, the mosque is seen as an example of the transition from Selçuk to Ottoman architecture, with the elaborate decoration of the portal harking back to the Selçuks while the twin domes presaged the early Ottomans.

Eşrefoğlu Cami, Beyşehir

On the shores of Lake Beyşehir, the Eşrefoğlu Cami is another masterpiece of the Beylik era that belongs to a distinct subset of “Selçuk” mosques known as “forest mosques” because the great sea of columns inside was created from wood rather than stone. Built in 1299, this mosque features not just 42 lovely wooden columns but also an array of other painted wooden fittings including the mimber and seating boxes for the muezzin and the emir himself. Right in the middle, a square is fenced off with wooden balustrades. Once upon a time, it would have been open to the skies although it's now roofed over.

Other forest mosques include the Ulu Cami in Afyon, and the Arslanhane and Ahi Elvan Camis in the Samanpazarı area of Ankara.

Hüdavendigar Cami, Bursa

When the Ottomans started to take over Anatolia the mosques they designed were far simpler than those that were to come later. Many fine examples can be seen in Bursa, the first Ottoman capital, where a ground plan based on an inverted T developed, with the mihrab up a few steps in the narrowest part of the mosque. Featuring brick-and-stone exteriors, the mosques often look almost Byzantine. With its many domes built onto a flat roof, Bursa's Ulu Cami is the least typical mosque in town. More characteristic is the iconic Yeşil Cami with its fine tiled interior. Tucked away in the Çekirge suburb, the Hüdavendigar Cami, built for Sultan Murad I between 1363 and 1366, is another impressive one-off, its exterior so designed that it looks almost like a Byzantine palace rather than a mosque. Inside, it reverts to the typical T-bar design. It's a shame that more people don't visit it.

Küçük Ayasofya, İstanbul

After the Ottomans seized Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453 they had to improvise places of worship from existing buildings, which meant quickly converting all the Byzantine churches into mosques. These church-mosques included both Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) and the Chora Church (Kariye Cami). Both are now museums but other church-mosques continue as places of worship even today. One particularly lovely example is Küçük Ayasofya, which started life in 527 as the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. Externally it's not especially striking but step inside and you'll find a two-story ring of marble columns etched with fine carvings and a lengthy inscription. It's a splendid one-off.

Süleymaniye Cami, Istanbul

Of all Turkey's architects none has the name recognition of the great Sinan (c. 1490-1588). Today more than 80 of the buildings he designed for İstanbul still survive, including medreses, hamams and bridges. But his many mosques have left the greatest mark on the city, and of those mosques is the recently restored Süleymaniye, the great mosque that he built for Süleyman the Magnificent. It bestrides the skyline, which is the most impressive, not least because almost all of its original külliye, the collection of social buildings surrounding it, survives.
Süleymaniye is huge, splendid and crowded, and some visitors prefer the much smaller Rüstem Paşa Cami that hunkers down near the Galata Bridge, its walls papered with lovely İznik tiles on the inside and out. There are more fine tiles in the Sokollu Mehmed Paşa Cami in Kadırga but my own personal favorite Sinan mosque is Şehzade Cami, the first large mosque complex he designed.
Selimiye Cami, Edirne

Much as Süleymaniye is admired, Sinan himself rated Selimiye Cami, which he built for Sultan Selim II in Edirne between 1569 and 1575, as his masterpiece, a decision confirmed by UNESCO when it awarded the mosque world-heritage-site status in 2011. Set at the back of a small park that makes it easy to appreciate it, Selimiye incorporates all the familiar Sinan characteristics -- a central dome covering a huge central prayer hall with a collection of smaller domes and semi-domes surrounding it and four tall, thin minarets framing it.

Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque)

Designed by a pupil of Sinan, Sedefkar Mehmet Ağa, between 1609 and 1616, Sultanahmet Cami is as grand as, and similar in design to, Süleymaniye, and features an unrivalled selection of İznik tiles. But where Sultan Süleyman had been happy to settle for four minarets, Sultan Ahmed I wanted an even more impressive six. For that alone, Sultanahmet Cami stands out. It wasn't until Merkez Sabancı Cami arose in Adana in 1998 that a second mosque in Turkey also opted for six mosques.

Ortaköy Cami, İstanbul

Most commentators think that Turkish mosque architecture went into a slow decline from the end of the 17th century onwards. In the latter half of the 19th century, however, the prolific Balyan family of architects bestowed a distinctive set of mosques on İstanbul, especially on the shores of the Bosporus. Typical of these mosques is Büyük Mecidiye in Ortaköy, built in 1855 and now sitting just beneath the Bosporus Bridge. Whereas the windows of Sinan mosques tended to be relatively small and were often filled with stained glass, this mosque has huge, arched windows designed to draw in light from the outside. By this time, the baggage of the social buildings once associated with mosques had been shed along with the cascading domes and semi-domes. Instead, Ortaköy Cami features a single large dome along with two minarets. Dolmabahçe Cami is more or less a mirror image of it.

Şakirin Cami, İstanbul

Modernity has not been kind to İstanbul mosque design, little of which rises above mediocrity. A striking exception is Şakirin Cami on the edge of the Karacaahmet cemetery between Üsküdar and Kadıköy. Completed in 2011, this mosque nods towards the style of Frank Gehry on the outside. On the inside, however, it's unique. The work of a female interior designer, Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu, it features a magnificent turquoise and golden mihrab together with beautiful gold-leaf calligraphy and dripping plastic chandeliers. It's well worth going out of your way to see.
Keywords: Turkey , best , mosques

Monday, July 6, 2015

Istanbul’s museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts revisited

Istanbul’s museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts revisited

 Istanbul’s museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts revisited
Knitted Column & Sultanahmet Cami from Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum
Great news! After two years of restoration the Turkish and Islamic arts museum in Istanbul's Hippodrome has finally reopened just in time for the festive season.
The museum is housed inside a stone building that is itself a historic monument as the only privately owned mansion to have survived from the 16th-century heyday of the Ottoman Empire. When it was built is a mystery, although it has to have been long enough before 1520 to have needed the running repairs of that year for which records survive. What is certainly known is that in 1521 Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent made a gift of the building to his friend and later son-in-law, İbrahim Paşa, who became one of his grand viziers. Subsequently, in 1530 the sultan observed the celebrations for the circumcisions of his three sons from the window that jutted out onto the Hippodrome.

Being an Ottoman sultan's favorite was just as precarious a business as being a favorite at the court of the Tudor kings of England, and in 1536 İbrahim fell foul of Şuleyman's powerful wife Roxelana in a dispute over the succession; at a feast to celebrate Ramadan he was duly strangled and his body tossed into the Bosporus.

After that the palace had a checkered history. The building you see today is a mere fragment of the original which is believed to have stretched right the way along the Hippodrome as far as the Firuz Ağa Cami (mosque) on Divan Yolu and as far back as the Binbirdirek Sarnıçı (1001 Pillars Cistern). Fortunately, the main ceremonial hall survived and had been restored to what was thought to be its original appearance by 1983 after which the museum was moved here from its previous home in one of the medreses attached to the Süleymaniye Cami.

The museum

Today the museum is home to a stunning collection of items not just from Turkey but also from other parts of the Islamic world. They are displayed in roughly chronological order, starting with capitals, floor tiles and other items acquired from the palace of the Abbasid ruler Caliph Mutasim (r. 833-42) in Samarra (modern-day Iraq), and a collection of early medieval glazed turquoise pottery redisplayed as if it had just been excavated from the ruins of Raqqa, a poignant sight now that the modern city has fallen to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

New to the museum is a room devoted to the Damascus documents collection, a treasure trove of pages taken from Qurans dating from the ninth to the 19th centuries that were brought here from the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus in 1917.

A highlight of the museum is the early 13th-century door taken from the Ulu Cami in distant Cizre. This magnificent door with two wings featured a wooden frame over which an elaborately worked metal superstructure was placed. It also featured a huge pair of griffin-shaped door knockers attached to it with knobs shaped like lions' heads. Sadly, one of these knockers was stolen in 1966 and is now in the David Collection in Copenhagen, a clear example, surely, of something that should be returned to its land of origin. Unusually, we know the name of the man who designed this wonderful door, a Cizre-born engineer named Al-Jazari (1136-1206) who worked at the court of the Artuqid Sultan Nureddin Muhammed Kara Aslan and wrote a book, nicknamed Automata, in which he described his many ingenious inventions.
The museum also displays beautiful items from Safavid and Qajar Iran including mirrors that show off the Qajar rulers with astonishingly thick black beards so that they look rather like negatives of Santa Claus. Then come the purely Turkish rooms, displaying choice pieces from the Seljuq, Beylik and Ottoman eras. Some of the most interesting are the Seljuq items that show how lightly the Islamic prohibition on figurative art was once held. Here you'll see bowls painted not just with birds but also with groups of Seljuq grandees as well as panels carved with griffins and tombstones featuring men on horseback.

Finally, there are the carpets, the pride of the museum and some of the finest relics of the art from its earliest days including pieces from Konya that date right back to the 13th century. Most are appropriately displayed in the grand ceremonial hall along with pieces of fine inlaid Ottoman woodwork.

The collections aside, from the terrace of the museum you get a spectacular view of Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque) with one of its famous six minarets currently partially dismantled for restoration. The old ethnography section that used to display wonderful pieces of nomadic finery will not reopen for another six months, but before you leave the museum you should take a quick look at a fairly nondescript arch with a pair of painted rosettes on the ceiling in front of it in the lobby. These are the last traces of the Düğümlü Baba Tekke, a dervish lodge rediscovered during restoration work.

The tekke was a shrine to Şeyh Hafız Mustafa Efendi (d. 1886), a madman who used to knot pieces of rag to his clothes, hence his nickname, Düğümlu Baba (the holy man of the knots). A popular meeting place for those with mental health issues, the tekke was closed along with all the others in the city by order of Atatürk in 1925. Its ruins were completely demolished in 1965 when work on restoring the palace started.

Obelisk of Theodosius, Hippodrome

The Hippodrome

Not to be missed on the ground floor behind the ticket desk are unexpected pieces of the old Hippodrome, the Byzantine chariot-racing circuit over whose remains İbrahim's palace was built. Other than these rather enigmatic chunks of masonry with tunnels running through them the only other structural remnant of the Hippodrome is the Sphendone, the soaring brick outer wall that used to support the tiered seating at the rounded end of the stadium. Pictures and photos beside the newly uncovered section in the museum reveal what the stadium must have looked like in its heyday when huge crowds cheered on their favorite teams with all the fervor of Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş fans today.

Until the recent repaving of the Hippodrome it was easy to stand at the opposite end of it, near the circular Alman Çeşmesi (German Fountain), and get a sense of the shape of the stadium as the traffic followed roughly the same route as had been taken by the chariots. Now that the whole area has been pedestrianized the shape is a little harder although not impossible to discern especially if you remember that the monuments in the center - - the Obelisk, the Serpents' Column and the Braided Obelisk - - originally formed some of the decorations of the Spina (Spine) running down the middle of the stadium.

The most immediately impressive of these monuments is the Dikilitaş or Obelisk of Theodosius. In 390 the Byzantine emperor Theodosius had this hieroglyph-inscribed piece of granite transported here from Thebes in Egypt where it had originally served as a memorial to the triumphs of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (r. 1479-1425 BC). It then apparently languished in a corner of the Hippodrome until eventually an administrator named Proclus worked out how to lever it into an upright position on a plinth decorated with carvings showing the emperor attending a chariot race and awarding a crown of laurels to the victor.

The obelisk was partially broken in transit from Egypt but is still in startlingly good condition considering its age, especially when you look at the shattered remains of the Serpents' Column nearby. Originally in the shape of three intertwined snakes whose heads formed a tripod to support a golden cauldron, this, too, was originally built to commemorate a military victory, in this case that of the Greeks over the Persians at Plataea in 478 B.C.; it was reputedly made from the shields of the defeated troops. Made to stand in front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, it was brought here by Emperor Constantine the Great in c. 330. Of the snakes' heads only one still survives (although not on display) in the İstanbul Archeological Museum.

Either Constantine or Theodosius was probably also responsible for bringing the unadorned Örme Dikilitaş (Knitted Obelisk) to the Hippodrome. A pale imitation of the impressive Obelisk of Theodosius, this was once covered by bronze plates paid for in the 10th century by Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus. They seem to have disappeared during the disastrous Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Qajar mirrors

Selçuk bowls


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