Monday, June 29, 2009

Happy Anniversary!!

Today is the 2nd anniversary of Grey Bear-ology! Thanks to everyone who follows my blog & here's to another 2 years of travelling (with my bipedals) and writing for you all. I'm going to go have a glass of champagne now - or rakı since I'm in Turkey.

A GB Riddle: When is a Church Not a Church?

... when it is a mosque.
And when is a mosque not a mosque?
... when it is a museum.

This past week, my god-bipedal attendants came all the way from Rovigo (that's in Italy) just to visit me - and possibly spend some time with my bipedal attendants - so I took everyone for a Grey Bear Guided Tour of Istanbul™ . I know that I keep repeating myself (bears often ramble) but there's just so much to see that I'll confine my comments today to the Ayasofya - which non-Turks know as the Hagia Sophia - Museum.

The Hagia Sophia sits atop the old city of Istanbul - known as Sultanahmet - like a big pink bullfrog. In fact, many of the mosques in Turkey remind me of bullfrogs but most of them are green or white. Like real frogs. Anyway, it has a commanding position and can be seen as you enter the city from the Bosphorus - which is hardly a coincidence. It was built to impress.

Anyway, the Hagia Sophia (or HS from now on) started life out as a church (actually, a cathedral) - its 4 minarets notwithstanding. It sits on the site of an earlier 4th c church (burnt down during riots) built by the son of Constantine the Great and a second 5th c church (burnt down during riots).

A month after the last church went up in smoke (532), Emperor Justinian ordered two geometry professors-cum-engineers (architects worked under engineers back then) and 10,000 workers to construct a bigger, better church - the third and final one, known as the Ἁγία Σοφία or "Holy Wisdom" - which they did in a record 5 years. Hopefully Justinian had the holy wisdom to keep torch-carrying rabble away from his church.

The HS would be religious centre of the Eastern Orthodox faith and the grandest - Justinian claims to have outdone Solomon's temple with his church - and the largest cathedral in the world for almost a 1000 years and was only nudged from the top of the list by Seville's cathedral in 1520 - one of my all-time favourite churches in one of my all-time favourite cities. Its dome was the biggest in the world until the 15th c when Brunelleschi built the duomo of Florence's Cathedral. What was it with Italians and Istanbul??

Now, to go back to my riddle. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and its leader, Sultan Mehmet II, decided to change it into a mosque. He had a lot of work in front of him: he had to add a mihrab and minber - necessary things in a mosque - and rip out those inconvenient Christian bells, altars, icons, and religious vessels. He also defaced, destroyed or whitewashed over the mosaics. Today you aren't allowed to use flash when photographing the mosaics. Of course, some people do - like you Mr. 60-year old Philistine with the Canon digital camera and the bright red pants. You know who you are.

Earlier in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, marauding Crusaders stripped the church of many of its golden mosaics and carted them back to Venice (more Italians!). The crusade was organized and led by 90-year old and blind-as-a-bat Enrico Dandolo, the 39th Doge of Venice. He was buried in the HS but the grave marker you see (above, right) was added by some Italians in the 19th c. He's not really there: Sultan Mehmet II made sure of that when he seized the church.

Anyway, back to the HS. What strikes the visitor today are the golden mosaics (some as early as the 9th c), its sheer size (the Statue of Liberty's torch would scrape the top of the dome), and the eerie light within the church (thanks to its many windows and the porous brick the builders used which comes from the island of Rhodes). Eight giant leather-wrapped wooden medallions (top left) with Arabic calligraphy still hang from the upper gallery - there used to be more - bearing the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, his grandchildren, and various caliphs.

You can also find the Column of Saint Gregory (bottom right) who was a 3rd century miracle worker. His column was believed to sweat holy water and this water could cure miracles. If you put your thumb (or paw) into the hole, turn it 360-degrees, and it comes out damp, your prayers will be answered. My paw wasn't damp - and neither was my female god-bipedal attendant's - so I guess we shouldn't quit our day jobs yet.

Below left, you can see one of two amazingly huge 2nd c marble jars which the sultan "borrowed" from the ancient city of Pergamon (in Turkey). On the side is a tap to provide drinking water for its worshippers. The urns were carved out of a single piece of marble. I wouldn't have wanted to be one of the water-bearers who had to fill those up every day!

Now, to go back to my riddle again. When is a mosque not a mosque? When it becomes a museum. The HS was a working mosque until 1934, when Atatürk removed the prayer rugs, started scrapping away at the whitewashed mosaics, took down some of the medallions and secularized the HS, turning it into the Ayasofya Museum.

I really hope my god-bipedals enjoyed their visit to the HS. Living in Italy, they got "churched-out" a long time ago and are fast on their way to being "mosqued-out" in Turkey. And I feel badly that I got recognized while we were there. It can be so embarrassing. There are still so many fans left over from my international fashion model days and admirers of my work as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador ... they even set up a phone for me with a direct line to take important calls from world leaders (Mahmud Ahmedinejad has yet to return my call) during my visit. I know that Atatürk wanted the HS to be modern and all that, but I bet he didn't have a bear-phone in mind.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Grey Bear Over Galata

I recently chatted about the day trip my bipedal attendants and I took to Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium) last week but I didn't say that we officially started our walking tour of the New City - not that the New City is all that new - only after travelling there by bus, ferry, tram and Istanbul's little one-stop funicular. It's quite different from Lisbon's funiculars and I admit that I was a little disappointed that we were below the city the whole time. I find that underground photos often disappoint.

Anyway, we walked from one end of Taksim Square (the heart of the New City) down down down towards the Golden Horn. On our list - among other things - was the Galata Tower near the Golden Horn. The tower was originally built by the Genoese and the city would eventually be taken by the Venetians and because I spent many wonderful weeks in Northern Italy this winter, I thought that a visit to Galata would bring things full circle. And I have one more little coincidence: Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium) was built on seven hills just like Rome! Isn't life neat that way?

During the Middle Ages, this part of Byzantium (soon to be Constantinople and then Istanbul) was controlled by the Genoese - in fact, Genoa controlled a lot of the Mediterranean world at that time. They built the tower - all 205 feet of it - in 1348 as part of their fortress at Galata which sat menacingly across from the Byzantine part of the city, separated by the Golden Horn. In case you didn't know, the Golden Horn is the inlet of the Bosphorus which divides the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium). It has nothing to do with musical instruments or rhinoceros (or rhinoceroses or rhinocerotes) like some people thought.

It was through the Golden Horn that the Venetians (more Italians!) were able to enter Constantinople (formerly Byzantium and soon to be Istanbul) during the Fourth Crusade and laid seige to the city.

Of course the Italians think that the name Galata comes from an Italian word and Greeks think it comes from a Greek word and you people squabble about so many unimportant things. The tower - the tallest structure in Byzantium in its day - was originally called Christea Turris (Tower of Christ) but eventually it became known as the Genoese Tower. I don't know if Christ was annoyed by that at all - I mean, he has enough churches named after him ...

Over the
years, it's weathered earthquakes, fires, and attacks by you humans. In 1875, its conical roof-cap was blown off during a fierce storm! It's been rebuilt many, many times and has been a fire tower,
military barracks, a dungeon (prisoners of war waited their turn there before becoming galley slaves on the Golden Horn), an astronomical observatory, and even a test site for a human-powered "airplane".

It seems that around 1630, a certain Hezarfen Çelebi was so taken with Leonardo da Vinci's (another Italian!) flight plans that he built his very own wings. According to eyewitnesses, he leapt from the tower and hang-glided for several miles across to the Asian side of Istanbul - or Constantinople. No one knows what happened to him: some say he received a sack of gold for his efforts while others believed that Muslim clerics banished him to North Africa.

By the way, Hezarfen's brother Lagari is said to have used gunpowder to propel himself in a rocket in 1633. I think the
Çelebi brothers were smoking something besides tobacco in their narghiles.

Of course nowadays, people don't take flight from the top of the tower but there is a viewing deck from where you can enjoy stunning views of Istanbul
Constantinople and Byzantium). Generally I find sites in the city very affordable but the entrance fee to the tower was a bit steep (no pun intended). As I said, we went for personal reasons (the Italian connection) but you would do just as well sitting at the nearby Spanish restaurant (like we did afterwards) and admiring the tower with a glass of sangria in one hand and a tortilla (or a beer) in the other. Cheers!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The GB Express

It was gloriously hot and sunny yesterday so I took my bipedal attendants into Istanbul to do some (more) sightseeing. Istanbul is a huge city - its population is well over 12 million - and because it's over 8,000 years old and there's so much to see, it'll take many, many trips for us to just scratch its surface. (Which means that there'll be many, many posts on Istanbul.)

Because my bipedals - and you know I mean the female one - hasn't been whining too much lately, I thought I'd give her a special treat by taking her to the Sirkeci Gari (gari = train station) which once served as the eastern terminus for the exotic Oriental Express. I knew that while she was growing up, her father - whom sadly I knew only briefly - used to buy her an Agatha Christie novel every Friday during his weekly scouring of second-hand bookstores. Or at least he did until she had collected and read every one of them. Compassion comes naturally to me which is why I was chosen to be a Freelance Goodwill Ambassador.

Anyway, as I said, the Sirkeci Gari is - or was - the ending point for the famed Orient Express. Built in 1873, it served the route which runs along the shoreline of the Sea of Marmara, bordering the lower garden walls of the Topkapı Palace. Builders needed special permission from Sultan Abdülaziz to run a railway line so close to his palace but he granted it because he believed that the Sirkeci Station would only be temporary.

It was temporary but only just - 15 years later, a new building, designed in the so-called European Orientalist style, was erected on the same site. It was considered quite "modern" for the time with gas lighting and heat during the winter. I don't know how
Sultan Abdülaziz would have felt about a permanent station being built at Sirkeci but we know that he had a fondness for trains (it was he who had established the first Ottoman railroad system) ... and for women as well (he had seven wives & thirty-six legitimate children). But he had died by this time - probably from exhaustion.

So ... Belgian businessman Georges Nagelmackers, the founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, conceived the idea of an easterly train and, in 1882, took a select group of friends on the inaugural 2,000 kilometre trip from Paris to Vienna. The first Istanbul-bound voyage of the Orient Express left Paris' Gare de l'Est the following year on October 4, 1883 while an orchestra played Mozart's Turkish March. The train passed through France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and finally ended in Sirkeci, covering just over 3,000 kilometres. The whole trip took 80 hours or about 3 days.

There were other routes - one went south to Athens - but none captured the imagination like the Istanbul-bound routes. Passengers were actually advised to carry guns with them for protection as they left the "safety" of Western Europe! Both World War I & II halted service of the Orient Express and a treaty had to be drawn up just to allow the train to pass through Austria.

The Orient Express' heyday was in the 1930's when it was the train of choice for royalty, diplomats and the bourgeoisie. Its name became synonymous with glamour & luxury: both for the comfort of its sleeping cars but also for its excellent cuisine and champagne. Its direct route ended in May 1977 and the train instead stopped short at Bucharest. Now what's left of the Orient Express runs between Strasbourg (France) and Vienna.

As a former international fashion model, I can say that, had I been around, I would have given my eye teeth (yes, bears have canines!) to have ridden the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul. Many famous writers placed their characters on this easterly train: Ian Fleming's James Bond was there, as were characters created by Graham Green and even Bram Stoker.

But none can rival Agatha Christie's contribution to immortalizing the mystique of this train. In fact, she wrote Murder on the Orient Express in 1934 while she was staying in Istanbul.

Today, Sirkeci Gari accommodates European-bound trains and even if it may no longer be part of the Orient Express route, you can still sit and enjoy a meal (or a drink!) at its terminal restaurant. Once a meeting place for journalists, writers and bigwigs, you can at least feel the presence of these bygone days under the watchful eyes of Agatha herself. I'm not sure I enjoyed the Celine Dion music videos projected on a large screen outside on the platform, and the menu's "hot beginnings" (appetizers?) gave me pause, but still, if I closed my eyes I could almost hear Hercule Poirot's "little grey cells" at work.

Like the Istanbul station of the Orient Express, I'll bring this post to a terminus by saying that the hotel Agatha wrote Murder on the Orient Express in - the Hotel Pera Palace - is currently being refurbished - but when it's finished, I'm definitely going to check in for the night. I'll be in room 411. And if the bipedals are good, then maybe I'll take them too!