Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Palace Bear

This past weekend, I took the bipedals to Istanbul for a little R & R (the female one needed new lipstick - the vanity of some people) and we thought we would play tourist as well as shallow vapid shoppers. One of our stops was the 19th century Dolmabahçe Palace, the lavish less-is-not-more set of imperial buildings built by Sultan Abdülmecid to show the world that:

a) the Ottoman Empire wasn't sick and dying and almost bankrupt (which it was) and
b) wasn't all about orientalism like the Topkapı Palace (which was actually too bad but
Topkapı is much prettier).

I was a little miffed because photos aren't allowed inside the palace because "everything is original". I mean really, that's why we have 'no flash' features on our cameras. I thought that was a little precious. Consequently, I have a blog with almost no photos. Not only that but you can't walk on the very worn (I must say) "pedestrian carpet" with your bare (!) shoes and have to wear pink plastic booties. My female bipedal atten
dant grumbled that the last time she had to wear plastic booties was in a mosque in Egypt and that was supposedly hallowed ground. I confess that for once, I have to agree with her.

You also can't wander throughout the palace on your own but must take a guided tour and, I must say, our guide was rather surly and only smiled at the end of our tour
. If you can't even pretend to enjoy your job then it's time to get out.

Anyway, we
all waited for about an hour in line which, in the end, was worth it because the Palace is quite lovely. It reminded me of Versailles (or maybe the Paris Opera) where we didn't have to wear pink plastic booties. I guess in the grand scheme of things, Sultan Abdülmecid was a lot more important than Louis XIII, XIV or XV.

Completed in 1853, and located overlooking the Bosphorus, the Dolmabahçe (its name means filled-in garden) is a mishmash of various European styles (with an emphasis on Rococo and a nod towards tacky) and has enough crystal (including the world's biggest chandelier at 4 tons and a Baccarat staircase) to give its cleaning staff migraines well into retirement. There were lots of seemingly gorgeous oil paintings but our guide didn't allow us the time to stop and admire them. Grrrr ....

After the last of the sultans was exiled in 1922, Atatürk used Dolmabahçe as a summer residence and for state receptions (the imperial hall can accommodate up to 2500 people), and it was here that he died in November 1938. This was pretty much the only point that our nasty little tour guide showed any animation at all. We all filed past the bed he died in and tried to feel as badly as she did about it.

Until recently, all the clocks in the palace were set and stopped at 9:05 - the moment that
Atatürk died. I mean, really ...

But most disturbing are the 150-year old bear skins - used as rugs! - scattered about the palace. They were a gift to the Sultan from the Tsar of Russia, and if I had been there I would have given him a piece of my mind. Who uses bears for carpets? - in a country renown for their carpet-making industry? Bears?!!!

As we left the palace, the changing of the guard had just taken place and everybody was lining up to have their photo taken with the one honour guard. Several people in the crowd recognized me and begged that I pose with him - so I did. I normally don't like to be associated with symbols of violence - I am a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, after all - but sometimes it's just easier to say yes than no. Although it would have been easy for me to say no to those bear skin rugs ....

Monday, July 13, 2009

Grey Bear Potters About

Yesterday, I took my bipedals to Iznik, a sleepy little lakeside resort town which lies on the shores of Lake Iznik, south of Izmit. These days, Iznik is known for two things and both are connected with its past: its church councils and its tiles.

In 301 b.c., the town became Nicaea - although for centuries before that it'd had several other names - when a certain general Lysimachus seized the area from one of Alexander the Great's generals and named it after his own wife. She must have been a very nice wife - I mean, you don't see too many towns named after my female bipedal attendant.

Nicaea was an important political and commercial town during the Imperial (Roman) period but its claim to fame came with the First Ecumenical Council - which is a rather posh name for a conference of bishops - held there in 325. There would be many other councils (the second was held in Nicaea's Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya Church) but it was the first one which decided (and told Christians) what they believed in.

It seems not everyone was on the same page. Apparently, there were a lot of different views about God and Jesus floating about at that time - like the rather logical (in this bear's opinion) idea that Jesus was not the same "person" as God and hadn't lived forever (i.e., existed before he was born). A certain priest named Arian just couldn't get his head around that one so the Men in the Big Hats got together and hammered something out that put an end to all of these so-called heresies.

The result was the Nicene creed, which Catholics and Anglicans still profess to this day; it begins with I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible ... I think "one bear" works better than "one God" although, of course, I believe in many bears. Bears are more pluralistic. Christians can be so dogmatic and, to be honest, just aren't as freethinking and fun as the rest of us. You'd never see a bear burning another bear at the stake for their beliefs.

Enough about religion. I mentioned in a previous blog that when the porcelain-loving Sultan Ahmet built the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, he insisted that its tiles come from Iznik. So let's fast-forward to the 17th century (bypassing the Seljuk Turks and the Christian crusaders) and we find Nicaea part of the Ottoman Empire. It's also become a centre for the ceramics industry, known as İznik Çini - Çin meaning China. I even had the chance to visit what's left of one of the city's master tile makers (above left). We had a really nice visit.

The industry would eventually move to Istanbul and so it pretty much died out in Iznik and the town became a farming community. Nowadays, there are still tile makers in the area and I found a particularly pretty shop and picked out a lovely old tile for my bipedals. Of course you-know-who wanted something bigger and better (you see why she doesn't have a town named after her?). I should've just given her a clump of mud!

Of course I just had to pick a studio where the girl working there - her name is Rachida - recognized me (above left). I wasn't too surprised: people in the arts are generally in the loop about these sorts of things. Still, it was something to be recognized in such a small town but, then again, my fans never cease to amaze me.

These days there aren't any hoity-toity church councils in Nicaea/Iznik but tourists come to visit its churches, mosques and museums, and to see its four imposing grand gates (that's me at the Istanbul Gate, below and the Lefke Gate, top-top right), its aqueduct, the massive ancient city walls, its pottery kilns and hammams. This is probably the former international fashion model in me speaking, but I was quite taken with the aesthetics of the town - even their bus kiosks and rubbish bins are decorated with its famous tiles. Such attention to detail always makes me happy.

There are also the ruins of a Roman theatre which made me very sad because it's be
come a dumping ground for garbage. It made me so mad (and sad) that I couldn't even have my photo taken there. The theatre was built by one of the most famous Romans of all time: Pliny the Younger - remembered today for his eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 - while he was governor of Bithynia (Nicaea was its capital). Today the amphitheatre is a public toilet. Just when I think your race has a chance, you guys go and blow it. Maybe you should start putting more faith in bears ...

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Grey Bear in a Blue Mosque

To continue with our theme of visiting every mosque in all of Istanbul - at least that's how it feels sometimes - I took my bipedal and god-bipedal attendants to the Blue Mosque (the BM) last week. Strictly speaking, I took my bipedals and god-bipedals to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Sultanahmet Camii as it's known in Turkish, but to the rest of us it's that Big Blue One.

It may be the only Blue - so nicknamed for its interior blue tiles -
Mosque in Turkey but it's not the only Blue Mosque in the world: there are at least 8 others in the world, from Afghanistan to Iran. I'll have to add those ones to my list unless my bipedal attendants get mosqued-out first.

So, today's history lesson: the building of the BM began 400 years ago under the watchful eye
of Sultan Ahmet I who doesn't seem to be known for much other than his mosque (where he's also buried), staging a couple of disastrous wars, and for not strangling his kid brother when he came to the throne - as was the Ottoman custom. Later, when Ahmet's son became Sultan, he revived the custom, much to his brother's disappointment. In Turkey, it just didn't pay to be a younger brother.

Anyway, after losing one particularly important war with the Persians, Ahmet decided that if he built a really big mosque - which would conveniently also be his mausoleum - Allah would smile favourably on him.

I don't know if Allah smiled but his legal scholars certainly didn't because Ahmet had no spoils of war to pay for the mosque (having lost most if not all of his wars abroad), and he had to tap into the treasury for the funds - not just to pay for the BM's construction but to buy the private palaces on and near the site in order to raze them to the ground. And you know once word got out that the Sultan needed the land your home was built on, the price of real estate suddenly went up.
Some things don't change too much: it's all about location, location, location.

Ahmet didn't seem to care too much about the grumblings of his scholars and, in 1609, he broke the sod on the site of an earlier Byzantine palace smack-dab across the street from the H
agia Sophia which, at that time, was the most sacred mosque in Constantinople and which Ahmet wanted to eclipse in grandeur. The BM's front doors would also open up to what was the social hub of the old city: the hippodrome, the ancient circus where horse and chariot races took place (and which the Venetians plundered in 1204). I just hope there were no bear fights there!

Built in 7 short years
- during which only one architect was executed - the BM would include a nursery school, a market, a hospital, and a soup kitchen! Too bad Ahmet died shortly after it was completed (he was only 28 years old) but hopefully his widow Kösem - who became the de facto ruler and was one of the most powerful women in all of Ottoman history (at least until she was strangled) - got to enjoy it.

I mentioned earlier that the BM earned its nickname because of its blue tiles. There are over 20,000 handmade tiles in the BM and they all came from Iznik (ancient Nicaea) which was the ceramic capital of ancient Turkey. Just to give you an idea of how special these tiles were, recently an Iznik tile sold at Sotheby's for $600,000!

The Sultan made sure that all of the tiles used were Iznik tiles by fixing the price the potters could charge. Like his legal scholars, this didn't put much of a smile on the potters' faces because their tiles were normally quite pricey. They got even though by producing lesser quality tiles so that many of their colours have faded over time. I doubt that made Allah smile.

Besides its many domes, its Iznik tiles and its 200 stained glass windows (the originals were a gift from Venice - I bet they felt guilty for sacking the city 400 years earlier), the BM is recognizable for its 6 minarets. When news got out about the 6 minarets, Ahmet was criticized for being uppity: after all, the Ka'aba in Mecca - the holiest site in all of Islam - had 6 minarets too. Rather than appearing too presumptuous - or changing his plans - he paid for a 7th minaret at the mosque in Mecca.

Given that it's summer, we were lucky that there wasn't a line to get into the BM. We also took the precaution of wearing suitably modest clothing (no shorts and my female bipedal and god-bipedal had no exposed shoulders) because, as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I'm sensitive to these kinds of things. It takes so little effort to keep this world spinning happily.

Of course, there were many less enlightened individuals in line wearing skimpy outfits but they were given scarves to cover up their bare legs and shoulders. My females were given scarves for their heads although I couldn't help but notice that they let them slip the moment they thought no one was looking. I think I'll have to have a stern talk with them. Although I have bare (bear!) arms and legs, I was recognized by the mosque's employees and the religious authorities graciously let me enter as I am: no bear scarves.

Afterwards, we sat in the park (above, left) which sits between the BM and the Hagia Sophia and took advantage of the watermelon sellers there to stave off the afternoon's +35 degree heat. Turks eat such healthy snacks! My female god-bipedal bought me some pistachios from Turkey and Iran as well - what bear doesn't love nuts?!

At sunset, people flock to this park to listen to the evening call to prayer and watch the mosque light up.
Because I'm so easily recognized in Istanbul, I decided not to join the crowds for the evening prayers but enjoy the view of the BM from our hotel terrace. And what's more Turkish than having a cup of coffee in the shadow of one of the world's most beautiful mosques? - well, a piece of baklava would have been nice.