Sitting with Sultans Day 3
Today instead of traveling left out of our hotel, we went right, which took us to the Aya Sofiya and the Topkapi palace which was to be our main sight of the day. The Palace is situated in a sprawling park, the whole area of which in its heyday would have been off limits for common people. There is an admission to pay for entry, and if you want to see the harem that’s extra as well, which I didn’t really see the point of charging for when it should really be included in the main entry cost. The harem however is indeed exquisite, and you get a feel for the mix of cultures this place had become over the course of its history. Arabic and Turkish calligraphy adorn all the walls, intermingled with western furniture and fittings. The main highlight of the palace is the room of sacred trusts, a collection of religious relics collected by the Ottoman Sultans over the years. They include items believed to be the staff of Moses, the skull of John the Baptist, and Joseph’s turban as well as many others. The centre piece of the collection is the Prophet’s (SAWS) cloak, which is kept in a chest in a separate room and can only be viewed from the outside. So revered was this item by the Sultans that numerous different chests were adorned and created to store it in, most of which are separate exquisite pieces of their own that can be viewed in Topkapi. Along with the cloak were other relics of the Prophet (SAWS) such as strands of his hair, his tooth, his sword, as well as the swords of all four of the Rightly Guided Caliphs and Khalid ibn al-Walid. Images of all these items can be found in the famous book collection The Sacred Trusts.
Dotted around the palace are a number of different rooms containing treasures owned by the Ottoman royal family. One interesting thing to note was the style of costume worn by the different Sultans, the clothes worn by Sultans Mehmet, Ahmet and Suleiman were not made of silk, yet some of the others were. These three are renowned for being the most famous of Sultans and amongst the most religious, the adorning of silk by men is not permissible in Islamic law, looking at something simple as the style of costume they wore I believe puts into context the particular personalities of each person. It shows us why many great Islamic empires eventually failed when they lost sight of the One who gave them power in the first place, the Amirs of Andalucia being another example.
After leaving the Palace I went to a tour guide shop known as Les Arts Turcs, which known as one of the most reputable tour companies in Turkey. I’m not usually one for tour guides or anything of the sort, but Les Arts Turcs offer to take a small group of people twice a week to a Mevlevi Tekke to see a twirling sema. Being the fan of Rumi I was I was keen to check it out. Most of the ceremonies tourists get to see in Turkey are put up specifically for them, it’s not real dhikr or ‘ibada, but in this case it was the real deal. Unfortunately they could only take six people on the Monday ceremony and it was already fully booked, I was disappointed, but it gave me another reason to visit Istanbul in the future along with seeing the Suleimaniye.
Next to Les Arts Turcs is the Roman Cistern. A sprawling underground complex used by the Romans to store water, nothing overly special but it is a distinct and unique structure, worth paying a visit to.
From here we walked past the Nuruosmaniye (Light of the Ottomans) Mosque, which at the time was under significant refurbishment. The Mosque is located right next to the main entrance to the Grand Bazaar, one of the many famous historical covered markets of the Islamic world. Today it’s an interesting mix between old and new, something Turkey seems to mix together very well. As you wander through and get lost in the myriad of different corridors, you get a feel of a typical Middle Eastern market, but at the same time you have clean squeaky floors and abundant electrical lighting reminiscent of a typical western shopping mall. Even if you don’t buy anything (although the well made fake designer handbags go down very well with female tourists), it’s worth going to see just to get a feel of the strangeness in the place.
Through one of the exists of the Grand Bazaar, you come to The Old Book Bazaar, most of the traders here belong to the Helveti Tariqa, so you will find a number of Islamic related items, though I was disappointed to find very little literature in English. There are a number of calligraphy artists who work in this area and is a great place to pick up a piece, however all of the works are originals, so you will end up paying quite a price. Or if you are like me and on a tight budget just end up empty handed and have to put up with the disappointment. As mentioned previously adjacent to the book bazaar is the Beyazit Mosque, another exquisite building and arguably the most famous functional Mosque in Istanbul after Sultanahmet and Suleymaniye. The funds for the construction were paid for by the traders around the area of the book bazaar who were keen to build a Mosque completely on halal funds.
And there ended our third day. Tomorrow it was off to the Spice Bazaar, and a visit to a very special man…