Daily Archives: 16 December, 2008

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Fourth Day @ Istanbul

It’s the fourth day of our stay here in Istanbul, and we decided to heed the advice of our Lonely Planet guide to visit the Western District!

Problem was, there was no tram service to the area we wanted to visit, and we didn’t want to take a cab there (being frugal backpackers… or sort of). So we decided to brave the odds to take the bus to go to the Western District. Yes, by bus. In a country where half the people don’t utter a single word of English.

Just for the record, no one knows where, or what, the Western District was.

University of Istanbul

The delightful owner of Bahaus told us to head to the bus terminal at the end of Sultanahmet, where the Grand Bazaar was, near the University of Istanbul. Which we did, and it took us another 30 minutes upon arrival to figure out which bus to take, and which stop to wait at. And it took us another 30 minutes to board the right bus…

… only to overshot the stop we were supposed to alight at. Thank goodness Liping was sharp enough to realise that, so we only got to retrace our route for one-bus-stop distant worth.

The ancient wall of Western District

How did we know we got to the right place? Why, by the remains of the ancient wall of Istanbul, of course! As we stroll around the wall, we got so frustrated by the lack of dustbins around the area that we dumped these at the courtyard. Very atrocious of us, I know, but blame it on the Istanbul town council for failing to provide us with a proper place to dispose them!

(But I think in the end Liping went to take them back and found some other place to throw them. Good for you, girl!)

Mihrimah Sultan Camii

According to Lonely Planet, there were five spots we should visit in Western District, and the first one was Mihrimah Sultan Camii. The great Sinan put his stamp on the entire city and this mosque is one of his best works. It is noted for its delicate stained-glass windows and its large interior space, made particularly light by its 19 windows in each of the arched tympanum. The mosque occupies the highest point in the city.

At the time of visit, the mosque was closed to visitors due to restoration work – what a bummer!

The Exterior of Chora Church

Our next destination, the Chora Church, was less disappointing – in fact, it was the highlight of our entire trip to Western District. Chora literally means “country”, and when it was built Chora Church, or the Church of the Holy Saviour Outside the (ancient) Walls, was indeed outside the city walls built by Constantine the Great. However, within a century it was engulfed by Byzantine urban sprawl and enclosed within a new set of walls built by Emperor Theodosius II.

Inside Chora Church

Liping and I spent almost two hours in this rather small-sized church because I was documenting the entire mosaic series according to the Lonely Planet guide. There are more than 78 mosaic panels in all, each depicting a different story of Christ, of which I documented in this set of photos. Each photo was described based on the information in Lonely Planet, so it is going to be kinda pictorial tour if you spent the time to go through them.

Ottoman Imperial Cuisine at Asitane

After Chora Church, it was lunch time and we had ours at this Asitane Restaurant, which was highly recommended by Lonely Planet… and was entirely empty during our visit. It was unnerving to be the only guests in the entire restaurant, but the excellent Ottoman cuisine more than made up for it, eventhough Liping didn’t really like such exotic food. All in all it was a very nice dining experience, and with a full stomach, we ventured out again to our third destination.

Sultan Selim Camii

It took us quite a while to figure out our way to Sultan Selim Camii from Chora Church. The route took us to some neighbourhood of Istanbul, where we see Turkish people in totally untouristy environment. I figured out so because obviously Liping and I, two Asian tourists standing out like two sore thumbs in a sea of Turks, were obviously a treat to them. Many of the school kids said hi to us, smiling, waving… and not a tout in sight, which was a breath of relief. In fact, when we were lost and stood at a lamp post to consult our map, a gang of school kids came up to us, look at our map, and point us at the right direction. One of them looked up cheekily at us and asked “Money?” when all his friends shrieked and slapped his back, obviously embarrassed by his little tease.

Not me. I liked that. It was great to be welcomed by the locals that way!

Sultan Selim Camii

By all accounts the sultan to whom this mosque was dedicated (Suleyman the Magnificent’s father, Selim I, known as "the Grim") was a nasty piece of work. He is famous for having his father poisoned and for killing two of his borthers, six of his nephews and three of his own sons. However, this mosque is famous because of its position on a lwaned terrace with spectacular views of the Golden Horn.

The mosque is close to visitors during our visit. It was a pity, because it looked really grand from the outside.

Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate

Our next destination was the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate. The Ecumenical patriarch is a ceremonial head of the Orthodox Church, though most of the churches in Greece, Cyprus, Russia and other countries have their own patriarchs of archbishops who are independent of Istanbul. Nevertheless, the symbolic importance of the patriarchate, here in the city that saw the great era of Byzantine and Orthodox influence, is considerable. The patriarchate has been located in the Western District since 1601.

Again, this place is closed for winter during our visit, just like almost all the other places we went to. It is a pity because the building looked spectacularly different from its surrounding and you just know it doesn’t really belong there… but there it was, towering over all other buildings. Amazing.

Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars

Our final destination of our excursion to the Western District was the Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars, of which I made out to be a Bulgarian Church. These days we’re accustomed to kit homes and assemble-yourself furniture from Ikea, but back in 1871, when this Gothic Revival cast-iron church was constructed from pieces shipped from the Danube and across the Black Sea from Vienna on 100 barges, the idea was novel to say the least.

Alas, this place was closed during our visit. So all in all, out of the five destinations we wanted to visit, only Chora Church was open. So did we regret coming here? Not at all. The walking really was very pleasant, and like what Lonely Planet has recommended, Western District is one of the least visited by visitors and that’s a shame, because it’s one of the most interesting. Those travelers interested in veering of the tourist track and exploring will find that spending a day here is extremely rewarding. Which we did, and concurred.

Here’s the full set of photos I took from our Western District excursion.

Views from the Fener Ferry Terminal

To get back to Sultanahmet, we decided to take a ferry from the Fener Ferry Terminal to Emimonu. It was a 30-minutes wait for the next ferry when we got there, so we amused ourselves by taking photos around the area, and I did a little video clip as well (see below). While we were waiting, it was prayer time, and the mosques started their “calling” or what the Muslim call as “azan”. Istanbul is dotted with literally hundreds of mosques big and small, so when they did their azan, it was like one mosque calling out to another, with all the muftis chanting the same words but in different styles.

There I was standing transfixed by the sound, my hair standing on their ends in amazement. It was an indescribable experience, one that you must experience yourself to understand how grand it was.

Our dinner at Emimonu Balik

Upon reaching Emimonu, we had the famous “balik” sandwich by the shore of Golden Horn. The stall is actually on the boat. With all the rocking due to strong waves, you wonder how they get any actual cooking done! Balik means fish in Turkish.

I honestly couldn’t remember what I did that night after getting back from the excursion. I think I might have done something not meant to be blogged on. LOL.