Thursday, October 29, 2009
Istanbul -- Topkapi, lokum and Turkish baths
Through the centuries, the Topkapi palace has been legendary. Its harem and fabulous wealth tantalized the Western world -- what was the Harem like? How did the sultan actually live?
Topkapi served as the seat of Ottoman power from the time Mehmet the Conquer started to build it in 1453 until the mid 19th century when a far more Westernised palace -- The Dolmabahce Palace -- was built on the Europeon shore of the Bosporus.
To visit the Topkapi is catch a brief glimpse of a vanished world.
The Topkapi with its various artifacts relating to the Prophet remains a place of pilgrimage for many Muslims and thus it is a mixture of pilgrims and tourists mingling in the various courtyards.
You buy your ticket to the Topkapi in the first courtyard ( 20 TL or about £10) and then you need buy a second ticket to enter the Harem (15 TL or £7.50). Although one guidebook said that the Harem would be crowded and you are guided through, we found the Harem to be nearly deserted and there was no tour, so we were able to take our time going through this fascinating place.
The tiles alone bore examination, and there were the various baths, the golden road and the Crown Princes rooms. The Queen Mother or Valide Sultana was often the defacto ruler. Wives could be replaced but sultans deferred to their mothers, and with no set rules for inheritance, these women schemed. Following the custom of Suleyman the Magnificent, the sultan's wives were once slaves. After a sultan died, his mother, wives and favourites retired to the Old Palace unless the woman happened to be the new Sultana Valide. In an interesting quirk of history, the most influential sultana of the late 18th century was one Amiee de Rivery (1763 - 1816) who was the cousin of Josephine Bonaparte and captured by Algerian pirates aged 21. She was sold to the Bey of Algiers who saw a chance to cultivate the sultan and gave her to him as a gift. She eventually converted to Islam and was renamed Naksidil. She bore the sultan a son who eventually became Mahmud II and started many Western reforms.
After going through the Harem, you enter the 3rd courtyard where the treasury and ceremonial robes are kept. In the 3rd room of the treasury is the Topkapi dagger and the Spoonmaker's diamond. The Spoonmaker's diamond is 86 carats and so called as it was discovered in a rubbish heap and bought for 3 spoons. The fourth courtyard features various pavilions including the lovely revan kiosk and the picturesque golden roof of the Iftariye Baldchin. There is also the circumcision room which was used when the princes and other notables were admited to manhood.
After touring the Topkapi, we walked down to the Spice Bazaar and found Hafiz Mustafa Sekerlemeleri which has been going as a sweet shop since 1864 and has a cafe upstairs. They serve very good baklava and Turkish coffee. Across the street is Ali Muhiddin Hacki Bekir which is the orginal manufacturer of lokum or Turkish delight and has been in the same family since 1777. Their Turkish delight is excellent!
Being tired, we decided to go to the Turkish Bath or hamam. We chose the Cemberlitas Hamami where there has been a Turkish bath since 1584 as it was only a few hundred yards from the hotel. Opting for the bath, scrub and soap massage, we were given sponges and directed to appropriate sex side. My daughter and I were given black bikinis to wear in the bath while the men went commando. Apparently the men have private cabins with leather sofas where they change but the women just have lockers in large upstairs rooms. You are given a towel to wrap around you and then make your way to the hot room where you sweat. It was funny -- when you first arrive in the hot room (which is very hot indeed), the newcomers are all wrapped up in their towels, but then you realise the pointlessness of staying that way as you are directed to lie on the large marble stand or gobektasi where you can look up at the star shaped holes in the roof and modesty vanishes. Some women obviously unused to Turkish bathing wore tons of make up and in the heat, their faces melted. You can also watch as women are bathed so you get an idea about what you are about to experience. Eventually one of the bikini clad women call you over and you get scrubbed down, massaged and foamed bathed. You then pour bowl after bowl of cool water all over yourself and can sit in the hot room for as long as you like. After wards, thoroughly clean, and wrapped in fluffy towels, you make your way back to the main room. You can either dress or you can get a drink. If you are a man, it is also possible to take a nap in a cabin. Baths are very sociable affairs and do wonders for reviving one's flagging feet!
We enjoyed the bath so much that we tried the Cagaloglu Hamami the next day which I preferred as it was slightly less crowded and the staff took the time to explain what was going on. The surroundings are just as impressive! Also the women section has little cabins with leather couches. However they do not give out black bikinis so either you go commando or you wear your underwear. The Turkish bath is not really a place for modesty... The Cagaloglu has been going since the 18th century (1741) and was featured in an Indiana Jones film as well as boasting of many celebrities including Florence Nightingale and King Edward VIII. It was at the Cagaloglu that the woman masseuse drew my attention to the fact that my left forearm is swollen.
IN other news: My arm is slowly getting better with the swelling slowly going down but I am taking it easy and my gel pad has arrived. Luckily I am still doing paper revisions which means as long as I can read my writing, it is fine!