Sunday 23 September 2007

The flight from Singapore was quite arduous in that we didn't fly out from Changi International until 11:35pm. It was about 2:30am when we got into Dubai, having lost two hours in the process. We got off the plane in Dubai simply to have a walk around for the hour and a half that it took for the turnaround. As all of this time was spent in the airport we can't provide any comment about Dubai other than to note that the outside temperature was 32 degrees Celsius a 2:30am. This was probably due to a cool change sweeping through.

[Right - Relief Panel outside Hagia Sofia Museum, Turkey]

[Below - Margaret and Clive in front of an urn carved from a single piece of marble - Hagia Sofia Museum, Turkey]

Relief Panel outside Hagia Sofia Museum, Turkey
Urn carved from a single piece of marble, Hagia Sofia Museum, Istanbul

It took another six elapsed hours to fly to Istanbul, so we arrived at 7:30am after losing another hour to the dateline. The 90 day visas were $US20 each, simply a stick-on stamp, passport control was literally a rubber stamp and once again we simply walked through Customs (yet again) without being checked at all. The transport that was supposed to meet us was in place and Atila, the young man who met us was very fluent in English which he spoke (to his professed chagrin) with an American accent. He has an excellent command of colloquial English but most of his exposure has been with Americans and Canadians.

Having slept on the plane we arranged to go on a city tour which commenced at 9:00am. We had just enough time to spear upstairs, shower and change and downstairs into the van. There were nine on the tour, all Australians. One from Perth, two from Melbourne (we have mutual friends in John Printz who has done some wonderful work with veterans there for going on thirty years), a couple from Adelaide and another young couple also from Melbourne.

Our first stop was the Basilica of Hagia Sofia (Holy Wisdom), at various times from about 500CE a Christian Church, Cathedral and Mosque. It's now known as the Ayasofya Museum. If I remember correctly, and I'll check anyway, it began as a Christian Church somewhere around the time of Justinian, burned down, was rebuilt and kept on growing. The picture [above] is of a relief panel from the church of Theodosius (408-450CE). The Cathedral took 17,000 people five years to build. Later when it became a Mosque, the Muslims plastered over the Christian figures so when it became a museum they've been able to recover all of the wonderful mosaics.

The sheer scale of the building is overwhelming and it is easy to see why it was for 1600 years the largest Christian Cathedral and is still one of the four biggest. It's so big and so dark that the pictures we took are not very good at all. the flash just isn't adequate to illuminate at that distance.

They've been working on the restoration for 12 years or more - compare that to how long it took to build in the first place. Says something about the workmanship available now. It is an enormous job as you can see from the scaffolding on the right which enables workers to get to the central mosaic. The fact that Turkey has been able to successfully turn it from a religious icon into a museum says a lot about both the vision and the strength of the secular state here. There is still some tension between the religious zealots who want to convert Turkey into a religious state under Sharia law and the majority of Turks who want it to remain secular.

Ancient walls on Asian side of Istanbul
Wooden building, Asian side of Istanbul

[Above - Ancient walls on the Asian shore of Istanbul]

Our quick tour of Hagia Sofia was followed by a boat trip down the Bosphorus which links the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmura and in the process divides Europe from Asia. Some wonderful Mosques [see the Blue Mosque, right] and older buildings, particularly multi-story wooden buildings, one of which [left] was in drastic need of TLC.

We had lunch in a huge Turkish restaurant. Mashed potatos with onion, a tomato salad, yoghurt and herbs, borlotti beans with finely chopped capsicum, baby capsicum stuffed with a beef mixture, fresh bread and a grain with tomato mixture sort of like polenta but not. This was followed by a hot dish of eggplant and capsicum in a tomato sauce (very nice), mini spring rolls with a vegetable filling and fish with a lettuce salad. The fish was very sweet and fine-grained. Desert was watermelon and I had a Turkish coffee to finish off.

[Right - the Blue Mosque]

We then went to the Istanbul Handicraft Centre where we were shown the most magnificent Turkish rugs commencing with geometric woollen tribal rugs with natural dyes, moving up to more sophisticated woollen rugs on cotton weft and warp and then to pure silk rugs with more than a million knots to the square metre.

It was very, very tempting but the prices in this particular shop are relatively high and we managed to walk away without adding to the collection that we already have. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon your perspective, it was at the wrong end of the trip for us because we'll be travelling for a long time yet and want to save a bit of our money if we can.

We drove back into the city on the freeway. The traffic was hectic (and got much worse towards the end of the afternoon) but not nearly as hectic as Beijing and there are only a very few motorbikes and we saw no bicycles at all. Off the freeway the city streets are only just wide enough for two vehicles to pass.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

The drivers are suicidal and we've already seen one minor bingle as a result of road rage. A driver simply and very deliberately backed up into a Taksi that had been tailgating him. This actually took place directly in front of the police vehicle that was two cars in front of us. They took absolutely no notice of the altercation and just continued driving!

Our next stop on this whirlwind tour was the Basilica Cistern - one of the many underground water storages built by Emperor Justinian I (527-565CE). It's 70 metres wide, 140 meters long with the arched roof supported by 12 rows of 28 nine metre marble columns. It had a capacity of 100,000 tons of water. The columns appear to have been reused from other sources as some are in one piece, others in two pieces, some plain, others fluted. Some have Corinthian tops and others are Doric. Two are supported on huge stones bearing a representation of Medusa. One of these is upside down and the other sideways - we were told that this was so that they had no power to turn the viewer to stone. I decline all responsibility for those who look at the picture.

We've not been able to get onto the Tour people to confirm our trip to Troy tomorrow and Gallipoli on Tuesday, but the paperwork looks to a 6:30am pickup and a long, long drive. No breakfast as although it is part of the package, the dining room doesn't open until 7:00am. Tonight we're doing an evening tour (might as well fill in the time) so we'll see what the evening brings us.

[Left - Head of Medusa in the Basilica Cistern]
Below - Margaret and Pam enjoy the belly-dancing]

The evening actually brought us to a restaurant at the top of the Galata Tower. The 66.9m tower was built as Christea Turris (the Tower of Christ) in 1348 during an expansion of the Genoese colony in Constantinople. It was the apex of the fortifications surrounding the Genoese citadel of Galata which overlooks pretty much all of the Asian side. The lift went up 7 floors and we had to climb two more to get there.

Dinner wasn't too bad but even at this stage, fairly predicable. We shared a bottle of white and a bottle of red with another Australian couple. Neither France nor Australia has to worry too much about the wine-making competition.

The entertainment was indeed belly-dancing, both preceded and succeeded by Turkish music and dance. Both costume and dance served very much to underline the Mongol origins of the Turks.

Margaret and Pam at the Galata Tower, Istanbul
Houses on the Bosphorus, Istanbul [Left - Houses on the Bosphorus]

We've noticed that quite a number of other Australian tourists appear to have a relatively low threshold of tolerance for the food in particular. Writing these notes in retrospect, there doesn't appear to be a great deal of variety in the food offered to tourists. Because of this it's pretty easy for the unadventurous to get bogged down. The staples are those listed above, while we've also had a couple of very nice tomato and chicken-based soups, grilled chicken and fish and some salads which were terrific. Breakfasts are a long way from the Western staples, although cereals and milk are a standard for those who use them.

On the plus side, we returned to find a response from the travel people saying that because we are having a private tour, the pickup time is 9:00am. Very civilized and much more in keeping with our desire to catch up on our sleep.

Monday 24 September 2007

We checked our suitcases at Reception because we'll be returning to the Prince Hotel tomorrow evening and took off with cameras and backbacks. The "tour bus" is a VW van with leather upholstery (even the head-lining), very nicely appointed. The driver speaks no English but we are accompanied by "Simon" - not our tour guide, but an English-speaking employee of the tour company which is based in Çannakale.

The program for today is that we'll drive to Eceabat, via Sarkoy, catch the ferry across from the Gelibolu peninsular to Çannakale for lunch and do a tour of Troya before coming back to our hotel in Çannakale. Tomorrow we catch the ferry across to the peninsular, do the Gallipoli tour, have lunch at Eceabat and then return to Istanbul.

Ferry, Eceabat to Cannakale across the Dardanelle Strait
The Kilidbahir fortress at Eceabat, Gelibolu peninsula [Above - Ferry at Eceabat] [Left - Eceabat]

I had expected that we would drive down the Asian side to Çannakale, but on later examination of the map it's about twice as far as the 250 or so kilometers that we'll be travelling. Simon quickly demonstrated that he's not an orthodox Muslim. It's the middle of Ramadan, the period of fasting where Muslims do not eat or drink during the daylight hours and he was quick to suggest that we stop for a cup of tea or coffee.

He spoke about his family and his girlfriend (both of which families appear to be doing very well) and his National Service training of 15 months. Margaret asked him whether his education and English-language skills assisted him at that time. His response was that he kept his head down so as not to draw attention to himself and did as little as he could get away with! I think that some of this is dissimilation as he was employed as a Sergeant clerk. Regardless, he was pretty entertaining.

On the outskirts of Istanbul there is a fair amount of broad-acre farming where they grow mostly corn. We saw very few farm animals and as we drove further down the coast of the Sea of Marmara the plots became smaller and smaller, ending up at about 1/4 to 1/2 an acre where they were growing corn, capsicum, tomatoes and similar crops. There are almost no fences except those around fruit trees and the fields are divided by strips of natural vegetation which range from 40cm high and 40cm wide through to about a metre high and about half a metre wide. The further south we went the more olive trees there are too.

Housing tends to cluster in villages rather than the isolated houses on each property that we see in Australia. The houses themselves tend to be exactly the same pattern, exactly the same colour and very close to each other. Single-storey houses are rare.

Construction appears to be to be based on concrete slabs for each floor which are supported by reinforced concrete pillars. The spaces between the pillars are bricked in and the whole then roofed with tiles and rendered. In the city, as I noted earlier, there are some magnificent timber houses but there are none of these in the rural areas we saw.

The Aegean Sea is the most brilliant azure blue, clean and clear and it's easy to see why so many are captured by it.

[Right - Tacky wooden horse at Troy]
[Below - Ruined walls at Troy]
Trojan horse outside the ruins at Troy
Ruined wall at Troy

Later we were to find that the waters of the Dardanelle Strait are also very clear, despite the number of ships, particularly gas tankers which pass through from the Black Sea. It's not unusual to see a line of four or five of them, half a kilometre apart and a similar line of empty tankers heading back the other way. Fishing is a popular pastime - or more likely, a popular way to supplement the grocery list.

Even though it was a clear day, we weren't able to see the island which the Greeks call Lembro, the Turks Gökçeada and the 1st AIF, Lemnos. It's 14km off the coast of the Gelibolu peninsular.

[Below - earth extension to stone walls]

To Troy - Our guide was Mustafa Askin who speaks with the most beautifully articulated upper class English accent! As well as Turkish and English he also speaks fluent German and Swedish. We found later that the other guides refer to him, and not in a sarcastic way, as the "King of Troy". He wrote the guide-books which are the standard texts for Troy and Gallipoli.

Many are disappointed by the Trojan ruins, but it is difficult to imagine how much of this city they expect to see after all this time and the fact that the locals used it as a stone mine for generation after generation.

There has been surprisingly little excavation and it is hard to get your head around the extent of the various levels I through IX. Some of the stone walls have been reconstructed with the base at an appreciable angle in order to protect them against the earthquakes which plague the region. In other places too, they've reconstructed the rammed earth ramparts which they believe were built on top of the stone base.

The most abiding impression is that of the destruction caused by Heinrich Schliemann who drove a trench at least 10 metres wide straight through into the centre of Troy and right down to the bottom layers of the mound. In simply discarding everything that wasn't treasure, he made it impossible for that area to be reconstructed in any way. The current excavations are proceeding slowly, perhaps as a counterpoint to that destruction.

Earth wall above stone wall at Troy
Excavation at Troy

Nobody, and especially the locals, takes the Wooden horse outside the gates of the visitor centre seriously. Mustafa had the view that the curved entrance to the fortifications was uniquely Anatolian, but I was able to convince him that all of the iron age forts that I'd seen in the UK had entrances which were narrow and sharply angled to place attackers at a disadvantage and enable the defenders to pick them off more easily. I told him that it was my belief that form followed function.

He was also of the opinion that the rammed earth extensions to the fortifications were limited to this area and again (because it's me) I had to let him know that the vast majority of the Great Wall(s) of China actually consist of rammed earth, not stone. I have no idea if these things will translate into later changes in the guide book!

I'm a generalist and Mustafa is a specialist who doesn't have a great deal of knowledge outside that speciality. I'm sure Stephanie will have something to say about this too.

Roman ruins at Troy

Dinner in the hotel was forgettable and breakfast the next day fell into the same category. As someone who doesn't particularly like cereal and milk for breakfast, there isn't a lot left over, so it was bread and honey for me.

We went for a walk along the sea-front after dark. There were a number of night-market stalls with jewellery and similar, and a lot of young people walking out in pairs. The tea-shops were full of people playing cards, dominos and so on. Most of the men and a lot of the young women smoke and it's difficult for those of us who are now so used to not having to deal with cigarette smoke in public places.

The hotel is clean and functional. It appears to be an amalgam of two separate buildings operating as the one hotel, which leads to a bit of discontinuity and confusion. For example, the lift went from our third floor to the second floor dining room, however if you take the stairs there are actually another two floors separating the nominal third and second! Either that or we had stumbled into a hitherto unreported time and space discontinuity!

I'm going to extract the Gallipoli notes out to a separate page and simply note here that after touring Gallipoli the next morning we returned to Istanbul with a little bit of time available in the evening.

We checked back into the Prince Hotel and were on our way out to dinner when Margaret ran across Kuma, the young man who had helped her the other day when she was looking to buy a couple of soft drinks. He and his friends invited us to have tea, and as we'd been introduced to apple tea at the Handicraft Centre we accepted. To cut a long story short, we ended up sharing their breaking of the fast when the sun went down and Margaret ended up buying two Sumek - silk-embroidered bridal rugs from Cappadocia. The road to hell is paved with good intentions!

Wednesday 26 September

The following morning was uneventful, but not until we had overcome the problem of the tour company's non-english speaking phone answerer's offer to pick us up for transport to the airport at 1:00pm in order to catch a 2:30pm plane. Not a good look, but when we rang back after 9:00 am we were able to straighten it out.

On the way out we went along the sea-front and were amazed by the number of tankers and freighters visible there. In one section about a kilometre wide I counted about 37 ships and in places there were more than triple this number.

Roman ruins at Troy

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