Sorry for holding up the procession, folks. I've been busy with some other things, but with the holiday weekend this weekend, I've finally had some time to sit down and write more drivel for you to read about my trip to Istanbul with Remiel. Still on Day 2, we started at the Underground Cistern while the line at Hagia Sophia was still jammed up. We finally got in to the Hagia Sophia later that morning (see previous posts).
After the Hagia Sophia, it was getting to be time for lunch. Remiel and I approached Divan Yolu
, a busy avenue lined with eateries popular with tourists, many of which were recommended by the guidebook we were using. It was at this point where I or we were caught in the great net of pushy Turkish mercantilism. A Turkish man approached us speaking excellent English (there is virtually no language barrier in Istanbul) and asked us where we were from and what we were doing. I think it was me who mentioned we were looking for somewhere to eat, and of course this man knew the perfect place for us. He mentioned the places along Divan Yolu were touristy, expensive, and not very good. When I'm traveling, I'm always willing to take eatery advice from a local, and generally this is a good practice. However, in this case is was the first step into an elaborate scheme to get us into his gallery later. Of course, none of the was mentioned up front, only friendly advice on a restaurant guaranteed to be tasty. He even said he would pay for it himself if he didn't like it. What did we have to lose?
The restaurant wasn't bad, if I'm honest. It was certainly overpriced, especially as we became more familiar with what was on offer in Istanbul restaurants, but the food was pretty good. Both Remiel and I had pide
, which is probably best described as Turkish pizza. Remiel had a cheese one, and mine had chicken, peppers, and tomatoes and cheese. These ingredients top a flatbread that's cooked on stone in a wood-burning oven. See? It's pizza. We also came across a beer called Efes. This seems to be the national beer of Turkey (in fact it has 80% marketshare). For being brewed in a country where it's against the religion to drink alcohol, it was surprisingly good. It was a light, crisp pilsner, served cold. Four beers were consumed at this meal; two by each of us.
I'm convinced this merchant had a contact in the restaurant who called him when we were getting close to being finished with our meal, because he showed back up, sat down with us at table, and conversed with us about the finer points of the Istanbul club scene, and smoking marijuana through a nargile
. He made sure we enjoyed our meal enough that we paid for it ourselves, which of course we did. It was the second most expensive meal we had in Istanbul, and in my opinion the one with the worst value.
Now, plied with food and two beers each, this merchant directed us across the street to his gallery. "Please come in, let me show you my wares. I sell the best handmade carpets in Turkey." Well, we went in, and indeed much stuff of Turkish origin were being sold there. Immediately we were brought back to a sitting room with a large open space in the middle. This was carpetstravaganza. The first merchant passed us off to an even more wily fellow. He was in his forties or fifties and wildly interesting to me. He was well-dressed and well-groomed, yet exotic. Of course he spoke perfect English with a mild accent. I'm always drawn in by people I perceive as experts in their field. He was a professional
salesman. Like all good salesmen, he was an expert on the product he was selling, and an excellent presenter.
First, we were introduced to knots. I'm not a textile expert, but I do know quite a bit about knots and thread construction. Turkish carpets are woven with Gordian knots, which is much more durable than the knotting used in Persian rugs. Traditional Turkish rugs are handmade, and come in wool-on-wool, cotton-on-wool, or silk. Suddenly, carpets of all sizes and materials were being flung, unrolled, and floated all around the room. They just kept coming. Twenty or more in quick succession, popping like a whip when they fully unfurled. Tea was served to us! It was definitely the most elaborate deal-making session I've ever had, and I actually do this for a living myself. The best part was that Remiel just sat there and watched it happen
. Not only had this salesman put me into the mood to buy a carpet I didn't need or even intend on purchasing on the trip, he had also wowed Remiel into a silent stupor, selling him on the sales experience itself. I'm telling you, the man was brilliant.
At this point I still considered myself mostly
sober (Remiel disputes this point), and I decided, yes, I would buy a Turkish carpet. Next, I had to decide how much I would pay for it. Again, I'm not a textile expert, but I know what Persian rugs go for, and I've bought some rugs in the past, know their composition, their size, and what I paid for them. I decided I would spend up to $2,000 US for what would be a long-lasting, awesome souvenir. Perhaps I had delusions of grandeur.
With what seemed like half the store rolled out in front of me, I chose the carpet I wanted. The others were rolled back up in a matter of seconds while my choice was praised, and I was well-informed of all the costs and qualities that come with handmade Turkish carpets with shipping to the United States included. I asked for an offer.
This was exceptionally high to me, especially for a carpet that was only 4' by 8'. In response I low-balled with a $1,000 counter-offer. I think Remiel had an expression of glee on his face at this point. It was like a train wreck from which he could not look away, but nor could he bring himself to intervene. Again the qualities of the wool and thread and weaving of the carpet were extolled. We went back and forth with offers and counter-offers for two more rounds. The wily salesman then praised my negotiating skills (I'm so fucking susceptible to flattery. Goddamned ego!). He asked me to shake hands. He would then make his best and final offer, and I could take it or leave it. I refused to shake hands, and this was probably rude of me, I realize. I just felt like with a transaction of this amount, and being the buyer, I had a right to conduct my business in the way I felt most comfortable, and I didn't feel appropriate shaking hands before
a deal had been reached. This actually resulted in a short argument. I think I heard Remiel giggling.
Eventually my preference was agreed to (the man with the gold makes the rules, universally). An offer of $1,700 US was made, and I accepted. The deal was done, we shook hands, I filled out some paperwork to have the carpet shipped to the States, and my carpet-buying experience was over. For the remainder of the trip I had buyer's remorse. Remiel felt bad too, although none of it was really his fault. However, the carpet was delivered a few days after I got back, and I have to say I love it. The quality of the wool is awesome, the knotting is awesome, and there are just enough irregularities in the weave that it might actually be handmade. Leopold (my cat and mascot) likes it even more than I do. In any case, the carpet is now at the foot of my bed, and I feel like a sultan.
We still had a whole afternoon ahead of us, so we decided we'd head over to Topkapi Palace and visit the Archaeological Museum. Along the way, we met Murat, yet another Istanbul merchant. You'll notice I don't remember the names of the two gentlemen that sold me a carpet, but I do remember Murat. This should tell you something about Murat. Murat intercepted us on the main road leading to the main Palace gate, and asked about his skill in speaking English. He mentioned he represented a gallery, and would lead us there to buy a genuine Turkish carpet. We mentioned we had just left that party, and a conversation emerged about the details of the transaction. He said I had done well. Meanwhile, he was leading us back to where we had just come from. He was talking to us about getting engaged. How do you say that in English? Eventually he led us into an alley surrounded by his family's shops and galleries. Fortunately, Remiel had had enough and spoke up. He could see now I could be led down dangerous paths with significant fiduciary consequences, and this time decided to act. Thank you, sir.
Again we set off for Topkapi Palace. This time our guard was up. The museum, like Hagia Sophia, was covered by our museum pass, so we skipped the line and went right in. Overall, I was disappointed in the Museum. It has a LOT of stelle and sarcophagi from the Greek and Roman Empires, but it's not anywhere near as impressive as collections of the Rome Archaeology Museum nor the Vatican Museum. What it does have, though...
Other than a few dents in the marble caused by careless movers, this 4th century BCE sarcophagus is in excellent condition. This artifact was brought to Istanbul in the 1880s from the royal necropolis of Sidon (in today's Lebanon, but then part of the Ottoman Empire). Discovered by accident by a villager who was digging a well, it's among the most important (and best preserved) classical works ever unearthed. While faded after two thousand years, some of the color remains, and the bas-reliefs that decorate the casket are impressive.
This side of the casket depicts Alexander's army battling the Persians in the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE. Alexander's victory in the battle paved the way for the Macedonians to conquer the Middle East. It's easy to tell who's who: Persian troops wear long pants, several layers of shirts, and turbans. The Macedonians are either naked or half-naked in short tunics. On the left, Alexander wears a lion's pelt as he attacks a Persian soldier from horseback. His arm is raised as he prepared to hurl a (missing) spear.
The museum also houses a selection of ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sculpture, and an entire floor devoted to archaeological finds from the city of Troy (and its seven rebuildings). The Museum has a lot of Byzantine artifacts: water pipes carved from marble, a bit of the chain used to span the Golden Horn, preventing ships from being able to sail into the city proper; but overall I found the museum underwhelming. It has two other sections, a Tiled Kiosk that holds an impressive collection of Turkish ceramics, and a Museum of the Ancient Orient, which houses artifacts from the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. We didn't see either of these, and in retrospect I think I would have liked both of them more than the main museum. Next time!
Right outside the Hagia Sophia, this vast underground reservoir dates back to Byzantine Emporer Justinian I's reign in the the 6th century. Because it was built on the site of an earlier basilica, it's often called the Basilica Cistern. This massive reservoir--larger by far than any other in Constantinople--was built to meet the needs of a fast-growing capital city and to provide precious water in the case of shortage. The cisterns covers an area about the size of two football fields, big enough to hold 27 million gallons of fresh water. A forest of 336 columns supports the brick ceiling. Most of these were recycled from earlier Roman ruins in and around the city.
Clay pipes and aqueducts carried water 12 miles miles to this cistern. Eventually the pipes became clogged and the cistern fell out of use. As time passed, neglect became ignorance, and people forgot it was even there. An Ottoman historian wrote that residents of the area were luckier than others, as they could easily drop a bucket into any garden well and collect apparently God-given water. They didn't realize they were dipping their buckets into a Byzantine masterpiece.
A Turbe is the Ottoman version of a mausoleum. It's where important political or religious figures are remembered/honored. Turbes of several Ottoman sultans are located on the grounds of Hagia Sophia in its garden. This one is the turbe of Sultan Selim II. It's octagonal, and beautifully decorated inside. This turbe is one of the most elaborately decorated in all of Istanbul, and it also happened to be the best picture I took the whole trip, so enjoy. Empty caskets representing the sultan and his family sit in the center of the room, roped off. It's a lot like a mosque: you must remove your shoes and women must be covered to go inside. Look at all the detail in the architecture and intricate, complex decoration; truly a beautiful place to spend the physical side of eternity.