Webmaster's Note: The BikeAbout team has returned to one group after having been divided for a few weeks.

topics: Minisa kebab (food), Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sofia/Aya Sofia/Sancta Sophia/Church of the Holy Wisdom, Justinian, daily life, Mosque of Sultan Ahmet/Blue Mosque, Ottoman Empire; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: February 27-28, 1998

Food of the Day: Minisa kebab

Manisa Kebab - This delicious main dish is like a Turkish version of lasagne. A thin pasta-like pie is stuffed with meat (usually lamb or beef) and vegetables (ours had onions and tomatoes), and baked in the oven. It is usually served with a tomato sauce.

Person of the Day: Turgut S(h)en click to view a photograph

During our first couple of days in Istanbul, we were lucky enough to have Turgut S(h)en as a helper, guide, and friend. A long-time resident of Istanbul, Turgut helped us find our way around and proved to be a font of information, not only about the city, but also about cycling in Turkey. He is an enthusiastic advocate of cycling and hopes to promote it as an alternative means of transportation, as a sport, and as another venue for tourism. He has taken a number of long bike trips around Turkey himself and hopes to organize bicycle tours for visitors as well. The BikeAbouters can attest to the wonderful cycling in Turkey. Indeed, they only wish they had time to do more. The country's amazing natural beauty, good road network, and hospitable people make it a perfect destination for (fit) cycle tourists. We would like to thank Turgut for his invaluable help and to applaud his efforts to promote cycling in Turkey.

Place of the Day: Hagia Sofia click to view a photograph

By the end of the 5th century, the western half of the Roman Empire had collapsed, having been overrun by successive waves of Germanic (barbarian) invaders. However, the eastern half of the Empire remained and flourished. In the 6th century AD, the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire reached it peak under the leadership of the Emperor Justinian, an ambitious ruler who set out to restore the former glory of Rome. He very nearly succeeded. Not only did Justinian's armies re-conquer much of the western Mediterranean (including Rome, though as it turned out the Romans would probably have preferred their barbarian rulers), he also completed a massive building project designed to make his capital, Constantinople, into a city even more splendid than Rome.

This brings us (finally) to our Place of the Day: the Hagia Sofia (also known as the Aya Sofia, the Sancta Sophia, and the Church of the Holy Wisdom), the massive cathedral that still remains the jewel in the crown of Justinian's capital. click to view a photograph

As you might guess from his ambitious military and construction projects, Justinian "thought big." So, his cathedral, which would be a center of the world of Christendom, had to be on a scale not dreamed of before. As head of the Christian church in the East (the Pope was the head of Christianity in the West), the emperor wanted a building that would not only epitomize the size and power of his empire, but would also convey the spiritual majesty of Christianity. The efforts of his top architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, surpassed even Justinian's hopes. Upon first seeing the completed church, Justinian supposedly cried out: "Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon! I have outdone you." This illustrates not only the magnificence of the building (which, remarkably, took only five years to build), but also Justinian's magnificent opinion of himself.

Starting with a building already huge by standards of the time, Anthemius and Isidorus constructed an immense main dome that seemed to be suspended in the air without obvious support (see Tech Fact of the Day). This remarkable dome draws the eye upward and outward, creating the feeling of unlimited space. Even today, to observers accustomed to cathedrals and, yes, even indoor stadiums, the sense of airiness and space inside the church is stunning.

Modern observers unfortunately do not have the benefit of seeing the Hagia Sofia in its original grandeur, when golden mosaics covered the wall from floor to ceiling. Most of the mosaics were plastered over in the 15th century (1000 years after the church was built!) when the conquering Turks made the Hagia Sofia into a mosque. Some of these mosaics have since been uncovered - including a beautiful portrayal of Jesus and John the Baptist click to view a photograph, the Byzantine Empress Zoe and her family click to view a photograph, and Madonna and child. click to view a photograph They only vaguely suggest what must have been a magnificent visual treat.

Today even the plaster has been darkened by centuries of burning smoky candles, making the low lighting even dimmer. click to view a photograph Worse still, massive scaffolding that stretches all 58 m (180 ft) to the roof of the dome obscures nearly half of the view. click to view a photograph Anthony and Padraic joked that the scaffolding itself was so big and complex that it could be called one of the wonders of the modern world. None of these problems, however, detracts from the most impressive feature of the building - its size and the sense it gives of open space. And the scaffolding, while a visual obstruction right now, is part of an ambitious and extensive project to clean and restore parts of the dome and its mosaics to their original splendor.

The boys agree that the Hagia Sofia ranks with the pyramids as one of the great wonders of the Mediterranean, and the world.

Tech Fact of the Day:

The construction of the dome of the Hagia Sophia is considered a major contribution in the development of architecture. The two architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, devised a way to support a large, heavy, round dome on a square base. And they did it in such a way that it seemed not to have any strong foundation holding it up. Four curved triangles, called pendentives, support the rim of the dome and are themselves fitted into the corners of a square formed by four huge arches. The thick inner walls that support the dome were reinforced by sheets of marble (hidden and further strengthened by the beautiful mosaics) while the supporting buttresses (which look like towers) that are really holding up the structure can only be seen from the outside.

Group Dispatch, February 27-28
picture of Padraic

On Friday, the boys, accompanied by Turgut (our Person of the Day), visited the St. Georgs-Kolleg, or, as it is usually called, the "Austrian College." Originally founded to provide an education to the children of expatriates living in Istanbul, the College (a combination of the grades that Americans would call Middle School, Junior High and High School) has become one of the premier private schools for Turkish children. Students from all over Turkey compete for places in this and several other private schools. Those who do gain admittance receive a trilingual education from an Austrian and Turkish teaching staff: most classes are taught in German or Turkish and students are also required to take six years of English!

The boys gave their presentation about BikeAbout to two English classes and engaged in a spirited discussion on some topics important to the students (current events, decisions over what and where to study, popular culture, sports, etc.). Two interesting and important pieces of information they learned from the students are that: (1) despite the current popularity of basketball and soccer in Turkey, wrestling is the country's official/traditional national sport; and (2) the traditional form of entertainment called "karagoz," or shadow puppets, came to Turkey from Asia.

After all the enlightening conversation, the guys received a guided tour of the school and met with the Headmaster, Prof. Alexander Zabini, to find out more about the school itself. Ethan, Anthony and Padraic were impressed with the students' attentiveness, as well as their familiarity with the Internet, not to mention their remarkable fluency in all three languages of instruction. The guys also enjoyed learning more about the Turkish educational system and Turkish students by talking to some of the teachers and administrators, including Herr Weinmann, Herr Neuschmid, Frau Caferoglu and Frau Kern.

When the boys finished at the Austrian school, they followed Turgut on a short walking tour of the Beyoglu section of Istanbul. Their first stop was the Galata Tower click to view a photograph, perched on the side of the slope overlooking the Golden Horn and the Bosporus. The first tower at this location was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian (whose prodigious building projects during the 6th century have left an indelible mark on the city, see Place of the Day for more), but the tower now standing here is of 13th century origins, built by the Genoese (of Genoa, Italy) as a fortified tower. The tower now houses a couple of over-priced restaurants, but its observation deck still offers wonderful views of Istanbul. The boys looked out over the Golden Horn and the Sultanahmet section of Istanbul click to view a photograph, across the Bosporus to Asia click to view a photograph, and back across the Golden Horn to the old port. click to view a photograph

Once they descended from the tower's heights, Turgut led the boys up Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's premier pedestrian shopping street. Of course, they had little time to shop because they had to stop to change money. Cashing travelers checks in Turkey usually takes a longer time than other simple procedures, like, for instance, itemizing your deductions for the IRS. By the time they had finished (and had met dozens of bank employees), it was time for dinner. Turgut took the boys to one of his favorites eateries, Haci Abdullah Restaurant, just off Istiklal Caddesi, where they ate heartily (for a description of one dish, see Food of the Day) while marveling at the décor - namely hundreds of jars of fruit and vegetables. After dinner, already running late for their rendezvous with Corinne and andrEa, the boys engineered a complicated shift, involving moving the bikes and bags to Turgut's apartment in old Istanbul, then, by bus, tram and ferry, moving themselves to the Asian side. There they met with the women and settled down to sleep in a friend's apartment.

The next morning while Ethan stayed in the apartment to catch up on some work, Anthony and Padraic set out to explore the Sultanahmet area of old Istanbul. They began their tour at the beautiful Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, or the "Blue Mosque." Obviously influenced by its neighbor, the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque boasts a dazzlingly huge central dome which gives the impression of endless inner space. But, unlike the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque has a remarkably bright interior. click to view a photograph You see, instead of relying on pendentives (see Tech Fact of the Day), the architect, Sunan (the Ottoman Empire's most acclaimed architect), built four enormous pillars to hold up the high, heavy dome. Although not as daring an architectural feat, these pillars allowed him to include many more windows to let in significantly more light. (Note: considering that the Blue Mosque was built more than 1000 years later, the use of the huge pillars simply reinforce how amazing an architectural accomplishment the Hagia Sofia was). Another factor for the greater brightness of the Mosque is its colored blue tiles (from which it derives its nickname, the Blue Mosque). Of course the lights helped as well. click to view a photograph

Still, for Anthony and Padraic, the most impressive feature of the Blue Mosque is its exterior, rather than its interior. Viewed from the front, the mosque seems to have been built as a virtual forest of domes on different levels that culminate in the impressive central dome. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph. The six minarets (only three of which can be seen in the following picture click to view a photograph) that offset the domes add a striking effect of their own - again lifting your eyes ever upward.

Not satisfied with just one great building, the boys decided to move on to visit the Hagia Sofia. For more about that visit, see the Place of the Day.

Afterwards, with the hour already getting late, Anthony and Padraic decided to visit the Byzantine cistern and then call it a day. Yet another of Justinian's ambitious construction projects, the cistern was built in the 6th century. Wishing for more than a simple structure to hold water, Justinian had his builders make the cistern into a beautiful "sunken palace," literally under the earth. Built with columns and foundations from earlier buildings, the cistern is palatial, but a bit eerie. The carefully arranged lighting and constant dripping of water from the ceiling heighten the effect. Unfortunately, since there was so little light, it was impossible to take any pictures.

Thoroughly spooked, the boys returned to Asia for the bright warmth and hospitality of their host's home.

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