topics: Topkapi Palace, Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, history, Mehmet The Conqueror, daily life; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: March 1-2, 1998

Food of the Day: fish sandwiches

In between the different ferry docks on the European side of Istanbul, small boats tie up and sell fish sandwiches. click to view a photograph Fish chefs standing in the boats first deep fry filets of mackerel and then grill them over charcoal. These tasty filets, to which you can add onions or lemon sauce if you like, are served inside a section of bread. click to view a photograph

It is amazing to watch the chefs cook up the fish on the boat which is usually rolling up and down and left and right in the waves created by the arriving and departing ferries. There is nothing quite like an open flame in a boat to keep the crew on its toes. click to view a photograph

Anthony in particular was very weak when it came to resisting these delicious sandwiches. If only they had not been right by the ferry dock he might have stood a chance, but as fate (and marketing) would have it, he was drawn to these boats time and time again.

Person of the Day: Bengül Kurtar click to view a photograph

Bengül Kurtar is yet another of the kind souls that have offered to share their apartment with the BikeAbout gang. For four nights Anthony, Ethan and Padraic called Bengül's apartment "home" and made her normally peaceful life more, um, "interesting" (some might say chaotic).

She helped us organize our stay in Istanbul, spent time with us despite her very busy schedule, cooked a delightful meal (or two) for us, allowed us to cook a meal for her, and let us use her phone line for the all-important Internet access. An environmental engineer, Bengül is also an avid biker, SCUBA diver, open-minded traveler, and occasional writer for a local Turkish magazine called "Git" (which will soon be publishing something about BikeAbout written by Bengül herself).

Our helmets come off in thanks to Bengül for her hospitality and kindness.

Place of the Day: Harem of the Topkapi Palace

Usually imagined as the place where the sultan would engage in hedonistic nights full of debauchery, the Harem was in fact where the imperial family lived. As a central part of the Topkapi Palace, the Harem buildings told us a lot about what life during the Ottoman empire was like. At least for the royal family.

The Harem was composed primarily of women. However, as the religion of Islam forbids the enslavement of Christians, Muslims, or Jews, many of the women were acquired as gifts from other heads of state, or purchased at legitimate slave markets or from willing parents who desired that their daughters be schooled in Islam, Ottoman culture, language, music, reading, writing, poetry and handicrafts. Similarly, one of the more important uses of the Harem was in the education of the imperial princes.

Islam allowed for as many concubines as a man could afford and the Ottoman sultans often had the financial means to support a great many of them - sometimes as many as 300. Padraic and Anthony paused for a moment in their tour and pondered what it might be like having 300 different women in each their lives. Padraic made the comment that Ethan was having enough trouble juggling the 33 girlfriends he currently has and could not imagine the complexity of him having to deal with ten times that number. [Editor Anthony pretending to be editor Ethan: This a complete untruth and yet another malicious attempt to undermine my character and credibility. I do not currently have, nor have I ever had, more than 5 girlfriends at one time.] [The real editor Ethan: Let the record state that monogamy is a very good thing.] Anthony, on the other hand, is currently girlfriendless (all interested parties should address themselves to and so found the idea of a Harem completely foreign... yet oddly intriguing.

The sultan was allowed to have four legitimate wives (called "kadin"). If any bore a child by the sultan, she became a "haseki sultan" (if the child was a boy), or a "haseki kadin" (if the child was a girl). If the child then later actually became sultan, the mother became known as "valide sultan," one of the most powerful inhabitants of the palace (and thus the Ottoman Empire). However, in reality, Mehmet the Conqueror (see Tech Fact of the Day) was the only sultan to take four wives. The sultans that followed him choose to keep four concubines, thus avoiding all the legal hassles. (This was long before the invention of a prenuptial agreement. Can you imagine the trouble Donald Trump would be in if he had married four different women at the same time?)

As there was no right of primogeniture (a process by which the oldest child - usually son - of a ruler has the right to take over from his or her father or mother), the next sultan was usually chosen from a pool of possibilities. Thus, for a while the Harem was also used for something called "kafes hyati" (cage life). Established by Ahmet I, who could not bear to kill his brother (prior to his rule, the question of primogeniture was basically answered by whomever was still standing after a fratricidal slaughter), kafes hyati was a type of house arrest used to control potential challengers to the throne. Instead of killing troublemakers, the ruling sultan could instead hold hostage inside the Harem. It is not hard to imagine the intrigue and maneuvering that occurred among the haseki sultan (wives who had borne the sultan a male child), as they worked to ensure that their sons became sultan, thus also ensuring themselves the role of valide sultan.

The Harem existed very much like a small village with around 400 people living in it at any given time. There were three mosques, a hospital, seven private Turkish baths (and several common baths), a meeting room click to view a photograph (complete with a fountain whose running water served to obscure the voices of the sultan and his guests - important in this time of eavesdroppers and Harem intrigue), and many private quarters. Beautiful tiles decorate almost every wall of the Harem. click to view a photograph

The Harem even had its own guard force composed of black eunuchs who kept a close eye on the sultan's women and enforced the rules of the kafes hyati.

Tech Fact of the Day:

In the 15th century, Constantinople was a great and stubborn, but lonely, Byzantine city completely surrounded by the Ottoman Empire. It was a thorn in the side of the Ottoman leaders. After many years, it was decided that, as formidable as the task might be, the city must be taken. (See more at the Brief History of Istanbul.)

The Fall of Constantinople, also known to Muslims as the Conquest of Istanbul, hinged on two separate feats of engineering. First, as a defensive measure to prevent ships from entering the mouth of the Golden Horn (the river dividing European Istanbul), the Byzantines had stretched a heavy chain from one side to the other, thus spanning the mouth of the waterway and effectively blocking access to it. Undaunted, a young and power-hungry Ottoman sultan, Mehmet, ordered his ships to gather in a nearby cove and, under the cover of night, secretly transported them OVERLAND - using logs as rollers - up the valley and down the other side into the Golden Horn at Kasim Pas(h)a. This tactic caught the Byzantine defenders by surprise and they were forced to relinquish control of the Golden Horn.

While this certainly was a blow to the defenders, they still had the huge and famous city walls to hide behind. These walls proved to be incredibly vexing to Mehmet's artillery. No matter how much his cannons battered the walls during the day, the defenders would rebuild the walls during the night. By the time the cannon crews clocked in the next morning there would be little or no visible damage. The artillery officers were incredibly annoyed with the resourcefulness of the defenders (understandably so - if you blow something up, it should stay blown up - right?).

There was a relatively simple solution: acquire a larger canon.

Fortunately for the Ottomans, there was a Hungarian canon builder visiting the area (arms dealers seem to be drawn to conflict). Originally intending to offer his services to the Byzantines in defense of Christendom and against the heathens knocking at the gates of Constantinople, the cannon maker quickly started singing a different tune when he discovered that the Byzantine emperor was a little short of cash. Finding the coffers of Mehmet filled to the brim and that, deep in his own heart, the canon maker was more of a capitalist than a defender of Christendom, he offered his skills to the "infidels"; namely, the casting of the largest canon ever constructed (up until that time).

The first test firing of this canon frightened hundreds of surrounding peasants and launched a gigantic cannonball 1½ km (1 m) away burying it 2 m (7 ft) deep in the earth! This canon was so powerful that with every firing it destroyed the mount on which it was set. A special crew was in charge of just building new mounts while another crew hauled buckets of water to cool the canon in between firings.

Finally, on the 28th of May 1453, Mehmet earned his name "The Conqueror" and his troops gained control of every section of the city.

Group Dispatch, March 1-2
picture of Anthony

The BikeAbout boys decided, at the prompting of their hostess, to start the day with a proper Sunday breakfast in a café on the shores the Bosporus. They dutifully set out in search of the nearest bakery and, once they had loaded up on pastries, walked along the shore until they found an outdoor café that suited their fancy. They then spent the better part of the next hour soaking up the morning sun while eating, drinking tea, talking, and looking west and south out over the water as a mist was slowly burned off to reveal the minarets of the city and the islands just offshore. click to view a photograph

Breakfast finished, Padraic and Anthony headed for the European side of Istanbul, while Ethan stayed at "home" (i.e., Bengül's apartment) to catch up on his writing. The ladies meanwhile used the day to change hosts.

To get from the Asian side of Istanbul to the European side, you have two options: the land route or the water route. If you travel by land, you must head across one of two huge suspension bridges click to view a photograph that span the Bosporus Strait. Along the way, you must contend with traffic snarls that can make your journey an hour-and-a-half endeavor - if you are lucky. Alternatively, you can hop on one of the many ferries that make the crossing. A voyage of 20 minutes. Obviously, lots of people use the ferry. click to view a photograph

The waters of Istanbul are filled with boats of all shapes and sizes. Most of them are freighters, tugboats, fire-fighting boats, tourist boats, or cruise ships, but lots and lots of them are ferries. There are short-distance ferries (across the Golden Horn and the Bosporus), longer distance ferries (out to the Prince Islands or more distant suburbs of Istanbul), car ferries, and hydrofoil ferries (the fastest and most expensive). The ride across the Bosporus takes only 20 minutes, costs the equivalent of 50 cents (125,000 Turkish Lire), and is very popular. During the ride you can soak up some sun, take in the spectacular views of the city click to view a photograph, or try to flag down one of the waiters rushing back and forth with trays of tea, coffee and snacks. click to view a photograph You have to be quick to flag them down; since they only have 20 minutes during which to try and serve the entire boat, they tend to be a blur of motion. click to view a photograph

Arriving in European Istanbul, Padraic and Anthony headed for the Topkapi Palace. Constructed, by Mehmet the Conqueror shortly after his capture of the city in 1453 (see Tech Fact of the Day and A Brief History of Istanbul), Topkapi Palace served as the sultan's home. Following his death in 1481, the palace was the residence of every sultan of the Ottoman Empire up to the 19th century.

Built on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn and Bosporus, the Topkapi Palace has been modified and changed over the centuries but without altering the four-courtyard plan of the original structure. Unlike a palace that you might see in Europe - a building surrounded by gardens - the Topkapi Palace is more like a fortified camp with a series of buildings (for cooking, sleeping, storage, the treasury, prayer and defense).

In the first courtyard, otherwise known as the Court of the Janissaries (or full-time soldiers who were personal servants of the sultan), soldiers, merchants and trades people moved about at will. This was the "public" part of the palace. The Second Court, however, was a different story. Entrance to this courtyard was limited to those concerned with the day-to-day governing of the empire. Only the sultan and the valide sultan ("queen mother") were allowed ride through the entrance on horseback; all others were forced to dismount.

Today you must purchase a ticket to enter the grounds of the Second Court. Poignantly placed near the ticket booth is the fountain where the imperial executioner used to clean his sword of justice after having expeditiously separated a disloyal or unpleasing subject's head from his body. Anthony could not help but think that this was a reminder to people to purchase entry tickets but just in case (and following the travel advice of Michael Palin - "Never, ever go first!") he let Padraic be the first to pass through the gate and enter the grounds of the Palace. The gate itself click to view a photograph was constructed in 1524 by Süleyman the Magnificent, the very same guy who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and commissioned the largest mosque in Istanbul).

The interior of the courtyard is a beautiful area resembling a park with trees and grass. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph After first stopping to pay homage to the Palace's kitchens which had been capable of preparing food for the Palace's 5,000 residents - the idea of that much effort being put forth to prepare that much food and feed that many people brought a tear to Padraic and Anthony's eyes - and following the advice of their Lonely Planet guidebook, Anthony and Padraic headed for the Harem. For more about this, see today's Place of the Day, but suffice it to say that, dazed and overwhelmed by the ornate beauty of the Harem, its stories of intrigue and the mere idea of having over 300 concubines, the boys stumbled out of it and into the Third Court.

The Third Court was the sultan's private domain, staffed and guarded by special white eunuchs. It was here that the sultan would receive ambassadors. After being carefully searched for weapons, each ambassador would be led under the close observation of the white eunuchs to the Ars Odasi (Audience Chamber) where the sultan, seated on a couch whose cushions were embroidered with 15,000 seed pearls, would inspect the ambassadors gifts. All conversation with the sultan passed through a person called the Grand Vizier since the sultan could not be bothered to speak directly with any visitors.

The Third Court also holds the Imperial Treasury which is full of an impressive number of objects covered with gold, rubies, jade, emeralds, pearls and diamonds. Swords and daggers seem to have been a particular favorite for being jeweled. Two of the more impressive items were the Spoonmaker's Diamond - an 86 carat stone (the world's fifth largest diamond) first worn by Mehmet IV on his accession to the throne in 1648 - and an uncut emerald weighing 3.26 kilograms (7 pounds!). Both Padraic and Anthony were impressed with their size and beauty.

The boys momentarily considered what could have been their brashest (and most illegal) fundraising effort yet (inspired by Peter Ustinov's movie "Topkapi"). However, considering everything that they had just seen and learned about eunuchs and imperial executioners, they decided to pursue funding through more traditional (and legal) avenues.

The Third Court is also the sight of the Hirtka-I Saadat (or Suite of the Felicitous Cloak) now known as the Mukaddes Emanetler Dairesi (or Sacred Safekeeping Rooms). The Palace's relics are kept in these rooms. While, in the distant past, access to these relics was carefully and tightly controlled (even the imperial family entered only once a year - on the 15th day of Ramadan), today anyone can see them. The highlights of rooms are the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, a hair from his beard, his footprint, two of his swords, his battle standard and several letters written in his own hand. In addition to the items from the Prophet Muhammad, there was also the walking stick of Moses, the sword of King David and the saucepan of Abraham. Both Anthony and Padraic are big fans of reliquaries and they were both very impressed and declared the collection to be first rate.

The Fourth Court occupies the northeastern part of the palace and is also called the Gardens. Unfortunately, Anthony and Padraic were running out of time and were unable to visit the gardens. Nevertheless, as they headed back through the Second Court, they were again impressed with the grandeur of the palace. click to view a photograph

Hopping on another ferry, they headed back to the Asian side of Istanbul for a rendezvous with Ethan, the ladies, and dinner.

The next day Ethan and Padraic headed off to Robert College while Anthony headed off for a tour of the Kapali çars(h)i (Covered Market) and the Spice Market (Egyptian Market).

The Covered Market is a huge group of thousands of individual shops (around 4,000) lined up along kilometer after kilometer of covered streets. click to view a photograph In addition to the shops there are mosques, cafés, restaurants, banks, and police stations. The streets were laid out on a grid pattern (no worry about getting lost in this market) and the shops were all well lit and very clean. click to view a photograph In fact, navigating in the Covered Market is relatively easy. All you have to keep in mind is the street names: Kürkçüler çars(h)is(h)i (Furriers Bazaar), Kuyumcular Cadessi (Jewelers St.), Feraceciler Sokak (Cloak Makers St.), Yagcilar Cadessi (Oil Merchants St.), and, finally, if you have not found what you are looking for, head to Uzençars(h)i Cadessi (Longmarket St) where there is a collection of shops selling everything from luggage to pots and pans. Piece of cake, right?

The market originally started as a small warehouse built around the time of Mehmet the Conqueror. Soon the neighborhood was full of shops whose keepers decided to put up roofs and porches so that their customers could shop in comfort year round. Then the wealthier merchants constructing "hans" (or caravanseries) so that goods imported from throughout the empire could be stored close to the market. Finally a system of locking entrance gates and doors ensured the security of the shops.

The general essence of the Covered Market has changed little during the subsequent centuries. While it caters more and more to the tour bus crowd, the areas around the market still contain the bargain shops that the residents of Istanbul frequent. In many ways, the Covered Market is similar to the souqs we have already visited all across North Africa and in Jerusalem, although it was slightly more touristy than most of the others we have visited. A common greeting from storeowners was, "In what way can I possibly help you spend your money?" If English did not work, they would work their way through German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese, repeating the same phrase.

Around the Central Market are several bazaars like the Sahaflar çars(h)isi - Old Book Bazaar. Anthony decided to wait, and tell Padraic about this bazaar once they were safely in Greece. Historians have a tendency to get lost for weeks in used bookstores and quite frankly we have grown far to fond of Padraic to be forced to leave him behind.

Anthony then met up with Ethan and Padraic at the train station to check on train times to various places, and to do a little shopping for dinner.

Ethan and Patrick had spent the greater part of the day traipsing around the northern edges of Istanbul, trying to find one of Turkey's most famous and well-reputed secondary school - Robert College - and make a presentation there. First they had to take a boat up to the area on the European side far north of the center. Then they had to transfer to a city bus that brought them even farther north and into areas that did not have helpful road signs. Confused and feeling lost, they were saved by a kind young woman who overheard them asking for help about where to get off the bus. (They only missed their stop by a few blocks!)

After a short walk, they arrived at Robert College, an impressive collection of substantial buildings click to view a photograph located on an extensive and green parcel of land overlooking the Bosporus. They were struck by how large and collegiate it felt click to view a photograph, as if the campus model we know in the States had been adopted for this school. The facilities were no less inspiring.

A series of brief meetings led to the office door of the Director of Studies. It turns out that the information imparted to the people at Robert College by our friends at the Austrian College (St. George Academy) was not altogether accurate. As a result, Padraic and Ethan expected to make a presentation and the folk at Robert College were only prepared to give them a tour of the grounds. Oops. So they spent their time talking to various administrators about BikeAbout and the promise that it holds.

The Director of Programming also gave them a welcome talk about Robert College (the first American school ever established outside of the U.S.A.) and its well-earned reputation as perhaps the best high school in Turkey. He provided some past and present political context to the development of the school and the challenges it has faced along the way. For example, just this year, the Turkish government announced that the number of years of compulsory education would be raised from five to eight. As a result, Robert College, currently working with six years of students, will have to phase out its junior high school. They are not equipped to provide eight years of education and will therefore have to focus only on their high school program. Which is really too bad.

In all, Ethan and Padraic were a bit disappointed not to have been able to meet with students. However, they were glad to have seen and learned about the school. Plus, information was left with enough teachers and administrators there that we hope some of their students will join us in the coming months (when they finally secure Internet access from the school).

A long bus trip through cloudy skies and light rain left them right by the train station where they would be meeting Anthony to get some train time information. In addition, they all had shopping to do in preparation for the feast they had promised Bengül and the ladies.

Full of information and loaded with bags bursting with the raw ingredients of what promised to be a carbohydrate feast of great proportions, the boys hopped on another ferry back to Asia impatient to start cooking. The outcome - a "stir fry" of mixed vegetables and pineapple, all over rice - was a copious and great success.

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