Turkey: Topkapi Palace and the Yerbatan Cistern
Istanbul is full of grand sites, palaces among them. Last time I was here I visited the Dolmabahce Palace, which was magnificent. This time we decided to go to Topkapi Palace, the seat of many a sultan before Atatürk came to power and pulled Turkey into modern democracy. Topkapi differs from Dolmabahce in that is more museum like. Dolmabahce preserved most of it's grand, lavish rooms as they were and consequently you feel like you are walking through one of the grandest homes you have ever seen. Topkapi is more of a royal court, with everything spread out. Most furniture and objects have been removed or placed in glass cases. it is a huge, sprawling complex with dozens, possibly hundreds, of buildings and courtyards. It takes hours to explore and see everything and we spent a large chunk of one day roaming around. We got an audio guide which proved to be mostly disappointing, but we were able to make our way around. I especially enjoyed how intricate the underside of awnings were, and the lovely arches. It certainly gives you a good taste for Ottoman architecture.
There are several rooms dedicated as "treasuries" with many glass cases filled with jewels, artifacts, and the like, one of which contains an 86-carat pear-shaped diamond. I couldn't get a picture of that, but I did get one of 50ish-carat diamond set in a gold neckpiece. Not bad.
There also many beautifully tiled rooms, and many with gorgeous stained-glass windows, much of which are in the harem, a separate part of the palace (that you also had to pay an extra fee for entry). Many of the domed ceilings are covered in intricate tiles and there is also exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay work on cabinets and drawers. The attention to detail in these walls, shelves, ceilings, and windows is breathtaking.
There is also a large religious section of the palace and you can learn a lot about Islam if you read all the (sometimes lengthy) signs. They have a large collection of hair and teeth that supposedly belonged to the prophet Mohammad (people kept these in special lockets for good luck), as well as sacred swords and pieces of the Kaaba in Mecca. The Ottoman Empire was in charge of Islam for many years and gained the right to have old or ruined pieces of the Kaaba and it's surroundings sent to Topkapi when parts were repaired or renovated. They also had on display what they claimed to be the staff of Moses and a bowl of Abraham's but I'm not so sure about that...The most fascinating object for me was a mother-of-pearl miniature replica of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
We also visited the Yerbatan (Basilica) Cistern, a wonderful and fascinating place to see. I was happy to return here, and this time with a better camera. It's the largest of many cisterns that lie under the city of Istanbul and it was built in the sixth century to provide water to the Great Constantine Palace and continued to provide water all the way through to the Ottoman conquest in 1453 to Topkapi Palace. It's spooky and beautiful at the same time, with grand rows of columns growing out of the water, which is filled with fish. In the northwest corner are two infamous Medusa heads at the base of two columns. No one really knows what they mean and why they were built, but the are fascinating nonetheless.