Still in cold, wet Istanbul …

I was hoping to wake up to a change in weather today but no such luck. After the usual breakfast buffet spread on the roof of the hotel (in their unheated small dining room), I fired up my red boots and hit the wet pavement. I had decided to go to the Kariye Museum, a old Christian church from the time of Justinian (6th c) that had later been converted into a mosque and is now a museum. “Museum” is a bit of a mis-nomer for this building, since it is basically an empty church and has no explanatory labels or museum-like material of any kind. Perhaps calling it a museum allows the government to justify charging 15 Lira for entry. It was a long hike in the rain, first along the tram-line road and then along another grand boulevard whose name I could not find signposted. The museum itself is located in a very unpreposessing neighbourhood of semi-derelict houses. Once inside, the interior of the old church is quite beautiful. Byzantine mosaics illustrating stories from the bible and Christ Pantocrator decorate the walls and ceilings. Many are not in very good repair, probably because they were whitewashed over during the period in which the building was a mosque. Part of the interior is also frescoed nicely. As usual, a cat seems to have taken up his station inside the church, much to the delight of some of the younger visitors who were more excited about patting the cat than viewing the mosaics …

I trudged back again along the same nondescript route, past many, many shops selling the most garish wedding dresses imaginable in red, blue, purple, gold and white with enormous ruffled shirts, past shops selling cheap shoes, cheap jeans, cheap doner, etc. I was the only tourist to be seen, weaving back and forward between the enormous old head-scarved Turkish women in their floor length overcoats, and horking, snorting and hacking Turkish men smoking their brains out. No one here got the memo about the ill effects of smoking –

When I arrived back in the Sultanahmet district I popped into the famous hamam just around the corner from the Grand Bazaar, the Cemberlitas. This Turkish bathhouse is the oldest in Turkey and was designed by Sinan in 1584 and has been going strong since then. Since I was feeling miserable, I thought, “What the hell”, paid my money and had the full-on hamam experience. This particular bath has separate quarters for men and women and all the attendants in our section were women, all of whom were large, semi-naked, and could have been twins, or sisters at least. They all looked identical. First, on entering I got a locker in which to deposit my heavy backpack and sodden clothes. Then, after stripping off my wet clothes, and putting on a small, thin piece of fabric, I was ushered into the bath proper.

There were no signs or instructions about how to proceed, and none of the attendants spoke English, so it was a bit of a disconcerting experience at first. I was told to lie down on the marble slab and pour cups of hot water over myself at regular intervals (all this more or less in sign language). Then, at some point I managed to communicate to one woman that I was ready to be scrubbed, and she did the deed, scrubbing me vigorously with a rough glove, and then massaging me with soap suds for a while. She was actually great, quite humourous, singing to herself as she scrubbed away at me, periodically showing me all the dead skin she was exfoliating from my body and shaking her head. After that was complete, I was taken into another room, where I received a rather desultory oil massage by a woman who talked non-stop to her friend while rubbing me down – I do mean non-stop; she did not once stop for breath. Luckily, it was all in Turkish so it was easy to ignore it, although the massage would have been more relaxing had it been done in silence. After that, it was back to the marble slab and hot water buckets for another period of time. I felt rather like a character in one of those 19th century Orientalist paintings by Gerome – I’m sure the water buckets are probably the same ones they were using back then. All in all, though, it was a very pleasant way to spend a rainy Turkish afternoon after a long, tiring, wet and cold hike.

On another note, the tombs of Turkish sultans are everywhere in this town and surrounding them are small cemeteries, I think of lesser dignitaries. The graves in these cemeteries all have a, to me, very odd feature. On each of them are one, sometimes two, very large pillars, many with what looks like a stone turban on top. I’m not sure what the deal is with these – I must ask someone. And most of the tombs and cemeteries are in an advanced state of decrepitude.

See pictures here.

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