Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Istanbul Day 3: Private Tour and Convention Dinner

    The sudden glare of the room lights jolted me from slumber. I pried one eye open and found my room-mate, Alam, at the door, all dressed up in running gear. Turning to glance at my watch, I jumped out of bed in horror. 
    "Alam! Why didn't you wake me up?" 
    "You didn't respond when I called you. We'll wait for you downstairs," was his lame excuse. I had a date to keep and I was running late! I rushed to the bathroom, splashing water on my face as I squeezed toothpaste on the brush. Forget about changing, my sleeping attire would do just fine for what I was going to be engaged in. In five minutes tops, my Reeboks were laced and I was on my way down from the 22nd floor. Timecheck, 6.35a.m. Istanbul time - time for the morning run...
    Waiting at the hotel lobby was Alam and Kevin. As we made our way out of the hotel, I wondered if my unworked limbs would give way without a proper warm up. After all, Kevin had a reputation for being a running fanatic. My fears soon turned to relief as my lung filled up with the fresh morning air...
An empty Taksim Square at dawn - running with AIA CEO Mr Tan Hak Leh
     My apprehension was unfounded as the pace was really manageable. Then it started to rain. The rain on that cool Istanbul morning gave new meaning to "cats and dogs". Like mice evading the eyes of a cat, we scampered from shelter to shelter. Little good that did, and I was drenched to the bone when we finally entered the hotel, 6km later. That was how Day 3 in Istanbul began.
    This day was reserved for our private tour. The guide arrived and promptly informed us that our vehicle was caught in traffic due to the unexpected morning rain and the resulting traffic accidents. Fortunately we didn't have to wait long. Our ride soon arrived. Imagine our delight when we realized that the four of us were going to travel in comfort, in a Mercedes minibus built for fifteen. Our first stop, the Chora Church.
    I will not belabour you with the rich history of this place (you have Google and Wikipedia for that). The walls and ceiling of the Chora Church is covered in intricate mosaic depicting the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Orthodox Greek tradition.
Mary as a teenager
     What struck me was that the scenes were not positioned in chronological order. I asked the guide and was told that they were actually chronological; not in the sequence of which happened first, but which takes place earlier in the year. This is to facilitate the celebration of ceremonies throughout the year.
Nativity Scene. It is interesting to note that the craftsman depicts Joseph (lower right-hand corner) as being in a pensive mood, unlike the usual exultation depicted at Christmas. I too would be contemplative if my virgin wife is about to give birth and I'm about to be father to the Son of God - what an awesome responsibility.
    On the way to our next destination, we drove past the ancient triple walls of Constantinople. Istanbul has been the capital of many empires; the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire to name two.
    Our next stop - the Basilica Cistern. This underground reservoir was built during Roman times. As explained by our guide, the Romans, who were Christians then, recycled the pillars from pagan temples. This allowed them to complete the cistern in record time.
    We had to traverse a long, wooden platform, as we made our way among the ancient pillars. At the far end of the gloomy darkness were the highlights of this leg.

The severed heads of two Gorgons greeted us. Instead of building new pillars, the Romans used the Gorgon heads as bases for shorter pillars. According to legend, whoever stares into the eyes of a Gorgon will turn to stone. It is perhaps because of this superstition that the ancients placed the heads in their current position; so as not to look directly into their eyes.
    We left the comfort of our vehicle and travelled on foot as the vehicle was once again stuck in a traffic jam. As we wandered through the quaint Istanbul neighbourhoods, I stopped short. Right at the side of the street was one of Turkey's "national treasures". These national treasures are not allowed to be taken out of the country. Highly-prized, they can go for as high as US$80,000 for one. I found it quite incredulous that someone would leave a potential US$80,000 at the side of the road.
On further research, this adorable fellow is probably a Turkish Van Cat (originally bred in the UK), rather than the highly-prized Turkish Angora Cat. The Angora has longer fur. What makes them so unique? Check out the colour of the eyes.
     We walked through the Grand Bazaar (a great place to get ripped off) and pass an ancient coffeeshop. Past more winding streets, up, down and over the hilly terrain of this city, and finally found ourselves in the courtyard of the Suleymaniye Mosque.
The Emerald Tower

This mosque is the largest in Istanbul. It was built on the order of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. According to the guide, the architect, Mimar Sinan, was a genius. One reason why the mosque has stood the ravages of nature (earthquakes) and time is because the foundation was allowed to sink into the bedrock before further construction commenced. This delay gave rise to rumours that Sultan Suleyman lacked the funds to continue building. According to legend, the Shah of Persia heard about it. He sent emeralds and other precious stones to help in the construction. This was taken by Suleyman as an insult, because the Shah was a lesser ruler. Suleyman was bound by Islamic code to accept help in building the mosque, so he couldn't send the gifts back. To show his contempt, he commanded the emeralds to be smashed and mixed in to the mortar. The concrete was then used to build the "Emerald Tower". Some say you can glimpse the greenish shine when the sun strikes it at a certain angle, even till this day. 
    Inside, the guide continued to regale us with stories of Sinan's genius. The use of "Turkish Triangles" and the buttresses built into the walls allow a single layered dome. It even has a ventilation system to allow smoke from candles to rise to the ceiling and be sucked out of the mosque. The soot is then collected and made into black paint. Although arguably not as beautiful as the Blue Mosque (designed by Sinan's student), I find this mosque much more interesting.
Turkish Triangles
Holes in the ceiling are actually the open mouths of clay jars. This aids in the acoustics of the mosque, allowing the voice of the cleric to travel to the end of the hall.
Ostrich eggs hung between candles on the huge chandelier, to keep spiders away
View of the city from Istanbul's Third Hill, in the backyard of the Suleymaniye Mosque.
      The finale to our private tour saw us hopping back into our air-conditioned Mercedes and heading uphill. Pierre Loti hill, one of Istanbul's most famous landmarks, is named after a French novelist and naval officer who supported the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23). This site affords one an excellent view of the Golden Horn. Our rainy afternoon had given way to excellent weather. With the sun at our backs, the view was indeed breathtaking.
At the summit of Pierre Loti hill. Also accessible by cable-car.
Panoramic view of the Golden Horn, captured by my trusty Samsung S3
Finishing off the tour with a cup of strong Turkish coffee at the Pierre Loti Coffee Shop. Order your coffee "less sweet" or "sweeter", cos you can't add sugar later. It's just too thick.
     This private tour is testament to what an extra bit of research and liaising can do to enhance the experience. For a few dollars more, we got a comfortable Mercedes and a private tour guide (who was actually an attorney at law, working on the side during his lull period). Forgive me for gloating, but I bet my other colleagues who went on the mass company tour didn't enjoy as much. 
    This trip was wonderful as it is. What could've made it even better is if my wife were there too.

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