Wednesday, 1 July 2015
I woke up this morning with a bubble of excitement in my stomach. We were planning to just spend a relaxing day in the Sulthanahmet district, visiting the Topkapı palace and the Archeological museum.
And I have also been reading quite a lot about local things do see and do and one of the things that I sort of wrote off was a whirling dervishes ceremony. Now if, like me, you’ve never heard of this before, the whirling dervishes practice a religious ritual called a Sema, which is rooted in Sufism, an Islamic order started by the famous poet, Mevlâna Rumi in the thirteenth century. And…I managed to track down a Mevlana order in Istanbul where they perform these rituals every day and made a booking!
By the time Anya eventually woke up (she was reading Harry Potter long past the time I fell asleep…), we were quite hungry. Our Airbnb hostess, Hanife, was making french toast and offered us some. With feta cheese (of course) and olives, because that is the way they do it in Turkey…It was delicious.
When we finally made our way to the Topkapı palace it was past 11:00am already and there was a bit of a queue getting into the palace. The large palace, nestled on the banks of the Bosphorus, was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans for about 400 years and it is a UNESCO world heritage site. It also contain many Islamic relics, including the cloak and sword of the prophet Mohammed (which we saw, but no pictures were allowed…).
Once you enter the Imperial Gate, a large courtyard with big trees open up in front of you with the Babüsselam Gate at the far end. There was a band marching down on the right hand side and lots of people milling around in the green gardens.
We veered to the right and entered the Palace Kitchens, where there were beautiful exhibitions of kitchen implements and the most glorious porcelain crockery. It was evident that the Turkish love of sweets was practiced extensively in these kitchens for the benefit of the Sultans…
Next we entered through the Babüssaade gate, through the Dormitory of the Akagalar or Audience Chamber, into the third courtyard with the Chamber of Petitions in front of you. There was a very large queue waiting to enter the treasury, so we decided to give this one a skip. By now Anya was complaining that she was starving (in all honesty, so was I), so we were quite relieved when we saw a sign indicating the way to the Restaurant. We decided to eat at the Konyalı Restaurant, which was probably not the cheapest option, but by far had the most stunning view over the Marmara Sea.
Tummies filled, and even sharing a dessert plate, we set of again. The fourth courtyard is quite magnificent and contains the Sofa Mosque, the Baghdad Kiosk and the Marble terrace.
Retreating from the fourth courtyard back to the third courtyard, we visited the Privy Chamber, that contained the cloak and sword of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as the Staff of Moses, the turban of Joseph. We were not allowed to take pictures inside, and it was clearly a holy place, with recitations from the Qur’an taking place in the background.
Next we entered the Dormitory of the Royal pages, with portraits of the Ottoman Sultans, the Inkwell chamber or the clocks’ section and finally the Mosque of the Ağas, the largest mosque on the palace grounds. Everywhere, there were İznik tiles and we found that we were dragging our weary feet along to try and see as much as possible.
We also visited the Harem of the Sultans (an additional fee) with its more than 400 rooms and it was quite an eye opener. I don’t really know that much about the Ottoman Sultans, but it was quite extraordinary to read about and see all the apartments for the concubines, the queen mother, the princes and the favourites. Once again the rooms were gilded and decorated with the most spectacular İznik tiles everywhere.
After our visit to the Topkapi, we went to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which actually consists of three museums, the archaeology museum, the museum of Islamic art (the Tiled Kiosk) and the museum of Ancient Orient. We were quite exhausted by this time and sat down for a while at the cafe in the courtyard of the museums.
The archaeology museum was fascinating, with outlines of the history of the whole Turkish region back to the Archaic period, the Roman period, the Byzantine period and the Ottoman era and more. The Tiled Kiosk had an impressive collection of the finest İznik tiles and the Ancient Orient museum had an impressive collection of artifacts from pre-Greek Anatolia and Mesopotamia. I was too tired to take many pictures by now…just soaking up the art and atmosphere (in between stops to rest my feet…).
After our visit to the Archaeology Museum, we started making our way to the Sirkeci train station to collect our tickets for the Whirling Dervishes ceremony later that evening. We walked to the train station and picked up our tickets. After a little rest and ice cream at the harbour, we made our way across the Galata bridge towards the Galata Tower.
At the Galata Tower, we sat down for a while, having a drink and taking in the surroundings. (Did I mention we had to climb another one of the seven hills to make it to the Tower??)
We then started making our way back towards the station for the ceremony.
The Whirling Dervishes ceremony took place in the Sirkeci Events Hall at the Sirkeci train station. On arrival, we were offered a complimentary drink and we settled down to wait for the ceremony to start. The hall filled up slowly and eventually, just after 7:00pm, the ceremony commenced with the entrance of 4 men with a few strange looking instruments playing Sufi music.
After a while, they exit and then enter again. Finally one of the dervishes enter, lay down a red rug, and exit again. When the 4 dervishes enter together, they all have black over coats over their white dresses and the start the ritual. Initially they just move in circles and reunite on the side, and eventually the whirling starts, slower and then faster. There are breaks in-between each set of whirling. It was fascinating! They start whirling with their arms crossed over their breasts and as they start whirling (with closed eyes), their arms loosen and they eventually whirl with arms outstretched. I cannot describe it properly at all, so I have posted a youtube link of the video I took with my phone.
The ceremony is clearly a religious ceremony and the aim of the whirling is to reach some sort of a trance, I suppose similar to a meditative trance. To some extent you almost feel a little bit like an intruder, but I am very happy we did this. I think it is such an integral part of the culture of Istanbul that I certainly think we would have missed out had we not attended this.
I was intrigued as I saw whirling dances in Egypt many years ago, but with multicoloured dresses and it was much more of an entertainment act than this ceremony. I did a little research and the whirling dances in Egypt are definitely related to this Sufi ceremony, but most of the whirling dances you will see in Egypt are done as part of an entertainment package, often with belly dancers so they are not Sema ceremonies.
After the ceremony, it was time to look for some dinner. It was Ramadan when we were in Istanbul, and I did a little research and found out that the place to be at breaking fast time in Istanbul is the Hippodrome. We decided to walk to the Hippodrome, instead of taking the tram and got a bit tangled up in the roads around the station, so had to cross roads like the locals, anywhere, to get where we wanted to be. It reminded me of Cammie telling us the previous day that her mom, when she hesitates walking across a road, tells her she has been in England too long!
During Ramadan, Istanbul residents gather at the Hippodrome to break their fast. There are wooden benches and a little market (reminiscent of German markets in Europe over Christmas) and Istanbul residents bring their food from home and gather as large families at the wooden benches and have their meals together. We loved the atmosphere.
(apologies for last few pictures’ quality…camera’s batteries gave up, thank goodness for iPhone!)
There was also live entertainment at the amphitheatre and we peeked at the show over the shoulders of the many locals watching…It was already after 10:00pm when we started making our way back towards our accommodation (but not before we tasted the most divine chocolate baklava ever!) and the area was packed.
We finally collapsed in our beds that evening (my swollen, sore feet elevated on a cushion) with much satisfaction. FYI, according to my iPhone, we walked 18.83km on that day alone, and apparently climbed the equivalent of 19 floors, mostly cobblestones, so I guess it was no wonder my feet needed a little TLC!
Our plan for the next day was a Bosphorus tour, with a little stroll around the Beyoğlu area afterwards.
But, that is a story for another day!
(Ps: If you missed part 1 of this trip, click here…)