Sultanahmet Camii – The Blue Mosque: 51 Churches and One Mosque

Today the 52 Churches project left Christianity after 12 churches and finally experienced Islam with a visit to the impressive Blue Mosque of Istanbul. This one was not easy, took some courage and persistence, but was well worth the extra effort and I am particularly proud that my introduction to Islamic worship was in such a venerable and magnificent mosque.

Formally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in English (the Sultanahmet in Turkish), the Mosque was built between 1606-1616 by Ahmed I, whose tomb is located there. There is a detailed history on Wikipedia of course, so I will spare you the borrowed pedantry and let you click the previous link to educate yourself. It’s blue because of the extensive use of blue tiles throughout the interior, particularly in the immense dome, which in many ways mirrors the grandeur of Hagia Sofia, The Church of Wisdom, built 1100 years earlier across the grand plaza to the east. The mosque is notable for having six minarets, the most of any mosque except for Mecca, which was given a seventh minaret to retain its preeminence in the minaret department.

I tried to enter and observe prayers three times over the past seven days and polled several people about the etiquette and protocol of an infidel such as myself entering a mosque during prayers. In some cases and countries nonbelievers are firmly banned from entering mosques, but allegedly, because of the secular reforms of Kamal Ataturk, Turkey does not hold such a hard line and the Blue Mosque in particular is organized as a “tourist” mosque and permits visitors in between prayers.

Each time I tried to enter I was too close to the beginning of the next prayers and the guest entrance on the west side was closed. The carpet touts and would-be tour guides can be brutal and by my final attempt today, with only hours before I left Turkey for China, I resolved to make one last effort despite the warnings of many that I was a fool to expect to watch prayers. It simply isn’t easy and it isn’t like a typical temple or church where a non-believer can just stroll in and have a seat. Indeed, even in the Eastern Orthodox church they have a name for people like me — catechumen – who are supposed to observe the services out in the narthex outside of the nave. That apparently is NOT the case in a mosque, some of which prohibit a non-believer from entering at all. I was growing a bit pessimistic I would ever gain entry or worse, would have to disguise myself and enter in mufti like Richard Francis Burton did when he snuck into Mecca in 1853 disguised as a Pashtun (he also spoke nearly every Indian and Arabic language).  I am a huge Richard Burton fan by the way. He was one of the more amazing adventurers who ever lived.

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Church of St. George – Constantinople: 52 Churches

(Brace yourself church fans; this is going to be a long one I think)

First the context. Then the church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian denomination in the world (after Roman Catholicism) and is the prevalent Christian denomination in Greece, the Balkans, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia. It is Greek in origin and traces its history directly back to Christ’s Apostles, emphasizing in its beliefs its unchanged connection directly  back to the foundation of Christianity.

It was the religion of the Byzantine Empire, which followed the Roman Empire and peaked in its power and extent in the middle of the sixth century but survived until 1453 in its capitol of Constantinople until the city was sacked by the Muslim Turks. The Patriarchate is the spiritual capitol of the faith, yet care must be taken not to assume that the Patriarchate is the “Vatican” of the Orthodox faith, or the Patriarch is tantamount to the Pope. He is, like the Pope, considered “first among equals,” and he is viewed as the leader of the Orthodox faith. Historically the position of Patriarch wielded immense power and in some regards was as powerful as the Byzantine Emperor. The piety of the Byzantine court cannot be underestimated, and the synods or early religious councils that were convened in the early centuries such as the Council of Nicea are fundamental to the history of all Christian denominations.

This is the religion of icons, of priests in black cylindrical hats and flowing robes, of smoking censers filled with frankincense. If you’ve seen Deer Hunter and recall the Orthodox wedding, then you’ve seen some Orthodox liturgy.

After the sack of Constantinople the Byzantine church limped around Istanbul, getting kicked out of one church after another as the Sultan converted Hagia Sofia — The Church of Holy Wisdom — into a mosque and commanded that no Christian church exceed a mosque in size or grandeur. Today the church is the small but elegant Church of St. George on the shores of the Golden Horn in Phanar (Fener), where it has resided since 1600.

From Wikipedia:

“Since the fall of the Ottomans and the rise of modern Turkish nationalism most of the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul has emigrated, leaving the Patriarch in the anomalous position of a leader without a flock, at least locally. Today the Church of St George serves mainly as the symbolic centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and as a centre of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. The church is financially supported by donations from Orthodox communities in other countries.

On 3 December 1997, a bomb attack seriously injured a deacon and damaged the Patriarchal Cathedral.[4] This was one of the many terrorist attacks against the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its churches and cemeteries in Istanbul in recent years.The efforts to bring the terrorists to justice are continuing.”

The Service

Before travelling to Turkey I wrote an email to the secretary of the church seeking some information about services, but I never received a reply, which is not surprising given the incongruity of communicating with an ancient church through a digital pipe. Friday afternoon I used Skype to phone the Patriarchate’s press office where I explained my mission to visit interesting sacred places over the course of a year. I was referred to an American expatriate affiliated with the church, and one minute later had an encouraging discussion with a gentleman named Paul Gigos who told me my timing could not be better as one of the more significant Feasts of the ecumenical calendar was taking place the following morning, Saturday: the Feast of the Three Hierarchs.

Continue reading “Church of St. George – Constantinople: 52 Churches”

Besiktas Fish Market

It rained today and I had calls sprinkled through the afternoon, keeping me hotel bound except for a dash across Barbaros for a couple beef kebab rollup things called durum and a spicy cold meat thing called kofte. The weather was just sucky and I had no remorse about missing a day out on the streets and in the bazaars.

Finally, around 5 pm, as it was getting dark, the thought of room service  again was too depressing so I bundled up and walked down to the port of Besiktas, a very busy, vibrant intersection where the ferries dock and a big monument to Ataturk stands in a plaza surrounded by smoking buses and a perpetual queue of yellow taksis. After five days poking around the city, I realize my hotel is beautifully situated between some great neighborhoods, the Golden Horn, and the modern era of digital agencies and the like to the north.

I’d noticed a  busy little alley down at the bottom of the hill the other day, so I headed there and turned in with the crowd of commuters heading out to pick something up for their dinners. The lines at the ATMs were ten people deep. The rain was at a mist stage so my glasses were dazzled with the lights.

The fish market had more species on display than anything I’ve seen outside of Tokyo. I recognized a few things — especially the ubiquitous brawling bluefish — but there were some little fish in abundance that were staggering to behold and smell. There were some super weird fish.

The square with the fish stalls was ringed with fish restaurants of course, so I had to enter one to see what the fuss was about. Indeed, the fish was ordered, the order was taken outside, the fish was filleted on the spot, and brought into the kitchen to be cooked. I consider that fresh fish.

Now the restaurant was very nice, the Ahtapot Restaurant to be precise, and the proprietor overloaded me with mezze and salad and cheese. When we got to the discussion of the main course I was trying to convey that I wanted his freshest fish — whatever was in season — but NOT bluefish as I had eaten that a few nights before in Ortakoy. He put his finger on the bluefish entry. I shook my head. He nodded his head. I shook my head. I pointed at bonito. He shook his head. I shook my head. I asked: “What’s fresh.” He pointed at the bluefish. I pointed out the window at the market. He smiled. I gave up. “Get me whatever you think.”

I ate bluefish.

No complaints. I had to walk that monster off, so I toured the bazaar for an hour, snapping pictures of nut stores and pastry shops and white box PC sellers. I  passed a shop that sold water pipes, or nargile, or hookahs.

The bazaar felt like a real neighborhood. There were no tourists. Just locals getting bread and stuff for their dinners. It was very interesting in its own non way: a functional souk that the neighborhood depended on for life’s essentials. Each alley had a theme. There was washing machine alley and bedding alley, there was pharmacies and spice shops. The fast food — the doner spots — were bewildering in their numbers and variety. Guess who added insult to injury and threw a doner kebab on top of his fish dinner?

I walked up the hill past a monster traffic jam where the cars were spinning their wheels on the wet cobblestones and the air was filled with the stink of burning clutch. I descended along a little urban park, made my way back to the Conrad, and now must do some research on the Eastern Orthodox church as I am attending a service in the morning at St. George’s, the Rum Patrikhanesi, conducted by the current Patriarch, or supreme leader of the Orthodox Church, the religion of the Byzantines and Constantinople.

Elevator Plunge

You know the theory that if you are in a plunging elevator you should jump into the air at the last moment before impact? First of all — take a physics class. Second of all, don’t try it in a Turkish elevator because it doesn’t work in one of those either.

Here’s the setup. Turkish elevators are pretty small by American standards. Four people are cozy. Six intimate. Four of us climbed into one on the Asian side for an appointment on the sixth floor with an agency. It was the style with the door that swings — not slides — open. We climbed aboard, I made my obligatory “little Turkish elevator”  remark and pressed “6”.

We go up three floors, watching them roll by the doorway which I am standing against. Then we stop. We are not there yet. Have I pressed the wrong button?

We start to descend. More like: we start to slip. Then the lights go out.

Then we plunge.

[insert whistling sound here]

We hit. Major bang. I keep my feet but that sucked and we land three feet under the first floor. Pitch black darkness.

I declare: “I have a flashlight” and I unzip my most awesome Patagonia bag and pull out the Qualcomm combo-laser pointer LED flashlight.

My colleagues are very upset. Thank heavens no one broke wind or worse. I turn on the laser dot and that gets a laugh. then the light. Light is good. Then I find the alarm button and I push it a couple times.

I hear muffled Turkish sounds like “copchik?” I don’t even try to reply. I hit the alarm again for good measure.

And then the claustrophobia strikes. Will we be there for 30 seconds? 30 minutes? 30 hours?  A couple minutes go by, we make little jokes but none of us are excited. Then the door opens and up we climb to fresh air and I immediately think about those poor souls stuck under collapsed buildings in Haiti.

I guess the guy on the roof with the crank was tired. If we were in North Carolina Cherie Berry, the lady who’s face is on the elevator inspection certificate would have saved us. There’s even a song about her.

Stalking the elusive Lahmacun

So Bourdain was all over the lahmacun — the cheese-free Turkish pizza made out of minced lamb and peppers and stuff on a flatbread sort of crust that one rolls around a wad of parsley, arugula, sprinkles with sumac, and squeezes lemon all over. Result — I’ll have another please. Five days of searching and I can’t find the damn thing. I figure it would be as ubiquitous as pizza is in a U.S. strip mall, but no, lahmacun is too low rent for a nice place and too high end — as in you need an oven to bake the crust — for the average bufe doner kebab joint around the tram stops and ferry landings. Gary and me left the Grand Bazaar after two hours of major souk-ifying and were stunned by this call to prayer. Inspired, we went on the lahmacun hunt, old hands at this point of avoiding the touts.

“May I sell you something you don’t need?”

“You look like a rug expert!”

A food tout nailed me after the hair-raising call-to-prayer and waved a cartoonish laminated menu in my face. I said the magic word and he flipped through the pages and put his finger on this off-register-purple-color picture of a round disk of ground meat. I had found the elusive lahmacun. There was no time for a sanitary inspection. Decor and ambiance be damned, Gary and me were going to sit and eat. And so we did. This stuff kicked butt. Praise be to Bourdain. Gary, having ordered frozen fish sticks the day before, was happy to see me happy and let me bully him into ordering kiyamali and sucuklu — football shaped loaves of pita covered with meat paste or cheese and salami. As Bourdain would say, “Stoner Food.” I drank a plastic cup of salty yogurt goo called an ayram. A hungry cat stared at me. Istanbul is infested with cats and cloned dogs that look creepily like Cujo mixed with my brother’s bull mastiff. Obviously some ancestral Balkan war dog breed. Anyway, the cat was desperate to get through the glass and get some unpronounceable.

Bourdain on lahmacun at the 7:15 point

Hagia Sofia – 52 Churches

I realized a long standing personal dream today when I stepped inside of the Hagia Sofia and admired it’s 1500 year old dome.

I looked up at the distant mosaic of the Virgin and Child, admired the Empress Irene and the Pantocrator, saw the sadness of John the Baptist rendered in little mosaic tiles like a pointillist’s painting. I stood in front of the conquered altar and defiantly said the Lord’s Prayer to myself in an attempt to make this an “official” church visit– since no religious services have been conducted inside the great nave since Kamal Ataturk secularized the monument into a museum in 1935.

The last Christian rites were interrupted because of the sack of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453.  For many Greeks it was a lifelong dream to see that service completed yet it is unlikely Hagia Sofia will ever see another Christian service. The symbolism and the antipathies are too strong so now it sits neutral, a museum to a strange time when the Roman Empire morphed into the Byzantine. An American politician has made some noise about turning Hagia Sofia back into a church,  but ….

I walked on marble floors so worn and ancient they felt soft and comfortable like old shoes. I touched the Sweating Column. I stood before the altar, now defunct and confused with Islamic scripture, and wondered at the coronations, the Easters, the Christmases that were celebrated there in the glory days of the Byzantine Empire, the Empress behind, sitting with her retinue in her loge.

It was freaky. To be there was an honor, an exceptional thing made real after years of reading about its splendor and magnificence, the Churbuckian version of a celebrity sighting only …. much more profound and humbling. To put it into perspective. I pay homage to history in my backyard that is four hundred years old — old weathered wooden houses and churches built by Pilgrims and Puritans. This was a wonder of the medieval world; at the time of its construction it was the tallest dome in the world and the largest enclosed space in the world. When one stands under the dome and looks up, blinded by the shafts of light through the windows, you have to ask “How did they get the stuff up there?”

Domes were throughout the  medieval era through the Renaissancs, incredibly difficult architectural challenges. The Pantheon in Rome is one great example of an ancient dome. The tale of Fillipio Brunelleschi’s great feat in giving Florence a dome on its Cathedral is fascinating. Domes were very high tech for their time, and Hagia Sofia’s is all the more remarkable for its early implementation and sheer size. Hagia Sofia has had several domes, the first one collapsed in 558 in an earthquake and had to be rebuilt. It was hit again in 868 and 989, yet the Emperors kept rebuilding.

The Hagia Sofia was the church of the Byzantine emperors, administered by the Patriarch of Constantinople, built by 10,000 laborers in six years and completed in 527 AD. It was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian and is a reflection of Roman culture for Constantinople was Nova Roma, the new Rome established by the Emperor Constantine — the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity — as a way to move the center of power from the tired and corrupt precincts of Rome to the strategically brilliant locale of Byzantium, a Greek village that dominated the Bosporous, arguably one of the most geographically strategic pieces of land in the world.

Hagia Sofia is a place of so many superlatives that it is hard to follow in the words of the historian Procopius or modern writers such as John Julius Norwich and Lord Stephen Runciman and describe it’s majesty.

The Service

There wasn’t any. There were a lot of Turkish and Japanese tourists. Everyone was holding a camera out in front of them, and some workers were erecting scaffoldings to commence some restoration work. I made my way to the altar and felt a little awestruck, but other than that … no music, no liturgy, no prayers. There was a huge feeling of, well, history, agelessness, ghosts, and some pride in being a human.

Random Observations

Next: more church in Istanbul!

I was going to buy one …

I was obnoxious at dinner tonight and started following the live blog at for the iPad announcement. I was ready to get one — was even mentally calculating the gadget budget to accommodate it; rehearse the lame excuse to justify it to my wife — but …..

Ehhh. It doesn’t sparkle enough for me to drop my Kindle as an e-reader. The multimedia is the same old stuff — so what if I can get on it ? Or read the New York Times. It’s a fine piece of hardware — the 3G data plan is to me the most interesting innovation, but that’s because 3G data plans are the big barrier to tweener device adoption, especially ones that you can’t talk on.

Happy to see the U1 hybrid we showed at CES trend in Twitter as an alternative people are willing to wait for.

Anyway — Turkey. Quiet day. Some meetings, still no intensive sightseeing — that will need to wait until the weekend. The big adventure today was a ferry ride from Barbaros across the Bosporous to the Asian side. One look at the cranes and grain elevators and we stayed on the boat and came right back, where we disembarked and walked to Ortokoy for a kebab and a beer in a cold outdoor cafe with overhead space heaters. This video shows some interesting interpretations of what the U.S. Coast Guard call the COLREGs — the rules that are supposed to keep boats from ramming into each other. I like the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque stuff at the end. Really looking forward to capping off the visit with a full day there walking in the shadows of the Komnenos and Palaiologos dynasties.

Great meeting at the Turkish CNET offices — I love the energy and enthusiasm in the Turkish interactive industry. This country has the world’s second highest Facebook usage, third highest MSN Messenger use … amazing growth rates, 3G is less than a year old …. Twitter is coming on strong. I see tons and tons of opportunity and excitement.

I’ll blog more on the market here, but as emerging, hypergrowth markets for digital media and interactive marketing goes, Istanbul is on its way to becoming the incubator for all of Europe and the middle East. Seriously, I say that without traveler’s hyperbole.


Spicy adana kabab on rice for lunch. Z.z.z.z.z.

Dinner, assortment of mezze — white anchovies and fried anchovies are high on my list. Feta and olives unlike any other. Baba ghanoush …then a lamb shank on pearl couscous.

Tomrrow: Grand Bazaar with a colleague who has to fly out on Friday. Some more calls and homework to prep for Beijing next week. Still searching for the elusive lamachun — Turkish pizza thing.

Bluefish for dinner

Dinner by the Bosporous. The Ortakoy Mosque. Right by the European of the bridge in the video below. (Didn’t dine in the mosque of course!) Wonderful meal consisting of mezze — small appetizer plates similar to tapas — then a salad and some fish.

I had bluefish, good old pomatomus saltatrix, tailor-sized 8″ with the heads on, lightly grilled with olive oil. Delicious and better than any recipe I’ve ever concocted. A glass of raki, the anise flavored variant on ouzo, and all was well with my world. Yeah, yeah, travel half way around the world for the most common fish on Cape Cod, but I had to see it to believe it.

Tomorrow: some sightseeing and homework.

Crossing the Bosporous

Apologies — car video sucks. But still …I drove from Europe to Asia in 90 seconds.

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