Saturday, September 05, 2009

Ahmet, Akhmad, Ahmad!

I just came from the Sultanahmet Mosque, so named for Sultan Ahmed I, who ordered its construction during his rule from 1603 to 1617. I would love it even if it was not one of the most spectacular buildings in the world, with six towering minarets, about a dozen domes and a spectacular interior, just for the name. The interior gives it its more common name of the Blue Mosque. The crush of tourists (there are enough of them to constitute a sight unto themselves) belies the fact that the mosque itself is almost entirely empty, as the infidels stand in the visitors section, with the Muslims among them able to go and pray in the red-carpeted interior.

Across the street is the Aya Sofia, also known as the Hagia Sofia, a spectacular example of Byzantine architecture, and one of the few places of worship on earth where a depiction of Jesus and Mary appears alongside the names of Allah and Muhammad written in Arabic calligraphy the size of a house. This, too, is packed by tourists of all types, who pay $20 just to enter. As spectacular a building as this is, maybe it is not worth $20 to walk around for two, three hours at most. Of course, it beats spending that money on four doners. I was struck upon entering the Sofia Hagia because I was informed that it was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. I know Justinian best, as countless professors informed me, for closing Plato's Academy in the year 529. I had never realized that he was famous for anything else.

The Sultanahmet district of Istanbul houses the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, the Grand Bazaar, Sultanahmet Square, the Topkapi Palace and countless touristic restaurants, bars and so on. In two days, the only time I have left this small area has been to go back to my hostel, and I'm not done yet. Sadly, it sometimes seems that about 70% of the population here is made up of tourists. They come from chiefly Germany, Britain, Italy and Japan, though I was nearly run over today by a bus of Korean tourists.

They come in hordes, hordes itself being a Turkish word, waving flags for identification like the camps of disparate armies which developed a common language for hordes that is today called Urdu. I'm not sure just what the Japanese come to see, perhaps their own flag inverted, but the spectre of elderly British and Italian tourists traversing central Istanbul gives off the impression of some form of Oriental adventure travel. This is really as far as you can get from the comforts of Europe. Each Euro buys more than 2 Turkish Liras and the country borders both Iran and Iraq. This truly is a frontier of some kind for them, though it tends to come across as a place so well-traveled that no matter what your story or your plans, someone else has done it before.

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