As we walked over to Topkapı Palace from the Blue Mosque, Yosef again mentioned the ceramic shop he wanted to take us to. I wasn’t keen on this idea — we had only a few more hours left in the city and I was far more interested in visiting the home of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to 19th centuries than I was in a sales pitch. Too polite (or stupid) to protest as vigorously as I wanted to, I nodded or hmmmmed or some such nonsense and went on with my questions about the history of İstanbul . Reading a trashy historical novel about Süleyman the Magnificent and his scheming wife Hürrem Sultan (Roxolana) before we left had shed a lot of light for me on the lives of the Ottoman elite. Yosef was impressed with my knowledge. I did not divulge where it came from.
Entering the gates of Topkapı Palace was one of those travel moments that seems to cause seismic quakes of clashing realities in my mind. It’s just me standing there, just my 2007 self, transported here by plane, vehicle, ship and foot. But I’m standing in a place that was the home of a series of men titled:
Sultan Hân N.N., Padishah, Hünkar, Hakan ül-Berreyn vel-Bahreyn; Sovereign of the House of Osman, Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Commander (Caliph) of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe,Servant of the Holy Cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, Caesar of the Roman Empire, Emperor of The Three Cities of Constantinople, Adrianople and Bursa, and of the Cities of Damascus and Cairo [and any number of additional cities, regions, countries, islands and castles].
500 years ago, had I stood here as a Christian woman I would entered as a slave. My greatest hope may have been to catch the Sultan’s eye and maybe give him a son, thus becoming Valide Sultan, the mother of a ruling sultan — possibly the most important position in the Ottoman Empire after the sultan himself. This would have been difficult to say the least, as I would have had competition from hundreds of other women in the harem.
But I was neither a slave nor hoping to find favor with the Sultan. I was merely one of hordes of tourists trampling the historic grounds. It’s hard sometimes, to reconcile the here-and-now with the what-used-to-be.
Yosef led us around the grounds, dropping us outside the various wings and quarters. I hadn’t known ahead of time that guides are not permitted to go into certain areas with their charges, in order to not disturb the more independent travelers with their commentary. We traipsed around the great kitchens which once fed 5,000 people a day, the treasury (with a few moments to gaze at the famed diamond and emerald encrusted Topkapi Dagger, the 86-caret Spoon Maker’s Diamond and other fabulous jewels and relics), through the Gate of Felicity and into the Divan, where the Sultan’s viziers met and debated the politics of the empire. The Sultan could listen in, hidden, from behind a gilded grill.
To my distress we couldn’t visit the harem. I mistakenly thought the harem, which can only be visited by pre-arranged reservations that didn’t work with our time frame, was only a few rooms that the concubines and the their guard eunuchs lived in. Actually, though, it includes the living quarters of the Sulta and his mother, as well, and so many of the most fascinating rooms of the palace are in the harem.
Our tour continued on, taking in a few more sights, and all too soon Yosef steered us out of the palace grounds. “Isn’t there more to see?” I protested, knowing the guidebooks had recommended at least half a day to see the palace. “No,” he said firmly and guided us on out. As I feared, he took us to a ceramic shop and deposited us into a row of seats, where we were fed drinks and a pottery demonstration. I sat patiently as long as I could, trying to balance respect for the art of the main in front of us with my growing fury at spending our precious dwindling time trapped in a store. When a tour group from Japan arrived and Yosef ushered us out of the demonstration room, I handed my cup of apple tea to a store employee and told Brian and my friends *they* were welcome to shop but I was going to see some more of the city.
To my astonishment, Brian continued sipping his Turkish coffee and agreed to meet me at the hotel in 45 minutes and turned to follow Holly and Chas into the shopping area.
I set out, annoyance at our paid guide’s schem dissipating a bit when I encountered a rather unfortnately translated sign at a nearby restaurant advertising the availability of “A Rich Alcoholic Menu.” I consulted my little Lonely Planet Encounter Istanbul book, located myself on the map, and decided to have a look at the Hippodrome.
Two columns still stand from the ancient chariot racing ring, also the site of a massacre during the Nika Revolt which resulted in the death of some 30,000 to 40,000 people. Four bronze horses once crowned this site. The horses now stand inside St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. We saw the originals (the ones outside are replicas) inside the basilica last spring.
Today the former Hippodrome is a peaceful park. I wandered along the street, wondering how best to manage lunch on the maybe seven lire I had on my person. I walked back towards our hotel, fairly pleased with my escape from the shop, and still wondering that Brian had not taken the chance to bolt from the sales pitch with me. I stopped at a street vendor at the entrance the the small bazaar near our hotel and purchased a sandwich on “Turkish flat bread,” otherwise known as pita. I munched as I strolled through the bazaar, becoming increasingly more self-conscious as the male shopkeepers each wished me Bon Appetit as I passed.
I wandered slowly back to our hotel, thinking myself early, and walked into the lobby to find Brian, lathered and tightlipped, looking as if he might have intestinal distress. It would seem he was worried about me, having come to a certain realization that I was wandering alone in a rather large and foreign city. Not thinking about the number of other large and foreign cities I’ve walked alone in he worked himself into quite a state. I sheepishly continued to munch my sandwich, feeling my travel companions may have found my desertion untoward.
But our time was up. Our 24 hours in Istanbul were concluded. We piled with Yosef into a van and a driver and returned to our ship. Sad, exhilirated and intrigued by our too-brief visit, I determined it would not be the last visit.
And it won’t.