Turkey 2. Welcome to the Harem.

Several years back, I got hooked on The Lymond Chronicles, a series of historical novels by Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett.  The fourth novel in the series, Pawn in Frankincense (which I have now read about four times), brings our hero to ‘Stamboul’ in the year 1544.  The court of Suleiman the Magnificent, in particular his notorious wife the Sultana Roxelana, have a huge impact on the lives of the main characters, and some of the most dramatic events of the series take place in Topkapı Palace.

Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman the Magnificent

Sultana Roxelana

Sultana Roxelana





Romantic notions dialed up to eleven, I was absurdly excited to see the harem where Philippa and Kuzum spent months evading the clutches of the evil Gabriel, walk the Golden Road, and perhaps even find the audience chamber where Roxelana commanded Lymond to play a brutal game of live chess.

I know that the Topkapı of today looks very different from how it would have looked in 1544, but that didn’t stop me from trying to retrofit the reality to the fiction.



The gates of Topkapı Palace.

The gates of Topkapı Palace.

The enormous doors at the palace entrance gave me a little chill; I couldn’t help but think of the many young women who passed through those gates, never to leave.


In reality, I believe women were brought to the harem through another more lowly entrance, but I wasn’t about to let pesky historical details interfere with the fun of trying to fit scenes from the book to various locations in the palace.

The line to enter the harem was unusually short, so we started there. The decor was a strange hodgepodge of styles, from the famous Ottoman Iznik tiles to European-style murals of fruits and flowers.





A fireplace hood.

A fireplace hood.

Small fountains were built into the walls of many rooms so the inhabitants could hear the constant soothing trickle of running water.

Wall fountain

Which brings me, in a rather awkward segue, to the topic of Turkish toilets.

I never know quite what to expect when going to a public toilet in a foreign land, and in spite of warnings about ‘bomb sites’ I was taken by surprise by my first squat toilet in Turkey, and the fact that I was expected to pay for the privilege of using it.

Yes, I took a picture. I couldn’t resist. I decided against inserting it here — that didn’t seem very classy. Instead, I’ve added it to the very end of this post, available for your edification should you be considering travel to Turkey.

Honestly, once you get used to them, the squat toilets aren’t so bad. Most ‘water closets’ (WCs) actually had both kinds (squat and bowl style), and by the end of the two weeks, I didn’t care nearly as much which style I encountered. I did send some psychic love to my Austrian friends, who helped me get comfortable with quick ‘pee stops’ behind random shrubbery while hiking the Jakobsweg, and to Norway for getting me used to pay toilets. If paying for them means they are cleaner and there are more of them, then sign me up! The cost was only 1 TL, or about 50 cents, so it was quite a bargain compared to paying $1.50 in the US for a pack of gum in order to use the ‘Restrooms for Customers Only.’


There isn’t really a graceful way for me to transition back to the harem, except to say that with all that running water trickling in the wall fountains, I hope the WCs were plentiful.

I couldn’t help but notice the bars on all of the windows. I’m pretty sure these weren’t installed in 1544, but they fit with my image of the place as a well-decorated prison.

Window Bars

Although many women were brought to the harem as captured slaves, by most accounts it wasn’t too rough a life, especially once Suleiman married Roxelana and stopped availing himself of the young women in his harem. The worst danger from a life of endless manicures, hair braiding, and exfoliation is probably death from boredom, but I think I’d have chosen that over the fate of the young boys brought to the harem. Past a certain age, they were turned into eunuchs.

I’m not sure of the translation of this panel … rules of conduct, perhaps? Some verses of scripture?


The Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan), a very powerful woman in the palace hierarchy, had rooms within the harem.


Her sitting room was painted in a dainty European style.


The Golden Road was the walkway to the Sultan’s quarters, which I guess makes it one of the original ‘corridors of power.’  To be honest, it sounded a lot more impressive in print than it looked in real life.

The Golden Road.

The Golden Road.

In one of my favorite scenes in Pawn in Frankincense, Philippa runs to the highest point in the harem to look out a window, searching for Lymond’s ship as it sails up the Bosporous and enters the Golden Horn. The closest window I found that fit the description presented me with a comical modern version of the scene, complete with luridly painted cruise ship.


It felt good to leave the harem and wander the sunny courtyards of the palace.






Palace balconies overlook the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphoros Strait. We ate lunch under the umbrellas in the restaurant attached to the palace.


I blame this first lovely cup of Turkish Coffee for an addiction that lasted well after we got home.


Leaving Topkapı to explore greater Istanbul, I had to admit that the palace had not quite lived up to my expectations. In spite of the tiles and the murals and daggers sporting egg-sized emeralds, it seemed small and mundane compared to the Topkapı of my imagination. Dorothy Dunnett was an impeccable historian, so I hope her shade will forgive me if I can’t quite bring myself to let go of my version.

That evening, we ate dinner at the local ‘fish house,’ and experienced first-hand two Istanbul specialties: fresh fish, and stray cats.


I fed this lucky fellow the eyeball from my fish. After that, he considered me his personal territory and did not hesitate, small as he was, to fight with other cats that tried to woo me.


You could definitely tell the cat lovers among the diners — the best efforts of the proprietors to shoo away the cats were undone by patrons ‘accidentally’ dropping bits of fish onto the sidewalk.

The following day, we visited friends both old and new.


Turkish Toilet


Welcome to Istanbul. Please Watch Your Step.

After 5 years of dreaming, 7 months of planning, 5 days of packing, and 17 hours of travel, Sean and I finally arrived in Istanbul on Saturday, September 21.  The timing was unfortunate — protests in Taksim Square and the possibility of military action against Syria prompted several worried pre-trip phone calls from my mom — but we were undeterred.

We spent our first 5 nights in Turkey at the Hotel Seraglio in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul.

The Hotel Seraglio, home away from home.

When we arrived, we were treated to what seems to be the traditional Turkish check-in process.  The details varied slightly with each hotel, but the scenario always included warm greetings, glasses of Turkish chai, and a relaxed sit-down chat with friendly hotel staff.

Checking in at the Hotel Seraglio

From the window of our room, just over the rooftops, we could see the dome and 3 of the 6 minarets of the Blue Mosque.

The view from room 201, Hotel Seraglio, Sultanahmet.

For perspective, here is a wide-angle shot photo of the Sultanahmet neighborhood, taken from the top of the Galata Tower across the Golden Horn.  The Blue Mosque is easy to spot because of the unusual number of minarets — 6 in all.  Our hotel was on the far side of the mosque.

Sultanahmet from Galata Tower.  Left to right is Topkapi Palace, the Ayasofia, and the Blue Mosque.

Our first evening in Istanbul, we wandered up the hill to the spot where the Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque face each other across a plaza.  The night lighting of the Ayasofia reminded me a little of Cinderella’s Castle, but that did not detract at all from the gut-punch of standing for the first time between two of the buildings that have defined the skyline of Istanbul for centuries.

The Blue Mosque, lit up in purple and pink.

Turn in place 180 degrees to see the Blue Mosque, with its slightly more sedate lighting.


I loved our neighborhood in the Sultanahmet, especially at night.  Shops were open late, colorful wares spread out on the sidewalk.  Glass mosaic lamps were sold everywhere, and lent the streets an exotic air.

The ubiquitous glass mosaic lamps.

By our first evening in Istanbul, it was clear to me that I had not left nearly enough room in my bag for purchases.  Next time I will bring an entirely empty suitcase and a roll of bubble wrap.

What every backyard needs.

To begin our first full day in Istanbul, we headed back up the hill to explore the Ayasofia.  This massive building is one of those places that reminds me just how new are even our oldest American landmarks.  Wikipedia can do a much better job of filling in the historical details (search for Hagia Sofia, an alternate spelling).  Suffice it to say that the original building at the core of the current structure was completed in year 537 by Emperor Justinian, back when Istanbul was Constantinople and part of the Roman Empire. Even by year 537, the site had already been used for two older churches, both destroyed.

The Ayasofia in daylight.

On May 29, 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II and his Ottoman Army conquered Constantinople, legend has it that the first place he went when he entered the city was the Ayasofia (then called St. Sofia) to claim it for the Ottoman Empire, kicking off its new incarnation as a mosque. Even half-filled with scaffolding, the interior is cavernous.

Inside the Ayasofia, from an upper balcony.

Inside the building, now a museum, gorgeous Islamic medallions and Arabic script live side by side with the remains of Byzantine mosaics of Mary, Jesus, and John.

Islamic medallions hang high in the Ayasofia.

There are several of the delicate golden mosaics, installed when the Ayasofa was still a cathedral, but this one is probably the most famous.

Remains of a mosaic installed when the Ayasofa was still a cathedral.

Despite heroic preservation efforts, the Ayasofia shows her age.

The Ayasofia is old.  Old old old old old.

The stones of the Ayasofia have seen their share of feet.

The stones of Ayasofia are polished smooth.

The Sultan and his family could watch services in the mosque from this private viewing pavilion.

The Sultan's box seat.

The Ayasofa, like all mosques, has a place for men to bathe their feet before entering to pray.

Foot bathing area outside the Ayasofia.

We spent hours in this beautiful space, and even at the end of our two weeks in Turkey, it remained one of the highlights of the trip.

After leaving the Ayasofia, we explored the Basilica Cisterns deep underneath the Sultanahmet. Also built by Justinian (or more accurately, by thousands of slaves), apparently these Cisterns were forgotten for centuries.  They were rediscovered by accident after many Istanbul residents living above found that they were catching fish in their well buckets.

The Basilica Cisterns once supplied water to the Sultans.

Many carp still live in the shallow water, unmolested by fish hooks.

Later on that day, we explored more of the Sultanahmet neighborhood.  Street vendors squeezed fresh pomegranate juice using a press attached to the cart.  No need for a 14-day juice cleanse when you can drink a cup of this stuff and realize the same benefits in about half an hour.  I’m convinced I’ve discovered the secret to Ottoman might: antioxidants!


I’m not sure what the official story is, but I suspect pomegranate juice might have been the inspiration for the crimson color of the Turkish flag, which can be seen flying absolutely everywhere in the country. You are unlikely to forget which country you’re in. No hill or building or rampart goes unclaimed.

The beautiful Turkish flag can be seen everywhere.

Even on the most modern street corner, I could tell I wasn’t in Austin anymore.  City buses sported glossy ads for head scarves. Even this very traditional style leaves a lot of room for self-expression.

Many Turkish women wear head scarves.  Even this very traditional style leaves a lot of room for self-expression.

A woman weaves a carpet outside a souvenir shop.

A woman weaves a carpet.

One clear sign that I was in a foreign land was the perceptible absence of regulatory bubble-wrap.  The Turks obviously don’t worry about lawsuits the way Americans do.  Steps are inserted into sidewalks higgledy-piggledy wherever they are needed, with no regard for height or depth or symmetry of any kind.  The proprietors of at least one store had obviously tired of watching tourists face-plant in front of their shop (or maybe they were just tired of people bleeding all over their carpets).

In Istanbul, keep one eye trained on the sidewalk in front of you.

Exploring nearby Çemberlitaş, we stumbled (not literally) on another gorgeous mosque lit by the late afternoon sun. The light made me think of a Maxfield Parrish painting.

The 'Maxfield Parrish' mosque (not its real name).

Lured by the beauty of the light, we wandered past the mosque into the streets near the Covered Bazaar, which was closed.  We ventured down an unfamiliar street, possessed by the sudden urge to find our way to the Golden Horn.

The rooftops of old Istanbul.

A friendly banner bid us ‘Hoş Geldiniz’ (‘welcome’) into a neighborhood with very few tourists.  We worked our way down the hill towards the water.

A Turkish welcome.

We found the entrance to the famous Spice Market, and poked our heads in.

Let's hope nobody sneezes.

This was definitely not the place to let out one of my earth-shattering sneezes.


Finally, close to sunset, we found the Golden Horn, alive with golden evening light and ferryboats.  Across the water, the Galata Tower provided a view of the sunset to a group of lucky tourists.

The wide-angle shot included earlier was taken from the top of this tower.

Galata Tower from across the Golden Horn.

Ferryboats in the Golden Horn.

Tourist barges in the Golden Horn.

We walked along the lower layer of the Galata Bridge, filled with people, commerce, restaurants, and smelly garbage.

Galata Bridge, lower level.

I have no idea how polluted the waters of Istanbul might be, but these locals did not seem worried.

Locals fish from the Galata Bridge.

Returning on the upper level of the bridge, we watched the sun set over Istanbul.

Sunset from Galata Bridge.

The New Mosque at sunset.

The New Mosque at sunset.

We weren’t quite brave enough to buy one of these fish wraps, but I was pretty sure the fish came straight from the hooks of the fishermen lining the rail.

Fish sandwich vendor on the upper level of Galata Bridge.

The lights of Galata Bridge.

We took one last look back before heading home to our hotel.  The plan for tomorrow: Topkapı Palace and the Harem!