The hotel was the Celal Aga Konagi (or something like that) about 200m from Suleyman Mosque. Yes it was very expensive so the next days we went to cheaper areas.
Originally Posted by white-wolf
Thursday - Day 2: Breakfast and journey to Hagia Sophia
Waking up was a pain in the ass for all of us. The four hour flight, the long day and a bad night's sleep had demanded alot of energy and it took their toll on our bodies in the morning. The Tempur matrasses were great to sleep in except that they don't spread heat like they spread weight. It was terribly hot and I think I might have lost some weight from all the sweat I generated that night. After we (the guys) take a quick shower we head over to the girls' room and we all head down for the breakfast buffet.
8. 30 AM
There is no table for the six of us. Looking at the lay-out of the tables I couldn't help but wonder what idiot could have been responsable for such a mistake. There were only about 30 tables and all of them for six people which meant that couples or people who travel alone had to sit at a table for six. A quick calculation told that the hotel would have on average 130 guests so there is no way that they can all eat for 45 min without having to sit at a table with strangers.
My friends and I did not appreciate this one bit. A five star hotel without reserved tables? Not even in the shabbiest youth hostel have I ever experienced such a thing! We complained to the floor manager (who was responsable for this mess though he didn't see the problem) and he would give us a call in our room when a table was free for us where we could sit together. Up to our rooms we went and half an hour (!) later we got a call that we could go and eat. I was seriously angry right now. They only offer breakfast and not even that went smoothly? Damn!
I have to admit though that the food was top notch. Fresh yoghurt, (the extremely tasty one from last night) bread and fruit and lots of different dishes. The breakfast room itself was magnificent like the rest of the hotel: marble floors, a huge fountain and colourful walls. The cupboards were made of beautifully carved wood and the whole room aired a sense of splendour as if the golden age of the Ottoman Empire had never really stopped.
The service was horrible however. I didn't have a knife, one of the girls didn't have a fork and none of us had napkins. We had to go to the floor manager again (he wasn't too pleased but neither were we) and with what seemed a Herculean effort he asked a waitress to bring us what we need. The waitresses are all stunningly beautiful, which us gents appreciated alot hehe, but they hadn't a clue about what it means to wait tables. Needless to say the morning didn't proceed like we'd hoped.
Breakfast is over at 10 and you can tell. The efficiency they lack in helping the guests is utilized to full effect in removing the food and drinks within five minutes. I've never seen people clear a table as fast as I did then but I wasn't too happy about it. I quickly went to the machine that served hot drinks but it was too late! By now it was five past ten and when I asked a waitress if I could have a last cup of tea. "Not possible" she said and the matter was closed. You should know that the normal price of a night in this hotel was 350 EUR per person, which we didn't pay ofcourse. We had a discount but the other guests didn't and with that kind of money involved I'd want to have a damn tea whenever I damn well please!
We escaped the horrible staff and went to our rooms where we prepared for the day to come, meaning our visit to the Hagia Sophia and whatever else we decide to do in the afternoon.
We are still in the hotel. It has been pouring rain here like I've never seen before and we don't have any umbrella's. We didn't bother asking the hotel staff for them because even if they understood what we wanted they would probably charge us for using them.
A little after high noon we set out for the Hagia Sophia and we managed to buy a crappy umbrella on the way for 5 TL (2,5 EUR) each so at least our heads would remain dry, something we couldn't say about our feet. The Turkish seem to have a very amusing way of cleaning the streets in Istanbul. They build as few sewers as possible so that the water just runs from high to low ground because Istanbul is built on several hills. A carpet of water 2-3 cm thick runs through the city on the roads and pavements, sometimes forming enormous pools where the water current is disrupted. It was a nightmare walking in this weather but we eventually made it to our destination.
How best to describe the look of Hagia Sophia? Maybe it was the rain or maybe our bad mood or maybe the more impressive buildings surrounding the Hagia but I wasn't impressed by the exterior. We quickly bought our tickets (16 EUR each!) and fled to the safety of the dry church.
Source: Wikipedia, sketch from a cut-out of the Hagia Sophia with the entrance located on the right
Upon entering the ancient Church you first pass two mighty doors, typical of these ancient Roman churches, after which you enter a corridor of some 50m long. Here the museum has placed large wooden boards on the walls with alot of information on them.
I read through all of these, admiring the magnificent work that the museum had done on collecting this information in such a nice exposé. After finishing this large corridor I entered the main area of the church but was not particularly impressed. I don't know what it was but I just didn't feel the chills I usually feel when entering such an ancient building. Maybe the massive skyscrapers render us immune to buildings like the Hagia Sophia, which may have been impressive back in the day but in modern times don't do much to me. First impressions don't say everything though...
I immediately noticed the severe damage to the old church and particularly the domes and ceilings. The original paint is sometimes only barely visible, which kind of made me feel sad. I kept in mind though that the Hagia Sophia that stands there today is around 1500 years old (I think) so the damage is logical but still a shame.
The Hagia Sophia is a magnificent building as one discovers it step by step. The exterior is just ugly and unspiring but the deeper you go the more beautiful it gets. The above picture was done with overexposure because of the dim lights inside so this is not exactly what it looks like. It's pretty accurate enough though and the golden ceilings of the domes combined with the black circles with the names of several important men from Islam is a strange match. Old Christendom and Islam are combined here in this place like in no other place on the world...
This is the mihrab or the place in a Mosque (the Hagia Sophia served as a mosque for a long time) which points in the direction of the sacred city Mecca. Like it says on the plaque, this mihrab was built in the 19th century to replace an older one. The lavish decorations are more beautiful in reality but I liked this picture.
A Turkish specialty was producing colored tiles known as Iznik tiles, referring to the place where they were made. These were produced in massive quantities during the Ottoman era and can still be found in many of the ancient churches and palaces, most notably Topkapi and the Blue Mosque. Most of them feature complex geometric patterns or flowers as seen on the picture above.
After admiring the interior of the main hall I decided to move up to the higher level where the next part of the museum is located and what was originally the gallery where the Byzantine nobles gathered for service. A steep staircase (without any actual stairs) with a low ceiling leads you to the second level.
The view from the second story was spectacular to say the least! I can honestly say that I had not seen anything like this before and I've seen quite some things in my short life so far...
I could understand why the emperor and the nobles preferred to follow the service from the higher level. Imagine thousands of people praying here with the Imperial Court watching from above. I felt exhilarated by this image and could imagine that back in the day people were impressed by the vast expanse of open space.
The above picture shows that the upper level was quite large. I estimate that at least 1000 people could gather here. This is only a small corner of the second level but even then it was quite large. Notice the panels with the Arabic names again. I'm still not sure on what I think of them. They're quite pretty but seem a little out of place. I proceed to study the Orthodox remnants in what was in fact an Orthodox church for over thousand years. This church was the beacon of Christianity against the rising Islam in the Middle Ages.
Although heavily damaged one can still admire the quality of the mozaic and the intruiging figures. I don't know how old this is but a safe bet would be at least 700-800 years. Incredible really if you stop and think about it. Here's a close-up of the face of Jesus Christ. I've edited this photograph a bit to sample out the shadows but this is pretty much how it looks like in reality.
I don't know Greek so the letters and words are a mystery to me. The Hagia Sophia was full of these iconic works of art, but most of it is now destroyed or stored in museums. The shot below is a modern reconstruction of what the original mosaic probably looked like.
Truly magnificent, is it not? Again I have no idea what the Greek words mean but the detail in the image is amazing considering that this was made entirely out of little stones.
Next is a wonderful mosaic which is relatively intact. It features Emperor Komnenos (don't know which one exactly) and his wife on each flank of the Virgin with Jesus.
Below is a modern reconstruction of what the emperor originally looked like in his mosaic. Notice the cute pouted cheeks!
I didn't have a complete picture so I took this one from wikipedia:
Source: Wikipedia, a complete image of the emperor, the empress and the virgin with child
Finally I have a close-up for you of the Empress.
I continued my tour of the upper level and I was quite impressed by the still visible splendour of the old Byzantine times. The marble floor was luxurious to say the least and the paintings (fresco's I think) on the vaults were very beautiful as well.
The heavy black metal bars you see are necessary to support the columns. The years have taken their toll on the infrastructure of the church so sometimes they need to attack support beams to keep the building intact.
Here's a close-up of a picture on one of the vaults:
The windows are also quite nicely decorated although it seems more recent. Probably late Ottoman period, I'm guessing 19th century, though I can't say with absolute certainty.
I was nearing the end of the upper level and took the opportunity to shoot some pictures of the main dome. I have a general view for you as well as a close-up...
I don't know why but the Arabic calligraphy and writing is so elegant that it seems as thought it was conceived as an art form rather than a writing system.
I descended back through a different route and after a quick search I found my travel companions. They had experienced a similar thing. Underwhelmed when entering the Hagia Sophia but after a while as you explore the church and if you keep in mind how old it all is, you suddenly start to feel overwhelmed. For a thousand years this church was the beacon of Christianity while the world was being seized by Islam and I think it must have been one of the oldest churches in continuous use apart from the Pantheon in Rome.
It was still raining when we exited but at least we still had our crappy umbrellas to shelter a bit. We gathered in a small shop where we discussed our next destination...
IN THE FIRST POST I WILL PROVIDE A LINK TO A RAR FILE WITH NEARLY 50 HIGH RESOLUTION PHOTOGRAPHS. FOR OBVIOUS REASONS I COULD NOT SHOW ALL OF THE HAGIA SOPHIA PICTURES I MADE SO IF YOU WANT MORE AND IN BETTER QUALITY (5616x3744) THEN DOWNLOAD IT.
To be continued.