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Istanbul Again

May 1, 2001

Dear Friends and Family,

For the third Spring Break in a row, we went to Turkey. This time we met up with Gabby and spent a full week in Istanbul. Since we repeated much of our tour of a year ago, I'll try to repeat only a little.

We took the two-hour flight down with several teacher-friends on a Saturday. Meanwhile Gabby was taking the many-hour flights from San Francisco to Paris to Istanbul. She arrived around midnight to the Istanbul airport, along with hundreds of Muslims returning from the annual "Hajj" to Mecca and their Holy Lands. Gabby knew she wasn't in California any more.

We stayed at the Kybele Hotel in the heart of the historic Sultanamet district. The Kybele is a 16-room, family-owned hotel and shop "complex". After a week there, we felt they were our family. The treatment we received there completely colors our view of Istanbul. Warm, friendly, funny, genuinely hospitable people.

Every afternoon they sponsored a "reception" where Marianne was given "medicine" for her bad back. Normally this was just vodka (we're Russian after all) but one afternoon included professional massage from a hotel guest. The family friendliness infects everyone. Gabby said that the gatherings back at the hotel may have been the highlight of the trip and I think I agree.

The receptions were always full of suggestions as well. For example, restaurant suggestions always worked out with wonderful and exotic feasts. One day, for Marianne's back again, the group recommended the Cagaloglu Baths so she finished her medicine and joined Gabby and six strangers (women) in hot, steamy, three-hundred-year-old rooms. The attendants scrubbed them, soaked them and left them in the steam to turn into human puddles. When the girls returned to the hotel they were convinced our next house needed a steam room and attendant.

In our week, we repeated visits to The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Each was as impressive as we remembered them. One morning, I got up at five, before the call of the muezzin, and went to the Blue Mosque to wander around taking pictures, hearing the Muslim chant and soaking in the strangeness of the place. It was magical. All night the Mosque is illuminated with yellow-tinged flood lights and a gray morning sky lent a soft contrast. Except for a worshipper or two, I was alone as I wandered around the immense structure. Later in the day, it's necessary to fight off crowds and salesmen but at the time of the first daily call to prayer, the Blue Mosque seems as it must have seemed for a thousand years - a place of religious inspiration and peace.

Our new sights included the Topkapi and Dolmabahce Palaces. Topkapi is the oldest and the grounds were the center of the Roman constructions of Constantinople. In the mid-15th Century, Sultan Mahmet II built his personal residence on this point where the Golden Horn meets Marmar. It is a vast collection of gardens and pavilions, including the Harem pavilion where the Sultan and his "extended family" actually lived. Istanbul, and Topkapi in particular, was the destination of the world's most opulent crafts and works of art for hundreds of years. Today, it's all museums and gardens.

Unfortunately for us, the Harem was too crowded and the largest museum display, the Treasury, was closed for renovation. Next time. We did see an armory museum with weapons used by the Sultan's personal guards, the Janissaries. We also saw relics of Mohammed in heavy golden reliquaries, fine porcelain from China and elaborate European silver service for intimate parties of hundreds. The women of the harem, the art decorating the Sultans walls, floors and tables, the plants and animals of the grounds and the Janissary soldiers themselves were the finest examples from around the world. What we saw could only be a dim reflection of the opulence but it was fascinating nonetheless.

Dolmabahce Palace was built in the mid-19th Century by Sultan Abdul Mecit and used off and on until the Sultanate was abolished in the 1920's. It had the same elements as Topkapi: wonderful grounds and gardens, sprawling and immense formal rooms for meeting and entertaining heads of state, and of course a harem. It was a completely modern palace by 19th century standards, eventually featuring central heat (gold-plated radiators), gas and electric lighting and an early telephone. The Palace public areas are still used for formal receptions for heads of state such as Mr. Bush. The other one.

At Dolmabahce Palace, the highlight was the tour of the Harem. The Sultan and each of his women, whether mother, wives (four at a time), concubines (hundreds) or servants, had a residence in the Harem. Mom lived in a couple dozen of the largest rooms but even a concubine had an apartment complete with sitting rooms, bed rooms for her and for her kids and a modern bathroom. Other than the Sultan, it was all women. No wonder there were so many bathrooms.

After palaces came mosques. I've mentioned my morning tour of the Blue Mosque. We also saw Hagia Sophia again and marvelled at the massive dome, still standing after a millennium and a half in this earthquake-prone country. One day we were taken to a much smaller mosque, the Sokollu Mehmet Pasa Mosque. Built by the architect Sinan in the 16th century, the mosque sits on a steep slope, again a testament to good earthquake engineering and architecture. Much of the inside is covered in Iznik tiles. It has only been in the last few years that modern craftsmen have been able to reproduce the color and brilliance of these blue and white tiles. Surrounding the mosque is a building from the same period, still serving as a school as it has for 500 years.

Palaces. Mosques. What's next? Rugs of course. Mike at the Kybele sold us a couple of nice pieces, just right for our home in Kyiv and hopefully just right for our next several homes wherever they may be..

But the best rug story comes courtesy of Mike's friend Musa (= Moses in English). For over 20 years, Musa was an accountant, working for car part manufacturers. Sounds dull but it paid the rent, put food on the table and allowed some travel. To make a bit more money, he arranged for village women to make flat-woven kilim rugs which he would sell in Istanbul. One day, he complained to a woman that the quality of her rug was not up to his standards. She said "Can you do any better?" So, Musa set out to learn how to weave kilims. He found out that it was wonderful therapy. He would weave for a couple hours every day and the accounting troubles faded away. Over ten years, he has woven three-dozen or so but never sold his own because each piece is an experiment. Now he can get more quality out of the workers in his sideline because he understands their work and they understand that he understands.

The only thing Musa, accountant-and-weaver, needed was better material. So he set himself to learning the art and craft of selecting and dying wool. He studied with one of the new experts in natural dyes. The art of natural dyeing was lost in Turkey from the turn of the century until about 25 years ago. Now it's the real secret behind the quality oriental carpet renaissance. He experimented with the thoroughness of an accountant at tax time. When we visited his shop, he proudly showed his experimental records, as carefully recorded as any financial audit. The colors were warm and bright and, if he has recreated dyes used historically, permanent. Now his weavers could have high quality wool to weave into high quality kilims.

But Musa wasn't done. He wanted to dye silk. Hundreds of years ago, craftsmen dyed silk with natural material but this art too had been driven away by cheap and easy artificial dyes. But Mike swore Musa really did dye silk. Compared to wool, silk is very difficult. I had even read rug books saying natural dying for silk was as-yet un rediscovered. (If a rug salesman says he's selling you a fine silk rug "cheap", don't believe it. Most "silk" rugs are simply mercerized cotton. Chemically dyed. Woven by people with small fingers - generally children. Something to be avoided both ethically and esthetically.)

So Musa experimented. Instead of a couple hours in a dye bath, he left the silk for days. He varied the dye temperature, ingredients and concentration. And he recorded his experiments in his book. When we saw his finished products, colored skeins of silk hanging on the walls, we could see he'd matched the depth and warmth of his wool colors. Now, his village producers have both high quality and, I believe, unique material: silk or wool. We sent one small piece to my sister with Musa's wool and accents of his silk. Now she knows the story.

More stories? Of course there's more stories. But, for now, I'll just let the picture gallery tell them.

Take care. Stay in touch.


John And Marianne.



"Blue_Mosque" - taken at night from the northern side.



"Blue_Mosque_Morning" - same place, inside the outer walls. A peaceful place and time



"Cleansing_Stations" - Same morning at the Blue Mosque. Before prayers, the devout wash head, hands and feet outside the Mosque.




"Dolmabahce_Interior" - a small glimpse of the opulence of the Palace.



"GabrielleAtHarem" - Outside the Harem section of Topkapi Palace



"Hagia_Sophia" - Our most sunny day.



"Musa_Weaving" - As it says. Musa was demonstrating weaving to us and a group of Japanese weavers.



"Sokullu_Mosque" - Smal but wonderful interior.



"Silk_Road_Map" - Just a little geography refresher. Istanbul is at the end of the "Silk Road" overland or the more common sailing path along the coast of India and the Middle East.



"YuanDynastyVase" - One of the treasures brought from China to Istanbul in the early part of the 14th Century.

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Originally emailed May 1, 2001. Formatted for website May 13, 2001.

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