We went to see the Blue Mosque this morning. It is free, and there is a dress code, though they provide free skirts and shawls for those who are not appropriately dressed. Men and women must wear, respectively, long shorts and long shirts and the women must cover their hair. (The scarf is called a “hijab,” Arabic for “veil.”) No shoes allowed, of course. We went in and unfortunately they are performing renovations and there is a bunch of scaffolding up, blocking the central dome. This really dispelled the religious feeling supposed to evoked by the immensity of the space and ornate designs of the central dome. The big dome is supported by four huge pillars the girth of which are comparable to the Sequoia trees in California, they are massive. Though the Asian tourists were snapping away, I took no pictures (You’re not supposed to). Most of the women were taking glamour shots in their scarves. It is a huge mosque, but the monstrous cathedrals in Europe are far larger in height and breadth of floor plan.
Happy belated, Preston- I missed Julie’s birthday too, so many May birthdays!
I have been in Istanbul for five days now, and I am content to continue my journey tomorrow. I have seen a few mosques, the Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern, and witnessed a performance of Whirling Dervishes. I have talked to the owner of a carpet shop, sampled numerous Turkish dishes, tried Turkish ice cream, had a Turkish bath, and spent quality time with many like-minded travellers and hostel staff. I am surprised to have had many philosophical and spiritual conversations, ranging from Islam, Christianity and Baha’i to esoteric practices, theosophy, and the supernatural. Very stimulating.
You are not supposed to take pictures of the Dervish dance, though of course the Asians, Europeans and Americans, if there were any, blithely ignored this. For them, they saw and understood nothing. They know no reverence and their loves are likely the emptier for it. Most of the audience aside from perhaps the Turks and Central Asians were obviously ignorant of the significance of the dance, but I have been interested in the Dervishes for some time, and I was very eager to see an authentic performance. This was a very sincere group. The musicians were in a balcony: there was a saz, which is a sort of lute, a ney, which is a sort of clarinet made of a river reed, drums, cymbals, and singers. The performance began with the entrance of the Dervishes, all bedecked in black robes and wearing their tall felt hats, called sikkes. There were thirteen in all. The head dervish wore a sikke of white and the rest wore brown. All their clothing has symbolic meaning. Briefly, the hat represents the dervish’s own tombstone, the jacket the grave, and the skirt a funeral shroud. The skirt is secured by a belt wrapped three times around the waist, which represents the knowledge of God, the seeing of God, and the stage of true existence.
The head Dervish stood at the end of an octagonal stage opposite the gate, the rest of the dervishes along his left side, shoulder to shoulder. The performance began with a long, mysterious chant and I knew immediately that there was some hidden meaning behind: the melody was very strange, with unusual semitones, to my ear, and a cadence that evoked the sensation of beholding a mystery. Then the ney began. Never have I heard such music. The melody seemed to encompass all of Western musical scales and all those of the East as well. The dervishes seemed absorbed in meditation, allowing this music to fill them with the spirit. Then, at some cue indiscernible to me, the other musicians joined in. Suddenly all of the dervishes smacked the floor at once, quite loudly, having dropped to their knees. The music picked up, and an elaborate display of bowing to the head dervish ensued. It seems one of the dervishes was sort of a second-in-command as well, for only eleven of the dervishes were to participate in the dances. After the bowing, they dropped their black cloaks, which represent the secular world. In shedding them, they symbolically turn their backs on the world in order to be closer to God. One by one, they bow again before the leader, and begin to spin. They began with their arms crossed tight to their body and then hold them out from their bodies, one hand palm up, the other palm down. There were three dancers in the center, and eight around the outside. This was repeated three times. Both the three and the eight, as well as the total of thirteen, are symbolically significant. There was another solo song at one point also, and the head dervish chanted some words I did not understand after which the dervishes issued out, again in their black robes. No one clapped, which was appropriate.
I am grateful to have witnessed this. I am not very familiar with the origin of the dervishes, but they are followers of the teachings of Jalal Eddin Rumi, a Sufi mystic and poet. There are multiple dances, and each dance has a particular meaning, each a religious ritual that contains esoteric knowledge. This was one of my favorite experiences in Istanbul.
The Turkish Bath
I went to the hamam with Bayan and Mobin, two of my roommates. I was excited for this, for I was in dire need of a good scrubbing. We went in, having changed into towels, and layed in a hot room on heated slabs for twenty minutes. Once we were good and sweaty, a man came in and, having donned a towel himself, took us aside one by one and gave us a good scrubbing with a coarse pad. I knew I would slough off a lot of grime, but it was real bad. The man was very surprised. I think my arms were peeling a bit, recovering now that I am out of constant sun, and dead skin was rolling quite copiously off of me, embarrassing! I gave him a big tip. After that he rolled what felt like a balloon over me, which applied a foamy soap. He then washed me head to toe, my face, my hair, my beard. Afterwards I rinsed off, sweated a little longer, rinsed again, changed into a dry towel, and then we were led into the front room and served tea. I felt very clean, I plan to do this every week or two while I can find them! Also one of my favorite experiences, for hygiene and also for the cultural experience. The power of human touch is significant and there was something very intimate and humbling about being washed- like being a toddler again!
The Basilica Cistern
This is a reservoir built in the 6th century for Justinian I, called the Basilica cistern because it lay under the Stoa basilica at one point. It was forgotten about until the 16th century, when a historian who stayed with locals noticed that many people in this particular neighborhood were pulling up water from holes in their basements, sometimes catching fish this way! Even after it was rediscovered, it was quite unceremoniously used to dump sewage and bodies into. In the 1980’s they finally cleaned it out. It is huge, with over 300 pillars, most of which are carved of solid marble. Most of the capitals of these pillars are decorated in the Corinthian style, which perplexed me- why would they go to the effort of decorating the supports for a reservoir? Turns out most of the pillars were pulled from the ruins of old buildings and repurposed for this project. There is one pillar in particular decorated with eyes or peacock feathers, which is called the Crying Pillar because water leaks down it. There are also two large Medusa heads used there which are quite famous and whose origin is unknown.
This church-turned-mosque-turned-museum is pretty cool. It is also under renovation, as is the Basilica cistern, by chance. I could come back and get a very different impression of the Blue Mosque and these two without the scaffolding and blocked off areas. Interesting mosaics though. Also built in the 6th century, the late emperors of the Roman empire added mosaics and alterations from the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. Pretty cool.