Little Hagia Sophia — Poem Verde Antico

Little Hagia Sophia is a mosque in Istanbul Turkey. Its foundations are about hundred years before Islam even existed, as a Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Its current name refers to Hagia Sophia proper, once the largest building in the largest city of its time, Constantinople. Both were built around same time, only few years apart, but current name was assigned to the converted mosque by Ottoman Turks who occupied the city in 1453 AD.

Interior of Little Hagia Sophia. Word intimate is perhaps best describing the mood and feel.

Ottomans spared several of the impressive Byzantine churches, and repurpose them to worship a new god. This way lot of original design and details can still be seen today. When I lived nearby, I often frequented Little Hagia Sophia and took some photos. Here are some that shows the details of interior.

Roman columns made of verde antico gave idea for the title, as poem in marble has already been attributed to Taj Mahal.

Roman numerals and alphabet come by everywhere, no wonder as they were chiselled during time when locals considered themselves as Romans. East part of Roman Empire would last thousand years after West had lost to armies of Barbarians. Byzantines would often contest the control of Italian peninsula, and occupy the former capital.

Hagia Sophia proper. Little sister would fit inside many times over.

Istanbul — Intersection

Noisy packs of seagulls following fishing boats. Sweet aroma of roasted chestnuts and corn spreading from vendors shacks. Spectacular sunsets over the sea and massive mosques of Sultanahmet. Fishermen grouping at fences of Galata Bridge and hoping for a good catch. Cargo ships traveling through Bosphorus. Delicious foods like Durum, Kebab, Iskender, Simit breads. And of course Turkish coffee and tea. City Districts: Eminönü by the mouth of Golden Horn. Taksim, the continental district. Sultanahmet, old town with largest mosques, bazaars and a lot more. Kadıköy and Üsküdar in Asian side. Turkish hospitality and all the surprises city has to offer. All familiar and bringing back nice memories from my previous trip few years ago.

1900th century tram still operating in Tünel-Taksim route.

Istanbul is intersection like no other. Land routes, sea routes have crossed here through millenniums. Black Sea through Mediterranean, to Red Sea and Indies, Atlantic and Americas. Europe to Silk Road and China. Middle East to Balkans. City has had many names, Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul being most commonly known.

Back in 2012 when arriving for first time, I was quite thrilled which shows from old travel journal

November 2012 — Well here am, after all the years dreaming about it, ever since watching -60’s James Bond movie, From Russia with Love 🙂

Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast has influenced my image of Istanbul. Visited ancient defence walls. Size of fortifications can still be grasped today, although roads, buildings, and 600 years make the scene whole different than it once was. City was in ideal location to defend. Its surrounded by sea from 3 directions, where walls could be built smaller and defended easier. Only direction towards land was protected by constellation of fortifications.

Byzantine walls were largest in world, a statement of the might empire once had. Populations could stay secure inside, at times when some of fiercest invaders of written history were menacing outside: list. By 1453 new weapons made it finally possible for break through. Topkapi is place where Ottomans made it after almost 2 months of siege. Panorama Museum at Topkapi is worth the visit. Learning that Sultan Mehmed II Conqueror had several times doubts about feasibility of siege, and even thoughts of cancelling it, was new information.

After siege, Byzantine Empire and large part of Eastern Christianity was gradually choked and converted to Islam by new rulers. The legend is that last Byzantine emperor is not dead and would once return back to liberate city, riding through the Golden Gate in walls. Ottomans walled it close, end of the problem.

Been having nice time photographing, seeing CouchSurfers, and studying fascinating Ottoman history. Its rise and fall is similar to Mughals I learned last winter in India. Ottomans, Safavid Persia and Mughals being commonly known as gunpowder empires of their time. Fear of Ottomans was one of motivators for Europeans to head risky exploration of seas. Less than 50 years had passed after fall of Constantinople, when Columbus was already in America (thinking he was in India). Similarly, all mentioned empires began fall back with innovation, when European powers started collect the benefits of age of exploration, renaissance of Greek and Roman sciences. After Ottomans had become the “sick man of Europe”, revival of Christian Constantinople was long lasting dream of Russian Empire, for third Rome to liberate the second one.

During First World War when Ottomans had reached their lowest point. Many Western nationals were dreaming about conversion of Hagia Sophia, an ancient church of Byzantine that had been converted to mosque since 1453, back as church. This link tells more about the plans and phases. A Turkish newspaper reported about status of affairs regarding the Hagia Sophia in 2016: link.

Visited old buildings with a CouchSurfing friend. Some had been used as French bank and Italian consulate were now in various stages of merciful decay.

July 2015 — Skies are in beautiful deep blue hues. Seagulls are squawking from up there, as if to remind people to look up and admire. It’s Ramadan, with large dinner feasts after sunset. People gather on streets outside and restaurants prepare areas filled with tables and benches for customers come to enjoy, after full day of fasting. City streets are quiet and even the Grand Bazaar is closed. As am heading to Iran after Turkey, I feel like am in front of something new and vast.

Downtown streets during Ramadan.

Hagia Sophia is under big restoration, half of the museum was occupied by metal construction. A bit of a bummer. By looking the scale of it, restoration is likely the go on for years. Pera Museum was nice visit, on exhibition is famous painting of Tortoises Trainer, a known Ottoman-era painting (link).

Haydarpasa station.

Time is stopped. Past buzzle and nervous activity can still be sensed while walking in corridors and large waiting hall, built already in Ottoman times. Haydarpasa station was gateway to Asia Minor and Persia. Building is in good condition but new Marmaray railway tunnel connecting city’s European and Asian sides was opened 2013 and made Haydarpasa redundant. Only few photography minded tourists are wandering around and taking photos of abandoned building. Couple old kiosk vendors are still selling tea, tobacco and sweets like in old times, no doubt remember with regret the gone good days.

Coming out from building, sun and salty air of Marmara Sea are greeting. Glancing right, Hagia Sofia and Topkapi palace can be seen in horizon. And Bosporus straight, leading all the way to Black Sea.

Summer 2015. Summer of selfie sticks!

Downtown views.

History: Armenian Genocide — What Prompted It?

This year that is soon ending, marked 100 years since Armenian Genocide. According to Wikipedia, around 800000 to 1.5 million Armenians died in 1915, during World War One. Although the term was familiar, I kind of leaned common thinking that tragedy was result of war surfacing wrong people to power, who created horrible conditions with terror, famine and freezing winters. How wrong was I…

Genocide Memorial in Yerevan center

In 1915, genocide developed in three phases. First was drafting Armenian and other Christian men to take part in Ottoman armies, at the wake of war. After disastrous campaign against Russians, these men were made as scapegoats for the losses. Had the war gone any better for Ottomans, who knows if later events had happened in their severity? Men were disarmed and put on hard labor companies, and gradually exhausted and murdered. Second phase was spring 1915, when 200-300 Armenian intellectuals (priests, artists, business and other noteworthy people) were executed throughout the empire, and especially in the capital Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). In last third phase, targets were the leaderless and helpless women, children and older men. They were forced to death marches in Syrian deserts, tortured, starved, murdered. These stages were planned and organised by Young Turk government at the head of Ottoman Empire, and were not impulsive and improvised violence by armed thugs.

Besides events of 1915, similar though smaller atrocities happen over the decades. Several Ottoman/Turkish governments, often hostile to each other, followed the same policy consistently: last Sultan still wielding state power, Abdul Hamid II (Hamidian Massacres 1894–1896, Adana Holocaust 1909). Sultan was deposed by Young Turk movement that drove Ottoman’s to war. And lastly the Kemalists, after the war (Smyrna Fire 1923).

Atrocities resulted population transfers and immigration through the years. For example, California today has significant Armenian population living as Americans. Similarly France and other European countries received multitudes of Armenian refugees. After Greco-Turkish War (1919–22), both sides agreed of population transfer. Muhacirs from Balkans transferred to now depopulated West Armenia and elsewhere in modern day Turkey. Anatolian Greeks and Macedonians in turn moved to Balkans.

So back to question, what was the reason behind tragedy?

In late 1800’s, new ideals such as Nationalism and Communism not only undermine traditional order, but inspired a rifts between ethnicities and religions. People had earlier just one ruler, the Sultan, to worry about. Now they were forming new ideas how their future should be shaped, where their loyalties should be, and who their allies were.

Developments in Ottoman Empire, during its last century was continued struggle from one setback to another. In hands of several incompetent Sultans the empire seemed to fell apart. It was leaving behind militarily to European powers. Due to mismanagement, it also became financially dependant on them. Anatolia was still home of large Christian population. Greeks, Armenians and other Christians influenced local business and spiritual communities. They were often better educated and wealthier than Muslims. If old trend continued, could Turkish Muslims become second class citizens in their homeland? My guess the reason for genocide was simply out of fear that one day, if Anatolia was lost, there would be no place to withdraw anymore. So ethnic cleansing was planned and executed by successive regimes.

Eternal flame, in Genocide Memorial of Yerevan

Today, this topic today is still full of controversy. It is spurring demonstrations in Turkey and Armenia. Journalists have lost lives, monuments destroyed and defaced. Turkish-Armenian border stays closed from trade and tourism.
Modern day Turkey is more wealthy, mature and educated than ever before. Still its denying the word genocide, to describe what happened to Armenians. Perhaps it would be finally time to acknowledge the wrongs of the past? Armenians will never forget the Great Crime that was done to them, and history wont be going anywhere.

Sunrise in Cappadocia

While in Turkey and on transit to neighbouring Iran, my visa process took a while so had some extra time. So I decided to see famous Cappadocia south-east from capital Ankara. Skies are cloudless and mild winds so common during the summer, that whole hot air balloon industry has grown to take advantage of it. Views were just as one might expect, beyond words!

Every morning there are tens of balloons all going air around same time

I been sleeping in cave rooms all my time in Göreme, small town in centre of Cappadocia. Caves are relatively easy to carve and a local curiosity. They have been carved here since the pre-historic times, churches, even underground cities! Cave rooms are plentiful enough that budget options to sleep in are available. Better ones offer same comforts as normal well equipped hotel room. Rock walls are emitting pleasant cool now in the hottest summer months. After resisting the balloon urge for few days, and watching others going, I finally walked to one of agents and bought a ticket for next morning. Ticket prices during my stay (peak season) ranged between 100 and 150 Euros. Standard size basket takes around 20 persons. Biggest can take full bus load, well over thirty! (competition for best photos can become quite an elbowing contest).

Cave room in Göreme, Cappadocia

Cavemen wake early. Still in dark around 4.30am, Anatolian air is cool but dry; desertlike. We left to balloon takeoff site and preparations were already well under way. In 20 minutes our balloon was in full bloom and we the passengers were loaded up to basket.

Clear cloudless sky greeted us as day opened

Cappadocian landscape is spectacular moonlike canyons and cliff formations. Its origins with volcanic activity millions of years ago, and strong erosion that has carved soft lava rocks

In the air balloon levitates like a feather, up and down depending how much heat pilot adjust into its massive cavity. Balloon can be turned by using air flaps in its body and obviously progresses in direction of wind.

Uchisar, one of small towns seen from air

Our pilot controlling burners

Am quite tall guy and basket didn’t have too much head room for me. When pilot released all four burners simultaneously, I silently thanked myself of having a short hair! Otherwise it might have been cartoon-like sight when leaving the basket, a black smouldering mess top of my head 🙂

Passengers mainly focus taking photos of spectacular postcard views: canyons coloured by early morning light, other balloons in horizon making small solar eclipses with the rising sun, and ofcourse: the selfies.

Flight takes about 1-1.5 hours but time really goes fast because continuous stream of things to see. Finally it was time to finish the flight and come back on ground.

Evening walk to Uchisar castle. Highest point in the region and great for sunsets. Standing on top of hill, there is better time (compared to balloon) to study the canyons and how water has carved them

Edit in March 2017. Not all hot air balloon trips end well, although accident rate is low. Here’s link to story by Turkish newspaper of day when strong winds caused crash landings and injuries.