Spending Christmas Day by myself in a foreign country isn’t the way that I intentionally planned it out, but it’s how it turned out. With that being said, I was in a mostly Islamic country that doesn’t even celebrate Christmas! Plus by the end of the day, worrying about not having someone to talk to would not be a concern.
My day started off by being the third person in line for the Topkapi Palace. Built in 1478, this is the place where the Ottoman Sultans lived up until the 19th Century. It has since been turned into a museum, displaying both the ancient way of Sultan life, as well as some of the treasures obtained by the Ottoman Empire.
One of the items exhibited in the weapons room was a Hungarian sword that was two meters long and looked like it weighed at least a hundred pounds. I’m not completely familiar with my Hungarian history, but I was not aware that they had giants living there in the 1300s! With that being said, the Ottomans also had candlesticks that were at least a meter high, and their traditional Kaftan garments were about nine feet tall and four feet wide. I guess size did matter in the middle ages!
Some of the other interesting pieces were a throne covered in tiger skin. I mean, I like cats, and the idea of skinning a tiger seems somewhat inhumane to me, but at the same time, that’s pretty badass! There was also a giant bowl of gems, just kind of like, “Oh, yeah, we had these emeralds and rubies lying around, so we thought why not put them all here in this bowl.” There was the immaculately decorated Topkapi Dagger and an 86 Carat diamond the size of a child’s fist. Apparently the diamond had been found in a rubbish pile and traded to a spoon maker for three wooden spoons!
The palace also contains a collection of Islamic relics that seem almost too unbelievable to be true. This includes items owned by the prophets David, Jospeh and Abraham, as well as a footprint of Muhammad and the staff that Moses used to part the Red Sea with! The exhibition also contained information on Islam, Muhammad, the Kabba at Mecca and the haj. For me, it was my first real immersion into the history of Islam and it was easy to be intrigued by the story. Within the exhibit, a muezzin read/sang the Quran, which made for a mesmerizing experience within the palace’s large domes rooms.
My day at the palace also offered me a chance to experience something that I never saw in Amsterdam – the sun! To take advantage of the situation, I had lunch at the fine restaurant at the palace. Being away from home at Christmas was a bit of a sacrifice, but the elegance of having lunch on a sun-lit palace-top terrace while overlooking the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus River and Istanbul’s never ending metropolis pretty much made up for it! My meal was delicious and the service was incredible. Although, that should have been expected considering that the palace kitchens used to prepare meals for between 10,000 and 15,000 people!
After lunch it was time to visit the juicy bit of the palace – the Harem! Harem meant “forbidden place” and was the secret part of the palace where the Sultan lived, entertained and conducted his private business. Within the Harem lived between 300 and 500 concubines that had been chosen from the Ottoman’s newly acquired territories. These concubines were selected due to their beauty and their intelligence and after arriving the palace, the most favoured would be given the opportunity to visit the bed of the Sultan, or perhaps even give birth to the next Sultan!
Some of the stories that come from the Harem sound completely ridiculous by today’s standards, but were just part of being the Sultan. For example, the persons in charge of managing the concubines were called ‘black chiefs’. These were Ethiopian boys that were castrated and brought to the palace to serve the Sultan. Additionally, the baths of the Sultan’s pools would be situated so that he (and his guests) could be entertained by dwarves through a window. However, the palace was not just a place of lust and games. Promising boys from the kingdom came here to be educated in law, science and other fields. Different from western European monarchies, these boys did not need to come from royal families or be particularly wealthy; simply they needed to show promise. Once educated, these boys would get the chance to marry a concubine and potentially become a vizier to the Sultan (hopefully just less evil than Jafar however).
As I left the palace, I stopped to try and frame a shot of the Hagia Sophia. Due to it’s size, it’s not as easy as it sounds. I obviously stood out as a tourist as a local man came over and started talking about the building. He asked me where I was from and then told me that I looked Turkish – more Turkish than most Turkish people! We chatted for a few minutes before he got to the point of our interaction – he had a carpet shop. I’d heard stories of people who had come to Istanbul not intending to buy a carpet but still being swayed into buying a carpet, but I actually did want to buy myself an authentic Turkish rug! However, I still wanted to visit the Hagia Sophia first, so I was told that my friend would wait for me at the exit of the museum.
The Hagia Sophia was a massive church that stands 56 meters tall that was built in the years 532 to 537. During the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the transition to Islam, the church was turned into a mosque. As part of this process, the Christian mosaics that were painted on the walls were painted over. Now that the Hagia Sofia is no longer used as a place of worship and merely a museum, renovations are being done to uncover these hidden mosaics. However, this is not without some contention in Istanbul. The sentiment is that Turkey is a Muslim country and the Hagia Sofia should remain a museum of Muslim culture. This is highlighted by the large medallions that hang in the corners of the Hagia Sofia. These medallions contain the names of Muhammad, Abraham and other prophets, and are the largest such medallions in the world!
As I left the Hagia Sofia, I knew I would be met by my carpet friend and that it might be prudent to do some research before going into the experience. Therefore, I grabbed a Turkish tea at the museum café, turned on my phone and did some reading (roaming, I know, but surely this is the emergency that the IT guys back home had accounted for in my travels!). When I exited the gates, my friend wasn’t there, but I was met by Omar, his “cousin”. I was escorted to a store very nearby and given some more Turkish tea. We sat on antique couches in a small room chatting. Soon, Omar’s other “cousin”, Sahin came and joined us. It became apparent that Sahin would be my main point of interaction for the rest of the experience. I mentally prepared myself for this because I assumed Sahin was the Turkish version of Sachin, which as we all know, is translated directly into English as ‘sleaze ball’. 🙂
After some more small talk, we finally started talking about carpets. Sahin, with the help of Gabriel (presumably another cousin) began pulling out carpets and unrolling them on the floor before me. They started slowly but soon were piling carpets on top of each other faster than I could notice. I wandered around, inspected the carpets and asked a few simple questions. I was told about the patterns of the carpets and their traditional meanings, the different styles and sizes, and also the weaving techniques. After asking about the Turkish hand woven double-knot method, I was whisked away to a shop down the road to a loom where the double-knot technique was being performed. When I was taken back to the first shop, I was shown the durability and flexibility of the double-knot carpets as Sahin folded, stomped on, kicked at and tore at the stitching. Furthermore, I was shown that due to the natural dyes used, the carpet would appear different when viewed from different angles.
I finally selected a few carpets that interested me and then the process of pricing began. I was already on my second Turkish tea when Sahin told me how the particular carpet that I was most interested in had taken a year to hand weave and would cost $1500. It may seem a bit pricey, but he was probably right that it took about a year to weave by hand, and therefore the cost was at least in the range that I had read about on my phone. Yet, I visibly grimaced at the price and sat back down on the couch. I looked at my watch, to which Sahin replied, “You must be hungry. You must try the lamb kabob from the restaurant next door!” and sent Gabriel off.
As we sat, Sahin began talking about making a better offer if I would be interested in buying more than one carpet. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I was interested in any carpets and the conversation turned into how I was young and didn’t have much money. Gabriel returned quickly with a plate of lamb kebab, rice, bread and salad. He and Sahin then went on to talk more about carpets, the antiques and various collectors they’ve dealt with. They pulled out antiques over hundreds of years old that would retail for $75,000! The sales pitch continued as they spoke of the longevity of the carpets, the investment that it could represent and the potential resale value. In reality, I didn’t say much during this time. Unfortunately for Sahin, it was Christmas Day and I was in a country where I didn’t know a single person – I was lonely! I was therefore more than content to sit on his couch, eat his kebab and drink his tea (I was now on the third one)!
After finishing my meal, I was shown pillow covers that could be thrown in to sweeten the deal. Again, I shrugged my shoulders but considered them anyways. At the end of what was, in total, about a two hour affair, I had agreed to two carpets and four pillow covers for the “low, low” price of $1600. The carpets were folded up and placed in a duffel bag, and I was given certificates for each carpet to prove their authenticity and hand-woven double-knot technique. All in all, I can’t say how much I overpaid for the carpets, but at least I didn’t have to eat Christmas dinner by myself!