Thursday, October 12, 2006

Finally Portugal! With a detour through Turkey…

Here I am finally, in Portugal. I’m not staying for long, but still, I want to let you know a bit of my stay here. But that will have to wait for a future post, because before coming here I was for a week in Istanbul, with my Turkish friend Maya.
Let me just tell you my impressions of Istanbul: WOW!!!!! A really exciting and beautiful city. Sometimes it reminded me a lot of Lisbon, specially the architecture of the late 60’s til 80’s. It added to that feeling the fact that, just like in Lisbon at this time of the year, there are people selling roasted chestnuts on the street. This smell, mixed with the sea breeze, pine trees, olive trees and oaks, brought me right back to Lisbon. Then again, the unfamiliar sound of a man calling people for prayer at the local mosque made it quite different! I was totally astonished by the monuments we visited. Namely the St. Sophia Museum and the Topkapi Palace… St. Sophia was initially a Christian cathedral, built in the days of the Roman Emperor Constantine (when Istanbul was yet Constantinopolis) and then it was turned into an Islamic mosque around the 14th century (correct me if I’m wrong). In the 1930’s it was secularized by the then President of Turkey, Ataturk, and turned into a museum. The most beautiful thing about this place is the peaceful cohabitation of Islamic and Christian symbols. They are recovering the old Christian panels and now you can see the Virgin Mary and her child hovering over fantastic “vitrals” with Arabic writings about Allah. Here and there you find Christian symbols, like fishes and the Holy Family, but you cannot help but stare in awe at the huge panels in Arabic on every corner of the … mosque? Church? Ah, history confuses the mind!! On the very same stones characters such as Emperor Constantine, King Richard the Lion Heart, and all the Sultans of the great Otoman Empire have stepped and kneeled and prayed.


St. Sophia, ground and first floor.


The Virgin Mary and Islamic "vitrals" in St. Sophia.

The Topkapi Palace (which by the way is misspelled but I don’t have the right letter to spell it correctly) was built almost next door to St. Sophia. It was the most important palace of the Otoman Empire for centuries, home of the sultan and his family. Maya and I were extremely curious about the Harem, the part of the palace reserved for the Sultan and his family, where no one could enter without permission. Also the famous place where the Sultan’s wives and concubines were guarded from the outside eye. It was a bit disappointing… It seemed actually pretty small and tight, none of that luxury we were used to see in Omar Sharif’s movies. Well, the architecture was indeed beautiful, the tiles luxurious, but they did not put almost any furniture, so we had a hard time imagining where the others got the ideas for the movies, in the end… Maybe not from that Harem in particular… But here’s what we’ve learned… Fact or myth?
- The Sultan had 200 wives! - MYTH. The Sultan had by Muslim law at most 4 wives. But he did have around 200 female servants or concubines, although most of them never saw the Sultan ever in their lives. The Sultan’s mother (the most powerful woman in the Harem, by the way) could choose, however, among those 200 concubines, up to 8 women who would be the Sultan’s “favorites”. If these women got pregnant, they would have the same rights as an official wife.
- The concubines were drowned in the Bosforus after they lost their «appeal» - MYTH. The Sultan’s concubines retired in their 30’s, but went outside to have a normal life, or were married to some officer. Only in very rare cases did a woman spend her whole life in the Harem.
- The only men allowed around the Sultan’s wives, concubines and family were eunuchs - FACT. There were only black eunuchs attending the family, wives, and concubines. But they were not slaves, they were paid for their job, as were the concubines. Castration was only partial (whatever that is), and usually it had been done before they came to the Harem, and they had also received special education, according to our guide.
There. Hope to have been of some service for those who were curious about what a Harem actually is!


Courtyard of the concubines.


Reception room of the queen mother.

Last but definitely not least we attended the wedding of Maya’s cousin, who was getting married to an English bloke! :) This was the main reason for Maya to go to Istanbul, and she invited me to come along as well. The wedding was a beautiful ceremony in a palace located on the Asian shore of the Bosforus, with a wonderful view over this enigmatic stretch of water that separates Europe from Asia. I leave you a picture of us, all dressed up and looking drop dead gorgeous!! Of course, Maya’s family was there and I had a chance to meet them. No comments, they are, as we say in Portuguese, five stars…


Maya & me.


Bridge over the Bosforus, between Europe and Asia.

Also, I have to praise Turkish food. If you think we have good food in Portugal, go to Turkey!! OH MY GOD… That’s why I say, tesekur ederim (misspelled, again…), Istanbul!! Hope to see you again.


View over Istanbul from Topkapi Palace.