Sunday, April 28, 2013

Byzantine coffee? Yes, please!

When I was in Istanbul in March, I stopped by a tiny cafe called Mandabatmaz, near Taksim Square. Ten Bulgarian tourists were inside, waiting for demitasses of rich, strong coffee "so thick even a water buffalo wouldn't sink in it," according to a translation of the cafe's name.

I ordered a cup of the velvety coffee, crowned with a bubbly froth.

"A beautiful Turkish coffee," said one of the Bulgarian tourists.

Back home in Bulgaria, as well as Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Iran and Israel, they do call this "beautiful coffee" Turkish. And they make it pretty much the same way: using coffee beans ground into a fine powder, then boiled in a little brass pot that the Turks call a cezve. The coffee is ready when it rises, bubbles and nearly overflows.

The style of coffee, also known as Arabic, first came from Yemen. An Ottoman governor stationed in Yemen in the 16th century fell in love with it and introduced it to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who popularized coffee in Istanbul and beyond.

A century later, Sultan Murad IV outlawed coffee, calling it an indecent drink, and chopped off the heads of those who drank it. The coffee, obviously, won out.

But ordering Turkish coffee today doesn't go over well in some Balkan or eastern Mediterranean countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire — even if their preparation of the coffee is remarkably similar.

In Armenia, where the Ottomans led a genocide against more than a million people between 1915 and 1923, it's Armenian coffee. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I once ordered a "Turkish coffee" only to be corrected by the irritated waiter: "You mean a Bosanska kafa" — a Bosnian coffee. In Cyprus, which the Turks invaded in 1974, it's a kypriakos kafes — Cypriot coffee. (Except in the northern third of the island, which Turkey has occupied since 1974.)

In Greece, where I live and which has a tortured history with Turkey, you order an elliniko -- a Greek coffee.

"It wasn't always this way," says Albert Arouh, a Greek food scholar who writes under a pen name, Epicurus. "When I was a kid in the 1960s, everyone in Greece called it Turkish coffee."

Arouh says he began noticing a name change after 1974, when the Greek military junta pushed for a coup in Cyprus that provoked Turkey to invade the island.

"The invasion sparked a lot of nationalism and anti-Turkish feelings," he says. "Some people tried to erase the Turks entirely from the coffee's history, and re-baptized it Greek coffee. Some even took to calling it Byzantine coffee, even though it was introduced to this part of the world in the sixteenth century, long after the Byzantine Empire's demise."

Read here the rest of the article from NPR

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A walk through Byzantine Istanbul

This is farther east and still in Europe than I’ve ever been, outside of Moscow—farther than Bucharest, farther than Athens. A lot like both, though—even though the place has been Islamic for five hundred years, it still feels pretty Orthodox as well—you can’t just disappear that 1300 years of Christianity. What it mainly feels like, though, is bustling. This is one busy city. Thank god for the excellent tram system. I’m a big fan of cities with trams anyway, and this one is superb. It makes Boston’s system look like the medieval relic it really is. And the traffic makes Boston’s look positively care-free.


Our hotel, though, is nicely located, a couple of blocks from just about everything, right in the middle of the Eminönü area. So we’re a block from the train station, the relevant tram stop, the ferries up the Bosphoros and into the Golden Horn, and no more than a fifteen minute walk to the Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace. Lots of good restaurants nearby as well, with the only thing lacking being a place to get recent (ie since last Wednesday) English newspapers. But we’re fully wired—isn’t everyone these days, including what appears to be every resident of Istanbul, each and every one of whom apparently has a mobile phone? Packing for trips these days has become an exercise in wire management—we have the ipad charger, the laptop charger, the charger for the phone, which fortunately is the same as for my Blackberry from work, the battery chargers for the two cameras, the little box for uploading photos from cameras and phones and ipads onto laptops…what could I possibly have left off this list?

And, since it’s Easter, I had to bring along The Book of Common Prayer, to compensate for the fact that we haven’t been to an Easter service for years, and here we are, in a country where the Orthodox Easter won’t come around until May. Plus we spent the entirety of Easter visiting mosques. These cultural markers do mean something after all.

The mosques are quite neat, and not quite what I expected, at least the larger ones. These are large palaces of light, really, designed to be as open and as bright as possible. I’m still trying to sort out Islamic aesthetics, which I imagine will tell me why many of the interiors we’ve seen—especially at Topkapi—seem designed to not blend with each other—to just be, as Mrs W put it, bright and shiny, with no sense of overall room design. Well, that’s probably just us—and it certainly isn’t a criticism that could be made of the mosques that we’ve been in. These are big and airy, with high domes (everyone literally trying to outdo Hagia Sofia, apparently), lots of windows, and sublimely tasteful settings of verses from the Koran.

So far we’ve done most of the major mosques, including some designed by the master architect of mosques, Koka Mimar Sinan (“Great Architect Sinan”). Sinan was appointed Chief Imperial Architect by Suleyman and held the post for more than half a century. His output was astonishing, including 81 large mosques, more than half of which were in Istanbul. The major ones are the Süleymaniye, probably the largest and best known of Istanbul’s mosque complexes, and the Şehzade Camii (Camii is Turkish for mosque), which Suleyman had built in memory of his son, who died at 21. These are grand constructions. I would have to say that if I had a favourite, it was this one—the nicest balance of light and space of all of them. But this is subjective, obviously.

They are also interesting socially. This is a patriarchal culture and religion, so no surprise that there is a separate prayer area for women. Still, people are wandering around everywhere—except at our last mosque, where they asked visitors to stay in the back. But this wasn’t the case at other mosques, and people were just wandering around at most of them. Men were praying, yes. But men were also chatting up a storm, talking on their mobiles, and taking pictures of each other. Families were sitting around talking—not loudly, but certainly not whispering either. Children were running around all over the place. Maybe it’s because it was Sunday, and that’s a social day—you meet the neighbours at the mosque, have a nice chat, and move on. But what it most reminded me of is what medieval cathedrals were supposed to be like—large spaces where everyone got together regularly, and lots of stuff happened, not just services.

And Turkey is certainly a family place. There are kids everywhere. When we were visiting Topkapi Palace on Friday, it seemed as if every school group in Istanbul was there as well, not to mention about ten thousand mothers with strollers. What is lacking is lots of Disney stuff—we haven’t exactly been looking for it, but so far no kids in Little Princess outfits. However, there do seem to be LOTS of Burger Kings and McDonalds, which I suppose is inescapable these days. Still, plenty of good food pretty much everywhere. We’ve already had some excellent real meals, and some excellent light fare from the kebab shop down the street. This a city with of 12 million people or whatever it is, so you can get pretty much whatever you want here, so long as it’s lamb. But not just the lamb—Turkish cuisine is full of nuts and seeds, and not only do they spice everything up nicely, but it’s also good for you. Forget all that crap about the Mediterranean diet. It’s what they eat here that’s good for you—olive oil, dates, figs, olives, and lots of seeds and nuts. I could eat this stuff forever.

Read more here

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

The name of this subterranean structure derives from a large public square on the First Hill of Constantinople, the Stoa Basilica, beneath which it was originally constructed. Before being converted to a cistern, a great Basilica stood in its place, built between the 3rd and 4th centuries during the Early Roman Age as a commercial, legal and artistic centre.[2] The basilica was reconstructed by Ilius after a fire in 476.

Ancient texts indicated that the basilica contained gardens, surrounded by a colonnade and facing the Hagia Sophia.[3] According to ancient historians, Emperor Constantine built a structure that was later rebuilt and enlarged by Emperor Justinian after the Nika riots of 532, which devastated the city.
Historical texts claim that 7,000 slaves were involved in the construction of the cistern.

The enlarged cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the First Hill, and continued to provide water to the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and into modern times.

This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber approximately 138 metres (453 ft) by 64.6 metres (212 ft) - about 9,800 square metres (105,000 sq ft) in area - capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres (2,800,000 cu ft) of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 metres (30 ft) high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 4.9 metres (16 ft) apart. The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric style with no engravings. One of the columns is engraved with raised pictures of a Hen's Eye, slanted braches, and tears. This column resembles the columns of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius I from the 4th century (AD 379-395), erected in the 'Forum Tauri' Square. Ancient texts suggest that the tears on the column pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern. The majority of the columns in the cistern appear to have been recycled from the ruins of older buildings (a process called 'spoliation'), likely brought to Constantinople from various parts of the empire, together with those that were used in the construction of Hagia Sophia. They are carved and engraved out of various types of marble and granite.

Fifty-two stone steps descend into the entrance of the cistern. The cistern is surrounded by a firebrick wall with a thickness of 4 metres (13 ft) and coated with a waterproofing mortar. The Basilica Cistern's water came from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest, which lie 19 kilometres (12 mi) north of the city. It traveled through the 971 metres (3,186 ft)-long Valens (Bozdoğan) Aqueduct, and the 115.45 metres (378.8 ft)-long Mağlova Aqueduct, which was built by the Emperor Justinian.[7]
The cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, despite being virtually empty today with only a few feet of water lining the bottom.

The weight of the cistern lies on the columns by means of the cross-shaped vaults and round arches of its roof.

The Basilica Cistern has undergone several restorations since its foundation. The first of the repairs were carried out twice during the Ottoman State in the 18th century during the reign of Ahmed III in 1723 by the architect Muhammad Agha of Kayseri. The second major repair was completed during the 19th century during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876–1909). Cracks to masonry and damaged columns were repaired in 1968, with additional restoration in 1985 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Museum. During the 1985 restoration, 50,000 tons of mud were removed from the cisterns, and a platforms built throughout to replace the boats once used to tour the cistern. The cistern was opened to the public in its current condition on 9 September 1987. In May 1994, the cistern underwent additional cleaning.

The Hippodrome of Constantinople

Byzantine Istanbul

The Hippodrome of Constantinople was a circus that was the sporting and social centre of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square) in the Turkish city of Istanbul, with a few fragments of the original structure surviving. It is sometimes also called Atmeydanı (Horse Square) in Turkish.

Although the Hippodrome is usually associated with Constantinople's days of glory as an imperial capital, it actually predates that era. The first Hippodrome was built when the city was called Byzantium, and was a provincial town of moderate importance. In AD 203 the Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the city and expanded its walls, endowing it with a hippodrome, an arena for chariot races and other entertainment.
In AD 324, the Emperor Constantine the Great decided to move the seat of the government from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Nova Roma (New Rome). This name failed to impress and the city soon became known as Constantinople, the City of Constantine. Constantine greatly enlarged the city, and one of his major undertakings was the renovation of the Hippodrome. It is estimated that the Hippodrome of Constantine was about 450 m (1,476 ft) long and 130 m (427 ft) wide. Its stands were capable of holding 100,000 spectators.
The race-track at the Hippodrome was U-shaped, and the Kathisma (emperor's loge) was located at the eastern end of the track. The Kathisma could be accessed directly from the Great Palace through a passage which only the emperor or other members of the imperial family could use. The Hippodrome Boxes, which had four statues of horses in gilded copper on top, stood at the northern end; and the Sphendone (curved tribune of the U-shaped structure, the lower part of which still survives) stood at the southern end. These four gilded horses, now called the Horses of Saint Mark, whose exact Greek or Roman ancestry has never been determined, were looted during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and installed on the façade of St Mark's Basilica in Venice. The track was lined with other bronze statues of famous horses and chariot drivers, none of which survive. The hippodrome was filled with statues of gods, emperors and heroes, among them some famous works, such as a Heracles by Lysippos, Romulus and Remus with their wolf and the Serpent Column of the Plataean tripod. In his book De Ceremoniis (book II,15, 589), the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus described the decorations in the hippodrome at the occasion of the visit of Saracen or Arab visitors, mentioning the purple hangings and rare tapestries.

Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city's social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and initially four teams took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a different political party (Deme) within the Roman/Byzantine Senate: The Blues (Venetoi), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi). The Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi) gradually weakened and were absorbed by the other two major factions (the Blues and Greens).

A total of up to eight chariots (two chariots per team), powered by four horses each, competed on the racing track of the Hippodrome. These races were not simple sporting events, but also provided some of the rare occasions in which the Emperor and the common citizens could come together in a single venue. Political discussions were often made at the Hippodrome, which could be directly accessed by the Emperor through a passage that connected the Kathisma (Emperor's Loge at the eastern tribune) with the Great Palace of Constantinople.

The rivalry between the Blues and Greens often became mingled with political or religious rivalries, and sometimes riots, which amounted to civil wars that broke out in the city between them. The most severe of these was the Nika riots of 532, in which an estimated 30,000 people were killed[citation needed] and many important buildings, such as the second Hagia Sophia Church, were destroyed. The current (third) Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian following the Nika Revolt.

Constantinople never really recovered from its sack during the Fourth Crusade and even though the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, by that time, the Hippodrome had fallen into ruin. The Ottoman Turks, who captured the city in 1453 and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire, were not interested in racing and the Hippodrome was gradually forgotten, although the site was never actually built over.

The Hippodrome was used for various occasions such as the lavish and days-long circumcision ceremony of the sons of Sultan Ahmed III. In Ottoman miniature paintings, the Hippodrome is shown with the seats and monuments still intact. Although the structures do not exist anymore, today's Sultanahmet Square largely follows the ground plan and dimensions of the now vanished Hippodrome.