This is about the ghosts of thousands of women from the harem and one very special one.  It is about the quite real throngs of tourists: a day at Topkapi Palace as well as an hour at the only Byzantine Church that never got converted into a mosque, and about a new friend from Bangladesh.

The sun peeked through a few minutes here and there, but that did not help the still very cold temperatures and the wind that made it feel even colder.  But I wore four layers of pants today and six top layers and was comfortable.

At Topkapi Palace I had to move along with the crowds at their pace, shoving past all those jewelry cases of the treasury and in and out of the rooms of the palace that were open to the public. The pace reached almost a standstill at the room dedicated to relics related to the prophet Mohammed and other dignitaries.  There was the staff by Moses that parted the red sea, there was the foot imprint by Mohammed which he left when he ascended to heaven from the rock over which the Dome of the Rock was built in Jerusalem.  And there were numerous little reliquaries containing the beard and teeth of Mohammed.  It was impossible to see anything in most of them as they were placed way too far from view (or is it my failing eye sight)?  But a couple of beard pieces at the very end were close enough for me to see and I swear that the beard looked like pieces of red and green chewing gum.  How could this be his beard?!  Never mind, just saying…

Occasionally, when I was very patient, I could take a shot of the buildings and the gardens with only a few people in it, but they are not worth posting.  The images I chose for today’s blog are details I photographed.  This palace as most any Islamic architecture is surely fascinating for its wealth of ornament, geometry, patterns, and textures.

A cup of coffee at the palace was $6 and the total of tickets I need to see the palace – sold in increments for various parts, including an audio guide totaled about $50.  Autsch!

Topkapi Palace has a long history which you’d better fill in through more reliable sources.  It is located next to the Hagia Sophia overlooking both the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea and what is known as the Golden Horn, the Asian side of Istanbul.  If I have time, I will take the ferry out and over there.  But time seems to be an issue – I could not extend my stay at Hotel Peninsula.  They really are totally booked out.  I could not believe it; this is supposedly out of season!  I am sure I could find something else around here or elsewhere, but I did not want to switch hotels but rather build a relationship since I need to store luggage for a month and want to return to a place where people know me and vice versa.

The most ornate part of the palace is certainly the Harem.  If you don’t have time for anything else, than that is where to go.  I could not help but try to imagine the lives of the hundreds of women who were brought here often as children (why would any parent give them up?) and then be trained (what exactly does that mean?) to become concubines.  Only a few rose to the actual rank (what happened to those who did not?) and of those few only the very occasional one actually climbed to the top to bear the next heir.  The mother of the Sultan lived at the Harem and pretty much ruled it.  No westerner has ever set foot into the Harem while the Sultan was in power, except one:  Mary Nisbet.  She is a truly remarkable woman who has almost been forgotten by history:  Wife of the notorious Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, better known as Sir Elgin, the remover of the “Elgin” marbles from Athens.

She is not a goddess, but I will adopt her as my travel companion for Turkey since I left Maat behind in Egypt.  She was a daredevil, accompanying her husband on his journey to the Middle East to serve as ambassador, when that was unheard of for women, certainly of her social class.  She had to rough it at sea, make overland journeys on donkeys and disguise herself in males’ clothes if she wanted to be present at any of her husband’s events.

And she charmed the Sultan to a degree that he could not resist her desire to see the Harem.  He introduced her to his mother!  It was she who obtained the famous and often-questioned furman which allowed Elgin to dismantle the sculptures at the Parthenon in Athens.  And it was her fortune which financed his substantial expenses as an ambassador as well as the hugely expensive operation to transport the marbles to London; one of the ships sank and an underwater rescue operation had to be financed!  When her husband turned on her in suspicion, she had to give it all up, including her children.  She died shunned from society but living at the side of a man whom she loved.  What a story!  Her spirit was at the Harem today along with all those other, less illustrious females who lived behind those walls.

Within the outer courts of the palace there is a church dating from the 6th century just as the nearby Hagia Sophia.  It housed a remarkable small museum full of prehistoric Anatolian artifacts.  But what I learned that was most interesting is that it was never converted into a mosque as every other church was under the Ottomans.  It retains its 6th century authenticity a lot better than its hodge-podge add-o cousin, the Hagia Sophia.  Unfortunately, the church proper was closed to visitors.  The museum is housed in the nearby cloister.  But through a window the brick nave of the church and its simple apse were visible, very much reminiscent of early basilicas one can still see in Ravenna.

The day went, but at night I had a date with Midi from Bangladesh.  Over the last two days during breakfast I had conversations with her.  She is a journalist from Bangladesh who is working on stories about women, particularly women involved in sex trade.  She was on assignment in Italy and just stopped over in Istanbul on her way back.  We had a delightful dinner and I learned a lot from her.  Too bad, she is leaving tonight.  I am glad, our paths crossed.

Good night.

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  1. Just want you to know how much I enjoy these little history lessons that contain fascinating travel adventures as well. I do think that the Elgin marbles should be returned to Greece but know that would be the beginning of an avalanche. Travel safely – there are so many revolutions going on right now in some of the places you plan to visit – some still small but that could change.