Monday, May 31, 2010
Topkapi Palace, Jewish Museum and Sufis
Today we toured around Istanbul, which has the most incredible traffic jams I’ve seen in a long time! We visited the Jewish Museum which is located in the Asian section of the city, far off the beaten tourist track, so much so that our driver and guide did not know how to get there and we drove around the section of the city that caters to contractors (block after block of lighting shops and tool shops and machine shops) before we finally located the museum which is on a tiny back street that is only accessible on foot. The museum used to be a synagogue. It was fascinating to learn about the welcoming attitude the Ottoman Empire had to Jews throughout its history. The Jews of Turkey are primarily Sephardim and have enjoyed prosperity and comfort in their years here. Notwithstanding that, they are a tiny minority of modern Turkey. Some of the artifacts in the museum attested to the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Jews in this country as there were Jewish prayer shawls that bore the crescent moon and star symbol of the Turkish culture and even more surprising were the Torah scrolls that are held together by two long rods the top of which are very ornately decorated and there were several scrolls that had the crescent/star symbol on the top of the two posts or rods that the scroll is wound around. It was an amazing show of interfaith understanding and respect going back centuries.
After lunch by the Bosphorus, we went to the Topkapi Palace, the palace of the great Sultans of Ottoman history. That palace is a spectacular place to visit and one could easily spend an entire day just to see it all. We didn’t have that much time. The highlight of that tour is the building housing the religious relics of Islam, including relics of the beard of Mohammad, the tooth of Mohammad, the saucepan supposedly used by Abraham for entertaining guests, the turban of Joseph (Hebrew prophet, not husband of Mary!), and the arm and skull of John the Baptist. In that same building the Qur’an is recited constantly, 24 hours a day so you walk through seeing all these very holy relics and objects while listening to the chanting of the Qur’an. When you go through the room where the person is doing the chanting they have a screen that is scrolling the words being chanted in both Turkish and English, so I spent quite a while in there just listening to the chanting while reading along. I could have stayed much longer, but had to catch up with my group! Alas, photography is forbidden so I couldn’t take any pictures of the beautiful objects we were seeing. A trip through that palace gives one an idea of the extreme wealth of the Sultans of the empire. The jewels and gold and spectacular medals, and carpets and throne hangings and the like are absolutely breathtaking. Apparently during the time of the Sultans, 4000 people lived within the palace enclosure. It was a little city all unto itself. The group photo was taken on one of the verandas overlooking the Bosphorus Strait, on the palace grounds.
During our travels today we ran into a group of high school girls on a school trip. They were an amazing sight as they all had extremely colorful headscarves on and as they approached it was an beautiful kaleidoscope of color. I’ve included a picture of a group of them so you can see the beauty of their attire. It’s amazing how Turkish Muslim women manage to make the most of their “modest” code of dress. They know a lot about color and are anything but dowdy or plain!
This evening we went to the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony and Sufi music concert, which featured Sufis chanting, and the whirling dirvishes doing their dance. That was enchanting. There is something mesmerizing about the dervishes dancing. As you watch it becomes a form of meditation even for the spectator. The chant that accompanies it was a combination of verses from the Qur’an as well as Persian poetry and poetry by the famous Sufi mystic, Rumi.
We are now retiring to the rooftop terrace for dinner where we will once again be able to look over at the Blue Mosque all lit up and hear the last call to prayer for the day.