NAME THAT COUNTRY

Büyükada Island is the largest of a chain of small islands known as the Princes Islands in the Marmara Sea, about an hour by ferry from the country’s largest city, once known as Constantinople. In the 19th century wealthy Ottomans built summer houses here and many of those distinctive wooden mansions are part of the island’s appeal to tourists today. Motorized vehicles are prohibited on the island, which adds to its slow-paced, old-world atmosphere. 

Can you name that county? 
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Istanbul Neighborhoods – Kuzguncuk

Kuzguncuk is a neighborhood in Istanbul on the Asian side of the Bosphorus at the eastern foot of the 1st Bosphorus bridge. It’s directly across the from Ortakoy on the European side and adjacent to Beylerbeyi, home of the Beylerbeyi Palace.

The neighborhood ambles down a leafy valley opening onto the Bosphorus Straight, which separates Istanbul into European and Asian sides. With cobbled streets,  Ottoman houses, and small family owned and operated shops lining the lanes, the atmosphere recalls 19th century Istanbul. An active neighborhood association works to restore and maintain the traditional character of Kuzguncuk, threatened by more profit-oriented urban development.

Historically Kuzguncuk has been peacefully multicultural, with Jews, Christian Armenians and Greeks, and Muslim Turks living and worshipping side by side for centuries. On the Bosphorus shore, a synagogue, church and mosque make friendly neighbors.

Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century settled here and put down roots, but since the establishment of the State of Israel in the mid-20th century, that population has decreased significantly. Two 19th-century synagogues still stand in the neighborhood and there’s a Jewish cemetery, with graves dating to the 15th century.

Istanbul’s oldest Armenian church is here and two Greek Orthodox churches, one of which, Hagios Panteleimon, was first established in the 6th century.

Locally, Kuzguncuk is known for fish restaurants, Bosphorus views and the laid-back charm of simpler days. İcadiye Avenue is the neighborhood’s main street, with galleries, every-day shops, cafes and a community garden. Spend a few hours just wandering. Mingle with friendly shop keepers. Linger over a meal, quite likely organic and grown in a nearby garden.

Beylerbeyi Palace in the next neighborhood makes a good companion to a Kuzguncuk visit.

NAME THAT COUNTRY

Built in the 6th century, this building stood as the largest Christian cathedral for 1,000 years and set the standard for Byzantine architecture. For students of architecture and art history, this place alone is worth a trip to our mystery country. It was dedicated to Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia in Greek. In the 15th century, it was converted to a mosque, hence the Arabic inscriptions in the dome and hanging medallions and the minarets outside. The building has been a museum since 1935. As of this writing, it is the 2nd most visited museum in our mystery country.

Can you name that county? 
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10 Must-See Sites in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The Hagia Sophia is a 6th-century Christian basilica, converted to a mosque by the Ottomans, now a museum. If the word awesome still had meaning, I would use it to describe the Hagia Sophia, temple of Holy Wisdom. It set the standard for Byzantine architecture, though it was 1,000 years before another cathedral surpassed its size. From the outside, it’s a red-orange mountain that seems to anchor the city to the Bosphorus shore. It’s not particularly beautiful but the air of greatness can’t be missed. On the inside, it’s vast and filled with the light of heaven. The massive dome practically floats above the wide-open space below. Interior surfaces are decorated with frescos, mosaics, calligraphy and marble.

 

Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), Istanbul

The Sultanahmet Mosque is just down the way from Hagia Sophia. Together they are like bookends to the Hippodrome (Roman entertainment center). The Sultanahmet Mosque is commonly called the Blue Mosque after the 20,000 hand-painted tiles on the interior walls. It pairs well with the Hagia Sophia, not only in proximity but also as a complementary experience. While Hagia Sophia draws the attention upward, the Blue Mosque induces inward reflection. Hagia Sophia makes me go Wow! Blue Mosque makes me go ahhh. Inside the Hagia Sophia, I feel small. Inside the Blue Mosque, I feel peace. There’s a lot happening on the walls, with all the painted tiles, but the atmosphere is light and serene. Continue reading

Troy

archaeological site of Troy, Turkey

archaeological site of Troy, Turkey

The archaeological site of Troy is located in western Turkey near the convergence of the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles (ancient Hellespont), the strait that connects the Aegean to the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, a strategic location valuable to whomever controls it.

Excavations have revealed 9 main layers of settlement going back 5 thousand years. The Troy immortalized by Homer in the Iliad, which tells the story of the final months of a 10 year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, has been placed in layer VIIa, dated to around 1250 BCE. Scholars generally agree that the Iliad is a fictionalized, mythologized account of an actual conflict, but that the war was most likely over control of the Hellespont and trade access to the Black Sea, rather than the abduction of Helen, the queen of Sparta, as Homer tells it.

Factual or not, the Iliad is full of very human characters and dramatic force that are embedded in the foundation of Western culture and still compelling 3000 years later. Troy is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world, not because of a 3000 year old dispute over territory, but because of the mythical proportions of the characters and events placed there by Homer.

So, that’s what we’re looking at in this post and the previous post, the story of Troy, the people (both mortal and immortal) and relationships that continue to give it life even now, when it physically bears little resemblance to its actual or imaginary self.

When we left off in the last post, the assembled Greek warriors had just set sail for Troy, having purchased good winds with the life of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. They’re headed to get Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, back from Paris, prince of Troy, who took her.

Paris was exceptionally good-looking but not particularly courageous. What made him think he could get away with stealing the wife of a king? Aphrodite, goddess of love, that’s what, or who. I don’t mean in a metaphorical “love will find a way” sense but in a literal sense, at least as literal as it gets in the realm of myth and legend. Here’s the story: Eris, the goddess of discord, was bitter because she was not invited to the wedding party of the hero Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis. Eris was a troublemaker by nature. She took her revenge by tossing a golden apple into the party inscribed with the words “for the fairest.” The apple was instantly claimed by three goddesses – Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, all very beautiful and vain. None was willing to defer to another, so they took the case to Zeus. Zeus was far too smart to get involved, especially considering one of the goddesses was his wife Hera, so he appointed the unsuspecting mortal Paris as judge. The three goddesses appeared before Paris in a field, where he was tending sheep, and lobbied hard for his vote. Hera promised to make him the king of Europe and Asia. Athena offered to make him a great warrior. Aphrodite vowed to give him the love of the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta. You know how that contest ended. Aphrodite was declared the fairest and the fate of Troy was sealed then and there. Not only was Paris about to bring the enmity of Greece down on his city, but the wrath of two goddesses as well. Troy was doomed. But it wouldn’t be a quick and merciful end.

The siege of Troy lasted 10 years. Paris fought for his city but his brother Hector was by far the nobler warrior and man. Considering all the trouble Paris had caused, you can’t blame Hector for being hard on him, which he was, in a brotherly way. Mostly, Hector was busy trying to save the city and his family. Most of Troy called for the return of Helen to Menalaus. Unfortunately, the big softy King Priam supported his son’s desire to keep Helen and treated her as a daughter.

Meanwhile, in the Greek camp Agamemnon and the great warrior Achilles squabbled over Briseis, the queen of a Trojan ally captured in battle, and endanged their cause in the process. Briseis belonged to Achilles and Agamemnon took her, so Achilles refused to fight. He was the Greek’s best warrior and in his absence they lost a lot of ground. After his friend Patroclus was killed by Hector, Achilles returned to the battlefield in a fit of grief, mowing down Trojan soldiers until the river ran red with blood. Eventually he met Hector and killed him.

Greek vase painting of the battle of Hector and Achilles

Greek vase painting of the battle of Hector and Achilles

Greek vase painting of Achilles dragging the body of Hector. photo from www.theoi.com

Greek vase painting of Achilles dragging the body of Hector. photo from http://www.theoi.com

That’s pretty much the end of the Iliad but from other sources we learn about the wooden horse and the sack of Troy. Odysseus, the wily King of Ithaca, devised the plan to hide their best fighters inside a giant wooden horse, leave it at the gates of Troy and sail away. The Trojans fell for this and brought the horse inside. After dark, the hidden Greeks came out of the horse and opened the gates to the entire Greek army, which hadn’t sailed away very far. That was the end of Troy.

replica of the wooden horse, Troy, Turkey

replica or the wooden horse, Troy, Turkey

Greek vase painting of the sack of Troy

Greek vase painting of the sack of Troy

Paris and Hector had been killed on the battle field, along with many other Trojans and allies of Troy, and most of those who survived the siege died in the sack of the city, including King Priam. Agamemnon survived the war and returned to Mycenae only to be killed by his wife Clytemnestra, who hated him for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia. More about that in my previous post. (That family’s tragedy goes on and on.) Menelaus and Helen returned to Sparta.

ruins at Troy, Turkey

ruins at Troy, Turkey

ruins at Troy, Turkey

ruins at Troy, Turkey

 

ruins at Troy, Turkey

ruins at Troy, Turkey

To visit Troy, spend the night in Canakkale, about a 30 minute drive away. Many people find the site disappointing. It does take some imagination, and a good guide, to connect with the history of the place but I wouldn’t miss it, especially if you’re a nerd for the Classics.

Click to see tours that include Troy on our web site.

From Mycenae to Troy

I want to tell the story of Troy, the legendary Troy of Helen and the Trojan War, but first I’ll tell about Mycenae, because it’s important to the back story.

the so-called Mask of Agamemnon funeral mask, found at Mycenae and now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens

the so-called Mask of Agamemnon funeral mask, found at Mycenae and now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens

Mycenae is located in the eastern Peloponnese, about 80 miles from Athens. Some 3500 years ago, it was a powerful presence in the eastern Mediterranean. According to legend, Mycenae was ruled at its peak by Agamemnon, a son of the cursed Atreidae dynasty. He was a deeply flawed character, whose bad decisions perpetuated the kind of bloody family saga the ancient Greeks did so well.

Agamemnon’s ancestor, Tantalus, offended the gods by serving them his own children for dinner and by stealing their famous nectar, ambrosia. Eternal torture for Tantalus was not sufficient punishment for his crimes; his descendants were doomed to lives of violence, betrayal and crushing tragedy.

Agamemnon’s brother was Menelaus. The brothers were married to two sisters, Agamemnon to Clytemnestra and Menelaus to Helen. Yes, that Helen. Before she was Helen of Troy, she was Helen of Sparta, widely considered the world’s most beautiful woman. Helen’s father was the king of Sparta, and when the time came to find her a husband, the royal halls were jammed with suitors. After considering his options, the king decided the least messy way to settle the matter was to draw straws. However, knowing that a few sore losers were inevitable, he first had all suitors vow to support the winner of Helen’s hand if her honor were ever challenged. With that out of the way, straws were drawn. Menelaus won the hand of Helen in marriage and also succeeded his father-in-law as the king of Sparta.

Sometime later, Paris, prince of Troy, visited Sparta, accepted the hospitality of Menelaus, and then ran off with his wife. The real beginning of this story, involving the revenge of a spurned goddess, explains Paris’ audacity, but more about that in my next post. For now, it’s enough to know that Paris either abducted or seduced Helen away to Troy.

ancient pot dipicting the abduction of Helen

ancient pot depicting the abduction of Helen

Agamemnon, the more powerful and aggressive of the Atreus brothers, invoked the oath made by Helen’s suitors, the warrior kings and princes of Greek states, to stand with Menelaus to defend Helen’s honor, and his own. A great war fleet was assembled and set sail, only to get lost and scattered on the way to Troy. Eight years later they reconvened off the coast of Greece and tried to set out again, but the goddess Artemis, who had been offended by Agamemnon, had the ships trapped in the harbor by the wind. With more than 1,000 ships sitting idle, Agamemnon consulted a prophet, who advised him to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, and so he did. Remember I mentioned Agamemnon’s bad decision-making? Well, in the short run, he got what he was after, sailing conditions favorable to advance his war. In the long run, many chapters and more than a decade down the line, he will pay.

Check back next time for the exciting conclusion!

Today at Mycenae, you can see some impressive royal tombs, cyclopean walls (so called because the stones are so large they must have been placed by the one-eyed giant Cyclopes), the grand Lion Gate, and footprints of a palace and associated buildings. Some of the tombs yielded a trove of golden treasure, including the famous and misnamed Mask of Agamemnon, which dates to an earlier period than the Agamemnon we have come to know. The artifacts are not at Mycenae but at the Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Lion's Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Lion’s Gate, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb interior, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb interior, Mycenae, Greece

fresco in the archaeological museum at Mycenae, Greece

fresco in the archaeological museum at Mycenae, Greece

Mycenae makes an easy day trip from Athens or an essential stop on a longer exploration of the Peloponnese.

Click to see our Greece tours that include Mycenae.