Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Roman Istanbul

Friday 16 May 2008

I always like to go to the countries where my books are set to get details about the geography, flora, fauna and cuisine. Many aspects won’t have changed since Roman times and those are the things I’m looking for. I am like a detective, trying to find the past in the present. At the moment I am researching the penultimate Roman Mystery, The Prophet from Ephesus.

On our first day in Istanbul we are taken to the site of the hippodrome, the ancient chariot racecourse. Nothing much is left of it, apart from one or two columns, but there is a nice relief sculpture of important Romans watching the races.

Then our tour takes us underground, to some cisterns below an ancient church. I am in for a treat.

When I was in Alexandria last year, I wanted to see one of the many cisterns that lie below that city, but was told by our tour guide that there weren’t any! This was an Egyptian guide who didn’t even know what lay beneath the city. (Bad Kuoni Tours!) But I have found what I’m looking for here in Istanbul. As in Alexandria, these catacombs have columns and vaulted roofs. There is even an upside down head of Medusa.

Hagia Sofia church, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace are beautiful, too, but there is nothing Roman here.

I slope off early from the Topkapi Palace and I make my own way to the nearby Archeology Museum. There is a peaceful garden here among the sarcophagi and columns, shaded by pines and patrolled by feral cats. In the museum I see some of the best pieces from sites like Miletus, Ephesus and Aphrodisias. One of my favourites is a woman wearing the distinctive Flavian hairdo. (That doesn’t mean her hair is like Flavia’s, it means she lived in the time of the emperoros Vespasian, Titus or Domitian, all of whom had the nomen Flavia.)

The next day we are given an hour in the Egyptian spice market. There are all sorts of goodies for sale, including a man who sells leeches by the jar. Richard buys £30 worth of spices from a dealer who calls himself Al Pacino Turko, the Turkish Al Pacino. He has photos of himself with lots of famous people, like Julio Inglesias and Miss Denmark. So I get a photo, too! I think we could have bought the same spices for half the price in ASDA but I guess it's not every day that your grocer is Al Pacino.

After our tour of the spice market, we take a cruise on the Bosphorus. The following day we drop in on the Sunday service at the Greek orthodox church. I see women writing prayers on scraps of paper. In Roman times people scribbled prayers on paper or cloth or even metal and hung them on sacred trees or left them in the temple of the appropriate god or goddess.

Later, in another service at the Anglican church in Istanbul, the rather formal liturgy is enlivened by a cat chasing a cockroach back and forth beneath the pews.

But the highlight of my time in Istanbul is a visit to a three hundred year old hammam...

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