SEVEN days in ISTANbul – day 6

ON day 6 we decided to wander to the Asian side of Istanbul.  Actually just the fact that this city is situated on two continents is a pretty cool idea. 


We went with a ferry to the district of Üsküdar, one of Istanbul’s oldest established residential areas on the Asian side. Üsküdar has a long promenade along the coast which you can walk from the centre.  You have wonderful views of some of the beautiful palaces and mosques on the European shore. 

The promenade is also lined with cafes and restaurants, with probably one of the most prominent restaurants not on the coast but in the water – Maiden’s Tower.  It is just a small tower off the coast in the Bosphorus strait that has existed since Byzantine times.  It was used as a toll booth, but now it is  an upscale restaurant and even a venue for wedding parties. 


Different legends exist about the tower, its location and how it came into existence.  The most popular Turkish legend is about a sultan who had a much beloved daughter.  One day an oracle (a person who made certain predictions) prophesied that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday.  In an effort to prevent this from happening the sultan built this tower in the middle of the Bosphorus so she would be away from land and thus away from any snakes.  She was placed in the tower and would remain there until her 18th birthday.  She was frequently visited, but only by her father!!  Then on her 18th birthday the sultan brought her a basket of exotic fruits as a birthday gift, delighted that he was able to prevent the prophecy to be fulfilled.  But upon reaching into the basket an asp – venomous snake – that had been hiding among the fruit, bit the young princess and she died in her father’s arms. Hence the name Maiden’s Tower.

Back on European soil we went to have a look at the Basilican Cistern.  This enormous underground cistern (or reservoir) was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian(527-565). The cistern is 140m long, 70m wide and is a giant rectangular structure. Once you have descended the 55 steps you’ll walk into this amazing cathedral-like structure – 336 columns in total, each 9 metres  high.  There are 28 columns  spread over 12 rows.  Some of the columns are solid marble and they are made in the Corinthian or Doric style. The cistern had the capacity to store 100 000 tons of water and during the time it was used, water was brought through over 64km of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea.


Also in this cistern are two Medusa heads used as bases of columns which are actually masterpieces of sculpture art from the Roman Period.  Although it is unsure where these pieces of art came from, they will – unsurprisingly – attract the most visitors.  Researchers in general believe they were brought to the cistern to be used simply as column bases, but maybe not….there are many myths about Medusa.  And they are intriguing….DSCN5406


During the Byzantine period the cistern covered the water needs of the imperial palace and residents living in this area.  It was apparently used for some time after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 when the gardens of Topkapi Palace were watered from this cistern.  But it seems the Ottomans preferred running water to stagnant water and after they installed their own water system they gave up using the cistern water.


Amazingly the cistern was forgotten about for centuries until somewhere in the middle of the 16th century  a Dutch researcher, P Gyllius, came to Istanbul to conduct  research on Byzantine remainders and discovered the cistern again.

Comprehensive renovation work has taken place until as recent as 1987 to restore the cistern and open it to visitors. 

And like those times long ago the cistern is hosting fish again!




PS.  Day 7 and our final day in Istanbul coming up soon….







SEVEN days in ISTANBUL – day 2

Our second day in Istanbul was still on the cultural side.  With our apartment close to city life we were reminded on a daily basis that the major religion in Istanbul is Islam with the adhan prompting Muslims for the five daily prayers.  The calling for prayer at pre-dawn was the one that woke me the first few nights, but its amazing how your body clock can get used to that.  We also had all the windows open, so every sound filtered through… and it was never quiet!

So on our second day we took a bus tour through the city.  I know it is very touristic, but it is just one of these things that when you want to get a picture in your mind of what a city looks like these bus tours are the thing to do. They give you background and give you a systematic lay-out of the city.  On top of that you can hop on and hop off as you like, and maybe just decide to do something else…

So we got on the bus at Taksim Square, because our apartment was close to the Square.  Taksim Square has been in the news since end of May this year because of a peaceful protest over a decision to turn the bordering park into a shopping mall.    Unfortunately these protests have snowballed into something much bigger, calling for the resignation of the Turkish AK ruling party.  At least five people have died because of these protest and the government’s handling of it.  The police presence was impressive when we were there with hundreds of police men deployed standing with shields waiting.  The media presence was also notable with journalists sitting at the different restaurants bordering the square waiting for action… We heard singing and marching a few nights from our apartment, but they all seemed peaceful.


We were tourists in Istanbul and also saw Taksim Square as the leisure district it is with restaurants, wonderful shops and hotels in the heart of modern Istanbul, which we really enjoyed!

Parts of the old city walls or the Walls of Constantinople are very visible from the bus tour.  These city walls were a series of stone walls that have surrounded and protected the city of Constantinople (Istanbul) since its founding as the new capital by Constantine the Great.  The walls were largely maintained intact during most of the Ottoman period until sections began to be dismantled in the 19th century as the city outgrew its medieval boundaries.  Many parts are still standing today.


Other places we saw from the bus tour were the Hagia Sophia Museum, the Topkapi Palace,  the Blue Mosque, the different bazaars and many more monuments and places of historical value.

The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Mosque as called by the Turkish people, was built between 1609 and 1619 with six minarets and blue tiles on its pillars.  According to a story many moons ago ancient sailors recall that when the ships would sail past this mosque on the Marmara Sea, the blue of the sea would reflect on the mosque, that is why is was called the Blue Mosque.  One cannot experience that anymore because so many high buildings have in the meantime been built between the sea and the mosque.  I would think the name derived from the more obvious reason – the blue tiles which are really striking on the pillars, but also when you lift your eyes up to the domes.  It is still an active building so it is closed to visitors during prayer time.




The Hagia Sophia Museum is of great architectural importance as well as an important monument for both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.  It was first a church, then a mosque and now a museum.  The queues were very long when we arrived, so we had to give that a miss unfortunately.


And yes we did fall for the luring into a carpet shop.  What a feast for the eyes – all those colours and textures, carpets rolled up leaning and others stacked against the walls.  The seller  laid some of the carpets out on the floor which showed off their beautiful intricate and elaborate patterns, one more beautiful than the other. 

He knew how to make us feel welcome and offered us delicious apple tea, a winner in the heat of the day.  But we said we’ll think about it….the carpet that is.

And to the Prince’s Islands next….


Things Fell Apart – Chinua Achebe

I recently read about the death of the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, age 82.

It brought me back some years ago when I, being a journalist and coming from South Africa, was asked to be on a panel at an Africa Day here in Ireland.  This specific panel had to discuss the debut novel by Chinua Achebe, namely Things Fell Apart.

This novel which deals with the impact of colonialism in Africa, has sold more than 10 million copies and has also been translated into more than 50 languages.

Interesting that a book written and published in the 1950’s could still be so relevant.

It tells the story of Okonkwo, the tragic hero, who finds it extremely hard to come to terms with changes happening in his tribe, the Igbo tribe.   He is a very important person in his tribe, being a wrestler and warrior, also proud and hardworking.  He doesn’t show any signs of weakness, not emotional, not physical.  But his life falls apart when he, by accident, kills a member of his tribe during some kind of ritual.  Penalty for this means he and his family have to live in exile for seven years.  During this time missionaries and colonial officers from the western world come to his village and introduce their way of life and religion to the villagers.  With Okonkwo’s return to his own village, he finds it a different place.  The end is tragic when he eventually becomes an eternal outcast from his own tribe.

My immediate feeling when I finished reading this book was that it might have been better if no one had interfered with the Igbo tribe’s way of living, no colonial or missionary interference.   But that didn’t happen and in reality it would never have happened.

I remember, we actually had a member of the Igbo tribe on the discussion panel, among other writers and journalists.   This man, who wore the traditional costume of the tribe, said that although the tribe still existed, many traditions had changed, which was almost irreversible.  An example was that in the book it had been described that if a woman gave birth to twins there were severe implications. Fortunately this is not the case anymore. Another tradition was that a warrior of the tribe always wore a crown on his head.  The amount of feathers in his crown would give an indication of the amount of men he had killed.  When asked about this, I remember the panel member chuckled to explain that these days the feathers stood for the amount of cows he had hunted.

The fact that this book is still relevant goes for the fact that most people find it hard to accept changes, culture changes.  Culture is not static, change is unavoidable and people need to adapt and change to accept others into their circle, wherever they live.  In the book Achebe touches on how important it is for people who come from the outside to show respect for people’s culture in order to understand and accept them. Because people usually have a limited view of people of another culture and background, clear communication is key to prevent misunderstanding.

Apparently Achebe deliberately wrote this book in English as he wanted Westerners to read his novel and learn from it.  The book also informs about African cultures and traditions, but is also a reminder to Africans to value their heritage.

Chinua Achebe has won numerous prizes and awards for his work.  Amongst others he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 in recognition of his contribution to world literature.


Talking about Popes

“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict told the public last night.  The 265th Pope is no more the Pontiff.  He was the first Pontiff in 598 years to hand in his resignation out of free will.  He resigned at the ripe age of 85 because he felt he didn’t have the “strength of mind and body to steer the boat of St Peter”, anymore, which I have total respect for.  He is absolutely right.

Also known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a native of Bavaria, he was chosen by his fellow cardinals to be Pope in April 2005.  He followed in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II and was also one of his (Pope John Paul II) closest aides.

So now, just before Easter the Catholic Church is searching for another pope, the Sovereign  of the Vatican City State and the leader of the Catholic Church worldwide.  The Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter the Apostle.

I am not a Catholic myself, but I do live in a country where about 85%  of the population say they are Roman Catholic, although in all honesty I don’t get the idea the people are very devoted.   News regarding the Pope, the Vatican City and Roman Catholic in general does get a fair amount of media coverage though.

However, many moons ago I met a Pope.  It was 1988 and I was  working as a journalist in South Africa for an Afrikaans newspaper.  The then Pope John Paul II was on his way to visit many African states including Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique.  Not South Africa.  It so happened that the aeroplane he was flying with had a faulty engine, so he had to make an emergency landing.  And guess where was the best and safest place for the Pope to land?  South Africa.
Pope in SA

It wasn’t an official visit (he didn’t want to come to SA anyways because apartheid hadn’t been abolished in those days) so he didn’t kiss the ground when he landed on South African ground.  But it was a story of international proportions and the then minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Pik Botha, was in his element.  What a scoop.   He was the perfect host!



On  that day I had to rush to the airport to get pictures and a story and spoke with many of the bystanders, mostly Catholic, who couldn’t believe their, shall we call it, ‘luck’?  Thousands of people heard on the news that the Pope had to make an emergency landing at Johannesburg and they rushed to the airport in the hope to catch a glimpse of the Pope.  A nun told me she shook hands with the Pope, another lady wanted him to bless her prayer beads for peace in the country and many others were just waiting to catch a glimpse of him.

Pope John Paul II, who also visited Ireland (1979), left South Africa later that day and travelled overland to Maseru.  He was Pontiff until his death in 2005.

And while Pope Emeritus Benedict will live his years in quiet contemplation, praying and writing in a monastery within the Vatican walls, the eyes of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide will be on the Vatican City to see when the white smoke will tell a new Pontiff has been chosen.

More than 500 years later….

Isn’t it fascinating how the remains of a king of more than 500 years ago can turn up in a parking lot?  Must be one of the most significant finds in archaeological history – certainly in the British archaeological history.

I think it is amazing how archaeologists have traced a friary where King Richard III was rumoured to have been buried, and which now lies beneath a car park in the town of Leicester, England.  Then they made sure the remains were indeed those of the missing king by having DNA tests done on some living descendants.  Well there was also the curved spine of the skeleton and its ten battle-related injuries to take into account.

According to history Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and was only 32 years old when he died.  He was also only two years King of England, from 1483 until his death in 1485.  After his brother, Edward IV, died Richard was ‘Lord Protector’ of the realm for Edward’s son and successor, the 12-year old Kind Edward V, who was still a minor so he needed a Protector.  Before the young king could be crowned, his father, Edward IV’s marriage to his mother, Elizabeth Woodville, was declared invalid, making the children illegitimate and not entitled for the throne.  That made the brother, Richard III, the king.  Apparently the princes were not seen in public after August 1483 and there were rumours that the boys had been murdered on their uncle’s orders.  But will we ever know the truth?

There is also Shakespeare’s play about Richard III – King Richard the Third, portrayed also by the famous British actor, director and producer Laurence Olivier.  Will this historical find make actors decide to play King Richard less of a villain, less of an outrageous king?  I doubt it.  The fact that Richard III’s remains were found doesn’t change the picture of him in the Shakespeare play.  Also Shakespeare was a dramatist, not a historian, so his play is not based on facts.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard III is severly deformed, as the character Richard, Duke of Gloucester describes it in the opening scene:

I- that am curtail’s of this fair proportion.

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time

Into this breathing world scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them-“ etc

…you almost feel sorry for him!

But not.

The play, believed to have been written in approximately 1592, depicts  Richard’s jealousy and ambition.  He plots to get his hands on the crown no matter what and succeeds – with consequences.

With this find however, I do believe search engines will work overtime with interest in King Richard III, in Leicester, in England, in Shakespeare and everything else related to this.

And maybe he’ll get a belated state funeral, over five centuries late.


The Ninth Symphony

The ultimate in orchestral music – Beethoven’s Symphony No 9.  I listened to this last night again.  It was played by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and conducted by well-known Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Beethoven was a genius.  He was almost completely deaf when composing this, which is extraordinary if you think about it.  He couldn’t hear his final masterpiece played on stage, he could only have heard the melodies in his head.  The incredible moments of extreme stillness moving into climax, from dark moving into light, from minor  moving into major. Even the beginning of this symphony is according to those with knowledge utterly different from all the other eight symphonies Beethoven composed.  And I quote:  “Never before had a symphony begun with pure atmosphere and suspense, in which the composer obscures and then teases with all three basic elements of music – tonality, rhythm and melody – which he deliberately leaves receptive to all possibility.  An open fifth, the most ancient and mysterious interval of music”.

There are many stories surrounding this composer when the Ninth was premiered in 1824.  Apparently Beethoven shared the stage with the theatre’s official conductor, Michael Umlauf.  Umlauf had instructed the orchestra members and singers to ignore Beethoven, seeing that he had made a mess of conducting the dress rehearsal of his opera Fidelio because of his deafness.  So when the audience applauded, Beethoven was still conducting and couldn’t hear.  One of the soloist walked over and turned Beethoven around to accept the audience applause.  They applauded him through standing ovations no less than five times, raised hats and handkerchiefs in the air.  This way Beethoven, who could hear no applause, could at least see their praise and appreciation.

Apparently many famous composers, like Haydn and Shostakovich, have also composed ninth symphonies, but there is only one simply known as The Ninth Symphony.

And then Beethoven’s adding the chorus in the final movement with Schiller’s Ode to Joy.  It is not for nothing also known as the Choral Symphony.  The Ninth has been performed during momentous occasions in the past, including with the fall of the Berlin Wall, to celebrate the country’s reunification, and nowadays it is also known as the anthem of the European Union.

But that is not the end.  The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra who performed this, also has a momentous story.  On their website  it explains that in 1999 Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian literary scholar, Edward Said, – by invitation of the Kunstfest Weimar – created a workshop for young musicians from Israel, Palestine and various Arab countries of the Middle East.  This was to enable intercultural dialogue and to promote the experience of working together on something they all had an interest in – making music together!

They named the orchestra after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s collection of poems entitled ‘West-Eastern Divan’, a central work for the evolution of the concept of world culture.

The Orchestra is now based in Seville, Spain, after the first orchestra workshop was held in Weimar, Germany,  in 1999 when they received over 200 applications from Arab music students.

Both Said and Barenboim’s CV’s are beyond impressive.  They have also received the Príncipe de Asturias Prize for their peace efforts in the Spanish town of Oviedo in 2002.

Despite this Barenboim has said that the Divan Orchestra is not a love or  a peace story.  He has spoken of the ensemble during an interview with the Guardian as follows: “It (the Divan Orchestra) has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago – …create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”

Over the years the orchestra has performed around the world, including Israel and the Palestinian territories. It has an annual summer school in Seville and young musicians from Spain now also take part in the orchestra.

One can only hope that through music they will each realise the people from the ‘other side’ are also just humans enjoying the wonderful act of playing music, of making music together, of expressing the inexpressible.


Céad Míle Fáilte – A hundred thousand welcomes

Well for the first time in the history of the Independent Irish State a reigning British monarch has made an official visit to the green Isle.   Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, visited Ireland for four days (they are leaving today) and there was an enormous build-up around the event.

There were threats from dissident  Republicans (a small minority) who were opposed to the visit of the monarch.  There was also a lot of debating if the Queen needs to apologise for any atrocities been made against the Irish by their British neighbours….  meaning  the Croke Park Bloody Sunday some 91 years ago when 14 innocent Irish people were killed by the British forces.  This apparently was a reprisal after Irish Nationalists (IRA) killed 14 members (undercover agents) of the British Armed Forces the night before.  The Queen wasn’t even born when this happened!

I think she acknowledged the violence that happened in her actions:  by laying down a wreath in honour of those Irish people who died for Irish independence at the Garden of Remembrance.  At the State Banquet held in her honour she said something to the effect that England and Ireland need to work  together to make ‘us stronger’.  She even started her speech with a sentence in Irish which shows her commitment (at the age of 85) to make it work!  She also visited the Irish National War Memorial in remembrance of the Irish soldiers who died during the First World War while fighting shoulder to shoulder with British forces against the enemy.

I have been living in Ireland for more than ten years now and I struggle to understand why there is still this bitterness against the English;  between the Irish and the English?  This is the closest neighbour, not only in distance, but also culturally.  The same language is spoken, they tell and laugh at the same jokes and follow many of the same sports.  And of course there is the minor point about the weather being very similar.

I honestly feel people need to yes acknowledge the past and respect it, but PLEASE move on, stop dwelling on it.  I suppose for many people her visit shows how far relations between Britain and Ireland have come.  I mean isn’t that about time?  Isn’t it time the past needs to be put behind and we need to move on.  And I am not saying this because I am an outsider?  In my home country (South Africa) enormous changes happened when Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990 and the ANC unbanned.  As journalist  I reported on the famous talks between the different political parties to form a new government, to see what route the country should take.  I saw how important it was for everyone to make peace with the past and move on.  You need to close that door before you can move on.  And that was what was done with different commissions (Truth and Reconciliation for one) and the building of certain monuments and museums.  I suppose in the end you need to find it in your own heart to move on.

I am sure the old lady and her prince had a fabulous time.  She visited  the Guinness Storehouse where they were able to taste the famous Irish black stuff (although they didn’t taste it).  Then very close to her heart are horses and she visited the National Stud in Kildare as well as other studs  to have a look at  those beauties (horses).  She also saw the amazing Rock of Cashel (I have been there on numerous occasions!) and Cork’s English Market!

So I am very glad things went smoothly for them.  Maybe she didn’t really get to experience the real Irish friendliness because of the intense security (8000 gardai, 2000 soldiers and 150 armed British police were on duty) so best would be is she comes incognito next time!  Apparently prince Philip did just that in the 1940’s when he was on board a British Royal Navy vessel and sneaked across the Northern Ireland border for a visit to Donegal!