Outside the Sultanahmet is the Hippodrome, where they held horse and chariot races during the Byzantine period. (Think Ben-Hur, killer wheels optional.) Note the carvings on the base of the obelisk portraying the audience at the track.
Today the Hippodrome is a park occupied by vendors selling guidebooks and souvenirs. Do not look interested or even make accidental eye contact—you will end up buying something that you will leave on a table and then throw out when it is encrusted with dust.
“Hello,” said a vendor. I feigned deafness. “Hello!” he called out. I ignored him. “I’m not trying to sell you anything, I just want to ask you how you are,” he huffed. Aha, the guilt approach. I’m still not buying anything.
The 3,500-year-old Obelisk of Thutmose III the Egyptian pharaoh once stood in the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. Around the 4th century, the Emperor Theodosius took it back to Constantinople as imperial loot.
The Hippodrome also had four life-size bronze horses, the Quadriga, which is now in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. The Venetians took it home as war loot. They were supposed to be on their way to the Crusades in 1206, but they ended up sacking Constantinople instead. Very convenient, as Constantinople was their business competitor.
There are many Venetian treasures at the Louvre in Paris. Napoleon’s army took those home as war loot. You could think of history as a series of looting expeditions.
Hagia Sophia was an Eastern Orthodox cathedral during the Byzantine era, a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin era following the sack of Constantinople, and a mosque during the Ottoman era. In the 1930s it was secularized and turned into a museum. Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, but it is a secular state. It has no state religion.
The dome of Hagia Sophia is the fourth largest in the world, and the oldest. Consider the architectural challenge of building a massive dome 1650 years ago. (The TV series of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth starring the lovely Eddie Redmayne as a builder in medieval England goes into some of those problems.)
I think Yeats was referring to this mosaic in Sailing to Byzantium.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
* * * * *
Four hours later I’m at the airport in Izmir, boarding a tour bus to Kusadasi. We stop at Mosaik, a store that sells Turkish delight (local name: lokum) in different flavors, apple tea, spices, wine and olive oil products.
*Blasted wifi, the first draft disappeared.