Leaving the quiet beauty of the southern countryside, Istanbul seems at first chaotic, loud and busy. We’ve traded ancient marble columns, wildflowers and meandering rivers for grand mosques, ornate churches and Ottoman monuments. Here, we continue our journey, as I lead a group of women to meet with the Divine Feminine on our “Walking with the Goddess in Turkey” tour.
We begin with a visit to the famed Blue Mosque. The dome and interior decoration is awe-inspiring. Thousands of hand-painted Iznik tile give the interior its blue hue.
Just a short walk across the park we come to the Hagia Sophia, “Shrine of the Holy Wisdom”. Originally built as a Christian Basilica, it was constructed between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Later it became a mosque. Now it is a museum.
The massive dome of Hagia Sophia was not duplicated elsewhere for more than 900 years.
The interior is vast – soaring and majestic.
Getting beyond the noise of milling tourists and the various layers of energy, we finally touch the shimmering essence of Sophia.
Lady Wisdom arrives with a distinctive presence.
I feel a rush of air. And, suddenly it is as if I am given wings and the gift of flight.
Sophia is radiant. Pure light.
She is inspiration – the Breath of Creation, the generative force of God.
Her angels are the Seraphim, and stunning mosaics of four Seraphim have been recently uncovered. They fly on the corner supports just below the dome, as if keeping it aloft.
In the Byzantine era, the interior was decorated with expressive mosaics of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, saints and the emperors and empresses of Constantinople. Protected under plaster with the conversion to a mosque, these images have been restored in phases since 1934.
The apse mosaic (and this one over a doorway) depicts Mary on a throne with jeweled pillows. Her body is elongated and the Christ child sits on her lap. In this pose the Blessed Mother is referred to as “The Seat of Wisdom”, a reflection of Sophia.
It is said that marble from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (and elsewhere) was incorporated in the construction of Hagia Sophia. I could not identify any specific pieces, though the Weeping Column and Mary’s doorway (carved with a rosette identified with Artemis, Aphrodite and Ishtar) are possible.
We visit the archaeological museum situated on the grounds of Topkapi Palace.
Among the artifacts, I find statues of Aphrodite, Cybele with her drum and other votive Goddess figurines from the Neolithic and Paleolithic.
From Babylon, there are lions and bulls that once decorated the Ishtar Gate.
We move on to the rest of Topkapi Palace, and are dazzled by opulence. I am stunned by the objects of gold and precious stones – pearls, rubies and emeralds the size of my fist.
Drawn to the harem we take our time in the private quarters of the Ottoman Sultans, the “Favorite Wives” and concubines. So many stories are held here. We linger in the inner courtyards, lavish bedrooms and garden sanctuaries. We are even allowed to peek at rooms closed for renovation.
The wives were well treated, but they were not permitted to go beyond the harem walls. It is called “The Golden Cage” for a reason.
That night, we visit one of my favorite rooftop restaurants in the Sultanahmet district. Food in the city has a bit more elaborate preparation than in the countryside, but it is still simple fare. We enjoy lamb stews, grilled chicken with lemon, lentil soup, salads, couscous with vegetables… and of course wine and Efes beer. Every meal here is a feast for the senses.
In between courses, we can hear the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque.
The next day we visit the Rustem Pasha mosque, the Egyptian Spice Market and the sprawling maze of shops that is the Grand Bazaar.
The spice market is like stepping into another time.
The narrow hallways are noisy, busy and filled with people. Shops line both sides. There is a deluge of scent.
At stall “Number 51” we bargain for cinnamon, cloves, saffron, pepper, cumin and various blends for salads, lamb and chicken.
I buy pistachios covered in honey and sesame seeds. And, luxurious cotton towels and a bar of olive oil soap.
I find wonderful perfume oils and take home rose and amber. Later we go back for oud, an exotic scent from Cambodia that is favored by women all over the Middle East.
Before departing Istanbul, we enjoy a traditional Turkish bath at one of the oldest baths in the city. You’ll have to imagine the setting… Above me, a domed ceiling with star-shaped cut-outs that let in filtered shafts of light. Underneath me, a heated marble slab made smooth by centuries of use. My attendant pours warm water over me. Then, she covers me with soap bubbles, scrubs and rinses. She has practiced hands. The water is a perfect temperature. When she is done, I move to a side chamber. I pour more water over my hair with water scooped from a carved marble basin with old brass faucets. After a time I meet my friends in a room with two hot pools and we spend a while just talking. Then, wrapped in big, soft towels we relax in the cool room, sipping fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. The whole experience is sensual, beautiful and divinely feminine.
The words on our lips as we leave Turkey… “next time…”