Istanbul Mosaic Museum

Two weeks ago, on one of our children’s days off from school, we headed to Topkapi Palace. The plan was to see the royal jewels armory. When Stephanie and Henry had come in 2010, that room was closed for renovations.

Unfortunately, after dragging the kids all the way from our apartment to the entrance of the palace, we realized that the palace was closed, like it is on every Tuesday of every week. We had forgotten.

The kids, already cranky from being made to go somewhere they did not want to go, were then bribed with some ice cream. And their mood improved. That’s when I remembered that we had yet to visit the Mosaic Museum. It was something Stephanie and I have been wanting to see.

The Mosaic Museum is tucked away not far from the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. It’s located southwest of the Blue Mosque in a small market area with many shops selling scarves, jewelry, carpets, backgammon sets; all of the things you can buy in the Grand Bazaar but the prices are cheaper.


We followed the signs to the museum, entered for free thanks to our Muzekart, and were allowed to marvel at some very old mosaics that were unearthed during excavations in that area of the city. They date from 450-550 AD.




The floor mosaics are enormous.


The kids, made happy by ice cream, found the mosaics to be exciting. Therefore, though I am not a licensed physician or nutritionist, I recommend ice cream to enhance the mood of children.

As a bonus, here are some photos of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. It was such a sunny day it would have been a shame not to take pictures.




Gold Powder and the Galata Tower

Sunday we met a new friend near the Galata Tower. He’s here in Istanbul for a conference. My wife and our friend Banu offered to meet him because we share a mutual friend from our time together at USC.

Before he left the U.S., Viet asked my wife if there was anything he could bring us. My wife said, “pancake mix.”

I have yet to be able to find pancake mix here in Istanbul. I spent an entire morning walking around Nişantaşı trying to find the place that supposedly sells American and Western European products, specifically pancake mix and Mrs. Butterworths or Aunt Jemima syrup. I never did find it. But one of the local supermarkets in our neighborhood sells Vermont Maple syrup for the price of 42 lira (depending on the current exchange rate, about $21 – $22 for a 250 gram bottle), which I paid without hesitation.

Meanwhile, there are places selling waffles on the street and at many Metro stations. But why no waffle mix in the stores?

Viet was kind enough to bring us two boxes of Mrs. Butterworth’s pancake mix, aka “Gold Powder.” We treated him to lunch (at a good restaurant recommended by Banu) and a trip up to the top of Galata Tower.

But Viet is far more than just the provider of our gold powder. He’s an artist, poet, and scholar. Check out his website.

During lunch, Viet’s friend Duyen, an artist who lives in Istanbul, used pieces of napkin to make several pieces of origami for my daughter Meredith.


Meredith is very shy. Though she didn’t thank Duyen (I and my wife did), she did make eye contact, which for Meredith is often the most you’re going to get as someone she has just met. Afterwards, Duyen made this neat package to hold the small pieces so they could be carried home.


The Galata Tower was originally built around 507 A.D., and has served as a fire lookout tower, an observatory, and a place for Christian prisoners. It has suffered through a handful of fires, effectively gutting the interior. The tower now serves as a great place from which to view Istanbul. There is also an over-priced restaurant at the top.

Here’s how the tower looks in Istanbul from the western side of the Golden Horn.


Here’s a how it looks up close.


Here’s how it looks when you’re waiting in line.


I’m betting an experienced rock climber would have no problem scaling the tower. I’d pay to see that.

The elevator ride to the top of the tower is quick and smooth. You barely realize you’re moving.

It was Sunday, so it was crowded on the outside platform.


It also didn’t help that these Turks were creating a traffic jam by stopping to write graffiti on the tower itself.


Banu told these assholes that they were damaging the tower and their own history. They told her that other people have done it so what’s the big deal. Teh Stupid is everywhere.

Here is what we saw from the top of the tower.






Meredith made it all the way around the top with me and Banu. Henry was out there for a short while before my wife Stephanie took him inside and then out of the tower. As I’ve said before, he’s not a fan of heights. When we met them afterwards in the square, he was happily playing Minecraft on my wife’s iPad Mini.

The following morning, my wife mixed some of the gold powder with water and we had our first pancakes since leaving the U.S. The kids left for school in by far the happiest morning mood they’ve had since we arrived in Istanbul.

We Get To Be Tourists and I Get to Wear a “Skirt”


I asked before we left the hotel Sunday morning if shorts were okay while visiting the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet). My wife assured me that they were. I consulted our travel guide and it said nothing about clothing. My wife wore jeans and brought a scarf so she could cover her hair.

There’s a tram that stops right in front of Sultanahmet and the Hagia Sophia. The stop is called “Sutlanahmet.”

Sultanahmet was built under Sultan Ahmed I in 1616. It’s been called the “Blue Mosque” because of the blue tiles that decorate the walls of the interior. It is still a working mosque and there are separate entrances for visitors and those who are there to pray. During times of prayer, visitors are not allowed inside.

Near the entrance we were directed to take off our shoes and provided small plastic bags in which we were to place them and carry them with us.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Henry.

There followed a conversation between our son and Steph and I as we tried to explain that what might seem weird to him makes perfect sense to others. That some of the things he believes in his religion might seem weird to others.

This is the boy who not even two nights before said there should be a God of the Birds and a God of the Sun.

“Sometimes you have to follow the rules even if you don’t understand them,” I said.

A woman nearby repeated what I said in an American accent and chuckled.

“Do I sound like a parent?” I chuckled back.

“A very good one,” she said and I thanked her.

In addition to taking off our shoes, I was told to cover my legs and handed a blue wrap that fastened with velcro. I kept wrapping it around and had to adjust it because it was definitely made for someone with a more substantial waist.

Meredith thought it was funny that I was wearing a skirt. Henry felt bad for me. They both wore shorts and were not required to alter their clothing.


I think the color suits me. Though the blue clashes with the blue T-shirt I happened to be wearing, and the skirt makes my big floppy feet look even bigger and more floppy than they normally do.

The day before, Meredith was sitting next to me on a bench in Gezi Park while Henry played. She looked at my legs and said, “You need to shave your legs.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because there are a lot of long hairs on them.”

I don’t consider myself to have very hairy legs. I can’t even grow a credible mustache or beard. But clearly my daughter thinks I ought to shave my legs because mommy does.

None of my pictures inside the enormous mosque came out. Here’s one of the bad pictures I took.


Eventually, I’ll just buy a book of photos done by a professional who was given unfettered access to the place to take the most beautiful pictures possible.

After the mosque we ate a delicious lunch here.


The kofte (meatballs) were very good and so was Steph’s salad. (I have yet to eat a bad tomato here. They all taste like our heirloom tomatoes.) But the chorba (lentil soup) was the standout dish. I scarfed it down quickly. Meredith ate rice, and Henry ate a peanut butter sandwich we had made before we left the hotel. We had a dessert of ice cream from a stand outside.

Then we went to the other big building: the Hagia Sophia. It was built under Emperor Justinian in 537. For over 900 years it served as a Greek Orthodox church. Then Istanbul was conquered by Fatih Sultan Mehmed and it was converted to a mosque. Under Ataturk it was converted to a museum in 1935.

Like the Blue Mosque, the pictures don’t do it justice and I’ll end up buying a book done by a professional photographer who was given unfettered access. Up top you can see the 9th century mosaic of the Virgin and Child (aka “Madonna con Bambino” for those who’ve been to Italy).


In addition to the sheer enormity of this 1500-year-old structure are several mosaics. Sadly, many were removed when it was converted to a mosque.


Here’s one of Jesus between Mary and St. John the Baptist.


Here’s another of “Jesus Christ Enthroned” with Empress Zoe and Constantine IX from the 11th century.


After visiting the mosaics on the upper floor, we called it a day and took the tram back to the funicular which we took up to Taksim Square, where we saw lots of police in riot gear. They had apparently broken up a Peace Chain. We didn’t know that’s what had happened until after we read about it on the Internet inside our hotel room.