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Turkish treasures: exploring Istanbul with Friends of the RA

Published 10 December 2014

The RA’s Courtney Cooke joins one of our Worldwide Art Tours, created specially by our travel partner Cox & Kings for Friends of the RA.

  • Istanbul, the former ‘Eastern Rome’, or medieval city of Constantinople, has always been one of my dream destinations, so when I was offered the opportunity to travel there with a group of Friends of the RA, I jumped at the chance.

    Cox & Kings tours are well known for the high quality of their lecturers and this trip was no exception. Our group was guided through the maze of history by Dr William Taylor (an Anglican priest, chairman of the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association, and writer on the Islamic world and Orthodox churches), as well as one of the most experienced local guides in Istanbul.

    Examining Istanbul’s Ottoman and Byzantine treasures, Dr Taylor gave a fascinating overview of the city’s turbulent past, its ideological conflicts, and how these influenced religious art and architecture. From the miniscule medieval St. Mary of the Mongols Church, which lay nestled in a tiny outcrop high above the city, and the unrivalled mosaic work at the church of St. Saviour at Chora, to the astonishing 6th century architectural masterpiece Hagia Sophia, the destinations we visited were expertly chosen to reflect this ever-changing city. Visiting a mix of devotional buildings allowed us to trace the development of religious art, and the influences that led to the unique mixture of Eastern and Western art so evident in this fascinating city.

  • As Istanbul is surrounded by sea, a boat ride to the charming Princes’ Isles helped our group to fully appreciate the city’s position, surrounded by the Sea of Marmara. The monasteries and churches housed in the island’s peaks are only reachable by horse and cart, and thanks to Dr Taylor, our group had the privilege of privately visiting the Church of St. Nikolaos and the Greek Orthodox Seminary, whose status as a seminary has been under threat from the Turkish government.

    It is simply impossible to go to Istanbul and not visit the magnificent Topkapi Palace, the monument to the Ottoman sultans, built by Mehmet II between 1459 and 1465. The treasury is home to a wealth of glittering jewels that rival the ‘Arabian Nights’, and the palace also houses an equally priceless complex dedicated to the display of relics belonging to the prophet Muhammad, including his tooth, beard and holy mantle, which I felt awed and humbled by.

    But the undoubted highlight of the trip was a visit to Hagia Sophia at night – a truly breathtaking experience. Arranged exclusively for Cox & Kings, our group had the opportunity to explore one of the world’s greatest triumphs of art and architecture on a completely private basis. Often mistaken for a mosque, Hagia Sophia was originally built as an Orthodox church, and has been used by worshippers of many religions throughout its 1500-year history. It is now a dedicated museum. Standing under the cupola and hearing the echo of my own voice around me was an extremely special moment.

    What I will take from my trip is just how well Istanbul wears its history. Shoppers still throng the spice market, worshippers still pray to Allah in the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar’s stall-holders and customers continue to haggle. Our final night’s Ottoman banquet (purportedly the menu eaten at the circumcision ceremony of the son of Sultan Mehmet II) gave me a chance to celebrate all that I had discovered. We toasted our guides, and drank heartily to Istanbul’s vibrant future.

    To find out more about the RA’s worldwide art tours, visit the Cox & Kings website.

    Courtney Cooke is the RA’s Friends Events Coordinator.