Friday, January 18, 2013

The Dolmabahçe Palace and the Whırlıng Dervishes

Last Saturday we visited the Topkapı Palace, where the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire lived and ruled for 400 years, before times began to change through "Westernization." In the 1800s, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire realized that the Topkapı was outdated, both in modern comforts and the style that the Western world favored. Therefore, the Empire's 31st Sultan, Abdülmecid I, ordered that a new palace in the European style be built along the Bosphorus.

Throughout our time here in Istanbul, we have been talking about how this city (and Turkey as a whole) is a crossroads between East and West. Seeing the vast differences between between the two palaces solidified this idea for us further. Although both have their own type of beauty and splendor, the Dolmabahçe was endless stone, countless crystal chandeliers, high-ceilinged rooms, and expensive European furniture compared to the Topkapı's sprawling buildings, shining tiles, and stunning courtyards.

On Monday, we had a splendid view of this new palace from our boat as we took a cruise on the Bosphorus. Getting to explore the inside of the palace, however, was mind-boggling. The palace has a strict security however; only 3500 people are allowed in by appointment each day, they have to follow a red carpet path through the palace, no large backpacks are allowed, and, unfortunately, no photography is allowed either. This is all to ensure the safety of the original furniture and decor on display throughout the rooms.

The palace was built between 1843 and 1856 - it took thirteen years to build because at this time the Ottoman Empire was in a period of financial hardship. Construction had to be stopped several times, and taxes had to be raised more than once as well, making public opinion of the palace less than favorable.

We, however, were more impressed than the public at that time. Although we only saw about 2/3 of it, the palace has a remarkable 286 rooms, 600 paintings, 6 ballrooms, and the world's largest collection of Bohemian crystal chandeliers. There was an audible "woowwwwww!" from our group (okay, maybe it was just me) as we stepped into the largest ballroom, with its huge dome high above us, its chandelier weighing six tons, and its intricately designed columns and walls. One of the most interesting parts of our tour was when we walked through the passageway to the harem, which was up above this ballroom. We got to look down into the ballroom through semi-circle grates just as the concubines would have done when the Sultan hosted parties.

After leaving the palace, we had the opportunity to explore the beautiful gardens a little, and then we returned to the hotel to eat and pack for our travel to Izmir tomorrow. This evening, we reconvened to attend a Mevlevi Sema Ceremony, more commonly known as the Whirling Dervishes. We learned about this ritual and Sufism when we visited the Sufi lodge yesterday, so it was incredible to be able to experience it in person tonight. A common misconception about the Whirling Dervishes is the belief that they are dancing. In fact, this "is a ritual, a spiritual journey which the soul makes to God as it becomes mature and attains unity." The ceremony was accompanied by four traditional instruments and three chanters.

At the beginning of ceremony, the dervishes wear a black coat that represents a tomb, a tall fez (sikke) which represents a tombstone, and a long white garment (tennure) that represents a burial shroud. The death images in the costume symbolize the death of the ego, and taking off the black coat represents leaving this world.

As they begin to rotate, both arms are extended, but one hand faces upward, and the other downward, which symbolizes a transfer of love from God to man. The dervishes spun in this ceremony for over thirty minutes, going into a trance-like state. It was an entrancing experience, unlike anything we've ever seen before.

After an incredible day, we are getting up bright and early to hop over to Izmir. We'll be officially blogging again from Asia!

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