Seven Tips To Travel Ethically in Italy

The Fontanamaro agriturismo in Umbria, Italy...ethical travel isn't sooo bad.Every time you travel, you have an impact on your destination.

As much as we avid travelers like to think to the contrary, that's not always a good thing. Your waste is now your destination's waste, your carbon footprint its carbon footprint. The choices you make of what to eat and buy can commercialize the agricultural systems and undercut the artisanal production of your destination. The list of potential harms goes on — which is why "invasive tourism" is such a risk for cities and sites worldwide.

That's as true for top destinations in Italy as it is anywhere else. Just recently, the head of the Vatican Museums announced that the 20,000 or so daily visitors to the Sistine Chapel are damaging the frescoes with their dust, sweat, and carbon dioxide. Ruins are deteriorating, artisans' shops closing down, and the center is commercializing — thanks to lots of global forces, not least of all tourism.

Luckily, though, with just a little forethought, you can travel ethically. And you have the power, both with your pocketbook and the other choices you make, to preserve that art, support that culinary tradition, and help those people you like so much.

Here, just a few easy things you can do to make sure that you're helping — not harming — the places in Italy (and elsewhere!) that you love visiting.

1. Never, ever touch the frescoes. Or paintings. Or sculptures. Or tapestries. The number-one way to harm most art is to touch it, transferring the natural oils from your skin onto its surface. That wears everything away from paint to bronze.

For proof, just check out the corners of doors, say in the Vatican's Borgia apartments, that have been frescoed; because these are easy to grab as you go down a hall, they're usually almost entirely worn away. Or check out the medieval bronze statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica. Hundreds of years of pilgrims kissing and touching its right foot have — you guessed it — worn away the right foot. So please, if you like art, stand and gaze at it. But never, ever touch it.

Be careful with that camera flash, too — it damages cloth and tapestries, as well as some painting. Always be sure it's okay before the bulb goes off.

2. Eat only foods in season. When tourists demand out-of-season products, like artichokes in November, that either forces Italy to import the food in question (that Roman artichoke isn't so Roman, and isn't so "green," if it's from France!), or screws up local agricultural rhythms and the environment as farmers try to adapt to commercial forces. Be aware: Learn what you can, and can't, expect to be in season where you're going. For a quick read-over of what is in season when you're visiting Italy and other tips on how to eat responsibly when traveling,  check out Katie Parla's excellent tips for how to be a conscientious eater.

Fiori di zucca pizza at Da Francesco, RomePizza with fiori di zucca at Da Francesco, Rome? That's something you should only be eating between July and November…

3. Don't buy plastic water bottles. Yes, they're everywhere. Yes, Italians buy them, too. But the effect is terrible. In the Cinque Terre each August alone, 400,000 plastic bottles are found littering the park and its beaches. Venice, which manages 20 million visitors each year, gets trashed with 13 million plastic bottles. And even if you dispose of your plastic bottles properly, remember that that waste has to go somewhere in Italy. (If you're in Naples, of course, that garbage might just stay there).

Italy is taking steps to eradicate the problem: The Cinque Terre banned plastic bottles this past September. From now on, visitors will have the option to buy a 1 euro metal bottle and to refill it at the park's fountains. But for areas of Italy that haven't yet legislated the matter, do the same. Buy a glass or metal bottle and refill it. That's especially easy in Rome, where there are 2,500 nasoni spewing cold, fresh water around the city.

5. Walk, or use local transportation. Italy's cities are great for walking. But if you have to get somewhere faster, take the metro or bus. It's much "greener" than individual taxis — and cheaper and pretty easy to use, too. 

6. Stay in agriturismi. They're super-cheap (think €30 to €50 per night), in every destination you could possibly want to visit in Italy, usually in beautiful settings, and they often include a home-cooked meal with ingredients all harvested or slaughtered right there. (Now that's hyperlocal).

Agriturismo near Siena, ItalyTypical Tuscan agriturismo: the Agriturismo Sant'Apollinare

Sound too good to be true? It's not. There are few more-rewarding places to stay overnight than an agriturismo, or "farm stay." And far from the slightly-backwards, eating-in-the-kitchen-with-the-farmer's-family image the word sometimes conjures, nearly every agriturismo I've stayed at has been beautiful and clean, with super-friendly but not-obtrusive owners. Some even go up to the "luxury" scale, like the beautiful Fontanaro agriturismo in Umbria (pictured at top of page). It's got a pool and gorgeous villas — but makes all its own wine, honey, and olive oil, too.

Olives from Fontanaro, an Italy agriturismoOlives at Fontanaro, Umbria

Since many  agriturismi don't even have websites, one of the best ways to find them is simply to type "agriturismo" into Google Maps for the destination you're looking for. You'll be surprised at just how many crop up.

6. Try to limit your air travel. Flying back and forth from Europe to the U.S. emits three to four tons of carbon. That's more emissions than 20 people living in Bangladesh will cause in a whole year. To reduce that impact, take trains, ferries or other transport whenever you can. Consider purchasing a "carbon offset" for your flight, and try to make fewer, longer trips rather than short journeys.

7. Think before you buy. Obviously, that's true with every purchase you make, whether at home or abroad. When you buy a scarf from a Rome vendor that was made in China, your coins vote for outsourcing; when you buy handmade leather gloves in Florence, you vote for local artisans.

Be aware, too, that not all local products are necessarily "ethical." I posted several weeks ago about the coral industry on the Amalfi coast. Yes, buying a coral necklace supports local jewelry-makers, but it supports the destruction of the coral reefs, too. Decide what's important to you — but try to be aware of the local issues, both cultural and environmental, first.

 

 

Continue Reading

Siena: A Gem of the Tuscan Countryside

Siena at night, Tuscany, Italy

Less than three hours from Rome, the city boasts some of Italy’s best medieval and early-Renaissance art and architecture, winding stone streets, beautiful views of the Tuscan countryside, and a breathtaking duomo. And no, it’s not Florence. It’s Siena.
View of the Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany(Warning: I think Siena’s so darn lovely, there may be photo- and gush-overload ahead).

One of Italy’s strongest city-states by the Middle Ages, Siena today still appears much as it would have at its height in the 13th and 14th centuries. But while merely wandering around could keep you occupied for a full day, the city has a great deal of things to do jam-packed into its medieval walls, particularly for art and architecture lovers. And since the city reached its height so much earlier than Rome, Siena’s style is a nice antidote to Rome’s Baroque glory.

One of Siena’s can’t-miss sights is the Duomo. It took my breath away — and that’s saying something for someone who’s lucky enough to live in Rome and see St. Peter’s Basilica several times a week. Built from the 13th to 14th centuries, the list of those who contributed to the cathedral reads like a who’s-who of Italy’s most influential artists: Michelangelo, Donatello, Bernini, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Baldassare Peruzzi, Pinturicchio and, perhaps, even Raphael. Wow.

Duomo of Siena

Unsurprisingly, the result is a triumph of every kind of art. Take the floor alone: The floor boasts 56 different panels of marble inlay, depicting sibyls, Old Testament scenes, allegories, and virtues. You could easily spend an hour simply admiring and puzzling out the scenes at your feet. And that’s just the floor. (If you want to see this, keep in mind that the cathedral’s floor is uncovered for only part of the year, usually a month or two starting in September, so check in advance.)

You can’t miss the Piccolomini Library, either, almost the Duomo’s version of the Sistine Chapel for its vibrancy and incredible story-telling through beautiful scenes (below).

Piccolomini Library, Duomo of Siena, TuscanyBut once you’ve done that, you’re not even done with the Duomo yet. That’s because there’s still the baptistery (boasting a baptismal font with reliefs by Donatello, Ghiberti, and Jacopo della Quercia, among others), and the Museo del’Opera del Duomo, with such gems as Duccio’s famous Maestà (1308–1311).

Even more incredibly, there’s the narthex underneath the current Duomo. Part of the even older cathedral that had been on this spot first, it was discovered and excavated only ten years ago. The 13th-century frescoes from the then-entrance of the church are still incredibly vibrant.

Seriously: Go to Siena for the Duomo alone.

But the city boasts lots of other gems, too. There’s the Palazzo Pubblico, the late 13th- and early 14th-century palace built as the seat of the city’s republican government, which boasts room after room of medieval and Renaissance frescoes, including the famous frescoes of good and bad government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338-1340 (below, the allegory of good government). Effects of Good Government, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Tuscany

There’s also the Pinacoteca Nazionale, with its collection of beautiful medieval and Renaissance paintings. And there’s the Piazza del Campo, the world-famous scallop-shaped central square where the equally-famous Palio of Siena is held.

All of those gems, though, mean that you won’t be the only traveler in Siena. It’s no Rome or Florence (yet), but still, if you’re heading there from spring to fall, expect massive tour groups. This also means it’s a little tough to find, say, classic, non-touristy Tuscan restaurants (although we managed). But the sheer beauty of the city’s offerings is worth it.

You can get to Siena by car or train. Driving from Rome will take about 2 hours, 45 minutes. There’s no direct train, but even with the change, the train takes only 3 hours; to check the Trenitalia schedule, click here. It’s doable for a day-trip, but to be able to see everything Siena has to offer, plan at least two days there.

*The photograph of the allegory of good government comes via the Web Gallery of Art. All other photos mine.

Continue Reading

Going to the Amalfi Coast? Please, Don’t Buy the Coral

Coral jewelry sold in Sorrento, Amalfi coast, Italy
After visiting the Amalfi coast this week, I was struck by the amount of coral jewelry being sold — and the number of tourists buying it. It didn't seem as if anyone else saw signs like that above, proudly proclaiming "Genuine Coral," as a problem. But it is.

Why shouldn't you buy (genuine, unfarmed) coral, whether from the Amalfi coast or elsewhere? Let's count the ways.

1. It's not even from the Mediterranean. Most visitors seem to think that the coral making up those pretty blue, red, and pink necklaces comes from the Bay of Naples. But at least two-thirds of coral jewelry sold  on the Amalfi comes, instead, from the Pacific. Why? Because the Mediterranean is already largely depleted of its reefs… thanks to overfishing. And while the Pacific currently has more coral, its resources are quickly running out, as well. 

2. Coral is not a rock, or a plant. It's an animal. Coral is alive — at least, before it's fished. It belongs to the same animal group as jellyfish and sea anemones. Each single animal is called a polyp; together, these polyps make up a colony. They excrete calcium carbonate for protection, which makes up their exoskeletons. So what you are wearing around your neck is, literally, the skeleton of these creatures. (Yuck).

3. It's an animal that supports a full 25 percent of other ocean animals. More than 4,000 species of fish alone depend on coral, living in and among its handy nooks and crannies and feeding on the other creatures that live there. Coral reefs make up the world's richest and most diverse type of marine habitat. And they provide the backbone of a whole ecosystem that, without them, can't exist.

Think of coral reefs like a rainforest: If you wouldn't buy the harvested wood of an endangered tree that supported 25 percent of all rainforest animals, don't buy coral.

A thriving coral reef
4. Coral reefs are pretty important to people, too. They naturally protect coastlines from storms, erosion, and tsunamis; they provide millions of people worldwide with the fish that they rely on for meals. An estimated 500 million people worldwide require coral reefs for their livelihoods.

5. To get the coral, many Mediterranean harvesters still use dredging. That's illegal. Dredging, which means dragging nets along the seabed, takes absolutely everything in its path. Once dredged, coral reefs simply don't recover. They're deader than dead. The practice has been banned in the Mediterranean since 1994, but it's still done.

6. All of that important coral is disappearing. Fast. In the Mediterranean, red coral harvests have plummeted by 66 percent from 1985 to 2001. That's not because jewelers have turned to more sustainable practices; it's because hardly any coral is left. Worldwide, one-quarter of reefs are irreparably damaged, while another two-thirds is at serious risk of being lost.

I've scuba-dived in damaged reefs before, and there's no overemphasizing just how big the difference is between a dead reef — white, abandoned, without a single living thing — and a live reef, teeming with colorful fish and plant life. It's heartbreaking to think that 25 percent of reefs that were healthy just several decades ago have now slipped into the former category.

7. Once it's gone, coral ain't coming back, at least anytime soon. It takes a coral reef an entire year to grow from 1 to 3 centimeters horizontally and 1 to 25 centimeters vertically. And, of course, that growth can only happen in an area that's being undisturbed by practices like trawling. That means the coral reefs in existence are pretty old; the Great Barrier Reef, for example, started growing 20,000 years ago.

The reasons to think twice before splurging for coral go on and on.

Yes, it's worth keeping in mind, too, that the coral fishers and jewelers in the Amalfi depend on coral for their livelihoods. And it is a practice they've been following for hundreds of years. But before millions of tourists visited the Amalfi coast every year, the demand simply wasn't there for coral on the same level it is now. So the trawling wasn't at the same level, either. Many reefs still thrived. Not today.

So while my heart goes out to those who say they have to harvest coral to put food on the table, it's those workers, too, who might want to invest in more sustainable practices. Because at this rate, they'll all be out of a job in twenty years.

So please: Don't buy the coral. If you're looking for a souvenir from Sorrento or Positano, go for that limoncello instead.  

Positano, Amalfi coastYou can find a better souvenir of your time in Positano. How about a pretty picture instead?

For more information and to see what else you can do to help, check out:

Reef Relief, a nonprofit devoted to saving the world's coral reefs

Miss Scuba's article on the different types of coral and how coral harvesting is harmful

The Earthwatch Institute's section on coral reefs

The resources and information at the Coral Reef Alliance

 *Photo of coral reef in center of article taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Continue Reading

On Tuesday Nights, Free Art Across Italy

DSC_0162
Just in case all of the fun events and free entrances on European Heritage Day (September 25-26) weren't enough for you, mark the last Tuesday of the month in your calendar, too.

That's because, on the last Tuesday each month through December 28, a series of state-run museums and sites will have late openings and free entrances. It's called "Martedi in Arte" and takes place across Italy. In Rome and Lazio, the following sites will be open from 7pm-11pm and will be free:

  • Palazzo Barberini, with its reopened archaeological exhibit, Via Quattro Fontane 13
  • Pantheon
  • Borghese Museum
  • Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Viale delle Belle Arti 131
  • Baths of Diocletian, Via Romita 8
  • Crypta Balbi, Via delle Botteghe Oscure 31
  • Museo Nazionale Romano and Palazzo Massimo, Largo di Villa Peretti 1
  • Palazzo Altemps, Via di S. Apollinare 44
  • Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo, Lungotevere Castello 50
  • Villa d’Este, Tivoli (shown above)
  • Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli
  • Necropoli, Strada Provinciale Monterozzi Marina, Tarquinia

To see which sites will be open elsewhere in Italy, check out this list on MiBAC's site (in Italian, but pretty self-explanatory).

Continue Reading

One Kilometer Above Cappadocia, Only Air In Between

  DSC_0211

This post isn't strictly about Istanbul. Or Rome. But it is about hot air balloons.

And who doesn't like hot air balloons?

(Well, except for those with height phobias. Or small bladders. But still.)

I was given a very special present for a particularly big birthday: a hot-air balloon ride in Cappadocia.

A remote region in central Turkey known for its fantasy-world rock formations and unique cultural sites (including underground cities, churches, monasteries and homes carved into the soft rock, sometimes with frescoes dating back as early as the 4th century), Cappadocia also happens to be the place in Turkey to go hot-air ballooning. Rock formations of Cappadocia, Turkey

While the vast majority of travelers book with big companies like Kapadokya Balloons, we decided that for an experience this once-in-a-lifetime, smaller and more-tailored would be better. Horror stories were rife of 25 or 30 people being packed into a balloon basket, and we didn't want to be among them. Not to mention that Kapadokya Balloons had had an accident last year and one man, a British scientist, was killed.

Enter Butterfly Balloons. The company promised no more than 12 people in one basket, 16 in the other (it runs only two balloons), and, with its higher price, a higher-quality experience.

It definitely delivered.

Like those flying with almost all of the companies, we had to get up before sunrise for our 5:15am pickup. Why so early? Because the wind conditions are (usually) perfect in the early morning — and the weather is still cool, so you don't bake in the sun. We ate breakfast at the company's office as the others straggled in; the two pilots, Mike and Mustafa, hurried around in their pilot uniforms, exuding an air of calm amidst their clients' nervous anticipation.

Coffee downed, it was off to the launch site. We drove to a remote valley and watched the sun begin its rise over the mountains as the two balloons were readied. In the distance, more than a dozen other balloons all were being pumped up, side by side. Alone in our valley, our flight seemed extra-special.

Waiting for take-off in Cappadocia, Turkey

Mike manning the hot-air balloon in Cappadocia, Turkey
After an awkward, grappling climb into the basket, and some noisy firing-up, we were off.

There's nothing quite like the sensation of feeling where your feet just were float away beneath you — and knowing that there's absolutely nothing between you and the ground, not even a big tube of metal that most reasonable people somehow trust to rocket them through the air.

After ten minutes, we were a kilometer high. All of the monumental rock formations, the fairy chimneys, the canyons, the Goreme Open Air Museum, seemed like toys. The sky turned strawberry-milkshake pink behind the line of volcanoes. Farther I could see the other balloons, 20, 30 of them, rising into the sky. Hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

And I could see that many of those balloons were, indeed, packed. But I found myself with tons of room — to shift around, take pictures, look about, nobody in the way. As if that didn't sell us enough on this particular company, it turned out that Mike, a veteran pilot, had worked for Kapadokya Balloons for years; he left after last year's accident, frustrated both by the tragedy and by how the company didn't seem to be learning from the crash or improving its procedures. Go figure.

We were in the air for about an hour and a half, floating up and down, "playing" (as Mike called in) in the canyons and dips of the land, coming so close to the ground that, twice, we scraped past trees, leaves shaking off into our basket. And then, with the sun already high and the other balloons dropping from the sky, one by one, like particularly fat snowflakes, it was time for us to land. Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

I'm not sure if I'll ever return to Cappadocia. But if I ever know of anyone going there, I'll tell them two things: The hot-air balloon ride is worth it. Do it with Butterfly Balloons.

Oh, and use the bathroom before you go. Once you're in a basket in the air, there's absolutely nothing you can do.

You might also like:

The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul

Can't Get to Rome Right Now? How About to L.A.?

Rome's Most Cutting-Edge Ancient Site

Continue Reading

The Hagia Sofia: Roman Ruin, and Symbol of a City

Interior of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

There’s a reason why the Hagia Sofia is so
evocative of all of Istanbul: It’s a microcosm of the city's entire history, from Roman origins to Ottoman Islam to today’s (relatively) secular
nationalism. 

DSC_0235The site initially held an ancient temple, some remnants of
which remain in the current structure — like the dolphin design on the column to the right. The first Christian cathedral was built
on the site in 360 A.D.; it was rebuilt twice, both times after being destroyed by riots. (To see what the older Hagia Sofia(s) would have looked like, check out Byzantium 1200's digital reconstructions).

The current
building, which dates back to 537, was the largest church in the Roman empire. It also remained the biggest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium, beat out only by
the Seville Cathedral in 1520.

In 1453, with Constantinople’s seizure by the
Ottomans, the Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque. And in 1935, at the height of Turkey’s
secularization under Ataturk, it became a museum.

See what I mean about it being a microcosm of Istanbul — and Turkey — in general?

You could write a book on the Hagia Sofia. (Many have). But among the many treasures not to miss are
its gorgeous Byzantine mosaics, which date back as far as the 9th century. Also
make sure you check out the seraphim (above) who was only recently uncovered: Although
his three compatriots are still plastered over, his face was revealed this year after
being hidden for centuries by the Ottomans.

Coronation disk of the Hagia Sofia, IstanbulFor a clear tie to the city of Rome, meanwhile, look no further than the gray granite disk set into the floor, on the right of the middle of the church (left). Placed here by Justinian in the 530s, this is where the Byzantine emperors knelt to be crowned as early as 641. If you've visited St. Peter's Basilica, you know that the Roman basilica boasts a similar disk in red porphyry; that's the rota porphyretica, set into the old St. Peter's Basilica and the spot where the pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. The similarity in the two stones is no mistake. Charlemagne was setting himself up in direct opposition to the "other" successors to the Roman empire, the Byzantines, and by crowning him, Pope Leo III was showing that the papacy had wriggled from Byzantine control and was choosing the Holy Roman Empire as its protector instead. It's also no mistake that the St. Peter's Basilica disk is red porphyry, a precious stone that "one-upped" its sister stone in the Hagia Sofia. (Take that, Byzantines!)

On a broader, architectural note, of course, it's no surprise that the Hagia Sofia looks — almost — reminiscent of that seemingly divinely-inspired building in Rome: the Pantheon. Both structures innovated in setting a circular dome on a square, rather than circular, shape. And both awed contemporaries by building domes on such a large scale: The Hagia Sofia's original dome, which collapsed in 559, was thought to be slightly bigger in diameter but shallower than the current one, built in 563. Even so, the Hagia Sofia's dome today is 102 feet in diameter — just 40 feet smaller than the Pantheon's. (Check out the difference between the two in the images, below).

Don't miss the garden of the church, either. There, in an unassuming tumble that reminded me of abandoned bits of column in Rome's Forum, lie several marble blocks from the second church, dating back to 415. The most striking among them depicts twelve lambs, each symbolizing one of the twelve apostles. Many more remnants of the ancient church remain in the area — but they're still buried underneath the ground, excavations ending in the 1930s after it was realized that continued work could harm the current structure.

Even without that, though, there are enough treasures in the Hagia Sofia to keep a history or archaeology geek satisfied — and maybe a little bit awed.

Dome of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
Dome of the Pantheon, Rome

Continue Reading

The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul: Part II

Hagia Eirene, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

We've got the basilica cistern and the Hippodrome, the Column of Constantine and the Valens Aqueduct. But there are other not-to-miss ancient Roman (or Byzantine) sites in Istanbul, too. Below, three others not to miss — and one more (perhaps the most major!) coming tomorrow.

5. Walls of Constantinople. One line of fortifications was
built by Constantine in the fourth century; a second row of walls was added by
Theodosius II in the fifth century. Although they saved the city from some eleven
invasions, they couldn’t withstand the invention of gunpowder and the Ottoman
conquest of 1453. Remnants of both the walls remain visible along their
original lines. (To see what the walls would have looked like, check out the great reconstruction done by Byzantium 1200).

2nd-century AD Roman sarcophagus, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul6. Archaeological Museum. If you're searching for antiquities in Istanbul, there's no missing the Archaeological Museum. One of the world's preeminent archaeological collections, the museum is replete with some 60,000 artifacts from a swath of ancient empires, from Greek to Egyptian, Phoenician to Hittite — and yes, Roman too. Some of the stars of the Roman collection include a series of beautiful sarcophagi, including this tomb with elaborate carvings of the story of Phaedra-Hippolita, dating to the second century A.D. (left).

The museum's absolute show-stopper, though, is a Hellenistic piece: the Alexander sarcophagus. Because photos simply don't do it justice, I considered not posting one. But to give you an idea of what the piece looks like, here's just one detail of part of the sarcophagus. Seriously, though: This is something you have to see in person.
Alexander sarcophagus in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul Dating back to 332 B.C., the sarcophagus comes from Sidon, a successful Phoenician city-state that today lies about 25 miles away from Beirut. Despite the name, it belonged not to Alexander (we don't think), but probably to Abdalonymos, who Alexander made the king of Sidon in 332 B.C. Alexander, Reliefs from the Ishtar Gate, Babylon, in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbulthough, is prominent on the tomb, immediately recognizable for his curly and once-blond locks. The scenes that sprawl across the sarcophagus — two war scenes, two hunting scenes — tumble with vigorous action and expression. Not until the Renaissance, more than 1,000 years later, would sculptors reach this level of skill. To top it off, the sarcophagus is still scattered with the paint traces of its once-colorful past, giving the viewer a real sense of how this piece — and all Hellenistic sculpture — would have looked. That's pretty rare.

All of this leaves out, by the way, hundreds of other treasures in the museums: the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women, also taken from the necropolis at Sidon; animal reliefs taken from Babylon's Gate of Ishtar, built by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century B.C.; and the Treaty of Kadesh, the world's oldest known recorded peace treaty, signed in the 13th century B.C. by Ramses II and the Hittites. 

Not bad.

7. Hagia Eirene. A bit sightseeing-weary after three full days in Istanbul, I almost didn't go into this church. But I'm glad I did. Today part of the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Eirene (top of the post) stands on the oldest spot of Christian worship in Istanbul.

The first church, built here in the fourth century by Constantine, burned to the ground; the current one dates back to an 8th-century restoration. (Not bad, really, as far as longevity goes). And, incredibly, it somehow missed the Ottoman sweep of turning churches into mosques — meaning even its 8th-century mosaic, depicting a black cross, was left intact.

And it has nothing to do with St. Irene. Instead, its name meant
the "Basilica of Holy Peace." (It was designed in harmony with the
"Church of the Holy Wisdom," or the Hagia Sofia, and the "Church of the
Holy Apostles").

There's another major ancient Roman site in Istanbul that I'm still missing. Any guesses?

Check back tomorrow for the final installment of this three-post series.

Continue Reading

The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul

Basilica cistern, IstanbulAt first glance, Istanbul appears anything but a city tied to ancient Rome. Mosques and minarets, not ancient temples, dot the Turkish capital's skyline; its forum is hard to find, most of its imperial monuments long gone.

For a city that became part of the Roman empire in 73 A.D., and was turned into the capital, and dubbed "Nova Roma," by Constantine in 330, it can seem surprising—but to find hints of the city's classical past, you have to look more closely.

Searching for Roman ruins in Istanbul? Here's where to find them. I'll post this in two sections, so look out for the second installment tomorrow (here it is!).

Medusa column, basilica cistern, Istanbul

1. The basilica cistern. Even if you're not all that interested in Istanbul's ancient ruins, the cistern (shown above) is a must-see, if only for its eeriness: Descend down 52 stone steps, and you’re suddenly in a
cavernous chamber filled with ancient columns, each lit with a dim light, echoing
with splashes, the whispers of tourists, and (unfortunately, I think) “atmospheric”
music.  

The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian I in the early 6th
century, on the same spot as a basilica that had been first built by
Constantine two hundred years earlier. More than 105,000 square feet in area
and capable of holding 100,000 tons of water, the cistern provided water
filtration for Constantinople’s palace. More than 7,000 slaves were used to
construct it.

 And all of those columns holding it up? There are 336 in
total, and they’re all ancient, too—most of them taken from even older structures
elsewhere in the empire. (Sound familiar? That kind of recycling is something
Rome, too, is known for, from the ancient Egyptian obelisks that dot the city
to, later, the use of the Roman ruins themselves in Renaissance-era buildings
like St. Peter’s Basilica). Most of their origins are mysterious, but some—like
the two upside-down Medusa heads—are particularly intriguing.

2. Column of Constantine. Erected in 330 A.D. by Emperor
Constantine to commemorate his new capital, the 115-foot column would once have
been another 50 feet tall. It also boasted a statue of Constantine on the top,
carrying an orb with a piece of the True Cross. A sanctuary at the column’s
foot included a number of relics, including an alabaster ointment jar that
belonged to Mary Magdalene, the basket from Christ’s miracle of the loaves and
fish, and a statue of Athena from Troy.

That’s all long gone, and the column
isn’t quite as impressive today
. But there's no beating it as a (conveniently central) reminder of how integral Constantinople
was to the ancient Roman empire.

Valens Aqueduct, Istanbul3. The Valens aqueduct. Spanning one of Istanbul’s main
thoroughfares, the aqueduct is such a matter-of-fact part of the fabric of
modern Istanbul that it’s easy to forget it’s an ancient ruin. But it is. Built
in 368 A.D. by Emperor Valens, the aqueduct once ran for about 3,200 feet. The
surviving section today, at 3,020 feet, is nearly as long—not bad for a 1,600-year-old
structure. Just as the popes in Rome restored ancient aqueducts, so, too, did the
Ottoman sultans in Constantinople, meaning the aqueduct remained the city’s
main distributor of water through the Middle Ages. 

Serpent Column with the Obelisk of Theodosius in the background, Istanbul4. The Hippodrome. You could walk right through
Istanbul’s ancient hippodrome—built for chariot races by Emperor Septimius
Severus in the early 3rd century, and restored and enlarged by
Constantine 100 years later—without realizing it. Today, all the seats and
most of the structures are long-gone. The only hint you have that the site once was a
stadium able to hold 100,000 spectators is in the shape and dimensions of
Sultanahmet Square, which more or less follows the lines of the ancient circus.
(Just as Piazza Navona in Rome today has the same shape as Domitian’s first-century
Circus Agonalis).

But some monuments do remain. Perhaps the
most evocative is the Serpent Column, brought by Constantine from
the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Also known as the Plataean Tripod of Delphi, the
column was cast in 479 B.C. to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians. Persian
armor and weaponry was melted down for the column, and all of the names of the
Greek city-states that fought in the battle were etched into the sides. A gold
tripod, later lost, initially sat on top, supported by three serpent heads.

For a visual of what the chariot races once would have
looked like, the Obelisk of Theodosius is a must-see, too. The obelisk itself is
actually ancient Egyptian, dating to the reign of Tutmoses III around 1450 B.C.
In Alexandria until 390, it was moved to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius
I. Underneath, a marble pedestal shows scenes including the chariot race
itself, and Theodosius giving the winner the laurel crown of victory. And then
there’s the typically-imperial inscription in which the emperor lauds none
other than himself—in this case, for supposedly moving the obelisk and
re-erecting it in just 32 days.

Here's where to find Istanbul's ancient Roman sites, part II

Continue Reading

Off to Istanbul, the Other Rome

You can visit Rome, tour the forum, Pantheon and Colosseum, even visit the Baths of Caracalla, Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, and the ancient aqueducts — and you still won't get a full sense of the Roman empire.

The only way to do that is to visit Istanbul, founded as Constantinople — the new capital of the ancient Roman empire — in 330 A.D.

When people say the Roman empire "fell" in the 5th century, they're wrong. The eastern half soldiered on. It was later dubbed the "Byzantine empire" by historians who wanted to make a nice, clean break for the timeline… but those living in Constantinople at the time would have considered themselves Romans.

Constantinople continued as the empire's capital for nearly another millennium. And many traces of the city's Roman past still remain. Both the Hagia Sofia and basilica cistern, two must-see sites, were built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, who wanted to bring the Roman empire back to its former greatness and reconquer the western half. Then there's the hippodrome built under Emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century, and Constantine's inaugural column of 330, and the classical sarcophagi, mosaics and other artifacts of the Archaeological Museum.

In a sense, Istanbul is Rome, its successor and its heir. I'll be traveling through Turkey for the next week, and as I go, I'll be posting about what to do, see and eat. Please enjoy this brief break from the eternal city. I'm sure I will!

Continue Reading