Istanbul Odyssey: A Turkish Delight

Two weeks ago I returned from a fabulous, but all too brief, holiday in Turkey, during which time I spent 4 days in Istanbul. When I returned I immediately set about capturing my enthusiasm for this amazing city in a blog post (read below). Then just as I was about to post this on the website, the face of Istanbul changed dramatically. The long, dark arm of Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic and oppressive regime brutally responded to its citizens’ peaceful protests. Though the Turkish media was silenced, I like much of the world, watched shocked as the scenes of excessive police violence played out on the pages of foreign and social media websites.

Turkey Protests

In the wake of these serious events I held back on posting my travel anecdotes. How could I post such trivial and inconsequential ramblings in the face of what the population of the country I had just visited were now experiencing? It felt heartless and disrespectful to talk of my frivolous sight-seeing holiday in Istanbul when people were being jailed, maimed and even killed in that country to try and protect all those freedoms I had assumed were normal.

As the days have passed and the violence continued in Turkey I have felt less and less inclined to post my story. In fact, I wouldn’t have posted it all, had I not read this post, written by one of my favourite (extremely witty) travel bloggers Gerladine, from The Everywhereist. In view of Geraldine’s candid comments and the many positive responses left by her followers (particularly the person who said “Oh what a sad place this world would be if we only heard the bad news”), I have decided that there is still some merit in posting my initial thoughts and memories of being a happy tourist in Istanbul.

I hope that by doing so I can at the very least highlight what a unique, fascinating, diverse city Istanbul is, and help my readers appreciate why those brave and determined young Turks are taking to the streets each day to fight and defend these wonderful attributes of their country from an increasingly autocratic government.

Turkey protests 2

Take this as my solidarity with the people of Turkey, and my wish that they retain all that is good in their country.

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Istanbul Odyssey: a Turkish Delight

At 8 am on my first day in Istanbul, my fellow travellers still sleeping soundly, I ventured onto the balcony of their extremely modern apartment, to take in the lay of the land. The sky was a faultless clear blue and the brilliant sunshine gave my shoulders a warm and welcoming hug. 18 floors below me the city was in full swing attending to its busy workday: people and cars rushing to work like little ants. I smiled the smug self-satisfied grin of someone on holidays.

We were staying in “new” Istanbul an area dominated by business and the business of living. From where I stood, a mosaic carpet of thousands of low rise buildings; apartments, businesses, and shopping centres stretched in all directions. Protruding up between buildings were a number of ultramodern skyscrapers, many unfinished and bearing cranes on their roofs ensuring they would reach even greater heights. These high-rise towers are known to locals as “mushrooms” because they seemingly spring up overnight like the fruit of a gigantic concrete fungus (a testament to Turkey’s burgeoning and evidently healthy economy).

new Istanbul

From my vantage point above the hustle and bustle of modern Istanbul it was hard to imagine that this contemporary vista was part of one of the world’s great historic cities: a city that harbours unspeakably beautiful religious and cultural relics and has born witness to around 20 centuries of imperial glory. Yet, in the days to follow I would discover however just how interwoven the old and the new are in this unique city.

Istanbul is a mega-metropolis whose size defies belief. Thankfully, though, the main historic sights of interest to tourists are contained in the relatively small and walkable Sultanahmet area. An area that is dominated by tourists and Turk’s eager to cater to the needs of those tourists. By all reports the tourist crush here during the peak summer months is unbearable. Even in mid-May the restaurants were full and there were long lines outside all the major attractions. Despite having lived in the UK for three years, my patience for queuing remains incredibly low. Yet queue I did, and incredibly, not once did I regret the time spent doing so.

Least of all for the shadowy dim beauty of the underground Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns (water reservoirs) that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. Constructed in the sixth century and then forgotten for hundreds of years, the cistern is a partially flooded forest of 336 Roman columns and arches artistically illuminated from below for the avid photographer.

Cistern

A raised walkway snakes through the columns and past the main sights: a carved evil-eye column (probably not the official name) and the two giant upside-down Medusa heads (Roman relics reused with brazen contempt for the supernatural by the Byzantine builders as props for the columns). Below the walkway giant carp glide soundlessly around the column bases. They function perfectly as both ambiance enhancers and algae removers. Somewhere during our subterranean amble I overheard a guide say that in the past the only through this watery maze was with a torch and kayak. How incredibly romantic that must have been!

Medusa

Surfacing into the bright sunny glare, with the midday prayers now finished it was time to join the queue waiting to enter the magnificent six-minaretted Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque). With head, shoulders, knees – but not toes – respectfully covered, I made my way into the large open central space of the mosque.

BlueMosque_1

The multi-domed ceiling, tiled facades (that give the mosque its famous blue-ish hue) and the stained-glass windows were certainly beautiful. But the reflective serenity that the architect had no doubt intended with his impressive creation was utterly lost amidst the melee of the hundreds of tourists all barricaded to one side. Two days before this I had visited the much newer, but equally impressive Kocatepe Mosque, in Ankara. It was mid-afternoon and the mosque was virtually empty. The cool, quiet within its grand central space was infinitely more peaceful.

Blue Mosque Istanbul

As was common in those days, the mosque’s namesake, Sultan Ahmed I was buried within the walls of the mosque that he founded. However, in his reign as ruler of one of the most powerful empires in the world, he would have spent his days roaming the many opulent courts and gardens of the Topkapı Palace.

Topkapi Palace

The Topkapı Palace was both the symbolic and political centre of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries. Today it is a museum and a treasure trove of Ottoman riches and spoils amassed over centuries. Among these treasures is the famous Topkapı Dagger, the 86 carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond and more rubies, emeralds and other jewel encrusted bling then you can poke a gilded sword at.

Topkapi Palace

In this densely packed city of 14 million people, the palace is lavishly spread over a picturesque 700 000 m2 of gardens that overlook Istanbul’s three main waterways, the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara.

Me_and_Bosphosorus

My view from these shady gardens over the Golden Horn back to the “new” Istanbul was punctuated by gigantic Turkish flags billowing in the breeze from the sides of buildings. Alongside them flew even larger banners bearing the charismatic, resolute image of Turkey’s most beloved statesman, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ataturk Flags Turkey

The flags were flying in the aftermath of the previous weekend’s festivities commemorating Ataturk’s birthday (festivities which Turkey’s current conservative government is trying hard to ban, much to the anger of Turkey’s increasingly vocal younger residents). For those of you unfamiliar with Ataturk’s military and political virtuosity, this visionary man single-handedly created modern Turkey. As a general he led Turkey to its independence from the European allies after WWI. Then as President he aligned the new Republic with the West, separated state and religion and instituted civil law over Islamic law. He adopted the Western calendar and an alphabet consisting of Roman letters. Oh, and he also abolished polygamy and emancipated women (did you know Turkish women had the right to vote before Swiss women did?). My American-friendly guidebook described him as the George Washington of the Turks, yet his legacy is vastly superior. It is little wonder that the Turks revere Ataturk almost as a demi-god.

In 1935, he accomplished one other visionary act of foresight. He decreed that the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), undoubtedly Istanbul’s most incredible architectural wonder, would be turned into a public museum. In doing so he paved the way for generations of tourists to gape awestruck and overwhelmed at this outstanding feat of construction, human endeavour and imagination. At least that’s what I did upon entering this amazing building.

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia’s was designed to emphasise and showcase the power of the Byzantine Empire on its subjects and on visiting dignitaries. And it was built on a scale to do so. At its heart is a 30-metre wide dome that seems to float over empty space on a circle of arched windows 55 metres above ground. For more than 1000 years after its construction in 537 AD the Hagia Sophia was the largest enclosed space in the world. Today, even with thousands of tourists milling on the ground, and with scaffolding erected on one side to allow the constant maintenance this ancient relic needs, the effect remains stunning.

Hagia Sophia Istanbul

Originally a Byzantine Church, the Hagia Sophia became a mosque when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans. It completed its metamorphosis with its secularisation during Turkey’s rapid march to modernity. This series of events perfectly illustrates the juxtaposition and entangling of cultures and religions that has played out over centuries in Istanbul.

However, if the Hagia Sophia is a totem to the historic diversity of Istanbul, then the continuing variety and multiplicity of this city is most certainly played out on its streets.

From the ultra-chic fashionistas cruising in their Maserati’s along the water’s edge out to dine on gourmet delicacies in high-end restaurants, to the young urban hipsters sipping cocktails and dancing in clubs before rollicking home at 3am via the ice-cream shops, to the playful and refreshingly honest bargaining tactics of the market hawkers in the Grand Bazaar (“Come inside lady and have look, we have what you want.” “Oh, you don’t want a carpet? That’s Ok! This is what we do – we sell you stuff you don’t want!”) – Istanbul’s streets are a vibrant and visual clash of cultures and epochs.

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

Nowhere is this more evident than on Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi. Here along this kilometre long mall of shops, restaurants, boutique bars, and historic tea houses all of Istanbul mingles side by side. Groups of Islamic women in long dark burkas float secretively past secular Turks and gawking tourists in Birkenstocks. East and West, young and old, rich and poor, religious and secular all stride out to enjoy their city in a fascinating cosmopolitan parade.

İstiklâl Caddesi, Istanbul

Istanbul’s residents are proud of the diversity of their city. And indeed they should be, as it is what makes Istanbul a fascinating place to visit: for it is this exquisite and intricate mix of the modern and the ancient that bestows Istanbul with its unique and mythical place as one of the world’s great cities.

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To find out more about the protests check out these links:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/31/istanbul-protesters-violent-clashes-police

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/10/turkish-protests-west
And for first-hand accounts from the protestors: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22753761

 

 

4 comments on this post

  1. Alan Hendren on said:

    Great post! Turkey overall is a beautiful country with a rich cultural heritage, Last year I stayed in Bagla Bay in the Bodrum Peninsula http://www.bodrumpeninsulatravelguide.co.uk/welcome-to-bagla-bay
    Loved every minute, hope to go back again in the near future!

    Great blog btw!

  2. Despite some controversy, istanbul is a great city for a perfect holiday. There is so much to see in istanbul, that you will really remember the visit for a long time.

  3. Very few people know about the ancient places lying beneath IStanbul. Great that you chose to talk about something people will appreciate and take info from.

  4. Cam Allen on said:

    Turkey is amazing!

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