Was surprised to learn that Istanbul is the Fifth Largest "City Proper" in the world. ( First is , of course, Shanghai ; Second and Fourth ? Mumbai and Delhi !). It was a surprise because we saw no sign of its vastness or population as we drove to the hotel from Sabiha Gokcen Airport. ( The airport is named for the first female combat pilot in the world) . Even the sightseeing tours on the first two days were confined to the Sultanahmet area, where the hotel was situated, so it dint feel any more vast than our Bengaluru ! But we started appreciating its ranking only when we went on the Bosphorus Cruise and the guide gave us a complete geography education about the historic city which was traditionally called Thrace on the European bank and Anatolia on its Eastern bank.
Not many metros can boast of straddling two continents ! When one crosses one of the bridges over the river, one gets from Avrupa ( Europe) to Asya ( Asia) in just under 15 mins. And there are cheerful yellow "Welcome to Europe/Asia" sign boards on either end of the bridges. Officially though, Turkey is a European country and by a happy coincidence, this year, Turkey is the designated " European Capital of Culture" ( a status bestowed by the European Union on a different city each calender year, under a programme started in 1985 to showcase culture and allied development of its cities), so there was much culture on show and great pampering of tourists.
Almost all of Istanbul's history, culture and traditions is rooted in the Old City situated on the natural harbour called The Golden Horn created by the strait of Bosphorus which connects The Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The Bosphorus is the world's narrowest strait used for International navigation and is the lifeline of the city's 12.5 million people, most of whom live on the Asian side and work on the European side. The ancient city walls around the Old City can still be seen running around the "district" of Sultanahmet which is home to the 3 major landmarks : Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace .
Hagia Sophia ( or Aya Sofya), the basilica of Holy Wisdom was built by Justinian in 360 Ad.( rebuilt many times over) For 1000 years, this Heart of Constantinople was the largest cathedral in the world till the Seville Cathedral ( Spain) beat it in the 16th. century. Under the Ottomans, it was used as a mosque. The Father of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk , converted it into a museum in 1935. The immense dome ( 56 mts. high) , surrounded by minor domes is an epitome of Byzantine architecture and served as the model for scores of other mosques in Istanbul. The minarets are Ottoman additions.The interior is truly breathtaking with all surfaces covered with claddings of green and white marble, purple porphyry and gold mosaics.The huge Lustration jars ( carved from single blocks of marble), the gilt work shrines, the fine moulded filigree on the column heads, the niche of The Empress, the 40 coloured glass windows bordering in the dome, the beautiful mihrab and minbar ( Islamic additions), the huge medallions with Islamic calligraphy hung in the eight directions are all awe inspiring . The restored christian iconic mosaics in the upper level are all exquisite works of art dating from the 9th to 11th century.
Topkapi Palace ( Topkapi Sarayi) - Unesco World Heritage Site -was created as a triumphant capital of Ottoman power by the 23 year old Sultan Mehmed II who captured the fabled Constantinople from the Romans in 1453.
Situated on Seraglio Point, a promontory above the sea of Marmara, it is designed as an elaborate , sprawling campus with administrative offices ( Imperial Council) , public audience chambers, living quarters, library, treasury and mint, harems, kitchens, baths, clinic, iftar pavilion, gardens ( tulips !), Eunuchs quarters, stables, and gardens interconnected by series of courtyards and avenues. Also within the ramparts is a Byzantine church, converted into an armoury . The glory and magnificence of Ottoman life are now preserved as museum pieces for us to gape at, among them the very famous Topkapi Dagger.
Rich, bejewelled gifts from Indian royalty can be seen too ! (Funnily, a tin goblet encrusted with gems was also considered precious because tin was a rare metal back then)
(At the entrance of both Aya Sofya and Topkapi, tourists are required to go through baggage check and personal frisking for security reasons. As we visited during peak tourist season, it was near mayhem at both these entry points, with impatient crowds jostling to get to the narrow turnstiles quickly! Busloads of energetic schoolchildren din't make things any easier! )
The Blue Mosque ( Sultanahmet Camii) is a striking structure, the most recognised symbol of Istanbul. Completed in 1619 , this ambitious building , commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Ahmet Khan I as an Islamic rival to Aya Sophia , has a massive dome supported by four coloumns that are 16 ft. in diameter, with a cascade of minor domes arranged in tiers all around it. It has six tall and slender minarets , considered an ostentation as all mosques have only four. The Sultan is said to have stopped at six only out of deference to the Ka'aba in Mecca that has Seven.The name Blue comes from the thousands of exquisitely patterned, handmade blue glazed ceramic tiles that adorn its interiors. The prayer area is lit up by a number of hanging chandeliers. Since it is a place of worship, visitors are expected to be "modest in dress" ( which means, no shoes ; and a head scarf for women). It encloses the tomb of its founder, a madrassa and a hospice.
The area between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya is maintained as a lovely (WiFi enabled) park, with rows of wooden benches for people to sit and watch the play of evening light on the beautiful mosque. When darkness falls, artificial lighting creates fantastical visions in blue, purple and orange. Fountains in the park mimic those colours adding much liveliness to the place , which always sports a festive look - throngs of people, carts vending corn, dryfruits and nuts , gaily costumed Dondurma ( local ice cream) confectioners and music from the cafes within the ancient market (called Arasta Bazar or Sipahi carsisi) nearby. At night, Dervishes start whirling in these cafes to mesmerising sufi songs.
The Hippodrome ( Sultanahmet Meydani), which was the Sports and Social Center of the Roman metropolis Constantinople , lies close to the Blue mosque and originated when the city was still the Greek Byzantium. The Romans who were pasionate about chariot racing, made this square a grand stadium similar to the famous one in Rome. But today, nothing much remains except four structures : 1. A part of a bronze "tripod" called The Serpent Coloumn, commemorating the victory of Greeks over Persians in 5 BC , brought here from Delphi, by Constantine . 2. Obelisk of Thutmosis II brought here from Luxor in 390 AD, by Theodosis. 3. The tall stone core of a 10th century structure called The Walled Obelisk which was once covered with gilded bronze plaques. 4. The German Fountain, an ornate octogonal pavilion built in 1900 to mark the German emperor's visit to Istanbul.
Egyptian Bazar ( Misir carsisi) or Spice Market : a crowded, aromatic, appetizing warren of about a hundred shops selling spice, nuts , dry fruits, sweets (Turkish Delight), teas, essential oils, dried herbs, medicinal plants, traditional drugs, traditional beauty products and organic grain. The market is covered by a high dome dates from the 17th. century.
Grand Bazar ( Kapalicarsi) , as the name suggests, is grand ! And crowded. And noisy , And bewildering too ! Dating from mid15th century, it is one of the oldest and largest covered bazars in the world. 31000sq.mts , 4000 shops, 61 avenues, 22 gates. Close to 20,000 people work here. Other than shops there are also inns, cafes, mosques and a police station within it. Suffocatingly crowded . A veritable Ali Baba Cave of goodies await fierce bargaining from tourists.
I missed visiting the The Dolmabache Palace as it was closed on the one day left of our visit. Instead, we got a chance to take a long drive to The Chora Church ( Kariye Camii), built outside the walls of Constatinople in 5 AD. It is a 6-domed byzantine shrine of modest size, but contains the most beautiful mosaics of the period , depicting various episodes from the lives of Mary and Jesus Christ. Though some parts are damaged, by and large, the colours are still pristine and the gold gilt still brilliant.
The Sircesi Gari ( Railway Terminal) built in 1890s is retained in its handsome original form and is proudly pointed out as the eastern most terminal of the legendary Orient Express. Though the Paris-Istanbul service ceased in 1977, the railway terminal's restaurant (named "Orient Express"ofcourse !) is a popular hangout among the litterati, where music and dance recitals are also held.
In Turkey, generally, and in Istanbul, particularly, everyone except infants seems to smoke, all the time. Just could not escape second hand nicotine. And it was not only from the nargile ( hookah), but regular cancer sticks.
Some of the small towns we passed through had large solar panels on every single building !
Petrol and Deisel cost thrice the amount we pay in India. Yet, traffic is maddening.( Surprisingly, honking is rare.)
Intercity buses are excellent, almost like aircraft, with a purser serving snacks , drinks and blankets, individual TV screens , a pull out wash- basin at one end, sharp on- time arrival and departure .
During our visit, one day happened to be Ataturk's birthday ( 19 May) and in celebration of that, the whole nation seemed to explode in a colourburst ; huge flags and gigantic portraits of the Leader were draped over all buildings, big and small.
In any bazaar or souvenir kiosk, the same catcalls greeted us, without fail : " Aallo ! Shah Rukh Khan ! In-deeya, Chori-Chori ! " The reach of Bollywood is amazing. But just couldn't figure out the significance of "Chori Chori" !