Istanbul Has Aroused the Curiosity of Traveler, Straddles the Continents of Europe and Asia
Steeped in a rich and colourful history, the city of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest, straddles the continents of Europe and Asia. It is here that towering minarets, as if in a fabled tale of the Arabian Nights, soar majestically into the skies, while imposing mosques, ancient castles and lavish palaces enhance the city’s undulating skyline. Historically, Istanbul dates back for more than 2000 years, though the earliest of Turkey’s inhabitants, the Catal Hoyuk have been known to exist long before that. Founded by a seafaring tribe from Megara in about 650 B.C., the city was named Byzantium. It was Emperor Constantine who built and renamed the city, dedicating the “New Rome” of Constantinople and moving the centre of the Roman Empire from Italian shores to what is now Istanbul. As Constantinople, the city flourished from 330 to 1453 A.D. What followed next was the birth of the Ottoman Empire and the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II. Constantinople was to be no more. The new city was proclaimed Istanbul and served as the capital of Turkey till 1922, when the seat of the government was moved to Ankara. Istanbul has its fill of contrasts which blend the old and the new. A metropolis of teeming avenues give way to old cobbled stone alleys and quaint wooden villas. High-rise hotels, elegant restaurants and casinos exude a cosmopolitant air, providing the comforts for pleasure seekers, while rustic coffee shops serve strong freshly-brewed Turkish coffee and hot cay (tea) in tiny glasses on plates and vendors carve strips of doner kebabs for a passer-by or two.
Istanbul is sited on both sides of the scenic strait of the Bosphorus, linking the East and the West. Interestingly, it is the Western or European half of the city which houses its magnificent attractions. A comprehensive tour of this treasure trove of Turkish delights would more often than not begin in the old city, the land lodged between the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Musts on any “discovery” itinerary would include the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Saint Sophia, the Mosque of Sulaiman the Magnificent, the second-century Hippodrome, site of ancient chariot races, the Topkapi Palace and its Harem, the Grand Bazaar, and the somewhat eerie Yerebatan Cistern Basilica, an underground palace housing large Corinthian columns. Equally captivating are the Kariye Museum, the Archaelogical Museum, the Dolmabahce Palace as well as the European and Anatolian fortresses.
Revered as a masterpiece in the Islamic world, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque mesmerises visitors with specimens of classical Turkish art and is also known as the Blue Mosque by virtue of the dominance of more than 20,000 handmade blue Iznik ceramic tiles used in its interior. Easily distinguished by six minarets (the only mosque in the world to have this number), this huge mosque houses amazing stained-glass windows, a beautiful central cupola 23.5 metres in diameter, a marble minber (pulpit) and mural inscriptions featuring verses of the Koran. A short walk from the Blue Mosque brings you face to face with Saint Sophia, an ancient basilica reputed to be one of the finest examples of architecture of all time. Truly engaging, Saint Sophia features a big dome that rises 50 metres high, numerous mosaic Christian murals, Byzantine columns and priceless artifacts. When the Turks conquered Istanbul, Saint Sophia was converted into a mosque which explains the presence of several Islamic ornaments. After serving as a place of Christian worship for 916 years and as a mosque for 477, Saint Sophia was made a museum, to be admired by visitors of any race and creed.
Deemed as one of the most splendid mosques in Istanbul, the Mosque of Sulaiman the Magnificent is a teutonic beauty built in the mid 1500s. Four minarets frame an astonishing huge dome. Walls are adorned with Turkish calligraphy while stained-glass windows depicting regional motifs grace the area of the mihrab (prayer niche). The most striking monument is the Topkapi Palace, the oldest and largest of its kind in the world. Nestled where the acropolis of Byzantium once stood, the 700,000 sq metres palace overlooks the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara. You’ll need more than just several hours to scrutinise the remarkable collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, European chinaware, glassware and silverware on display. The palace also boasts a fine exhibition of imperial costumes and a superb collection of treasures that run the gamut from jewel-studded helmets and objects dart to the famous 18th century Topkapi dagger festooned with four large eye-catching emeralds and gleaming diamonds. Another showpiece, the 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker’s Diamond, regarded as among the world’s largest, is embraced by two rows of 49 brilliant-cut diamonds embedded in gold. The diamond, as legend denotes, draws its origin from its sale by a poor spoonmaker, who unaware of its value traded this gem for a few mere wooden spoons. Made up of 400 rooms, the Topkapi Harem provided the living quarters of the mother, sisters, wives, concubines and children of the Ottoman sultans. On strolling through the corridors and halls of the Harem, one can feast one’s eyes on the luxury of this place.
For travelers with time on their hands, a visit to Chora and its Kariye Museum is certain to enthrall. Located outside the city centre, this small Roman church is the home of outstanding Byzantine frescoes. Yet another interesting option is a tour of the Shrine of Eyub Ensari, the standard bearer of Prophet Mohamed. Old cemetries on a hill are sited near this Shrine which draws thousands of pilgrims. An uphill climb through these cemetries takes you to the famous Pierre Loti, a cosy cafe unveiling engaging panoramas of the Golden Horn. Like a typical tourist who enjoys a bird’s eye view of the city, I looked for a night-time alternative to Pierre Loti, as walking through a cemetry in the gloom and bleak of winter was surely nobody’s idea of a romantic evening. The best night view I found was offered by a roof-top restaurant, aptly named “Panorama” at the Etap Marmara Hotel in Taksim Square. From here, sans the smog of Istanbul’s pollution made visible by day, the view of the old city basking in the moonlight, its minarets beguiling and aglow, was a treat one will never forget. Travelers, whether on a budget or otherwise, will tell you that it’s near impossible to avoid picking up a souvenir or two. Ethnic buys in Istanbul include Turkish carpets, woven kilims, leather and suede goods, hand-painted (predominately in shades of blue) tiles, wall-hanging plates and crockery, silverware, brassware, hand-beaten copper as well as onyx items, embroidered bags, jewellery, and pipes intricately carved out of meerschaum stone.
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