Istanbul, where east meets west

Bendigo Weekly | Bendigo Weekly | 17-Jul-2013

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Turkey is a fascinating mosaic of ancient sites, bustling bazaars, aquamarine coastlines and quaint fishing villages, but my favourite place is the vibrant city of Istanbul.

Straddling the Bosphourus Strait, Istanbul is a fusion of half Europe and half Asia where modern meets old. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful and with 13 million citizens, a constant jumble of action and noise.

Arriving on the overnight train from Greece at Sirkeci station (the original terminus for the Orient Express) we were met with the clatter of daily street noise. From the honking taxi horns, food vendor's cries and whining seagulls overhead to the five-times daily call to prayer (starting pre-dawn) via microphones strung from the minarets of every mosque.

Once the heart of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Istanbul remains one of the world's most historically rich destinations.

Despite its long history of conflict, conquest and occupation, many architectural sites remain and are open to the public.

Our mission was to see as many of these symbolic sights as we could in two days.

Starting in Sultanhamet, we visited the iconic 400 year-old Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It has six minarets instead of the usual four and high, domed ceilings lined with thousands of tiny blue Iznik tiles, giving it it's popular name, the Blue Mosque

It faces the Haghia Sophia, built in 537 as a Byzantine Christian church, converted to a mosque in the 14th century and now a Turkish museum. Sadly, scaffolding clutters the downstairs interior (it has been there for years) but it's former glory shines through upstairs in the galleries lined with mosaics and messages left by generations of rulers.

Down the road, the opulent Topkapi Palace was home to generations of sultans for over 400 years, and today houses a fabulous treasury of holy Muslim relics. The mysterious Harem is a labyrinth of 300 luxuriously tiled rooms where the sultan’s wives were closeted.

The nearby Spice Market in Eminonu was built in 1663 as a stop for camel caravans travelling the Silk Road. These days it contains pyramidal stacks of almost every kind of spice available and you can try everything from authentic Turkish delight, goatskin-ripened cheese or exotic dried fruit and nuts.

Next stop is the tumultuous Grand Bazaar, a Byzantine maze of over 3,000 shops selling jewellery, textiles, pottery, glazed tiles, leather, carpets and brightly coloured belly-dancing outfits among everyday items.

Serious shoppers could easily part with a fair chunk of time and lira on an expedition through the bazaar's many stalls where the keen vendors offer various enticements (like tea) and encouragement to aid your selection.

We started early next day with a ferry ride on the Bosphorus, one of the world's busiest waterways. It was a relaxing way to spend a few hours while taking in the lush parks, palaces and waterside mansions on the way.

From the ferry terminal, we walked across the Galata Bridge, the vital link connecting the old and the new city across the Golden Horn. We joined the many locals strolling across the upper deck where fisherman line the side rails. There were so many hopefuls leaning shoulder-to shoulder with a mish-mash of fishing lines, it was not hard to get hooked by a wayward casting.

Once on the other side, a short wander around Beyoglu eventually brought us to the Galata Tower. Built in 1348, the tower was once used to house prisoners of war and later became an observatory.

The top of the steep stairs is now a 360 degree viewing balcony giving a bird’s-eye view of the sprawling city skyline.

On our return journey over the bridge in the late afternoon, the nut stalls and bread carts competed with the scent of apple tobacco wafting out of the narghile cafes on the lower deck.

Hanging out under the bridge with a 'hubbly-bubbly' is a favourite pastime for Turks. You can try the traditional water pipe anywhere in Turkey for a low cost, and no, it is not a drug.

Our next stop was at the Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient water reservoirs beneath the city’s surface. Not your average tourist venue, the eerily lit chamber is full of sixth-century columns supporting high, vaulted ceilings and has been fitted with soft lights and haunting music with fish swirling around and an upside-down head of Medusa forming the base of one column.

We finished up the day at the Rustem Pasa Mosque where every surface is covered in beautiful Iznik tiles but had to move on quickly when the muezzin sounded and thousands of devout Muslims trooped in for their afternoon session.

We emerged from the mosque just in time to catch the evening performance by a group of whirling dervishes in the former waiting room back at the Sirkeci train station.

Sufi music is one of Turkey's best-known cultural exports but the Mevlevi sect is technically banned apart from partial rights to perform sema in public.

The Melevi Sufi wear a full-skirted white gown and a brown headdress with a long black cloak and are accompanied by spiritual music and chanting as they attempt to connect with God in trance-like ritualistic twirling.

The twirling of the dervishes is an amazing spectacle with the white, fully inflated round skirts circling the hall both mystifying and hypnotic.

It was a mesmerising experience to end two days of bizarre bazaar shopping, ancient architectural splendour and the fascinating culture that is Istanbul before we headed into the country for more Turkish delights.

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