When a family friend who knows that I love travelling to both near and far away places asked me to recommend a culturally rich and historic country for him and his wife to stop over for a few days on their way to visit their children studying in the United Kingdom, I had no hesitation to suggest the Turkish capital Istanbul, which I assured him would give him a joyful experience. He took my advice seriously and had such a memorable holiday in this ancient city that he later made two more trips there as well as to other parts of this fascinating country.
In my years of travelling to many countries, I would single out six unique cities that have truly enriched my life and they are all steeped in culture and history. They are, not in order of preference, China’s Xian, Japan’s Nara, Egypt’s Cairo, Jordan’s Jerusalem (now under Israel’s administration), Turkey’s Istanbul and Rome in Italy. In this article, I will share with my viewers my impressions of Istanbul which my wife and I visited some years ago. My previous posting of June 2007 records my trip to other parts of this extensive country.
If you have a keen interest in history and ancient monuments and would like to traverse a country that combines both Eastern and Western cultures, one should head for Turkey. Its ancient capital, Istanbul, has the unique distinction of being the only city in the world that straddles two great continents – Asia and Europe – separated by the Bosphorus, a narrow but strategic waterway which links the European Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara in Asia. Founded in 666 BC, the city was successively ruled by the ancient Greeks, Persians and Romans. In 330 AD, it was made the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which replaced the East Roman Empire era. It was named Constantinople, in honour of the founding Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great.
The Byzantine Empire came to an end when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 after a prolonged siege. Its name was changed to Istanbul which became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, with Sultan Mehmet II as its ruler. At its peak from the 15th to 17th Centuries, the empire’s territories extended from Asia to Europe and Africa. It was one of the mightiest military powers on earth.
After World War I, Turkey abolished the monarchy and became a republic in 1923. It moved its capital to Ankara, about 450 km from Istanbul. Today, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of more than 14 million people, an overwhelming majority of whom are Muslims. It has numerous majestic mosques, elegant churches, grand palaces, fortified castles, old city walls and many other attractions of considerable variety and antiquity.
During our 4-day stay in the city, we decided to follow the sound advice of our reliable guide-book to visit not only the most trodden sites, but also the less explored places so as to get a better feel of this colourful and multi-faceted metropolis.
We soon found out that many of the best known attractions are conveniently situated in the Old City, within comfortable walking distance of each other. Our first stop was Haghia Sophia, one of the oldest cathedrals in Christendom which was completed in the 4th century. After the Ottoman conquest, it was converted into a mosque. It is now an enormous museum. It should be savoured leisurely for one’s maximum benefit.
Directly opposite the Haghia Sophia is the equally famous Sultan Ahmet Camii, popularly called the Blue Mosque. Completed in 1616, it is a crowning glory of the Islamic architecture. It is unsurpassed in its conception, design and workmanship. Its walls are adorned with magnificent blue and white hand-made porcelain tiles, complemented by exquisitely crafted stained glasses. Its weekly Friday lunchtime prayer crowd of 25,000 is an awesome sight to behold.
In nearby Hippodrome, the city centre during the Byzantine era, stands the 3500 year-old Egyptian Obelisk, which was brought over there from Egypt in the 4th Century by Emperor Constantine the Great in order to show off the power and glory of his reign.
Another unusual spectacle is the so-called Sunken Palace. It is in fact an enormous subterranean cistern which was part of the gigantic interconnecting water storage scheme. Constructed in the 6th Century, it has 336 majestic columns supporting the large and superb dome structure.
The Topkapi Palace complex, home of the successive sultans for some 400 years, was one of the largest and grandest royal residences in the world, after the 15th century imperial Forbidden City in Beijing. We had a close look at the opulent life-style of its former royal occupants. The assorted invaluable artefacts and jewellery on display there would take a couple of hours to inspect and marvel at. I was particular impressed by the outstanding collection of China’s Ming blue and white porcelain and earlier pieces which, in the international auction sales today, would easily fetch several millions of US dollars each as such fine and rare pieces are keenly sought by the fabulously rich international collectors from the affluent countries, headed by the Chinese themselves.
Within a short walk from the Tokapi is the world-famous Museum of Archaeology, which will delight all discerning art enthusiasts. It has an unsurpassed collection of Graeco-Roman sculptures and other works of art found within and outside Turkey dating back several thousand years. The tour de force is the Alexander Sarcophagus attributed to Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), but belonging to one of his powerful generals.
A novel shopping experience awaits you at the covered Grand Bazaar. Completed shortly after the conquest of Constantinople, it has some 4000 shops and other facilities under one gigantic roof. One will inevitably get lost in its maze-like side streets and alleys. Reputed to be the largest shopping centre in the world, one can buy a myriad of goods ranging from antiques, curios, jewellery, carpets and a host of household necessities and food items. We purchased a decent quality hand-knitted Turkish carpet and was amazed that the dealer could skilfully pack it into a sturdy small shopping bag for ease of carrying on a plane! It still has a pride of place in our Singapore living room and is much admired by some of our house guests.
Legends of valour and romanticism surround the imposing Rumeli Hisari Castle, which stands on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus. This military fortification was speedily completed in 1452 and played an important role in the capture of Constantinople a year later.
A few kilometres from the Old City centre are two hidden gems. The Theodosian Walls, part of the city walls built between the 5th and 10th centuries, which have retained its impressive watch towers and battlements. We saw the Edirne Gate through which the celebrated Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror of Constantinople, made his victorious entry into the city he had long coveted as a gateway to the rest of Europe A short walk away is the Kariye Museum, the unique 11th century Church of St Saviour in Chora. It has well-preserved paintings of biblical themes on its walls and ceilings which are rated even higher than those in Haghia Sophia and are acclaimed as the epitome in Byzantine art.
Having explored the sights in the Old City, we visited the New City by crossing the Galata Bridge which connects the two sections of Istanbul. It was the old European part of town, with evidence of the once thriving French, Italian and Greek settlements dating back to medieval times. The international communities set up their embassies there when Istanbul was still the capital. The European enclaves are no longer there and their back streets are now virtual slums.
The 61-meter tall Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1352, offers a panoramic view of the city, with many of the familiar landmarks visible on a clear day. The 600-metre long Dolmabahce Palace, the new royal residence, built in 1854, is reputed to be one of the most sumptuous in Europe. It is a must-see attraction for all visitors to Istanbul.
To round off our most enjoyable time in this delightful city, we took the 30-km ferry boat trip on the Bosphorus. The two-way ride along the same route took approximately three hours and was a steal at about US 7 dollars! This marvellous cruise enabled us to view, at a vantage point, the various significant landmarks, stately homes, parks, townships and villages on both the European and Asian shores of Istanbul. At the end of the journey, the boat crossed over to the Asian side and all passengers alighted at the fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi, famed for its inexpensive and delicious fresh seafood. After lunch, we walked up to the hilltop to see the ruins of a 13th Century castle, built by the Crusaders against the expected Ottoman invasion. It has a spectacular view of the Bosphorus and the surrounding landmarks.
Turkey has numerous tourism attractions that would appeal to peoples of different cultural backgrounds. This is due to its long and unusual history and antiquities as well as the diverse civilisations that have influenced its developments and helped shape the people and the country into what it is to-day.
The Turks are generally most friendly, warm and hospitable to foreigners and often regard them as their country’s honoured guests. A call for help seldom goes unanswered; we had, on more than one occasion, been taken to our destinations when we merely asked for directions!
Istanbul is a reasonably safe city for exploration on one’s own; violent crimes against tourists are not common. Taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap. However, it will be prudent to agree on the fare beforehand as overcharging of tourists is common, especially during peak hours, like in some other big cities elsewhere too.
It is best seen on foot as we did. By so doing, we discovered the real Istanbul and the way of life of the ordinary people. We also came upon neighbourhoods with cobbled streets where the ambience remained much the same as it was during the Ottoman period.
Turkish food is palatable to tourists of different cultural backgrounds as it is a cross between Asian and Western food and it is healthy. The Turks also take to spicy fares, and bread rather than rice is their main staple. Kebab, meat on skewer, is available everywhere and is economical and delicious.
Despite Turkey being an Associate Member of the European Union, it has failed to gain full membership so far. It is, in more ways than one, still an Asian country in spirit and this is reflected in its way of life and family ties. This is because about 95% of its vast territory is in Asia and only about 5% in Europe. An astute Turkish guide puts it succinctly: “We suffer from an identity problem. Many Europeans tend to see us as Orientals, while most Asians regard us as Europeans.”
The best times to tour Turkey are between May and June or September and October when the temperatures are crisp and comfortable and the daylight hours are long. For those who prefer the more convenient and economical conducted tours, joining an all-inclusive package tour at very competitive and good value prices will cost much less than travelling as independent travellers as we did.
Lam Pin Foo