First few glimpses of Istanbul from Turkish Airlines TK-717 reminded me the quote of Lamartine “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul”. The feeling of French poet Alphonse de Lamartine expressed long back in 18th century did not change even today and I thanked my team for giving their best to achieve this wonderful trip to Istanbul – the only city on earth to spread over two continents separated by the natural strait Bosphorus.
We boarded TK-717 on 25th Nov at 6.45 am. Flying over Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and enjoying the beauty of Hindukush range with snow-capped peaks, blue Caspian Sea through the clouds was really exciting and an experience in itself. After long 6 hours 30 minutes flight, we finally landed at 10.40 am local time. The first thing that amazed me is cleanliness. In spite of a population of around 15-17 million, the well maintained roads, clean streets, dust free environment and efforts to keep the city clean is an example of excellence.
We were welcomed by tour guide Selma who was very excited to have a group from India for the first time and did not leave any stone unturned to ensure our comfort. On our way to Taksim Square for lunch, she started telling the history of Istanbul. Istanbul, earlier known as Constantinople has been the capital of three great empires – The Roman, Byzantine and finally the Ottoman Empire. Even Latins ruled Istanbul for around 57 yrs before it was taken over by Ottoman. The history of Istanbul dates back to 500 BC with over 120 emperors and Sultans ruled the world from here. No other city on earth can claim such distinction. Capital was moved from Istanbul to Ankara in 1923 when the Republic of Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Though our lunch was arranged at “Musaffir”, an Indian Restaurant, as usual, local delicacies attracted me. In Taksim Square, one can find many Turkish restaurants offering delicious local foods at reasonable prices and I found myself sitting in a nearby Turkish restaurant “Flamingo” enjoying local Kebabs. Post lunch we moved to hotel Mercure and checked in. Foreseeing a busy evening with Bosphorus Cruise tour, a few on board programmes followed by dinner, I decided to lay down for some time. Almost after 35 hours, soft feeling of the spring mattress took care of all the tiredness of the journey.
Bosphorus Cruise tours in the evening of 25th Nov and then again on 27th Nov during day time were wonderful with Europe and Asia on two sides when we were moving north towards the Black Sea. The view of illuminated Bosphorus Bridge, Ciragan Palace, Grand Mejidiye Mosque, Reina Club, Rumeli Fortress, Dalmabahce Palace, Maiden’s Tower, Galata Tower, Haydarpasa etc from the Cruise was amazing. Each of these places has rich history, some of which date back to over 1000 years and a story in itself. Dinner was excellent along with “Raki” – a local drink famous for its nature of turning white when mixed with water along with various kebabs and Turkish cuisines. We returned at around 11 pm. It’s a full moon night and I decided to lay my hands on some long exposure photography and finally was able to do so with some good car trails captured through my lens with full moon setting behind the horizon.
Today it’s going to be a busy day with so much in the agenda – Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazar, Galata Tower and then a Turkish dinner at Dersaadet Restaurant below the Galata Bridge beside Golden Horn.
We started our tour with Hippodrome. The Hippodrome is an area that used to be the sporting and social centre of Constantinople. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydani or Sultan Ahmet Square. The word hippodrome comes from the Greek word “Hippos” means “horse”, and “dromos” means “path”. For this reason, it is sometimes also called Atmeydanı (“Horse Square”) in Turkish.
We then visited Sultan Ahmed Mosque popularly known as Blue Mosque for its Blue coloured tiles adoring the walls. Constructed during 1609 to 1617, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque has one main dome, six minarets, and eight secondary domes. The design is awesome which incorporates some Byzantine Christian elements of the Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture. Blue Mosque is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. After witnessing the beauty of this mosque, rich architecture and wondering how such mega structure was built 500 yrs ago, we reached Topkapi Palace.
The Topkapi Palace was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years and is now a UNESCO world Heritage Site. While entering the palace, once can see the St. Irene church also known as Hagia Irene church built during the Constantin period. Originally the church was not inside the campus of Topkapi Palace, but after Sultan Mehmet-II conquered Constantinople, the church was enclosed within the boundary of Topkapi Palace and was used as an armoury. It is one of the few churches that was not converted to Mosque. Within the palace, one can see the holy relics of the Muslim world, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword. The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings including Harem, mosque, hospital, bakeries, and a mint. The view of Marmara Sea with dark clouds canvassing the sky from the backyard of Topkapi palace was amazing and we all enjoyed a cup of Turkish tea before proceeding to Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia or Aiya Sophia is a great architectural beauty and an important monument both for Byzantine and for Ottoman Empires. Once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum at the Turkish Republic, Hagia Sophia has always been the precious of its time. From the date of its construction in 537 until 15th Century, it served as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, who ordered this main church of Orthodox Christianity converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels and other relics were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, his Mother Mary, Christian saints and angels were also removed or plastered over. Islamic features such as the mihrab, minbar, and four minarets were added. On 1st Feb 1935, it was secularized and opened to public as a museum.
We then moved to Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 12 entrances, 61 covered streets, and over 3,000 shops. Constructed during 1455-61, The Grand Bazaar came to its full glory during 17th Century when Ottoman Empire was ruling three continents and became an unrivaled market in Europe for quality and abundance of goods. Shopping in such a historic bazaar is always thrilling and we were no exception. However today it has become a market only for tourist and bargaining is the only “Mantra” so as to avoid getting cheated with exorbitantly highly priced goods.
We then moved to Galata Tower. Though going up the tower was not in the itinerary, I took the elevator services spending 25 TL and was amazed with the panoramic view of Bosphorus, Blue Mosque, Golden Horn from the top. Galata tower has a long history. It was built of wood by the Byzantines in 528 AD as a lighthouse, reconstructed with stone in 13th Century, repaired by Turkish Architect Murad Bin Hayreddin after it was destructed during an earthquake. It was also used as a place for Christian Prisoners of War during 15th Century. After taking a few snaps from the top, I proceeded to Dersaadet Restaurant for a Turkish Dinner.
Dersaadet Restaurant is a fine restaurant just on the Golden horn crowded with fish lovers. One can find people fishing from the rooftop and can expect fresh fish cuisines. After enjoying a nice dinner, we moved to the hotel.
Early morning after having a delicious breakfast at Mercur Hotel, we moved to Camilica Hill situated on the Asian side of Istanbul after crossing the Bosphorus Bridge. The hill is a popular visitor attraction. There is historical-designed teahouses, cafes and a restaurant inside a public park with monumental trees, flower gardens and fountains, run by the Metropolitan Municipality. After enjoying the panoramic view of southern part of Bosphorus, mouth of Golden Horn and Istanbul city.
We then moved to the harbour near Golden Horn to catch the cruise for a half day Bosphorus tour. Like last time we again moved upto Black Sea and cherished the beauty of the various tourist attractions seen a day before, but with a closer eye. After having lunch at Taksim Square, we moved to Pierre loti Hill by Cable Car to witness the end of Golden Horn.
The Golden Horn is an inlet of the Bosphorus with two rivers draining into it at the far end. It is considered to be the world’s largest natural harbour and separates the European shore of Istanbul into two. As a natural and extremely secure harbour, the Golden Horn has played an important role in the development of Istanbul. With the absence of tides and currents, the Byzantine Empire had its naval headquarters in this 7.5 km long Bosphorus inlet. I was wondering why it is named as Golden Horn and asked Selma. She explained it beautifully. There are two legends that explain the adjective ‘golden’. According to the first legend, the Byzantines threw so many valuables into it during the Ottoman Conquest that the waters glistened with gold. The second and more plausible story says that name is given because of the gold light that seemingly comes out of the river when the sun goes down.
With sun setting behind the horizon, we started coming down from Pierre Loti Hill. Next destination is the famous Spice Market. With around 85 shops selling spices, Turkish Delight, Saffron, Caffeine etc, the place is one of the most favourite destination for both locals and tourists. Chengis, the owner of Shop No 26 was a nice gentleman and offered some good discount which I could not ignore and ended up buying more than what I planned, which later costed me few thousand bucks more in Delhi Airport due to excess luggage. We then moved to Restaurant “Swaad” and dined before moving to the Hotel
Today is our last day in Istanbul. While as per itinerary everyone moved to Grand Bazaar to do some last minute shopping, a few of us preferred to visit the last two places I planned for – Basilica cistern and Hammam.
Basilica Cistern located next to Hagia Sophia was built during the 5th century during the reign of Byzantine. The cistern is 143 mtr long, 65 mtr wide with 336 numbers 9 mtr high marble columns arranged in 12 rows with 28 numbers in each row. This underground water reservoir is also called Yerebatan Cistern because of its underground marble columns. The most popular spot here is two Medusa heads, which are used as supports under the two columns at the northwest edge of the cistern and symbolize the great work of art from the Roman period.
We then moved to have a Turkish bath, popularly known as Hammam. The Turkish bath starts with relaxation in a warm room that is heated by a continuous flow of hot, dry air, hot stones etc allowing the bather to perspire freely. Bathers may then move to an even hotter room (known as the hot room) before they wash in cold water. After performing a full body wash and receiving a massage, bathers finally retire to the cooling-room for a period of relaxation. Selma was explaining that till today, mother of groom take the would be bride to Hammam not only to have some fun but also to check the physical condition of the bride before giving her final nod in case of arranged marriages. In the hot room I was sitting with 84 year old George from Scotland who comes to Istanbul every year to meet his Indian and Pakistani friends residing in Istanbul. So nice to see a man of 84 years with so much energy and fun which is really infectious.
After thoroughly enjoying the Hammam experience and a few quick bites of Kebab, we started for the airport to catch TK-716 to Delhi. Didn’t remember when I fell asleep while talking to Clemens from Austria who is visiting Guwahati to explore Northeast India. Suddenly jolting of the flight while landing in Delhi Airport woke me up. A sense of ending engulfed me.
Good bye till I find my next destination.
Also published on Medium.