Istanbul – At the Crossroads of Continents

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Istanbul is known for its street food culture. With sunset, popular restaurants set up dining tables and chairs on the sidewalks. Delicious, inexpensive, hot, off the oven, the variety is limitless and taste awesome

View of Dolmabahce Palace from Steamer on Strait of Bosphorous
Hagia Sofiya

Text and pics by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Turkey baffles an average traveler endlessly. Where does it stand, in Europe or Asia?
Geographically it straddles both the continents. But one is not certain if the narrow turquoise strip of Bosporus joins Asia with Europe or separates them. But Istanbul, sprawling on either side, and embracing the twin ethos for sure renders faultlines hazy. Grecian domes coexisting with Islamic minarets; hijab-donning women smoking in public squares; Roman alphabets and oriental phonetics giving rise to an amalgam of languages; cacophony on the sidewalks authenticating the frenetic Asianness, but chaotic it certainly is not.

Cherished Goal
Turkey has relentlessly pursued the cherished national goal of joining the European Union (EU) for decades, so far without much success. Yet every speck of its existence testifies to its split personality and the dichotomy deep within. All through its chequered history since 1923 when Ataturk threw away the centuries-old Khilafat, Turkey has been continually balancing democracy with secularism.
Balancing comes naturally to the Turks, to Turkey and principally to Istanbul, the cradle of three great civilizations and epicentre of trade caravans for millennia from Asia, Africa and Europe. Ferryboats laden with tourists and cargo vessels jostle for space on the Bosporus today. But accounts from history suggest that in the heydays of the Ottoman empire, a normal day would see over fifteen thousand boats vying for space on the narrow strait, thereby obscuring the water itself. Ottoman Pashas, just as their Byzantine predecessors, had often addressed letters to neighbouring potentates to send people and merchants of all faiths, races and languages to come, settle, practice their skills and trade their goods and enhance the fortunes of the city. Armenians came and flourished as jewelers. Jews set up perfumeries, iron foundries and banking operations. Italians imported silk, paper and glass. Not merely sea lanes, Constantinople of yore and its new avatar Istanbul, were also at the crossroads of the three continents. Caravans of camels and mules unloaded a vast array of merchandise for Turkish middlemen to negotiate their sales. The city prospered with their creative energies.

Church to Museum
At the heart of Istanbul’s Golden Horn sits the grandiose Aya Sofiya or Hagia Sofiya, built by Byzantine emperor Justinian as a church called Sancta Sophia (Church of Divine Wisdom) in 533 AD. An architectural marvel, the massive 63-metre high dome looms against the sky and is held aloft without any visible support. It is said that forty concealed ribs made of special porous clay support the arches on which the dome sits. Turkey’s notorious quakes have brought it down several times and emperors rebuilt it. It was upon the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet in 1453 that Aya Sofia was converted into a mosque with addition of penciled minarets which became the signature of all Turkish mosques. It necessitated a ten degree repositioning of the pulpit to align with Makkah. Side bars of crosses over gigantic doors were removed. However, friezes in the domes and over arches were left intact, to tell the story of the makeover. After the 1923 revolution, Ataturk ordered it to be converted into a museum (muzesi in Turkish) open for people of all faiths.
Facing Aya Sofia stands the Sultanahmet Mosque across a vast concourse, at the centre of which stands a giant water bowl studded with fountains. The concourse is flanked on two sides by a Royal Hamam and Basilica Cistern, an underground Byzantine cistern built in 6th century AD for supply of water to the capital with a capacity to store 80,000 cubic metres of water.

Blue Mosque
Outwardly, there is nothing to suggest Sultanahmet Mosque to be called ‘Blue Mosque’, the popular name it is referred to with. Built between 1609 and 1616 under the reign of Sultan Ahmet by architect Sadefkar Mohammed Aga, this mosque is distinctive in style, with six minarets, five principal domes and eight side domes. The edifice stands on four pillars, each ten metres in diameter. The original complex used to have a madrasa, hospice, library and mausoleums. Around 20,000 blue Iznik tiles, specially ordered by the Sultan, were requisitioned for decoration of the walls. Around 200 windows with stained glass panes admit plentiful sunlight. The entire mosque has been designed in a fashion that the imam at the pulpit is visible to every single individual gathered for worship.

Awesome Food
Istanbul is known for its street food culture. With sunset, popular restaurants set up dining tables and chairs on the sidewalks. Delicious, inexpensive, hot, off the oven, the variety is limitless and taste awesome. Doner kebaps send out appetizing aroma that is difficult to resist. Hafiz Mustafa’s sweetmeat shops all across the city offer endless chewy kinds of candy stuffed with dried fruit. Samples are free and no questions asked. Wheelcarts along the bridges, pathways and tram stations offer corn-on-cobs roasted over charcoal or hot chestnuts popping out of their shells.

Vying for Pupil
Istiklal Caddesi or Istiklal Street is Istanbul’s Fifth Avenue. With sunset, it gets pedestrianised, with only a single-coach royal-style tram permitted to trundle on the single line. Clothe boutiques, stores for global brands and shoppers hawking objects ranging from dry fruits to medicinal herbs vie for attention. Restaurants in the side streets come alive, offering soups and fresh juices.

Anglers Haunt
With sunset, the double-decker Galata Bridge on the Bosporus gets thronged with anglers, who catch fish on the way home from office. A research study says these men catch almost seventy tons of fish on an average day. The 66-metre tall and cone-capped, cylindrical Galata Tower or Tower of Christ was built in 1386. Dominating the Istanbul skyline, this tower provides a panoramic view of the city. For the best part of Ottoman period, it was used to keep a watch on fires erupting around the city. But unfortunately this author could satisfy himself only with a distant view as a physical visit , although it is a must-visit site.

‘Second Solomon’
Sulemaniye is yet another grandiose mosque in Istanbul, built by Suleiman the Magnificent, who built it as his own self-conscious representation of being the ‘Second Solomon’, the builder of the Temple at the rock in Jerusalem. The construction was designed and guided by the great Turkish architect Mimar Sinan between 1550 and 1557. Suleiman and his queen Hurrem Sultana (also Roxelana) are buried in separate mausoleums behind the qibla (which is to the south in Turkey) wall. A truly magnificent building, Sulemaniye has four slender minarets and several domes, each painted exquisitely from inside. It is said to have been damaged several times due to fire and even suffered the collapse of its main dome once during the quake.
A visit to Istanbul is not complete without a boat ride in the Bosporus, said to be world’s most choked sea land. Ferryboats and steamers take the visitors along the two coasts€”Asian as well European€”unraveling the delightful panorama of the city, its gardens, palaces, mosques and castles. Notable among these is Dolmabahce Palace (literally ‘replete with gardens’). It was built during the reign of Ottoman emperor Abdelmejid between 1843 and 1856. It sprawls over 11 acres and has 285 rooms, 46 halls, six hamams and 68 toilets and was built at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion in today’s terms. During the years of its construction, the palace sucked almost one-fourth of the annual tax receipts of the empire, enough to render it ‘the sick man of Europe’. (to be concluded)
(The author was in Turkey during October 2018)