Last month, although the main purpose of our trip to Turkey was to attend the Gallipoli commemorations, we chose to stay an extra night in Istanbul after our Anzac adventure. We didn’t have many expectations of Istanbul, but within an hour we realised we had completely underestimated this majestic city so rich in culture, history and beauty.
Istanbul is a real East meets West experience, literally as well as figuratively. The city spans two continents (Europe and Asia), with its two parts connected by a bridge. Upon driving in and out of town, skyscrapers, glistening malls and brand new houses line the highways. The inner city suburb of Lalei where we stayed had more old-world charm and was a bustling center for locals and tourists alike. We wandered the narrow streets, always looking out for the rattling trams, speeding cars and nimble cart bearers.
With some new found Kiwi friends (from our Anzac tour), we experienced Turkish cuisine beyond Doner kebabs. One restaurant we went to treated us to delicious wine and a local specialty – Testi Kebabi. Our meat was slow cooked with vegetables and sauce in a sealed clay pot, which was set on fire to create steam pressure on the inside. The pressure caused the lid to eventually pop off (during an entertaining display by the waiter), and the hot, freshly cooked stew was poured directly onto rice at our table. To finish, Turkish Delight was in no short supply and we sampled many different flavours.
It was a 10 minute walk from our hotel to Sultanahmet – the more famous old town suburb, steeped in history, bursting with high end restaurants and boutiques selling stunning hand crafted items. Along the way, we came across broken columns and Romanesque ruins. They were in fact Roman, since Istanbul was once Constantinople – one of the three capitals of the Roman Empire. Hinting to an even more ancient history, some of the columns were adorned with Greek Corinthian designs. After an earthquake in the 1860’s, columns from the destroyed buildings were moved underground and used to support the Underground Cisterns.
These Cisterns once housed the city’s water supply, but have now been drained and are open to the public. We walked down a few flights of stairs into this softly lit cavernous space, where tall columns stretched to a high ceiling and the water below us (we walked on purpose built bridges) dampened all sounds.
Before long, we saw the Blue Mosque rising above the trees on the skyline, named because of the blue tiles lining the inside walls – blue being a holy colour representing the sky and house of god. The building itself is composed of a series of eight small domes, six spires and one huge, main dome. It used to be an educational as well as a religious institute, and the domed architecture can now also be seen on many university buildings in the area. We were required to don headscarves and remove our shoes before entering the large hall, where we were introduced to a place of worship which contrasts with the many christian cathedrals we have visited in Europe. One major difference is that there are no human faces painted or represented inside the mosque. Instead, handcrafted tiles, mosaics and geometric patterns line the walls and ceilings. The large prayer carpet is laid down so that worshippers can face Mecca. We learned that the Muslim people pray 5 times a day, say rosaries and that men and women pray differently (women gesture from their hearts and men from their ears).
Outside the mosque, as if Roman, Greek and Islamic influences weren’t enough to delight (and confuse!), there is an Egyptian obelisque, sent by Marc Antony. Actually, only half of the obelisque is in Istanbul as the whole obelisque was too large to transport!
Our next visit was the Hagia Sofia. This church really is a perfect example of the conglomeration of religious culture in Istanbul. The red clay to build the church comes from the Greek Island of Rhodes, the marble inside is from the Marmara Sea in Turkey and it is the 4th largest church in the world. It was initially built as a Greek Orthodox church and was converted to a Catholic one by the Romans, where many Emperors were coronated. After conquering Constantinople, Mehmet converted the Hagia Sofia to a Mosque, covering up the christian mosaics (especially the faces) with plaster. After the 1860 earthquake, many of the mosaics were uncovered but Italian artists were hired to replaster and recover them. In the 1920s, Atuturk converted the Hagia Sofia to a museum, and allowed the mosaics to be uncovered again – their restoration is still ongoing today. Inside we saw the two levels so that men and women could pray separately, the original christian altar, the art depicting Rome as the center of the world, and the later added Muslim altar, off-center so that it could point in the direction of Mecca.
Later, we wandered down to the port where our friend Shiv was on the NZ Navy ship Te Kaha. We walked together through the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen. Tulips were perfectly arranged in flower beds, colourful sculptures were dotted throughout and the clean paths took us to fountains surrounded by manicured hedges. Here we also saw some of the remnants of the old city walls – still standing from Roman times.
No visit to Istanbul would be complete without a trip to the Grand Bazaar. I was expecting this to be a cacophony of noise and hassling market stall holders but was pleasantly surprised by my peaceful shopping experience. The indoor market is huge, and a maze of side alleys and hallways – it is so easy to get lost, especially when distracted by the colourful pottery and glassware, sparkling gold jewellery and intricate carpets.
We left Istanbul wistfully wishing we had booked more time here. We didn’t make it to the famous Galata bridge for fresh fish, or to the Asian side of the city. We barely grazed the surface of this exciting, fascinating city which drew us in and earned our adoration almost instantly. I have saved some Turkish Lira and we plan to return sometime soon!