Thursday, January 9, 2014

Traipsing in Turkey Part - 2, Istanbul Tales: The First Part.....

The Bosporus and Ferries, the Bridge in the Background

Ataturk Airport, Istanbul
Like a majority of tourists visiting Turkey we entered through Istanbul, it's the largest city and commercial capital. An ancient city, Istanbul has seen many kingdoms rise and fall and has been known by a variety of names. 
Bosporus View from our Apartment

As mentioned in the last blog, we divided our stay in Istanbul in two tranches. The first one to indulge in pure sightseeing, subsequently leaving the city to take in Cappadocia and then coming back again for a few days of 'Retail Therapy' for the ladies and for the author to get his fill of Architecture and Culture and also to enable him visit the 'Fleshpots' and 'Food Points' of Istanbul. Unless your destination in Turkey is only Istanbul, this is the recommended option, as it allows you to postpone storage of bulky purchases to the time before you directly depart the city and country.
Europe foreground and Asia background

A transcontinental city, Istanbul straddles the Bosporus—one of the world's busiest waterways, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Its commercial and historical center lies in Europe, while a third of its population lives on the Asian side. It is strategically located along the historic Silk Road and on the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Playing host to millions of foreign visitors, annually, Istanbul was named a European Capital of Culture in 2010. It's the world's fifth-most-popular tourist destination. 
A variety of visitors in Istanbul
The city's biggest draw remains its historic center, partially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is so much to enjoy in the city, that it can be and often is a destination in itself for many visitors, who never venture beyond it.

It is almost impossible to pay full tribute to its wealth of culture, architecture, cuisine, handicrafts and its general atmosphere in one or two short visits. It remains a place that one can go to again and again and discover something new every time. The sheer variety and volume of experiences provided by Istanbul resulted in this blog on the city being divided into two parts so as to enable readers to get a flavour of what the author experienced.
Istanbul Old and New
A short historical reference, Istanbul was founded around 660 BC as Byzantium, the city has a significant history. It has served as the capital of no less than four empires. Named Constantinople in 330 AD, it was in turn the capital of the Roman Empire (330–395), the Byzantine Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922).
Relics of a Bygone Age
The Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453 and introduced strong Islamic influences. The city became the seat of the last caliphate. In the Ottoman period, the city expanded and many notable monuments were built. It's name slowly evolved from Konstantiniye to Stamboul and finally to Istanbul, which name was formalized only in 1920.

Istanbul offers the visitor an almost endless choice of stay options, ranging from Luxury Heritage Hotels, excellent business hotels, budget hotels, hostels, B&B places and service apartments. 
Istanbul Hotel and Residence Buildings
There is something available for every budget. That being said, accommodation is relatively expensive specially for Asian tourists. Visitors on a tight budget may consider staying on the Asian side of the city and using the efficient and cheap ferries to cross over to the European side.

We had booked a service apartment in the happening Beyoğlu district. Our 3 bedroom flat was beautiful with modern furniture and appliances, and had stunning views of the Bosporus with Bridge in the background. We regularly breakfasted in the sit out balcony. 
Bosporus Panorama from our Apartment
The ever changing panorama of shipping plying in the blue waters, the traffic on the Bridge and the lights in the evening, were an absolute delight.

A word of caution for first time visitors, Istanbul is quite hilly and many buildings are approached through steep narrow streets. While most up-market hotels have vehicular access, many apartments and popular priced hotels require the visitor to climb stairs or walk up or down steep slopes to get to them, as not all are accessible to cars, people with restricted mobility may have difficulties. 
Note the City's Hilly Terrain
Our apartment, too, while very conveniently located and with great views, was in a building almost at the end of a narrow steep dead end street, that had to cabs routinely reverse down the slope for about 150 meters. Most drivers did not go down, and we had to negotiate about 100 or so stairs from the main road.

If difficult access is an issue, please check before booking.

Playing Tourist

There is so much to see and do in Istanbul, that unless the visitors have enough time at their disposal, it is advisable to plan judicially and pick and choose those places that one wants to visit. 
An Old Fountain
There is absolutely no fun in trying to take in too much at one bite, as it prevents the traveler from enjoying the Architecture, Beauty and Atmosphere of the Monuments, Bazaars and the City in general.

It is for this reason that the author is not a votary of that 'Corner Stone' of group travel - the dreaded 'Guided City Tour'. 

Domes of the Blue Mosque
Most visitors to Istanbul would normally always cover the most popular tourist attractions, with the first four listed below being 'Must See'. Luckily these are all in close proximity, allowing those visitors who have limited time at their disposal to visit them over two days. In fact the 'Been There, Done That' tourist could probably cover all these in a day, just taking in the salient features.

Istanbul's Metro Tram

The city's public transport system, specially on the European side is excellent. It offers almost all the known forms of public transit. One can ride on buses, metrobuses, subway trains, suburban trains, trams, funiculars, cablecars, ferries, fast ferries, sea-buses, sea-taxis and shared point to point taxis. 
Istanbul Ferry
Almost all of them can be used by one single payment system called Istanbulkart which is a contactless electronic card. The Istanbulkart is sold at ticket booths near major transportation hubs like Eminönü, Taksim and Beşiktaş at newspaper stands and kiosks near major transit stops like, Sultanahmet, Sirkeci etc.

Antique Tram - Istikal Avenue
You pay a refundable deposit for the card itself, then you can load as much credit as you’d like on it using the self-service kiosks marked ISTANBULKART DOLUM NOKTASI, meaning- Istanbulkart refill point.

If you are in the city less than 4 days, don't bother with an IstanbulKart. Buy a “jeton” (token) or “elektronik bilet” (electronic tickets) from the vending machines clearly marked as Jetonmatik and Biletmatick. Alternatively, you can find electronic tickets at the newspaper stands, kiosks and ticket booths near stations, piers and stops.
Istanbul's Colourful, Convenient Trams 
Metro stations are marked with letter M in blue and red colors. Trams are convenient and offer good value. There is extensive on-going work to extend metro coverage. The world’s first intercontinental tube project, Marmaray, which will connect Europe and Asia through a tube beneath the Bosphorus Strait is currently underway.
A Ferry Sets Off
Ferries are an essential part of urban transportation as Istanbul is a city of the seas.. They are clean, comfortable and inexpensive way of crossing to the other side of the city. There are also fast ferries and sea-buses.

Multicoloured Istanbul buses are easily available and inexpensive. They accept IstanbulKart and/or electronic tickets
Ferry Terminal near Apartment
Havatas Shuttles, basically shared, fixed stop, mini bus taxis are a cheap way to go from either of Istanbul’s airports to the city center. Their stops are conveniently located in front of the arrivals exit of the both airports. A favourite with backpackers.

Armed with electronic tickets the Bakshi party set-out to sample the delights of the city. A steep staircase down brought us to the Tram Terminal from where we embarked on our tour to the main attractions of Old Istanbul. 
Public Drinking Water Fountain

The city offers many other attractions. The author's listing is by no means comprehensive as this is not a guide book sort of blog. It is more in the way of 'sampling suggestions', and probably, visitors and travelers would and may tinker with their own plans and itineraries to accommodate those facets that suit them. Istanbul luckily offers something for everyone, even for those not really interested in History and Architecture.


The Blue Mosque
One of the premier attractions of Istanbul is the 'Sultan Ahmet Mosque', also known as the Blue Mosque in the Old City. It is so named because of the lovely blue Iznik tiles decorating the interior. Designed by Sedefkar Mehmet Aga, it was built by Sultan Ahmet in 1609.

It was a huge complex of a mosque, a madresa (theological school), turbe (tomb), hospital, caravanserai, primary school, public kitchen and market, although many parts were destroyed by a fire. The Blue Mosque is open all day except during prayer times.

Inner Courtyard - The Blue Mosque
Entry to the Blue Mosque

A majestic building, on entering the courtyard the visitors see the six minarets towering in front of them, enclosing subsidiary domes, each rising higher than the other, until the eye is drawn to the main dome. 
Once inside, the blue tiles, the calligraphy, the painted arabesques on the roof of the dome and the stained glass windows gradually unfold into a bright and open effect that is produced by the 260 windows through which sunlight streams in, showing colourful patterns. The whole effect, with the devout praying and others sitting quietly, is mystic.
Stained Glass Windows in the Blue Mosque 
Dome, Tiles and Calligraphy

We wandered around, marveling at the magnificent architecture, stained glass windows, calligraphy and tile work, took the obligatory photographs and then crossed over to the Hagia Sophia, taking in one of the public fountains en-route.


Hagia Sophia from the Outside
This massive 6th century UNESCO world heritage building, lies across the road from the Blue Mosque, in the old city quarter. It is the third church to be built at the same location, and was built by the emperor Justinian in 537 AD, after the second of the two churches on the site was destroyed by fire.

The dome was opened up 20 years later by giving it 40 windows along its perimeter, after a partial collapse, both to reduce stress on the dome as well as light up the interiors. 
 Dome, Painting and Calligraphy, Hagia Sophia
It remained the largest Church in the world for almost a thousand years until the opening of Seville Cathedral in 1511.

It served as a church till 1453, when the city was conquered by the Ottomans led by Mehmet II. He ordered the conversion of the church into a mosque. 
Sultan's Loge
This was done with a light hand, with Islamic additions of calligraphy inside and outside, a mihrab at the site of the original pulpit, mimber, muezzin's loge, sultan's loge and library and a later addition of minarets. The building and Christian decorations were generally not interfered with. 
As Islam became more dogmatic, under the Ottoman Rulers, original frescoes were partly defaced and most plastered over. 
Empress Zoe Fresco Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia also served an important role in defining Islamic Architecture in Turkey, with talented Architects like Sinan and Aga incorporating elements from it into the Blue Mosque, Suleimanya Mosque and many other palaces, mosques and buildings throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Comenenus Mosiac Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia remained an active mosque till early 20th century. In 1935, Kemal Ataturk, the great reformist of Turkey, ordered it to be converted into a museum that it remains today. It was a great statesman like decision, as it prevented friction between Muslims and Christians as to using it as a place of worship. 
Interior Hagia Sophia
That being said, however, over the last few years this controversy has raised its head again with different factions demanding that it be converted back to a Mosque or Church, as the case may be. 

The exterior and interior of the building are both impressive. The massive emperor's door, 7 meters high and reputedly containing timbers from Noah's ark, gives access to the inside.

The stained glass windows in the dome convey a feeling of lightness. The dome itself is about 56 meters high and is supported by massive external buttresses. The interior of the dome is beautifully decorated with tile motifs. 
Stained Glass Windows

The golden emperor's loge and the marble preacher's loge sparkle in the light of chandeliers modeled after ancient designs. The feeling of space is overwhelming.

Calligraphic Panels
The eight large calligraphic panes have beautiful Arabic calligraphy, portraying the names of Allah, Muhammad and other historic figures and caliphs.

Most visitors tend to ignore the upper galleries, a mistake. It is here that one finds the original mosaics and frescoes that decorated Hagia Sophia when it was a Church. 
Details of Dome and Galleries - Hagia Sophia
These were plastered over in Ottoman times, but now some have been largely restored to their former glory. This was one of the few buildings in the world where Christian and Islamic Iconography co existed for many centuries. The Museum section, too, is worth a visit with collections of metal work, mosaics, holy texts and icons.
Tomb of Kings outside Hagia Sophia
There are ornate fountains and tombs of Ottoman kings just outside the main Hagia Sophia building but within the complex. These are worth spending sometime over. The monument opens from 9:00 to 17:00 hours except for Mondays.
Tired - Gurmeet, Kavita

By late afternoon, the ladies were tired out after walking around the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, the nephew was suffering from a culture overdose. 
Cruise Boat near Galata Tower

The author, bowing to popular demand, curtailed the days sightseeing and took them out for an evening and sunset cruise of the Bosporus and then out to a Turkish Dance show.
A far more expensive option than exploring old monuments!.
Turkish Ladies Dance

The next day we set out sightseeing again, but not before the ladies had obtained a promise that this would be only up to 3:30 pm and one would then accompany them for shopping in the Grand Bazaar, effectively exchanging the sublime for the ridiculous!.
Turkish Folk Dance
A steep walk to the Tram, Our first stop of the day was,

Salutation Gate - Entry  to Top-Kapi Palace
This Palace takes its name from the main sea gate, as in 'Top' = Canon and 'Kapi' = Gate, located in the defensive walls of Constantinople, as Istanbul then known.
It was constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed II, and added on to by various Ottoman Sultans.
 1st Courtyard  Hagia Irmi Church

It not only served as the residence and court of the Ottoman sultans, as also the administrative center of the state. In the early 1850s, as more space was required, the sultans moved to Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the Bosphorus. 

Prophet Muhammad's Letter, TopKapi
Despite this move, the royal treasure, the Holy Relics of the Prophet Muhammad, and the imperial archives continued to be preserved at Topkapý, and it continued to play host to certain state ceremonies.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, consequent to the abolishment of the Ottoman monarchy in 1922, converted the Topkapý Palace into a museum in 1924.
Ornate Gates and Corridors, TopKapi Palace

The Topkapý Palace complex, which developed and grew over the centuries, has a design centered on various courtyards and gardens, around which were arranged offices devoted to state business, buildings and pavilions that served as the residence of the sovereign, the Harem and the buildings assigned to court employees who lived in the palace.

Along with the Harem, there are four main courtyards in the palace, the first is known as the courtyard of the Janissaries or European slaves, who formed a part of the Ottoman army. 
Domed Divan Chamber - Second Courtyard
In this courtyard there are three main buildings: Aya Eirine (the Church of Divine Peace), the Mint- the minor treasury of the Ottoman Empire and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

The second courtyard served as the official working section of the palace, and holds the Divan - Chamber of the Viziers, the imperial kitchens, bakery and storage rooms. 
Inside The Domed Chamber
The third courtyard holds the Arz Odasi - audience hall of the Sultan, the Enderun- palace school, various halls and sections displaying the ceremonial dresses of the Ottoman Sultans, Holy relics, the portraits of the sultans, a Library and the Treasury.
Pavillion - TopKapi
The fourth garden court is built on varying levels decorated by kiosks and pavilions. The Baghdad and Revan Pavilions, Mecidiye Kosk and a mosque can all be found here.

The Imperial Harem, the Harem-i Hümayûn, is an independent complex opening out into the second and third courtyards. 
Entry to The Harem, TopKapi
Built in the early 16th century, it has over 300 rooms some of which are open to the public. The harem buildings and structures have quarters for every hierarchical group that resided in the harem, clustered around a courtyard. 
TopKapi Diamond

These apartments (Daires) were occupied respectively by the Harem Eunuchs, the Chief Harem Eunuch (Darüssaade Ağası), the Concubines, the Queen Mother, the Sultan's Consorts, the Princes and the Favourites. E
xcept for the sultan, no one was allowed to trespass beyond the gates of the harem. 
Harem - Decorative Details

Parts of the Harem areembellished with decorations ranging from Ottoman classical to Italian-inspired Ottoman Baroque style. 
Imperial Carriages

Except for the 'Culturally Besotted', there is no need or indeed no way in which a visitor can cover this palace in reasonable time. One's advice to the traveler is, pick and choose as to what looks interesting to you and visit the main attractions in the various courtyards. Try and visit the stables to see the lavishly decorated Imperial carriages. 
Golden Horn from TopKapi 
Do not, however, miss the great views of the Golden Horn from the Palace Terraces.

Basillica Cistern, Istanbul
The Underground 'Basilica Cistern' or 'Yerebatan Sarayi' in Turkish, meaning 'Sunken Palace'; is a great underground chamber that was used in times of siege built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It is the largest and most beautiful Byzantine cistern of its kind. One of several hundred located under the city of Istanbul.
 Bakshis at the Cistern

Long forgotten after the Ottoman conquest, it was re-discovered in 1545 and was used to store and supply water to the gardens of Topkapi Palace.
Gurmeet at a Medusa Pillar - Cistern

The original 'Green Building', It's construction comprises totally of different recycled materials from other ruins around the Byzantine Empire. 
Interesting columns and carvings such as the late Roman period Medusa heads, pictured with Gurmeet here, can also be seen. 
Medusa Column
Legend has it that the Medusa blocks are oriented sideways and inverted in order to negate the power of the Gorgons' gaze, a more practical explanation, however, is that these were so oriented in order to match the size of the columns above.

Today it has a rather eerie, dark ambiance, which has often been used to advantage in movies such as the famous James Bond film, 'From Russia with Love' in 1963 and 'The International' in 2009. Clever spotlighting makes the water shimmer with colored dancing lights as it ripples, with occasional glimpses of fish swimming in the dark waters.
 Restaurant Near TopKapi Palace
As promised to the ladies, we finished with the Cistern and had a nice Turkish Kebab lunch at one of the many restaurants that dot this area. 

Kebabs for Lunch
We then set-out to walk the short distance to the famous Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world with 60 streets and 5,000 shops.
Gate to The Grand Bazaar 
Constructed between 1455 and 1461 by the order of Sultan Mehmed, it was enlarged in the 16th century, by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1894 it underwent a major restoration, following damage in an earthquake.

Antique Market Gate - Inside Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is well known for its shops that sell Carpets, Jewellery, Handicrafts', Hand-painted Ceramics, Sweetmeat and Spices and Antiques. 
Gurmeet at The Grand Bazaar
Stalls in the bazaar are grouped by type of goods, with special separate areas earmarked for spices, jewellery, handicrafts and the like. 
The inveterate shopper can spend days exploring this labyrinth of streets and sub bazaars. 
Lamp Market - Grand Bazaar
Visitors be warned, however, that while there are nice goods and bargains to be found here, most shops cater to tourist trade and many work on the principle of 'Caveat Emptor '- 'Let The Buyer Beware', so look around, compare prices and quality and finally, bargain hard but politely. 
Spice Shop - Grand Bazaar

That evening, we went out to a dance performance that featured 'The Whirling Dervishes', and also traditional, if it can be called that, Turkish Belly Dancing.

Turkish Delight and Other Sweets
That, along with many other things like food, shopping, excursions and other experiences in the city, however, is a story for the second part of the Istanbul Tales!......

Happy  Travels, 
Reading and Experiences.

Rustam Pasha Mosque, The Golden Horn and Bosporus Tour Boats  at Dusk