Shah Rukh Khan! The cry follows one as the rare brown face with “Indian” etched all over it winds through the Grand Bazar and the shopkeepers seek to catch your eye and your wallet. Reminiscent of another day, another market in Cairo almost a decade ago when the cry was “Amitabh Bachchan!” But perhaps that was the extent of “India” in a country that seemed to have the flavour of Bengali jhal muri: A medley of flavours jostling in to deliver mouthfuls of tangy, zingy kick.
Mixed metaphors aside, Istanbul provided the roving eye much to register as the burkha clad and fez wearing mingled effortlessly with the barely dressed tourist and Turk alike. The thin minarets of Istanbul’s many mosques stand out just as much as the flatter domes (as compared to India’s more buxom domes) in a mess of modern apartments and houses. The blue of the Bosphorous, a blue that is riveting, soothing and simply gorgeously aquamarine, bathes the shores of Istanbul in a mesmerising cloak of tranquillity. Mix it up and you get the perfect puffed rice concoction.
Not that the streets of Istanbul have any space for puffed rice as the revelry of meat, dairy, dry fruits, greens and fruits provide the perfect backdrop to enchanting spaces. For a few Turkish lira, the doner kebab is the ideal accompaniment to a walkabout. Niftily made in virtually every corner of the city, stuffed with chicken, lamb or beef, the doners are consistently fresh, juicy and filling. Despite the surrounding seas, fish turns out be fairly pricey. A foray into restaurants under the Galata bridge for fish throws up a choice ranging from octopus, red and grey mullet to varieties of bluefish, bonito, anchovy, scorpion fish, mackerel, swordfish, sea bass, haddock and pilchard. But even the most die-hard carnivore can’t escape the eye catching bounty of fresh greens and luscious fruits that abound in every corner, every plate and every meal. The other dominant theme is a profusion of delicious cheese, from short noodle shaped stringy cheese to salty, slightly grainy, thick textured cheese from sheep’s milk. Interestingly, many cheese carry a rather familiar appendage, paneer, in their names: Beyaz peynir, tulum peynir, Kelle peyniri, Örgü peyniri. Breakfast is often a simple spread of soft white bread with boiled eggs, different varieties of cheese, salamis and sausages, sliced tomatoes, crispy cucumbers and a variety of butter, cheese or olive spreads. Breakfast as a meal format, incidentally, can run through the day and we tucked into our first breakfast well into midday in what was essentially an all-day ‘breakfast’ place. For the rest of the day, Kofte and Kebap feature prominently in the menu of every eatery along with Salata, Pilav and Yogurt as accompaniments. There isn’t a very large variety in cooking methods with most meat being either roasted, grilled, batter fried or made into gentle curries that depend largely on the flavours of the meat being cooked.
Food, being the major preoccupation of tourists such as ourselves, got a better than average rating on most counts though the prices in the restaurants were not always budget friendly. But here is a city that offers a choice of dinner between 5 and 10 Turkish lira with an offering of chicken doner or fried fish wrapped in a newspaper. Or going upscale and splurging on a 80 to 100 lira meal for four people. Pilav and curry (mildly spiced gravy with chunks of chicken, lamb or beef) is the other option and served up across a variety of cafeterias. Turkish beer, mostly Efes, is refreshingly mild and keeps good company with most meals but there are days when a glass of Ayran, a cross between a lassi and chhach, does a much better job of quenching one’s thirst. Istanbul was hot but never humid in the week long sojourn and our feet found their way unerringly to little kiosks in shops where costumed Turkish lads twirled scoops of ice cream scoop in a rubbery, creamy visual opera. Ice cream was never served up straight as the ice cream man went through an elaborate juggle and jiggle before handing over a well topped up cone. Istanbul’s delights for a foodie don’t end without dropping into the many confectionaries that put out a tempting fare on virtually every street. The crispy, sugary, sticky Baklava is a merely a well-publicized sweet in a repertoire that extends from simple pastries and tarts to Helva, marzipan, milky deserts, Turkish delight, dates and nuts candy.
Before the fascination with the food comes the fascination with the people of Turkey. The city is a tableau in motion with cultural currents criss-crossing each other gently in every part of the city. From attire to mannerisms, the East-meets-West storyline is played out in mosques and bazars, tramlines to down town Istanbul. Women in shorts that defy bikinis on beaches stand patiently to enter the Blue Mosque confident in the provision of blue wrap arounds and plastic covering for shoes along with women in full hijab. Few eyebrows are raised on open amorous displays though tight bunches of oriental families keep a firm eye on their young ones. Little boys and girls stand at street corner or busy tourist junctions selling bottles of water. Huddles of middle aged men sit around in the evenings exchanging tales from the day that just passed. On either side of the Bosphorous strait, fishermen sit stitching up their nets and talking about the one that got away. If the women are pretty, the men of Istanbul have a handsomeness that is riveting. Every Turk seems to be born with features that inherently give a sense of character, dignity and grace.
Even the most weather beaten face has the quality of a sculpture and it is difficult to spot a face that qualifies as unappealing or ugly. Resat Ekrem Kocu made the beauty of the men of Istanbul the central focus of his epic Istanbul Encyclopaedia. Where Madrid had come across as a city of gorgeous women, Istanbul was a city of striking men. Little wonder then that men in Istanbul are seen in tourist haunts trying their luck with passing European women tourists who look remotely single.
But neither food nor the people of Turkey alone can define the Istanbul experience. The everlasting memories of the city will remain for most visitors the Bosphorus and the many mosques and minarets that define the skyline.
Istanbul is as European as it gets in its infrastructure and tolerance of cultural diversity and yet as Islamic as any Islamic society could well be with its very visible traditionally dressed men and women. The Turkish flag, more a symbol of the modern Turkey built by Attaturk Kemal Pasha, is visible across the city, marking out, in a sense, the dominance of the ‘secular’ state under the guardianship of the armed forces and the bureaucracy. The roads are well maintained and there is a clear, crisp quality to the air and to the blue, blue, blue skies.
For those wanting a script for a quick visit to Istanbul, here is the short, quick and dirty on the city built on seven hills: a visit to the Galata Tower, Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Dolmabache Palace and the Suleymaniye Mosque. Talk a walk on the Galata bridge, take the funicular from the Kabatas to Taksim Square, ride the nostalgic tram from Tunel to Taksim Square, hit the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice Market. Remember that the city sits astride seven hills and therefore the walks can, at times, be challenging. Top it up with the Bosphorus Cruise and then walk to the derelict lighthouse at the top of the hill at the fishing village of A Kavagi to take a view of the Bosphorous meeting the Black Sea. A little more time on hand and bung in a Cruise in the Sea of Marmara. We did give the belly dancing circuit a miss but there are more than enough programs on offer that should be easy to spot.
If that is the big picture, the beauty lies certainly in the detail. Take the Basilica Cistern across the Aya Sofia. A massive underground water storage and one of the many in Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern is home to two Medusa’s heads, one of which sits on its side at the base of one of the many pillars. The Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns. The Cistern is cool and dark, the pillars lit up to enhance the effect of being a “Sunken Palace” as its Turkish name, Yerebatan Sarayi, suggests, though now it is home to well fed fish. Much like the fountains in Rome, the underground cisterns have become wishing wells with a carpet of coins encouraging others to leave a wish behind.
The cistern is just a small representative of a massive water supply system built by the Romans. The Roman Valens Aqueduct or the Bozdoğan Kemei, an important landmark of the city, was part of gigantic system of aqueducts and water channels that sourced water from the slopes of hills between Kağıthane and the Sea of Marmara and stored it in ancient Constantinople in three open reservoirs and over a hundred underground cisterns.
To dwell on the cistern just a wee bit more, its two Medusa heads possibly originate from Roman buildings of yore though their orientation (upside down and sideways) remain puzzling and attributed largely to requirements of masonry rather than any ritualistic context. The walkabout platforms in the cistern are relatively new, replacing the boat rides that earlier were the only means to tour the underground “palace”.
The cistern sits across the road from arguably Istanbul’s most famous monument, the Aya Sofya or the Hagia Sophia Museum. The Aya Sofya is from the outside a jumble of architectural styles, dates back as it does to the Christian Era in Turkish history before being adopted as an Islamic place of worship and finally turning into a Museum with the ascendance of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Pasha. The Hagia Sophia (from the Greek, “Holy Wisdom”; Latin: Sancta Sophia; Turkish: Ayasofya) encompasses in its confines the sweep of Western Civilization, having being the Greek Patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople till 1453 with a brief interregnum as a Roman Catholic Cathedral. For the next five centuries till 1931, the Hagia Sophia stayed a mosque before being opened as a museum in 1935.
The confluence of civilizations, indeed their continuity, is most manifest in this defining building of Istanbul. The walls continue to be adorned with mosaics from its Christian antecedents. A ramp to the gallery on the first floor gives a breath-taking view of a huge domed place of worship. The dome, an architectural marvel, became the model to replicate for the many other magnificent monuments that dot the city: the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque, the Sulemaniye Mosque, the Rustem Pasha Mosque and the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque. The Aya Sofia is, on the inside, a relatively simpler structure with an expansive central space. The altar stands converted into a Miharib facing Mecca while the ceiling of the central dome has painted Arabic calligraphy. The transition to a mosque meant addition of minarets to the overall structure and over the course of 500 years, two minarets were added to the structure.
A gently sloping ramp inside the Aya Sofya leads up to a square gallery that overlooks the central hall. The gallery in itself is unremarkable but a closer study of the walls reveals mosaics, from the structure’s Christian period depicting the Virgin Mother, Jesus, saints, or emperors and empresses.
The vicinity of the Ayasofya is worth a look around given the relics and remnants of centuries of building – and dismantling – of the structure through centuries of religious and political transformations. The ruins and remnants speak as much as the Byzantine feel of the original structures.
Walk across from the Ayasofya to the Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, given its name for the colour of the interior tiles. A mosque that continues to be a place of worship, the dome was meant to replicate the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia but has attained its own unique space with its 8 domes, a central dome and six minarets. Blending Ottoman mosque and Byzantine church styles, the Blue Mosque’s minarets delight in their slim lines and pleasing grey stone facades. Unlike the more chunky and robust, almost militaristic, minarets of Indian mosques with their severe lines, the minarets in Istanbul are almost effeminate in grace, like twirling ballerinas reaching out to the skies with little witches hats and skirting of lace. The open courtyard of the mosque is an inviting square surrounded by arches and smaller domed ceiling with the minarets set as relief. Check out the designs in stone along the ceiling of the covered courtyard, simple and elegant , setting a rhythm to this place of worship. But the most compelling view from the courtyard is the rising crescendo of domes topped up by the central dome with the slim minarets standing sentry on either side. Inside the Blue Mosque, ornate pillars and domes rise in a poetry of motion with a predominance of blue tiles that gives the Mosque its more popular name. The central dome ringed with Arabic motifs in blue and brown rival the famed domes of Rome. The lack of human form, otherwise celebrated in Christian places of worship, paintings and sculpture, is not missed in the domes of Istanbul.
Here, as in much of Istanbul, the typical Turkish compromise of styles and values comes across and is a good pointer to why the country became the cradle of secularism that India was later to follow. If the architectural styles blended Islamic mosque formats with Byzantine church styles, the tradition continues in the effortless acceptance of women under-dressed by given standards of appropriate clothing for a mosque by providing wrap arounds and covers for shoes that are smoothly handed over and dispensed during entry and exit to the mosque. No sermons, no finger wagging, no loud arguments, no rudeness. Simple practical solutions have removed day to day ideological and religious strife.
That same spirit is as much evident in Topkapi Palace with its quaint witches hat, opulent harem, treasury room and the Privy Chamber where important holy relics of the Islamic world, including the Prophet Mohammed’s cloak and sword rest. Perhaps the huge gap between the sub-continental practice of Islam and that of the rest of the world is most evident in the understated display of the relics of Prophet Mohammed or other artefacts from Mecca and other parts of the Islamic world. The Privy Chamber houses the Chamber of the Sacred Relics which includes the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle where the cloak of Prophet Mohammed is on display. The most sacred relics of the Islamic world — the cloak of the Prophet Mohammad, two swords, a bow, one tooth, a hair of his beard, his battle sabres, an autographed letter and other relics, the swords of the first four Caliphs, The Staff of Moses, the turban of Joseph and a carpet of the daughter of Mohammed – are displayed in the Privy Chamber and can be viewed without the crush and fervour that often marks display of such relics other parts and religions of the world.
Crush and fervour are reserved for the royal harem which housed what is portrayed in the many signboards of Topkapi’s Harem as a place where the Ottoman Sultans carried out their supreme duties.
As one such signboard solemnly affirms, “For the perpetuation of the dynasty and service to the Ottoman Dynasty beautiful and intelligent girls brought from neighbouring countries became Cariyes, Concubines. Concubines who were introduced into the Harem in their tender age were brought up in the discipline of the harem and were promoted according to their capacities and became Kalfas and Ustas. The Concubine with whom the Sultan shared his bed became a member of the dynasty and rose in rank…” Clearly, running a harem was serious business with layers of accomplishment that needed to be chalked up over the years. Given the great importance that the harem had in keeping the Sultan and the Dynasty going, it was opulently designed from the living quarters to the hamam to outdoor swimming pools on the shore of the Bosphorus. The Harem quarters house breath-taking designs, usually Arabic motifs in gold against black or white backgrounds, right from the exterior façade of the Harem to the filigree of gold on the roofs of the open courtyard in the harem and the bright yellow glasswork in the stained blue glass windows to the gold painted dome of the room where the Sultan was entertained by his women.
The use of gold is, however, unrivalled in the Dolmabahce Palace which sits square on the Bosphorous and was the last administrative palace of the Ottomans and the place where Kemal Pasha spent his last days. The interiors of the Dolmabahce is reminiscent of the exaggerated opulence of Versailles with liberal use of gold, gigantic chandeliers and staircase of crystal. Fourteen tonnes of gold in the form of gold leaf were used to gild the ceilings while the overall design combines European styles with traditional Ottoman architecture. The Palace garden is a pleasant walk and host to magnificent flowers, not the least beign the white magnolias that droop heavily from their branches. If luck, and timing favours, the Mehter band will be performing outside the palace, as they have for centuries. The Ottoman military band, with their swinging march up to the gate of the Dolmabahce, makes for a riveting sight before it launches into a performance of military marching songs.
The first sight of the Dolmabahce Palace for most typically happens on the Bosphorus Cruise. Starting off at Eminonu nestled in the Horn, the cruise makes a stately passage down the straits with the company of sea gulls and dolphins, capturing on both sides much of the Ottoman history along the Bosphorus. The longer version of the cruise of six hours allows for a three hour stopover at A Kavagi for a walk up to the Rumeli lighthouse from where the confluence of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus makes an awesome sight. On the cruise watch out for the Rumeli And Antolian Fortresses, the Dolmabache Mosque and the Galata tower. The houses on both side stack up colourfully like Lego blocks, a little disoriented but adding to the charm. Minarets and domes peep out ever so often but the real charm of the cruise stays the aquamarine waters of the Bosphorus.
The Istanbul experience is a book in itself. A place to sit and ponder. To enjoy rather than rush about. The Coffee in the bazaars, the fine cheese served up with virtually every meal, the warmth of the people around. Somehow a lot of it comes together in the Suleymaniye Mosque, less visited by the tourists but representing “the artistic power of the great architectural genius Mimar Sinan and the political power of Sultan Suleyman the lawmaker”. As Orhan Pamuk writes in Istanbul: Memories and The City, “The beauty I see in Sulemaniye Mosque is in its lines, in the , elegant spaces beneath its dome, in the opening out of its side domes, in the proportions of its walls and empty spaces, in the counterpoint of its support towers and its little arches, in its whiteness and in the purity of the lead on its domes…”