Turkish delight

Published : Jun 15, 2007 00:00 IST

Istanbul is a city rich in architectural wonders that bridges two continents - Europe and Asia.


THE plane tilts alarmingly to the side in preparation for landing at Ataturk International Airport. I gasp - three seas (the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean), two straits (the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles) and three illuminated bridges across the Golden Horn make for such a dazzling combination that even the smog takes on the seductive appearance of a veil that reveals more than it conceals.

Between the Bosphorous and the Sea of Marmara lies the star-studded expanse that is Istanbul. A dozen-odd illuminated domes and their pencil-like minarets rise skywards as if challenging me to spot their crown jewel, the unrivalled Aya Sofia. All of them look equally grand and imposing. Finally, I give up trying to locate the queen among a bevy of bejewelled beauties.

The Bosphorus is ablaze with a zillion lights shimmering through the miasma of suspended particulate matter and bunker fuel fumes. After all, this is the world's second most choked waterway after Straits of Malacca. But for the Bosphorus and its twin, the Dardenelles, Russian oil would have to circumnavigate half the globe to reach its markets. Now it is just a short haul from Novorossisk terminal to the Mediterranean. Every year, 50,000 tankers pass through the straits carrying barrels of crude oil and other merchandise, making this one of the busiest sea-lanes in the world.

But the Bosphorus' claim to fame extends beyond its transit route status. The 30-km-long strait divides Istanbul, and indeed Turkey, into two halves straddling two continents - Europe and Asia. The division is not merely geographical; it has come to haunt the very psyche of the Turkish nation, its identity and its polity. Turkey is undergoing an identity crisis that tugs at the very fabric of its society. On the one hand Turkey has been eagerly awaiting its admission into the enlarged European Union, on the other, forces at home seem intent on emphasising the country's Islamic and Asian identity.

Headscarves are the most hotly debated issue in Turkey today and their significance goes beyond symbolism. The Turkish people recently forced the withdrawal of a presidential candidate because his wife wore a headscarf. The protesters drew support from the country's `secular' army, which in the last half a century has intervened four times to dismiss democratically elected governments. At this moment Turkey is struggling to reconcile its democracy with secularism.

The taxi ride to downtown Istanbul offers me a worm's eye view of the same illuminated monuments silhouetted against a dark blue horizon. I am still none the wiser as to what is what since my taxi driver speaks no English. I check into a family-run hotel in Sultanahmet that I had booked online. The surly chain-smoking manager is taciturn and unhelpful and merely nods vaguely when I ask him for directions to Aya Sofia. It is past ten, but I have been advised not to miss the sight of Aya Sofia by night. So I hurry outside into the chilly Turkish night and pick my way through the cobbled streets. As soon as I turn the corner, I am awestruck by the discreetly lit monument looming ahead.

Aya Sofia - also known as Hagia Sophia or Sancta Sophia (Church of Divine Wisdom) - is Istanbul's pride and joy, and deservedly so. It is often referred to as one of the greatest and most beautiful buildings in the world. Built by Emperor Justinian nearly 1,500 years ago, this church-turned-mosque-turned-museum stands on the site of Byzantium's Acropolis. Justinian's church was completed in A.D.532 and was considered the greatest church in Christendom. It was the seat of Byzantine imperial ceremonies when Istanbul was known as Constantinople. Sultan Mehmet, who conquered Turkey in 1453, turned it into a mosque. Mercifully, the conversion stopped short of interfering with its original structural harmony. In 1935, Kamal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic, declared the monument a museum. Islamic calligraphy is emblazoned on four massive discs that hang from the walls, distinctly later additions. But they seem ill at ease in a predominantly Christian structure dominated by Roman mosaics.

Aya Sofia's dome is grand and gorgeous. When Justinian first entered the completed church, he exclaimed, "Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon, I have outdone you."

You have to tilt your head a full 180 degrees to admire the arches, lattices and faded mosaics that seem to float somewhere above. This dome soars 55 metres high without any visible support. Forty concealed ribs made of special porous clay bricks brought from Rhodes support this magnificent arch. But over the years earthquakes have brought down the dome more than once and both Byzantine and Ottoman emperors rebuilt the dome, the buttresses, ribs and other support systems several times. In fact, the interior of Aya Sofia wears a perpetual scaffold that covers a quarter of the dome and runs all the way from the roof to the floor. I ask the attendant how long it will stay. He says it has been there for over 11 years and no one knows when the work will be completed.

The glitter of numerous golden mosaics dating from A.D.400 adorn the walls and naves. Figures of St. John of Chrysostom, St. Ignatius Theodorus of Antioch, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, St. Ignatius the Younger and the Madonna and Child look down upon us with benign and beatific countenance. Some of them, of course, are obscured from view by the scaffolding.

The other jewel in the crown of Istanbul is the Topkapi Palace. Built by Sultan Mehmet in 1453, this palace served as the home of the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years and has witnessed its fair share of palace intrigues and conspiracies. At its zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire extended over three continents: Europe, North Africa and West Asia - from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. It included Sudan, Yemen, Austria and Slovenia. From 1840 onwards, the Turkish royal family preferred the more European Dolmabahce palace to which the royal residence moved.

Entering the Topkapi is hugely expensive and time-consuming - it takes hours to procure a ticket, especially for individual travellers. But once inside, you are treated to a parade of the most luxurious pavilions, audience chambers, courtyards, and gardens. The royal kitchen has 12,000 exhibits of porcelain and china dishes. The treasury houses some exquisite objects of the Ottoman Empire.

The harem, which is open to visitors for an additional fee, is a huge let-down; except for a couple of rooms with lovely stained glass windows and a bathroom with extravagant fittings, it is otherwise disappointing. I head towards the open-air pavilion, which overlooks the dreamy, misty Golden Horn with its incredible views.

Galata Bridge is the soul of the Golden Horn. It links the affluent northern suburbs with the bustling bazaars of the old town. Beygolu and Cihangir, which Orhan Pamuk writes about with nostalgia, are at the northern end of Galata Bridge. But the bridge seems to have a life of its own. Anglers - most seem to be office-goers on their way back home - crowd the pavement that runs the entire length of the bridge, waiting patiently for their day's catch even as trams, buses and taxis swish past them. Fishing tackle and bait are available to hire on the spot and the catch is plentiful. "These fish are doped with toxins from the ferry traffic and don't offer much resistance," one angler tells me with a wink. At the mezzanine level of the bridge, kebabwallahs and dhabas do brisk business and the place is redolent with coal smoke and the smell of singeing meat. Further below, boats take off in all directions.

Boats are the favoured means of transport in Istanbul. I board a passenger ferry from Eminonu Iskelesi to Uskudar in the Asian continent. The boat is packed with commuters - mostly office-goers returning home. The journey is dreamy and unlike any I have ever experienced. The shores on both sides are spangled with fairy lamps and at this hour the Golden Horn is replete with traffic. I am baffled by a city that is riven between two continents and linked only by ferries. The very concept seems incredible. Yet, the people of Istanbul take it in their stride. What if there is some accident in the Golden Horn or the Bosphorus and ferry services come to a halt, even if only for a few hours? What if there is a storm that disrupts services? How do these people reach home? I could contain my curiosity no longer and start a conversation with a fellow commuter. He confirms that the Bosphorus is notorious for accidents and ferry services have been disrupted several times, a fact that Pamuk also mentions in his book.

There is, I realise after all the worry, a bridge that connects the two continents. Built in 1973, it is a gravity-anchored suspension bridge and is simply called Bosphorus Bridge. It connects the northern shores of the Golden Horn with the Asian part. It is 1.5 km long and has a clearance of 64 metres from sea level, high enough for oil tankers to pass underneath. It comes into view as we near Uskudar. The Bosphorus' sole bridge looks more like tangled spaghetti than a lifeline between two continents.

The Asian shore is buzzing with activity. Street vendors with their carts piled high with food and fruits do brisk business. The sound of azaan wafts from a mosque across the ferry terminal. There are many women about, some with headscarves and many without. For the moment, headscarves are certainly a matter of personal choice. How long will it remain so is the million-lira question.

I turn back lest it gets too late and I get stranded in Asia. But instead of boarding the ferry bound for old Istanbul where my hotel is situated, I seem to have landed myself on another ferry which merrily chugs away from the by-now-familiar domes of Aya Sofia. And unlike the earlier boat that brought me here, this one seems virtually empty. I panic and wonder whether it is going to sail all the way to Russia/Ukraine/Bulgaria/Greece or whatever other country that fringes the Black Sea. I rush to the captain's wheel to find a lone deckhand to whom I gesture wildly, pointing to the receding domes of Aya Sofia. I keep repeating "Eminonu", thanking my stars for remembering my destination. He nods his head vigorously and mutters something like "Beskitas". After a few minutes of this futile mime, I give up and settle down resignedly on a bench, idly watching the thinning lights ashore and ruing my folly in venturing out into the unknown.

After about half an hour of this agony, the boat pulls up at Beskitas terminal on the far corner of the northern shore. After wandering around a bit, I spot the tram track and follow it until I find the tram stop. Soon I am on a tram that takes me back to Sultanahmet past the railway station stabling the Orient Express.

The next day, I board a tram and head for Pamuk's Beyoglu, the original European sector. It drops me at the modern funicular station. After a short haul on the metro, I find myself in Taksim Square, the place where Istanbullus like to congregate whenever they want to demonstrate or celebrate. Turkey's Republican movement started here and since then the city has witnessed many an impressive gathering here. The latest, of course, was the protest by a `secular' citizenry against Abdullah Gul's nomination for the country's presidency.

However, on the day I visit Taksim, the square is deserted except for a few tourists and some vendors selling nuts. I walk down Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's fashionable high street and am surprised to find the French embassy jutting out into the street without the huge walls, barricades and spikes behind which an overly security-obsessed diplomatic community barricades itself in Delhi. Nor are there any security men to shoo me off when I climb the steps of the portico to get a better angle for my shot of Istiklal Caddesi.

In the evening, I stroll to the Blue Mosque, which looks like a newer version of Aya Sofia from a distance but has no blue colour on the outside. A closer examination reveals that there are significant differences between the two structures. The name comes from the 20,000 blue Iznik tiles that adorn its interiors. Built by Sultan Ahmed, the Blue Mosque has six slender minarets and is perfectly proportioned. Unlike Aya Sofia, it is a living mosque where prayers are held five times a day. While the architect, Mehmet Aga, originally planned a worthy rival to the mighty Aya Sofia, he failed to come up with a design that would match the elegance and engineering perfection of the latter. Instead of an unsupported dome like that of Aya Sofia, he had to build four massive columns to hold up the dome of the Blue Mosque.

The interior is stunning. Harmoniously aligned stained-glass windows flood the interiors with natural daylight that highlight the lovely patterns on the roof and the arches. Verses from Quran have been inscribed in Arabic on the walls. Its harmony and elegance is mesmerising.

The Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern and other sights are all short distances from Aya Sofia. I make my way to the fabled bazaar to experience the sights and smells of this quintessentially oriental institution. Although it is called the `spice bazaar' one has to really search for the spice stalls now. It is unabashedly kitsch and even tourists avoid it now. I buy myself a Turkish treat - a box of baklava and a cone of chewy sugar candy stuffed with walnuts and head back to Galata Bridge. Real life in Istanbul happens there.

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