When I hear of ‘Turkey’ what comes to mind usually is a fat over fed bird waddling around unaware waiting for the yearly Christmas chop. Strangely that image even manages to superimpose itself on one of the world’s ancient countries despite its glorious past or perhaps because of it for after all it was once called ‘the sick man of Europe’. But that is till one actually goes there. When you do as I did you will see not an overstuffed bird or even an ailing one but a beautiful nation in the making with a stunningly handsome people against a historically exciting backdrop.
Yet caught between two continents Turkey today is a slightly confused nation. It doesn’t quite know whether it is European or Asian. It would like to go with Europe naturally but its national character a result of centuries and centuries of Ottoman rule is at odds with its early Byzantine past. Nevertheless Kamal Ataturk the father of the new Republic of Turkey has managed to combine the two to a certain level of acceptance that now sits comfortably among his people.
Istanbul where the two continents meet over the Bosphorus is a shining example.
The Sultanahmet area or the old city of Istanbul which was home to both the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire boasts of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with the amazing underground water reservoir Basilica Cistern a few hundred yards away. All within walking distance. The Hagia Sophia which is under repair was once a cathedral. And is still just as Emperor Justinian reconstructed it in the 6th century after Constantine built it in the 4th century. After the sacking of Constantinople the Ottomans turned it into a mosque .Today it is a museum. A tribute to its present secular ideals.
Across from it is Mehmet’s Blue Mosque so called because of its blue tiles .A functioning Mosque one needs to cover one’s head and carry one’s shoes while entering. And in the same vicinity is the astoundingly airy underground cavernous cistern with its dark waters and dimly lit pillars and leaking roof. Two of its columns have the infamous Medusa’s head as a base.
If you walk around above on the cobbled pavements which you necessarily must when you sightsee you will also bump into Constantine’s Column, the German fountain of Wilhelm and a Serpentine column in bronze and yes Theodosius’s Obelisk which more or less comprises of the area covered by the Hippodrome which was once witness to exciting Chariot races. These relics speak of Istanbul’s tryst with its Byzantine past. Much before the coming of the Ottomans.
A little away is the Grand Bazaar a covered market which is a labyrinth of some three thousand shops and exciting bargains. From exotic carpets to Turkish delights which is Turkey’s famous sweet, it has them all. So has the even more ancient Spice or Egyptian Bazaar a few metro stations away at Emininou. A little smaller but nevertheless a happy bargainer’s paradise it is near the Golden Horn a natural harbor that marks the old and new parts. The Galata Bridge across it takes you towards the Asian side of the city. The Sirkeci station nearby is where the famous Orient Express made even more famous by Agatha Christie used to dock. All of which will make your trip more than worthwhile.
As we wander around sampling various touristy delights -there are cafes at every nook and crannie too- we are often accosted by shopkeepers shouting out their wares asking us to step inside a la Janpath in Delhi! ‘UK Indian or US Indian’ they yell and when told neither but ‘India Indian’ they laughingly come back with a ‘Then how can I harass you today?’
Like the Chinese they love to bargain. It takes you about a couple of shops to understand that they revel in it and what you will settle for ultimately will depend a lot on your own bargaining skills. You usually need to start at less than half their quote and keep going up while they keep coming down, finally meeting somewhere midway to settle at a price that is mutually satisfactory. It is all done in an atmosphere of good humor and much bon homie. And satisfyingly they are partial to Indians from India!
As far as palaces go the slightly run down Topkapi Palace home of the early Ottoman Emperors made famous by the Pierce Brosnan movie and their subsequent seat the fabulous Dolmabahce palace are definitely worth a ramble. The world’s largest chandelier hangs in the latter held up in the most amazing manner while the Topkapi dagger a little disappointing in size is exhibited in the former as is also the Nadir Shah’s famous peacock throne.
Kemal Pasha’s bed lies just as he left it when he died- is also on view along with a whole lot of intimate details in the Dolmabahce Palace. Guarded by a couple of men from the militia they could most certainly give the Buckingham Palace guys a run for their money! Nothing moves not even their eyelids!
The very fact that one can feasts one’s eyes on the sea of Marmara and across the Bosphorus or even cruise on it -names one had only read about – makes it all more than worthwhile.
Then of course there are the famous ‘Whirling Dervishes’ to help you commune with God at the Press museum on select days after which a brew of Turkish coffee or hot apple tea will not come amiss with a Turkish platter. The many Hamams or the Turkish Baths that dot the city almost seem to be daring us to give them a try which we as prudish Indians decided to skip but not so the thoroughly enjoyable late night belly dancing show at a night spot.
Though Istanbul by itself makes for a more than exciting visit,
Ankara which is the capital, Cappadocia and its fairy chimneys, Pamukkale with its thermal springs, Troy of Helen fame and the battlefields of the famous Gallipoli Campaign are some of the places one must make the time to explore to get the real feel of a nation in transition.
An Islamic people determined to go secular Turkey is one of those rare places on earth where you are welcomed with warmth regardless of your nationality particularly if you are an Indian from ‘Hindoostan’.