Words fail me when I try to describe Cappadocia or Kapadokya as the Turks refer to it. So I will rely on two trusted sources to do the work for me.
Lonely Planet: Cappadocia is like landing on another planet. As if plucked from a whimsical fairytale and set down upon the stark Anatolian plains, Cappadocia is a geological oddity of honeycombed hills and towering boulders of other-worldly beauty.
Wiki: Cappadocia, a semi-arid region in central Turkey, is full of other-worldly natural sites, most notably the fairy chimneys – tall, cone-shaped rock formations clustered in Monks Valley and elsewhere. Popular for exploration are Bronze Age homes carved into valley walls by troglodytes (cave dwellers) and later used as refuges by early Christians. The 100m-deep Ihlara Canyon houses numerous rock-face churches.
Volcanic eruptions created this surreal moonscape: the lava flows formed tuff rock, which wind and rain sculpted into sinuous valleys with curvy cliff faces and pointy fairy chimneys in the Göreme valley. (Source-LP)
I first heard of Cappadocia when I saw some photos posted by a friend of mine and wondered if this place was for real. When I decided to join my friends for the Turkey tour, they wanted to keep it free and easy but I was so consumed by my curiosity for this surreal place that I made my tour very hectic by including Cappadocia and Ephesus in my itinerary. A day in Ephesus is good enough to explore it but you need at least 2 nights to enjoy the magnificent offerings of Cappadocia satisfactorily.
This place has an equally remarkable human history. Probably looking at the way the landform was eroded by nature, the locals took a cue and began chiselling their homes into the region’s soft rock, some of which have become today’s boutique fairy-chimney and cave hotels which look more stunning at night.
They also carved underground shelters and and as a result, in the beginning of the 4th century AD, an urbanized but underground cavern architecture was created here. In fact, tunnel complexes formed entire towns with as many as eight different storeys hidden underground.
I took an evening flight to Nevşehir, where I (along with many others) was picked up by a van which dropped us to our respective hotels. Thankfully, no glitch happened here. My hotel was in Ürgüp and I was the last one to be dropped, close to midnight. I had booked myself in a cave hotel although it was just for a few hours. It was a very cosy and cute one, owned/managed by a Malayali Turk whose grandfather had migrated here and settled down after marrying one of the local women.
HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE
I had booked a balloon ride the next day which meant a wake up call at 2.30 am! I quickly absorbed the unique interiors of my cave dwelling and tried to catch a few hours of sleep. My ride came on time and I was taken to the balloon site when it was still dark.
MY CAVE HOTEL
I don’t remember the name of this tiny place but it is still very vivid in my memory as a one-of-a-kind cave dwelling experience. Here are some pics.
TREKKING IN GOREME VALLEY
After a hearty breakfast, I went off for a hike with a tour group. Come walk with me…
Ancient volcanic eruptions blanketed this region with thick ash, which solidified into a soft rock—called tuff—tens of meters thick. Wind and water went to work on this plateau, leaving only its harder elements behind to form a fairy tale landscape of cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms, and chimneys, which stretch as far as 130 feet (40 meters) into the sky. (Source – National Geographic)
As you trek along Göreme Valley, you will see a series of pigeon houses riddling the rock faces. Traditionally, the local farmers used to collect the birds’ droppings to use as fertiliser. They not only fed them but also painted their homes with kilim-style motifs using vegetable dyes. Cappadocia’s pigeons really lived in style then but now, most of them are empty and the locals engage themselves serving human visitors. The downside of booming tourism.
Pigeons were kept because of their eggs, poop-fertiliser and messenger service.
Human hands also created incredible works of art in this rocky wonderland – they carved caves, living quarters, places of worship, stables, and storehouses in the soft stone.
If you live in one of these cave hotels, you will very soon realise why the locals loved to live in these caves – the tuff rock keeps the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter.
Due to lack of time, I missed out on the amazing fresco-adorned rock-cut churches of Göreme Open Air Museum (you need to take multiple tours to cover the whole area). So that gives me yet another reason to re-visit Turkey.
Fresco depicting the crucification of Christ on the ceiling of Tokali Kilise @Göreme (above)
However, I did not miss out on the unbelievable underground city that gave refuge to many locals. Göreme was located precariously between rival empires – first the Greeks and Persians , and later, the Byzantine Greeks and a host of rivals. So, depending on the political climate, the citizens needed a place to hide – which they found by digging tunnels into the naturally soft rocks. The site also provided refuge for local Byzantine Christians who were persecuted – first by the Romans and then by the Muslim raiders. The sound of approaching hooves literally made them go underground!
By the 4th century, Christians fleeing Rome’s persecution had arrived in some numbers and established monastic communities here. The monks excavated extensive dwellings and monasteries and created Byzantine frescoed paintings in cave chapels beginning in the 7th century, which endure in well-preserved isolation to this day.
Visit to a Carpet Factory
This was just a small part of the tour with a view to encouraging local cottage industry. We were wooed with Turkish tea and savouries and shown countless carpets/rugs/kilims.
And then we were back on the road again, stopping for a short while at a scenic viewpoint.
Ironically, the primary threats to this World Heritage site come from the same forces of erosion that created these surreal landforms. Forces of erosion are now wearing off some of the human creations to give them a more natural look. Extensive preservation efforts are on to preserve these natural wonders of Göreme.
The adventurous few climb up to Uchisar Castle, the highest point of Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia, to satisfy their adrenalin rush and to enjoy the stunning panoramic views. We watched them from afar.
There was also another very commercial stop at a gem manufacturer’s shop where I didn’t feel inclined to take any photos. Some of the women thoroughly enjoyed this stop and happily bought rings and other forms of jewellery. I was dying to go back to Istanbul.
Here is a short link to some other attractions in Cappadocia. The 7-picture slideshow gives a good enough guideline.
Ephesus is so loaded with history that only a history enthusiast will have the patience to go through this post. So I will try to keep it short and graphic – with links for the knowledge-thirsty ones.
I went to Ephesus by the night coach and almost got lost in the process when I got dropped off at a HUGE coach terminal (around 8.30pm) by the van I boarded at Istanbul. Later, I learnt that the shuttle van had taken me to Istanbul’s gigantic Main Bus Terminal or Otogar(auto+ghar =coach terminal) in Esenler where all long distance coaches start/end their journey. Nobody had informed/warned me of this imminent van -> coach transfer when I bought my ticket! And then it started to drizzle. Cold and alone in a non-English speaking country, that too on a wet night, it was quite a desperate situation. Almost reminiscent of a scary midnight abandonment in the middle of train tracks in Indonesia.
No one understood a word of English and I had no clue about which coach to board as none of them had Ephesus written anywhere – instead, they all indicated destinations I had never heard of. Around 9pm, an elderly bus driver took pity on my plight and told me in a mixture of broken English and sign language that I was standing at the wrong place and also that I should get up on a coach going to Selçuk.
The Selçuk coach arrived around 9.30 and I got up, hoping for the best. It was a very comfortable bus ride but I found no one waiting to pick me up, next morning. After some time, a frantic looking man arrived, saying that the bus to Ephesus had already left but he will intercept the bus somewhere and put me on it. And so he did, although I missed one sight as a result of that. So in the middle of the road, I got up, bag and baggage, onto a big bus which had just one seat left. Not a great start to a journey I was very keen on.
My first stop was the House of the Virgin(Meryemana in Turkish), located in a nature park between Ephesus and Selçuk. It is believed to be the last residence of the Virgin Mary and so sacred to both Christians and Muslims. Photography is not allowed inside.
According to predominant Christian tradition, Mary was brought to Ephesus by the Apostle John after the Resurrection of Christ and lived out her days there. This is based mainly on the traditional belief that John came to Ephesus (see St. John’s Basilica) combined with the biblical statement that Jesus consigned her to John’s care (John 19:26-27). Archaeologists who have examined the building identified as the House of the Virgin believe most of the building dates from the 6th or 7th century. But its foundations are much older and may well date from the 1st century AD, the time of Mary.
Then we proceeded to Ephesusfor a tour under the merciless sun. Here are some sights.
Ancient Ephesus was a great trading city and a centre for the cult of Cybele, the Anatolian fertility goddess. Under the influence of the Ionians, Cybele became Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt and the moon, and a fabulous temple was built in her honour. When the Romans took over, Artemis became Diana and Ephesus became the Roman provincial capital, the fourth largest city in the empire after Rome, Alexandria and Antioch.
Of Turkey’s hundreds of ancient cities and classical ruins, Ephesus is the grandest and best preserved. Indeed, it’s the best place on the Mediterranean to get a feel for what life was like in ancient times. (Source: Lonely Planet)
The street was lined with flowering trees, fountains, monuments, statues and shops on both sides. Walking this street is the best way to understand how the Ephesians led their daily life. Due to frequent earthquakes, many structures including the Curetes Street had been damaged. Circular depressions and linear grooves were made into the marble to prevent pedestrians from slipping on the smooth marble street.
Under the shade of the flowering trees that lined the street, sometimes there were ‘stone abutments adorned with 12 circular depressions – boards for games of chance that ancient Ephesians would play for fun and even bet on: the contest was known in Latin as Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum (Game of 12 Markings), the predecessor of backgammon.’
THE GREAT THEATRE
The Great Theatre was built in the 1st century AD. Later, it was renovated by several Roman Emperors. It is considered to be the most imposing and the most impressive structure of Ephesus city. It could host up to 25,000 spectators.
Its cavea (sitting section) consisted of 66 rows of stone seats which were divided into 3 horizontal sections by 2 diazomas (walkway between seats). The seats at the bottom of the cavea had marble backs and were used by the most important personalities of the city. Its skene (structure at the back of the theatre) consisted of 3 storeys with the 2nd one decorated with pillars, statues and carving by Emperor Nero. The 3rd storey was built by Septimus Severus in late 2nd century AD. The ground floor consisted of a long corridor with 8 rooms. The semi-circular constructure between the cavea and the skene, known as the orchestra, is the place on which the choruses were singing.
Columns with niches, statues and windows adorned the façade inside the theatre (opposite the spectators) and there were 5 openings (the middle one wider than the others) to the orchestra, which made the skene looking imposing.
There is a street on the upper part of the theatre which connects it with Curetes Street.
The Great Theatre of Ephesus was destroyed due to an earthquake in the 4th century AD and only a part of it was repaired.
Apart from the theatrical plays and the music performances that took place in the theatre, political and religious events were carried out in it as well. Among the most important of them is the conflict between Christians and the followers of Artemis during which Saint Paulwas judged and sent to prison as he was accused of hurting Artemis.
TEMPLE OF HADRIAN
This Corinthian-style temple honours Trajan’s successor. Its main arch is supported by a central keystone, which remains perfectly balanced, without any need for mortar. Note its intricate details and patterns – Tyche , goddess of chance, adorns the first arch, while Medusa wards off evil spirits on the second.
FOUNTAIN OF TRAJAN
HERACLES or HERCULES GATE
Only the two side of the columns remain today – the other parts of it have not been found. The relief of the flying Nike in the Domitian Square is also thought to be a part of this gate.
THE CELSUS LIBRARY: The crowning jewel of Ephesus
This early 2nd century library is the best-known monument in Ephesus and has been extensively restored.
Facade niches hold replica statues of the Four Virtues: Sophia (Wisdom), Arete (Goodness), Ennoia (Thought) and Episteme (Knowledge).
What remains (above) and the reconstructed original (below)
Some more of these magnificent ruins.
Ephesus is undoubtedly the grandest and best preserved ancient city and classical ruins on the Mediterranean side.
Temple of Artemis
We next stopped to see the sad remains of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The ancient temple was built around 650 BCE to the cult of Artemis, on a marshy ground to protect it against earthquakes. In 356 BCE, supposedly on the same day Alexanderwas born, a crazy young arsonist called Herostratus burnt the temple down to gain instant immortality. It is said that Artemis was too busy with the birth of the future monarch to save her own temple. When Alexander came to Ephesus in 333 BCE, he offered to finance the reconstruction of the temple only if the city credited him as the builder. Ephesians did not want his name on their temple and so he was then famously refused with the tactful line: ‘It would not be right for one god to build a temple to another god’.
Basilica of St John
Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527–65 CE), the once-grand basilica is not even a pale shadow of its former self. However, it has a peaceful ambience and fantastic views.
The church was dedicated to the Apostle John, who reportedly visited Ephesus twice. His first visit (37-48 CE) was with the Virgin Mary; the second (95 CE) was when he is thought to have written his gospel on this very hill.
St John’s tomb (4th century) marked by a marble slab, supposedly contains his relics
A full-immersion baptistery also dating from the 4th century AD.All good things must end with food.
After a hearty meal, I made my way to the airport to catch a flight to Cappadocia for the last leg of my tour.
P.S. Couldn’t keep the post short, could I? Too many magnificent sights to share with you!
In this last leg, I will tell you of three very diverse places of interest. I was told that despite not being on the top-of-the-list attractions, the Süleymaniye Mosque was grander than its more famous cousin. It was built by the same sultan and the similarities are striking. I was even told by some, that a visit to this mosque was more rewarding. However, it does not have as many of those exquisite blue tiles of the more famous Blue Mosque and naturally does not have the blue look. So, I will have to be back another day. Not that I need an excuse!
I will let Lonely Planet do all the talking about this mosque.
The Süleymaniye crowns one of İstanbul’s seven hills and dominates the Golden Horn, providing a landmark for the entire city. Though it’s not the largest of the Ottoman mosques, it is certainly one of the grandest and most beautiful. It’s also unusual in that many of its original külliye (mosque complex) buildings have been retained and sympathetically adapted for reuse.
Commissioned by Süleyman I, known as ‘The Magnificent’, the Süleymaniye was the fourth imperial mosque built in İstanbul and it certainly lives up to its patron’s nickname. The mosque and its surrounding buildings were designed by Mimar Sinan, the most famous and talented of all imperial architects. Sinan’s türbe (tomb) is just outside the mosque’s walled garden, next to a disused medrese building.
Süleyman specified that his mosque should have the full complement of public services: imaret (soup kitchen), medrese (Islamic school of higher studies), hamam, darüşşifa (hospital) etc. On its right-hand side (north) is a tabhane (inn for travelling dervishes) and on its left-hand side (south) is Lale Bahçesi, a popular tea garden set in a sunken courtyard.
Inside, the building is breathtaking in its size and pleasing in its simplicity. Sinan incorporated the four buttresses into the walls of the building – the result is wonderfully ‘transparent’ (ie open and airy) and highly reminiscent of Aya Sofya, especially as the dome is nearly as large as the one that crowns the Byzantine basilica.
The mihrab (niche in a minaret indicating the direction of Mecca) is covered in fine İznik tiles, and other interior decoration includes window shutters inlaid with mother-of-pearl, gorgeous stained-glass windows, painted muqarnas (corbels with honeycomb detail), a spectacular persimmon-coloured floor carpet, painted pendentives and medallions featuring fine calligraphy.
To the right (southeast) of the main entrance is the cemetery, home to the octagonal tombs of Süleyman and his wife Haseki Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana). The tilework surrounding the entrances to both is superb and the ivory-inlaid panels in Süleyman’s tomb are lovely.
Then we got lost and ended up in a not so desirable alley in Istanbul but thankfully found our way to our apartment in Pera.
The market was constructed in the 1660s as part of the New Mosque, with rent from the shops supporting the upkeep of the mosque as well as its charitable activities, which included a school, hamam and hospital. The market’s Turkish name, the Mısır Çarşısı (Egyptian Market), references the fact that the building was initially endowed with taxes levied on goods imported from Egypt. In its heyday, the bazaar was the last stop for the camel caravans that travelled the Silk Road from China, India and Persia.
Originally commissioned by Valide Sultan Safiye, mother of Sultan Mehmet III, the New Mosque was completed 6 sultans later by order of Valide Sultan Turhan Hadice, mother of Sultan Mehmet IV.
Vividly coloured spices are displayed alongside jewel-like lokum (Turkish delight) at this Ottoman-era marketplace, providing eye candy for the thousands of tourists and locals who make their way here every day.
Stalls also sell caviar, dried herbs, honey, nuts and dried fruits.
Edible sponges hanging in front of a shop
The number of stalls selling tourist trinkets increases annually, yet this remains a great place to stock up on edible souvenirs, share a few jokes with vendors and marvel at the well-preserved building.
This is an absolute must in Istanbul. However, we were a bit rushed and so, we just did the short tour. There are many operators – we chose this very cheap one as it is equally effective and there was no point spending so much on a short cruise. Also the day was cloudy and a bit rainy and we knew we would not get the best value for money. This one, if I am not mistaken, cost us only 12TL.
The Galata Bridge is a rare place where different political wings, ages, genders can get along together. With its thousands of fishermen and their rods, the bridge is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and memorable places in Istanbul.
Check out this mind-blowing photo blog on Galata Bridge. My sights were not so spectacular due to the poor lighting from cloudy setting and light showers. Suddenly we were freezing and almost immobile. To top it all, my camera battery was about to die.
Another imposing sight on the European side of the Bosphorus, is a fortress located on a hill in the Sarıyer district of Istanbul – the Rumelian Castle or Rumeli Hisari (see above & bottom)
I will conclude my 3-part Istanbul blog by giving you a few interesting links to what-to-see or do in Istanbul. I seem to have lost the one that I liked the most but this one is not bad at all. There is another offbeat blog by Nomadic Matt.
So much has been written about Istanbul sights and monuments that it is a waste of time writing something original about it. So I will let internet do the teaching and my photos do the ogling. Naturally, there will be a few tidbits about my feelings. Quite a few of these photos will be in the form of a slideshow. Do watch please.
The two most famous sights in Istanbul – Blue Mosque and Ayasofya – are on either side of the Sultanahmet Square. The Hippodrome is also around the corner and the Basilica Cistern just a bit further away. The Topkapi Palace is probably 1-2 tram stops away but it is a walkable distance as well.
The Dolmbahce Palace (in the Beşiktaş district) is also not in the Sultanahmet area but a tram takes you close enough after which you have to walk a bit. The queues are really long and so, you may not be able to do justice to two of them in one day, unless your second place of interest is the Cistern. The Chora Church (in the Edirnekapı neighborhood) is in a totally different direction and a bit off route – so you may want to club it with the Bosphorus cruise.
If you are a museum addict and have a lot of time, you may want to buy a Museum Pass which will save you a lot of time and money. The 3 must-see museums are Hagia Sophia, Topkapi and the lesser-known but very beautiful Chora Church. You also have to plan your museum visits as they are not open all 7 days.
This one left me awestruck! Although there was restoration work going on, the magnificence of this structure left me spellbound. Without a doubt, it was the highlight of my tour. The confluence of cultures is also best reflected in this architectural wonder. For a detailed explanation of its architecture, watch this Khan Academy video.
The Christian cathedral made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers and they decided to convert it into a mosque.
There are many important monuments in İstanbul, but this venerable structure – which was commissioned by the great Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 and declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935 – surpasses the rest due to its innovative architectural form, rich history, religious importance and extraordinary beauty.
This is the most interesting part. The altered mihrab is not exactly between the 2 candle stands but a little more to the right. Coincidentally, the church had a positional advantage which helped the Islamic conversion easier!
There are 4 seraphim mosaics ( God’s protector angels with 6 wings) on the 4 pendentives that carry the dome. The 4 seraphims’ faces were covered with 6-7 layers of plaster for almost 160 years during the sovereignty of Ottomans. The last person who saw the faces of the Seraphims was the Swiss architect Gaspare Fossati while he was holding the restoration at Hagia Sophia in 1840s. With a 10 day hard work, experts managed to take off the 7 layers of plasters and reveal the face of one of the seraphims. The certain age of the mosaics is unclear however they are known to be older than 700 years.
And there are those mind boggling mosaic work.
Topkapı is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world’s museums put together. Libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines and scheming eunuchs lived and worked here between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the court of the Ottoman empire. A visit to the palace’s opulent pavilions, jewel-filled Treasury and sprawling Harem gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives.
As advised, we started from the harem. Quite a fascinating tour! Also discovered what a vital part eunuchs played in the lives of the sultans.
From the harem, we went to the Imperial Council room.
The Sultan also had a magnificent view of the Bosphorus from his private balcony.
The Baghdad Pavilion of his residence was quite fetching.
This one will send a shiver down most male spines: The Circumcision Room.
Finally we got out of the palace past the royal kitchen.
As we were coming out, we saw another group getting ready for their guided tour. Outside the gates, a vendor was selling some gooey candies. The Turks have an incorrigible sweet tooth that can rival even the Bengalis.
CHORA CHURCH/KARIYE MUZESI
I am so happy to discover this little gem from my research. My Turkish friends too had never heard of this place but being locals, helped me find this place which I may not have otherwise been able to. They happily accompanied me in a cab and were as astonished to find this treasure trove. They have audio guides to assist you there.
İstanbul has more than its fair share of Byzantine monuments, but few are as drop-dead gorgeous as this mosaic- and fresco-laden church. Nestled in the shadow of Theodosius II’s monumental land walls and now a museum overseen by the curators of Aya Sofya, it receives a fraction of the visitor numbers that its big sister the famous Aya Sofya attracts but offers equally fascinating insights into Byzantine art. Parts of the museum were closed for renovation as of 2016; check which are open before visiting.
The mosaic below shows the birth of Christ – the bound feet indicate that Mary is a virgin. Baptism is shown on the bottom left.
Shown below is very rare depiction of Christ as a foetus. The angels on the side symbolize divinity.
More of these stunning ancient mosaics.
The Nativity is just one of the beautiful scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin found in Chora. You could teach a whole Bible class just by walking around and pointing at the mosaics in this beautiful church: besides The Nativity, there are, The Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple, The Annunciation, The Flight into Egypt, The Miracle at Cana, Christ Healing the Leper, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, Christ Healing the Blind Man, Christ Healing the Paralytic, The Temptation of Christ, The Resurrection, treasures all.
Read about more details here. Meanwhile, enjoy the slideshow.
Evidence of destruction during the Fourth Crusade is visible everywhere, although serious restoration work was in progress.
Now look at the other walls filled with some magnificent frescoes.
The un-ornamented Doric column in the middle
This cistern has a very interesting history but then what in Istanbul doesn’t? It was named so as it lay underneath Stoa Basilica, the grand Byzantine public square. It got closed when the Byzantine emperors shifted their royal residence. It was then forgotten for centuries until getting accidentally rediscovered in 1545 by Petrus Gyllius during his research on Byzantine antiquities. He noticed that people in that area collected water, curiously by dipping their buckets through holes in their basement. Sometimes, they even managed to catch fish! Even after this startling discovery, the Ottomans didn’t do much and it became a dumping ground for all sorts of junk, including corpses.
Do not forget to walk up to the far left-hand corner of the cistern, to see the two very interesting Medusa-head column bases. One is positioned upside down, while the other is placed sideways. Why they are placed this way continues to be a mystery. According to an unconfirmed fact, they were recycled from a building of the late Roman period.
A couple of things I missed out due to bad luck/timing.
SULTAN AHMED CAMII/BLUE MOSQUE
It was commissioned in the beginning of the 17th century by Sultan Ahmed I to reaffirm Ottoman power. He wanted this mosque to surpass the splendour of Hagia Sophia and so wanted six minarets to be built. Its popular name comes from the “blue color Iznik tiles inside the mosque with its emerald and turquoise hues. The high ceilings are lined up with over 20,000 handmade blue tiles made in the 17th century in Iznik, the ancient Nicaea, so famous for its fine ceramic designs featuring flowers, trees and abstracts patterns.”
However, I did not manage to get inside the mosque – it closed down for 2 hours for the noon prayers before my turn came (in the very very long queue), and I had to catch a flight in the afternoon. Enjoy the stunning visuals here that another lucky and better photographer got to capture.
Built in the 19th century, this was one of the most glamorous palaces in the world with its huge chandeliers and crystal staircase made by Baccarat. It is closed on Mondays and Thursdays – please plan carefully as we had to return very disappointed on a Thursday. So, all we got to see was this. You may explore this link to get an idea of its grand interiors.
The gun and bomb attack on Istanbul’s international airport in June this year, followed by the coup yesterday night made me feel very hopeless about the state of the world today. Turkey has always had a very volatile history as is evident from this timeline but the beauty of modern Turkey was its fabulous secular fabric woven by Kemal Ataturk. The rise of political Islam started threatening it from the mid 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2002 when this potential danger became a reality as Erdogan took over as prime minister and then got elected as president in 2014.
I had visited Turkey right after the election, in September 2014, and fell in love with it instantly. I had been planning to write about my trip for a while and I decided to finish it today and post it as an ode to Istanbul. Hope I can take you all for a trip down my memory lane…
Istanbul had always fascinated me because of the rich tapestry of history woven into its culture. Not to mention its varied geography and mouth-watering cuisine. And after visiting the city, I can say without a doubt that it is the most interesting place I have ever been to. Every nook and corner of the city has a story to tell and one cannot help but gape in wonder at the presence of culture and history stamped on every other building along with its amazing sights and smells. But first, a little bit of history for the uninitiated.
For more than 2000 years, Istanbul was the capital of three empires: Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Records show proof of human inhabitation since 3000 BCE, but it was the Greeks – led by King Byzas – who first laid the foundation of Byzantium, along the banks of Bosporus Strait in 7th century BCE.
After Byzantium became part of the Roman Empire in the 300s, Emperor Constantine the Great, decided to renovate the city in a grand way. In 330 CE, he made it his capital and renamed it Constantinople. He also remodelled its monuments to resemble those in Rome. The city grew rapidly but in 395 CE, after the death of EmperorTheodosius I, there was a major upheaval when his sons split the empire permanently.
As a result, in the 400s, Constantinople became the capital of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire (between 395-1204 CE and 1261-1453 CE), and acquired a distinctive Greek flavour. It prospered commercially and culturally, due to its strategic location between Asia and Europe. An anti-government revolt in 532 CE destroyed the city but it was again rebuilt. Some of its more famous monuments like the stunning Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) were also constructed during this period which was also when Constantinople became the center of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Between 1204-1261 CE, there was a political turmoil of sorts. Constantinople had become the target for many attacks from all over the Middle-East due to its rise in stature and prosperity. The city was desecrated in 1204 CE, and for a while, it even came under the control of some members of the Fourth Crusade and became the center of the Catholic Latin Empire. Caught in the tussle between the Catholic Latin Empire and the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, Constantinople started to slide downwards to a road of decline. In 1261 CE, the Empire of Nicaea recaptured Constantinople and returned it to the Byzantine Empire. No wonder, this city is soaked in history!
Simultaneously, the power of the Ottoman Turks was on the rise as they started conquering the neighbouring cities of Constantinople, gradually isolating it from them. In 1453, the Ottomans, led by Sultan Mehmed II, took over the city after a 53-day siege. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, perished defending his capital, which almost immediately got renamed to Istanbul by the Sultan.
Sultan Mehmed II promptly tried to revive Istanbul by
creating the Grand Bazaar – one of the largest covered marketplaces in the world with around 4000 shops
bringing back the fleeing Catholic and Greek Orthodox residents
bringing in Muslim, Christian, and Jewish families to establish a mixed populace
building architectural monuments, schools, hospitals, public baths, and grand imperial mosques.
From 1520 to 1566, Suleiman the Magnificent controlled the Ottoman Empire and there were many artistic and architectural achievements that made it a major cultural, political, and commercial center. By the mid-1500s, the city’s population also grew to almost 1 million inhabitants. The Ottoman Empire ruled Istanbul until it was defeated and occupied by the allies in World War I. (http://geography.about.com/od/specificplacesofinterest/a/istanbul.htm)
Post Turkish War of Independence, Istanbul became a part of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. For the first time in 2000 years, it lost its status of a capital city to the more centrally located Ankara. In the 1940s and 1950s, after a brief period of negligence, Istanbul started to re-emerge and in the 1970s, its rapid population growth caused it to expand its boundaries and get transformed into the major metropolis we see it today.
We had rented a lovely apartment in Pera/Beyoglu through Airbnb. Our morning walk started from the famous İstiklal Avenue or Istiklal Street (Turkish: İstiklâl Caddesi, French: Grande Rue de Péra, English: Independence Avenue) which was literally a stone’s throw away. The photos below will hopefully take you along with us as we explored the city by foot.
Our first stop was just an ordinary church that was on our way – St Antoine’s. Its stained glass work was more geometric than the ones I had been familiar with.
During the Ottoman period, the avenue was called Cadde-i Kebir (Grand Avenue) in Turkish or Grande Rue de Péra in French. It was a popular spot for Ottoman intellectuals, European and the local Italian and French Levantines. When 19th-century travelers referred to Constantinople as the Paris of the East, they were mentioning the Grande Rue de Péra (İstiklal Caddesi) and its half-European, half-Asian culture. With the declaration of the Republic on October 29, 1923, the avenue’s name was changed to İstiklal (Independence) for commemorating the triumph at the Turkish War of Independence. (Source: Wiki)
Towards the southern end of the avenue, in the historic Karakoy (Galata) district, we saw the world’s second-oldest (1875) subway station, popularly known as Tünel (The Tunnel).
The very interesting Music Street which leads to the iconic Galata Tower.
Galata Tower has dominated Beyoğlu‘s skyline since 1348 and still offers the best panoramic views of the city.
Originally named the Tower of Christ, the 66.9-meter (220-foot)-high tower was the highpoint in the city walls of the Genoese colony called Galata. Most of the walls are long gone, but the great tower, with its 3.75-meter (12-foot)-thick walls remains.
The story is told of how, in 1638, a certain Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi attached wings to his body and flew (more likely coasted) across the Bosphorus to Üsküdar.
Why he did it once, no one says, nor whether he survived…
Until the 1960s it was a fire lookout tower. Now the upper floors hold the panorama balcony.
The best time come here is around the call of prayer at sunset but this is what the morning view was like. We were lucky to not find a long queue here at all but when we were leaving the crowd was definitely building up.
We were soon back on the streets, climbing up and down the cobbled streets…
And then we reached Istanbul Gar, the last stop of the Orient Express.
Sirkeci Station (Sirkeci Gar) was Istanbul’s historic terminus for trains, designed by Prussian architect August Jasmund and inaugurated on February 11th, 1888, during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Though officially named Istanbul Gar, everyone knows it as Sirkeci to differentiate it from Haydarpaşa Gar (1908), the newer terminus on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus.
Sirkeci is where the famed Orient Express ended its run from Paris, at this Orientalist station. European and Turkish-Thracian intercity trains no longer arrive and depart at Sirkeci. Even so, it’s a pleasure to stroll through the station and imagine the famous 19th-century luxury train arriving in Constantinople with its eminent passengers being met by uniformed dragomans (guide-interpreters) from the great European embassies. (Source: http://www.turkeytravelplanner.com/go/Istanbul/Transport/SirkeciStation.html)
Watch the slideshow below.
Next stop was the legendary Grand Bazar.
The experience was an enjoyable assault on all our senses. Check the slideshow below.
Then we walked on to watch the dervish dance show. Our 2 top-of-the-list venues were not open that day. So we chose the 3rd best (as per our research) whose setting was at what was once a hammam (Islamic variant of the Roman bath, steambath, sauna, or Russian banya, distinguished by a focus on water, as distinct from ambient steam). The hammam experience was one thing I chose to avoid as it was beyond my comfort zone. And also because I didn’t find the idea of being doused in ice-cold water, albeit once, during the process, appealing at all.
The much anticipated dervish dance didn’t really live up to our expectations as we found it becoming a little repetitive and boring towards the end. However, it was visually very interesting but alas, photography was strictly prohibited as it had a religious element attached to it. Explore this link to see what the performance looks like. We watched the same performers (in the video) that evening. After the show, we traced our weary steps back to our apartment along Istiklal. It was night time but Istiklal never sleeps.
Thus ended my first (very satisfying) day in Istanbul. The next two days, we visited the Aya Sophya, Topkapi Palace, Spice Bazar, Chora Church and other places of interest after which I flew off to Cappadocia and bus-sed to Ephesus to explore these sites on my own. Those tours deserve separate posts as it would be a crime to just mention them casually.
On my return, I stayed at Hotel Evsen in Sultanahmet area for one night. It was not a great hotel but its location is to die for. I walked to the Blue Mosque the next morning but by the time my turn came (in the very long queue) to enter the mosque, it was prayer time, and I had a flight to catch in a couple of hours. Anyway, that gave me an excuse for another visit! Here are some glimpses of the city on my last morning there.
These cobbled streets took me to the Blue Mosque. Hagia Sophia is on the other side but that was done already. There are also some remnants of the Hippodrome in the same area, but you really need to “look” for it. The history is fascinating, but the sight is not, unless you have a very good imagination.
The ancient-ness of this historic city is amply evident from the “new-ness” of the New Mosque.
And no essay on Istanbul (or Turkey) is complete without a mention of their well-fed and drop-dead gorgeous cats. They are everywhere, like you have cows in India, but much more loved and well looked after! I have seen more cats here than I have in my entire life. Check this link for a closer look at the delightful furballs.
And once you talk about the Turkish cat, there is nothing more to write after that….
(All photos by the author unless otherwise specified)