Saturday, July 4, 2009

In an antique land : Turkey

The name Turkey or Turkiye evokes memories of my old dusty dog-eared history book. As a part of our European history lessons, we had read about “Asia Minor” or “Anatolia” – though had nobody bothered to explain that the same place is now known as Turkey. Similarly, we were taught about Constantinople (what a lyrical name!) and its history without ever mentioning that the same place is now called Istanbul and is one of the most popular romantic destination of the Europeans now.

I, therefore, was looking forward to this trip when my “call of duty” demanded that I must visit my clients in Istanbul. In the past two years, I had three opportunities to go there but only during the last visit, I had some free time to see a few things albeit in a cursory manner.
Constantinople was originally called Byzantium. It was renamed after emperor Constantine I (who is famous as the person who gave some sort of a "structure" into Christianity and gave the catholic church its identity) when he shifted the capital of the “Eastern Roman Empire” to Byzantine. Interestingly, in the 3rd century AD, under the roman emperor Diocletian, the roman empire was “functionally" split into the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire having separate emperors (called Co-emperors) with each having a "Caesar" to help him. This system was known as Tetrarchy, a rather interesting way of ruling. This system, however, did not last for long and the Roman empire was officially split into two parts at the end of the 4th century AD.

The Eastern Roman Empire, which later came to be described as the “Byzantine” empire, lasted for a thousand years, much more than the Western Roman empire. It was characterised by the a mix of Greek and Roman culture with a gradual shift towards the Greek culture ("Hellentistic" culture). This empire finally crumbled with the advent of the Ottoman Turks in the 14th Century who then gave the name Turkey and created the Ottoman empire which lasted till 20th century. Turkey infact played a significant role in the first world war and after the defeat was broken into several small countries. The present day Republic of Turkey originates from this.

 Turkey is a country which is partly Asian and partly European. It is surrounded by the the Agean sea, the Marmara sea and the Black sea. The Marmara Sea (name derived from the word "Marmar" which means Marble) and the Black Sea are connected by the Bospherous Sea – an extremely important landmark of Istanbul. Bosphoreous flows through Istanbul, splitting the city into the Asian side and the European side. The European side is further split by a small stretch of sea known as the "Golden Horn". Most of the people stay in the Asian side and travel to the European side to work. Istanbul has an extensive ferry and boat network which acts like their main public transport. Bospherous and Golden Horn also offers tourists some opportunities to do fishing and it is quite common to see people hiring a fishing line and engaging in this solitary sport on the Galata bridge across the Golden Horn.
Despite being a Muslim country, Turkey is surprisingly liberal. It was refreshing to see women without burkhas - in western-ware and working in offices (that too in steel plants!). Namaz is not compulsory, Friday is a working day, there are no embargos regarding the namaz time during the Ramzaan days.

In Istanbul, the most famous monument is Ayasofya or Hagia Sophia. This was originally a basilica church known as the "Church of Holy Wisdom". When the Ottoman Turks conquered Istanbul, they converted this into a Mosque. Fortunately they did not destroy the entire building but merely added some typical Islamic structures like the Mihrab (a structure which points towards Mecca and which serves as the Altar for the prayers) and Mibbar (a structure similar to the pulpit in a church). This monument has some rather interesting architectural constructions like its dome which is supported on “Pendentives” (Pendentives are a construction design which allows a dome to sit on top of a square base) and the forty windows below the dome which creates its famed “mystiqal light”. To be perfectly honest, I did not find these to be of great architectural grandeur. In my uneducated eyes, the detailing as well as the architecture falls far below the architecture seen in India. Hagia Sophia had some other interesting artifacts like two huge greek marble jars made from a single piece of marble and two marble candles on either side of the Mihrab. The place also had a rather photogenic cat which kept on giving poses in front of the marble jars and kept the tourists entertained.

 Just opposite the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It is known as the blue mosque due to the blue tiles on its top. It looked rather similar to Haghia Sophia and was interesting in parts. What I found amusing is that when we enter the mosque, the gatekeeper gives the visitor a plastic bag to carry the shoes and for women, a cloth to cover their head. Both of these articles have to be returned when we leave the mosque. It is, therefore, acceptable to carry the shoe with you when you enter the mosque and even when you sit for your prayers but you are not allowed to wear it!! Also, the head covering for the women was also merely a formality – most of the women were carrying it around their necks like a dupatta. Women clad in jeans or skirts or even shorts (not too many – a pity!) were allowed inside the mosque without any religious fanatic raising their eyebrows.
The area near these two mosques was known as the Hippodrome where chariot racing used to take place and was the centre of the then Byzantine civic life. It is now known as Sultanahmet square and is now the centre of Istanbul’s historical, cultural and touristic activities. It has got small eateries all around with unassuming but comfortable chairs and exquisite fruit juices. I have never tasted a better orange or pomogranade juice! There are also nice small street shops selling interesting souveniors and slightly bigger shops which sell carpets and bags. These shops make splendid “killing” of the tourist, with their friendly behaviour (they address every male tourist as “brrrotherr”), their apple tea (another unique stuff I tasted for the first time in Istanbul; wonderful!!) which is served the moment you enter the shop and unending offerings to choose from. One can spend hours roaming around this area and never get bored.
This area also boasts of some monuments of the old era – like the Obelisk of Theodosius, a bronze serpentine column and the column of Constantine. The Obelisk of Theodosius was an egyptian obelisk which used to be in front of the Karnak temple in Luxor (Egypt) and was brought to Istanbul in the 4th century AD. It is made of pink granite with hieroglyphics all over and reminded me of the obelisks which Obelix (the comics character from Asterix) used to carve. The bronze serpentine column is a green coloured eerie looking stuff with three headless snakes wrapped around each other. It had a sense of evil and reminded me of Harry Potter and the Basilisk in the chamber of secrets. There was also another obelisk which looked like a structure made of bricks which seemed to have developed damp all over!! There was also an octagonal German fountain in this area which had a flock of pigeons gathered around it to drink water!!
The Sultan Ahmed square also has the Basilica Cistern (Yerebaten Sarayi) – a huge underground chamber which can store water. It is supported by 12 X 28 pillars which have lights at the base of the pillar – giving it a very tasteful look. At the end of the Cistern, there are two pillars which has got the head of Medusa as the base. Surprisingly, the head of Medusa is rotated by 90 deg (i,e sideways) in one pillar and 180 deg (i.e upside down) in the other. They have not given any explanation to this but there were some signboards telling us about the legends of Medusa - the Gorgon who had snakes as her hair, who could turn people into stones by her look and who was killed by Perseus. Being a hard core 007 fan, I remembered that this cistern was shown in “From Russia With Love” where Bond and his contact in Istanbul uses this underground cistern to go near the Russian Consulate and spy on them!! I forgot to check where the Russian Consulate is in Istanbul but it is certainly not anywhere near this cistern. I heard that there used to be a light and sound show also in the cistern but this was closed when I visited this place. The cistern now has a small coffee shop inside which I did not get to explore.
I also had a brief look at the Topkapi palace which was walking distance from the Sultan Ahmed square. Topkapi gives a nice view of the Bosphoreous and was on my way back to the hotel. It also has a large number of museums which I could not cover partly because of lack of time and partly because most of them were closed for restoration. I took a long walk from Topkapi to the hotel along the Marmara Sea and could see the famous walls of Istanbul which were built to protect the city from invasions. They served their purposes till the gunpowder came after which, naturally, the walls could do little to protect the city.
And finally - the food. Turkish cuisine is extremey tasty and extremey unhealthy. I was told that the present generation of turks have become health conscious and the present food is no where near what they used to have earlier. The oldies were lamenting about the days when they exclusively used butter as against the now used olive oil. But even in its present form, the food will give shocks to any health conscious person. But ooh, the taste!! There was a dish called Laygana which is made with eggs and eggplant (and laced with oil ofcourse) which was to die for. They also have a dish called Meze made from mashed tomatos, onions, herbs which is normally to be tasted with Pita bread. I also tried plenty of Kebaps like Sis Kebap (Kebap made on skewers), Adana Kebap (charcoal grilled food), Beyti Kebap etc and found all of them to be very nice. Usually these are served with a herbed yogurd preparation. They also have a watery form of yogurd called Aryan – which was like a thick version of Butter Milk. For breakfast, we used to have bread with a white cheese called Peynir (sounds quite like our “Paneer”), atleast 3 types of olives and turkish coffee (awful stuff; tastes like mud). I also tried out some seafood preparations like Kalamar (squid), octopus etc and found them to be good. For sweets, they have Baklava, Helva (sounds like Halwa) etc which my friends used to swear by. I tasted a few morsels but uniformly found them to be too sweet for my taste. For drink, the turks drink Raki (a foul tasting liquor made from cloves which looks colourless but becomes white the moment you add water to it!!), Apple tea (delicious) and Turkish Coffee (no comments).
It was a nice experience but at the end of the day, it felt good to be back home.


  1. So very interesting I thoroughly enjoyed reading of your experiences and it makesmewant to go there. The food sounds both wonderful and perhaps not so wonderful lol

  2. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque also known as Blue Mosque is very famous and most visited in Turkey. Very excited to visit this place.