Baklava, jew­elled lamps and other Turk­ish de­lights

A melan­choly comes over you when you leave beau­ti­ful, be­guil­ing Is­tan­bul travel2013

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - ME­LANIE PETERS

THE IS­TAN­BUL sun­rise burns crim­son through a haze of smog. It’s al­most 6am in one of the world’s largest cities and al­ready traf­fic is snarled up.

The red is mir­rored in the many Turk­ish flags, with its white cres­cent moon and star, fly­ing from the build­ings which blan­ket the city’s hills. A mix of mod­ern high-rises and 14th cen­tury domed mosques at­tended by minarets dot the sky­line.

“We have just cel­e­brated the 90th an­niver­sary of the Turk­ish Repub­lic,” says our tour host, Turk­ish Air­lines spokesman Gokalp Yazir. “But we are very pa­tri­otic any­way.”

Driv­ing down the high­way, the ru­ins of an an­cient city wall, weath­ered by time, run along one side. On the other the Sea of Mar­mara has its own traf­fic jam – ships wait­ing to en­ter the bay. We have four days and the many faces of this bustling megac­ity beckon.

In the Old City, the tale of Is­tan­bul’s rich his­tory is told through the mon­u­ments, mosques, palaces and basil­i­cas. The mes­meris­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, arte­facts and relics tell the story of when the city was Byzan­tium to the Greeks, then Con­stantino­ple, cap­i­tal of the East­ern Ro­man Em­pire, then Is­tan­bul in the Ot­toman Em­pire un­til the fa­ther of mod­ern Tur­key, Mustafa Ke­mal Ataturk founded the repub­lic.

Wind­ing cob­bled streets lead to th­ese lay­ers of his­tory. Set aside a day and a half to ex­plore the rem­nants of the hip­po­drome be­fore vis­it­ing the two fa­mous re­li­gious build­ings: the Blue Mosque and the Ha­gia Sofia. See the Basil­ica Cis­tern, an old reser­voir un­der the city streets, and then the Top­kapi Palace Mu­seum – you need at least two hours.

A tour guide will get you past any long queue (or visit in the af­ter­noons when the queues shorten). As our guide Ayse Nur Ke­skinci rat­tled off facts and fig­ures at each stop, much of it lost in trans­la­tion, we di­gested each piece of his­tory at our own pace.

The Sul­tanah­met (Blue) Mosque is one of 3 500 mosques in Is­tan­bul, the only one with six minarets, its in­te­rior cov­ered with 20 000 tiles. Blue Iznik ti­tles on the lower level and the pat­terns of flow­ers and fruit rep­re­sent gar­dens in Par­adise as your eyes rest on the gallery il­lu­mi­nated by light which pour­ing through the 200 stained glass win­dows. Jew­elled lamps in­clude ostrich egg shells be­lieved to re­pel in­sects.

The Ha­gia Sophia was the largest cathe­dral in the world for al­most 1 000 years. It has sur­vived earth­quakes, fires, ri­ots and strug­gles for dom­i­na­tion by Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam. It is now a mon­u­ment and mu­seum. Its dome has gilded mo­saics of the Vir­gin Mary and paint­ings of Je­sus flanked by golden cir­cles bear­ing the name of Al­lah in cal­lig­ra­phy, a mov­ing dis­play of tol­er­ance in an in­tol­er­ant world.

Nearby, un­der the streets, 55 steps lead down to the enor­mous Basil­ica Cis­tern or sunken palace where fish swim in its shal­low waters. Bathed in orange light, more than 300 col­umns hold the roof up, in­clud­ing two grounded on stone blocks bear­ing the up­side-down, carved faces of the myth­i­cal crea­ture Me­dusa. This eerie oa­sis has cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of writer Dan Brown, di­rec­tors of a James Bond movie and even a video game cre­ator.

At the for­mi­da­ble im­pe­rial gates to Top­kapi Palace, home to the sul­tans of old, the rolling grounds are made up of many build­ings and court­yards. It was once home to 4 000 peo­ple – the sultan, his ad­vis­ers, friends, wives and of course a harem.

To­day it houses ex­hi­bi­tions of daz­zling jewels, clocks, gar­ments, or­nate weapons and swords. It has sa­cred relics such as the Prophet Muham­mad’s foot­print, cloak and sword and even Moses’s hum­ble staff, used to part the Red Sea.

“Could it be?” asks one tourist. “Maybe”, re­sponds another.

A trip on the Bospho­rus of­fers a re­prieve from the crowds and con­gested roads, and you get a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive of the city as the ferry leaves at the docks of Eminönü. Its shores are home to the rich, with house prices start­ing at R20 mil­lion. There is a water­front with restau­rants, cafés and bars – a play­ground for lo­cal celebs and high so­ci­ety.

Other land­marks in­clude the ru­ins of a fortress, palaces and sum­mer homes which once be­longed to Ot­toman aris­toc­racy, a Navy Mu­seum, and the Bospho­rus Bridge.

Shop at the Grand Bazaar, a huge cov­ered labyrinth of 60 pas­sages lined with 5 000 shops. Se­ri­ous money can be spent here. Hone your bar­gain­ing skills be­cause the sales­men are smooth, mas­ter hag­glers. But their wares are easy to sell. There are pash­mi­nas, in­tri­cately woven car­pets, colour­ful pot­tery and ceram­ics, glazed ti­tles and jew­ellery.

At the Egyp­tian or Spice Bazaar there are dried leaf teas from ap­ple to rasp­berry, Turk­ish De­light, dried fruit and spices, soaps and in­cense. One store owner dis­plays a pic­ture of him­self and do­mes­tic maven Martha Stewart who gave his saf­fron the thumbs up. Sweet treats in­clude huge slabs, even cakes, of Turk­ish De­light, and baklava – lay­ers of phyllo pas­try stuffed with nuts.

On Fri­day nights Tak­sim Square and its quar­ters teem with thou­sands of peo­ple. “Don’t worry, it’s not a demon­stra­tion,” as­sures Yazir. It’s just the weekend and Istik­lal Av­enue is buzzing. Off the side roads, cafés and restau­rants are fill­ing up. Touts in the his­tor­i­cal Çiçek Pas­sage try to en­tice cus­tomers to its fa­mous restau­rants. At the back, Ne­vizade Street is lined with bars and pubs with live bands. Peo­ple sit out­side, drink­ing raki, Turk­ish cof­fee, chat­ting and smok­ing to all hours of the morn­ing. We set­tle at a restau­rant called Zar­ifi for our last sup­per. Mezzes are cho­sen, glasses are filled. Belly dancers se­duc­tively sway their hips. It’s not long be­fore guests join in, danc­ing and singing to pop­u­lar Turk­ish mu­sic.

This be­guil­ing city will se­duce you and send you home with a bit of melan­choly, but noth­ing that a piece of Turk­ish De­light can’t cure.

● Me­lanie Peters was a guest of Turk­ish Air­lines.

MEGAC­ITY: Is­tan­bul of­fers rich his­tory and mod­ern at­trac­tions.

SHOP­PING: The city’s bazaars sell a va­ri­ety of sug­ary treats, spices, car­pets, clothes, ceram­ics and jew­ellery.

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