BEST OF IS­TAN­BUL

EAST MEETS WEST IN IS­TAN­BUL, ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT CITIES. HERE ARE SEVEN MUST-SEE SIGHTS

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - ESCAPE - WORDS: LEN RUTLEDGE PIC­TURES: PHENSRI RUTLEDGE

T he haunt­ing, age-old in­vo­ca­tion to wor­ship from a hun­dred minarets mixes with clang­ing tram bells, west­ern rap mu­sic and the com­mer­cial bel­low of hawk­ers.

In this city of 13 mil­lion peo­ple, sit­u­ated where Europe meets Asia, the sounds and sights over­whelm the senses and I am left be­wil­dered but ex­cited.

I have ar­rived with high ex­pec­ta­tions and al­ready th­ese have been blown away.

This is one of the world’s great cities. It’s ex­otic, cos­mopoli­tan, sur­pris­ingly friendly and cul­tur­ally stun­ning. While the city is strongly Mus­lim, I see West­ern-dressed kids in flashy cock­tail bars, and women in head-to-toe chadors walk­ing in and out of Star­bucks and McDon­ald’s.

I look around. Within sight are mosques, churches, palaces, Ro­man ru­ins, mar­kets and amaz­ing views over the Bosporus. This was the cen­tre of the world and cap­i­tal of both Chris­tian and Is­lamic em­pires for 1600 years and it shows. Con­stantino­ple has left many re­minders which can be en­joyed to­day. Th­ese are some of the high­lights.

1. AYA SOFYA

The 1500-year-old Aya Sofya was once the great­est church in the world, then af­ter the city was con­quered by the Ot­toman Turks it be­came a mosque and Is­lamic ad­di­tions were made in­side and out­side which can still be seen to­day. In 1935, it be­came a mu­seum and re­mains so to­day. For 1000 years, this build­ing had the largest dome and was the largest en­closed space on the planet. It is stun­ning. My wife and I wan­der around amazed by what we see, then spend ages look­ing at the best of the glit­ter­ing mo­saics lurk­ing in the gal­leries up­stairs.

2. BLUE MOSQUE (SUL­TAN AHMET MOSQUE)

The Hip­po­drome is the site of a 2000-yearold Ro­man sta­dium. Lit­tle re­mains but it now forms a park and a fit­ting en­trance to the at­trac­tive Blue Mosque. It is so named be­cause of the beau­ti­ful blue Iznik tiles dec­o­rat­ing the in­te­rior. It was built by Sul­tan Ahmet from 1609 to 1616. Size is what im­presses here and the in­te­rior, ex­cept for its 20,000 blue tiles, is rather gloomy and ster­ile. It is open all day ex­cept dur­ing prayer times and should be on ev­ery vis­i­tor’s list.

3. TOPKAPI PALACE

Next is the Topkapi Palace, the cen­tre of power for the Ot­toman Em­pire for 400 years. The many build­ings are ar­ranged around a se­ries of court­yards on a spec­tac­u­lar site. Sul­tan Mehmet be­gan to build Topkapi Palace in 1459 and it be­came home to gen­er­a­tions of sul­tans and their wives, who were clos­eted in the fa­mous harem. The palace is di­vided into four court­yards. The first has three build­ings that you must see: Aya Eirine, the mint/outer trea­sury of the Ot­toman Em­pire, and the Is­tan­bul Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum. The se­cond court­yard served as the work­ing sec­tion of the palace. The third court­yard has the au­di­ence hall for vis­i­tors to the Sul­tan and there are also rooms dis­play­ing cer­e­mo­nial dresses, holy relics, por­traits of the sul­tans, a li­brary and the trea­sury. The fourth court is more of a gar­den than a court­yard.

4. SPICE BAZAAR

Nowhere are the city’s Eastern roots seen bet­ter than at the Spice Bazaar, which is filled with the fra­grance of the ex­otic East. Spices, dried fruits, cheeses, sausages, teas, jams, nuts, Turk­ish De­light and other ed­i­bles fill most of the shops. It is busy, colour­ful, fra­grant and crowded. But even here things are chang­ing. You can buy T-shirts with “I love New York” on them and see bright signs in Ja­panese, Chi­nese and Span­ish. The main en­trance to the Spice Bazaar is via an arch­way off the pi­geon-in­fested plaza next to the New Mosque near Galata Bridge. It is open from 8.30am to 6.30pm ev­ery day.

5. CHORA CHURCH

Although it is some­what dif­fi­cult to get here ex­cept by taxi, the re­stored Chora Church near the old city walls of­fers a stun­ning glimpse of late Byzan­tine splen­dour. Its walls and ceil­ings are adorned with glit­ter­ing mo­saics and breath­tak­ing fres­coes and there is a sense of his­tory ev­ery­where you look. Like Aya Sofya, it has made the jour­ney from Byzan­tine church to Ot­toman mosque and then to mod­ern mu­seum. It stands in a neigh­bour­hood of re­stored Ot­toman wooden houses, pret­tily painted in pas­tel colours which will ap­peal to all pho­tog­ra­phers and lovers of ar­chi­tec­ture.

6. GRAND BAZAAR

The Grand Bazaar, a be­wil­der­ing home to 4000 shops, is colour­ful, con­fus­ing and ut­terly fas­ci­nat­ing. It is one of the largest and old­est cov­ered mar­kets in the world. It slowly evolved but by the be­gin­ning of the 17th cen­tury the Grand Bazaar had achieved its fi­nal shape. To­day, it must fight the com­pe­ti­tion of the gi­ant malls built ev­ery­where in Is­tan­bul, but its beauty and his­tory give it a for­mi­da­ble ad­van­tage par­tic­u­larly with vis­i­tors. When you visit, get ready to swap friendly ban­ter with the hun­dreds of shop­keep­ers who will try to lure you into their es­tab­lish­ments. We look at car­pets, cloth­ing, jew­ellery and ce­ram­ics with­out buy­ing. We are greeted with cups of tea and gra­cious­ness com­pletely un­ex­pected. Though there’s no doubt it’s a tourist trap for vis­i­tors, it’s also a place where busi­ness deals are done be­tween lo­cals, and where im­port/ ex­port busi­nesses flour­ish. The Grand Bazaar is open each day ex­cept Sun­days and bank hol­i­days from 9am un­til 7pm.

7. UN­DER­GROUND CISTERN

The city’s most un­ex­pect­edly ro­man­tic at­trac­tion, the Basil­ica Cistern, of­fers an in­sight into the com­pli­cated sys­tem that once brought drink­ing wa­ter into the city. This is a great un­der­ground cham­ber which was used as the Byzan­tine city’s main wa­ter stor­age. Af­ter the con­quest of the city by the Ot­toman Turks, it was for­got­ten about and few knew that it ex­isted un­til it was re­dis­cov­ered in 1545. To­day, it is an at­mo­spheric un­der­ground cav­ern with beau­ti­ful arches and Ro­man sup­port col­umns with op­por­tu­ni­ties for great pho­to­graphs. James Bond fans will re­mem­ber it from one of the early movies. Don’t miss the up­side-down head of Me­dusa that forms the bot­tom of one col­umn.

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