Monday, April 20, 2009

Orient Express - Destination Istanbul

Somehow or the other I never did manage to meet up with the crowd over at Muse Swings. This virtual travel is harder than it looks... Still, we - you, my readers, and I - continued our own journey on the Orient Express, and now here we are, approaching our final destination.

The train will soon pull into the fabulous city of Istanbul. Founded in 667 B.C.., the city has been the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It has been known at various stages in its history as Byzantium, Constantinople and, finally, Istanbul. It is a city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorus, which links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara.
Istanbul – a name that conjures up images of the exotic orient, of cascading domes and minarets, of intrigues in old palaces, of bazaars and spices and jewels. You can lose yourself in this city, visiting its mosques and churches, shopping at the 15th century Grand Bazaar, enjoying the luxury of a hamam, crossing the Bosphorus into Anatolia and Asia, munching on kebabs and sipping Rakı or Turkish coffee on the shores of the Golden Horn... You can stay here for weeks and see new things every day. It is just as well that this is the last stop on our journey – you are free to stop here as long as the city holds you in its thrall.

You can start discovering Istanbul, and Turkey, at the railway station itself. The Sirkeci station was built in 1881 especially to welcome passengers arriving on the Orient Express, which had started running the previous year. The station is built in a style known as Islamic eclecticism, influenced both by traditional Islamic architecture and turn-of-the-century European styles.

For a dose of Turkish Sufi culture, please make your way to the spacious hall (originally a waiting room) beside Platform 1A to witness a sema, a performance by the world-renowned Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order founded by Sufi Master Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi in the thirteenth century.

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn off the bandage.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance when you’re perfectly free.
-- Rumi

What an uplifting introduction to this city steeped in history and culture. Now let’s move to another of Istanbul’s glories – the Aya Sofiya or Hagia Sophia. This is one of my favourite places on the planet. It is architecturally brilliant and spiritually inspiring.

This sixth century structure has been both a Christian church – in its day, the world’s largest cathedral – and a mosque, and is now a museum. When the church became a mosque, a mihrab was added to it to point out the direction of Mecca. But the main dome behind the mihrab still shows the Madonna and other Christian figures in beautiful mosaic. Other mosaics in Aya Sofiya show both Mother Mary and Jesus. Christian and Muslim symbols blend harmoniously together into a beautiful whole. Would that the world’s communities could blend so beautifully together as well.

Facing Aya Sofiya is Istanbul’s other pride and joy, Sultanahmet Camii, better known outside Turkey as the Blue Mosque. More than a thousand years after Aya Sofia was built, Sultan Ahmet I commissioned the architect Mehmet Aga to build a mosque to match the magnificence of the cathedral (itself a mosque by then).
Despite their domes and minarets, the two are very different, both on the outside and the inside. Which is better? Neither, in my view. Both are magnificent. We are simply spoilt for choice.

The Blue Mosque is so called because of the lovely blue tiles in its interior. Its walls are lined with about 20,000 Iznik tiles from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries with designs of flowers, trees and fruits. The ceiling and walls also have Arabic inscriptions and abstract designs. Light streams into the mosque from 260 stained glass windows. The huge dimensions of the mosque create vast calm spaces where people worship or sit quietly in introspection or in personal communion with God perhaps.

Unlike the one, two or four minarets of most mosques, Sultanahmet Camii has six (four of them can be seen in the photo above). According to legend, the Sultan directed his architect to make gold (altin) minarets, which was misunderstood as six (alti) minarets. This turned out to be quite a faux pas as the Haram Mosque in Mecca, considered the holiest in the world, also had six minarets. The problem was solved by adding a seventh minaret to the mosque in Mecca!

After relaxing for a while in the beautiful park in front of the Blue Mosque, let’s take a bus to Taksim square to experience a mix of old and new Turkey. From the square, we'll stroll down the fashionable Istiklal Caddesi (avenue) towards Tünel (tunnel). Check out the designerware on offer here – shoes, handbags, beautiful Turkish scarves…
If you’re hungry, there are a host of cafés and kebab shops to choose from, with evocative names like Haci Baba, my personal favourite because of the stories of Haji Baba of Isfahan I had heard growing up in Delhi (India). If you get tired, you can take the old tram that runs the length of Istiklal, at the end of which it dissapears briefly into the tunnel. The tram is the only form of vehicular traffic allowed on the street.

The most famous site in this area, a little bit off Istiklal, is the Galata Tower. But there are other treasures to discover on the way to the 14th century tower. Walking down Istiklal from Taksim square toward the tunnel, you will see a gate and some steps leading down to a beautiful old Armenian church to your left. As it happens, we come upon a large family group in celebratory mood near the church today. The star of the group is a young boy all dressed up for his circumcision.
Back to Istiklal after exploring the church and walk down a ways, admiring the high fashion shops on both sides of the avenue.

Off Istiklal, to our right, are shops selling kilims, cushion covers in kilim designs, Turkish tiles and more.

Go back to Istiklal and let's walk on till we come to Galata Mevlevihanesi, now a museum of Ottoman literary works, but including a dervish tekke (hall) where members of the Mevlevi order perform semas twice a week. Musical instruments used in the sema are on display in the tekke every day.
And back again on the main avenue, past a Turkish hamam – don’t worry, we will try a hamam, but now just yet.

And finally, a little off Istiklal, the Galata Tower. As the highest part of the fortifications surrounding the Genoese citadel of Galata back in the 14th century, the tower served as a watchtower when it was built.
After the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the tower became a prison and naval depot. During the 19th century it was a fire lookout post in order to quickly detect frequent fire outbreaks in the city’s mainly wooden houses.
The nine-storey tower offers a great view of the Golden Horn, one of the four bodies of water around Istanbul.

Once back on Istiklal Caddesi, we can take the tram back to Taksim square and the Marmara Hotel for some old-style luxury. We'll visit their pastry shop to sample dozens of sweet and savoury delicacies with our coffee, including, of course, Turkish Delight and halwa.

Sightseeing can be tiring in a city with so many sites to see! Let's end the day with a relaxing Turkish bath in the 18th-century Cagaloglu Hamamı. Those who've experienced the luxury of these baths before us include Franz Liszt and Florence Nightingale. After the hamam, you can relax over a cup of Turkish coffee in the beautiful old courtyard.
We have moved through several centuries today, from the 6th century Aya Sofiya to the high fashion of our own times. But we've only just begun our Istanbul experience. Stick around, there's much more to come!


  1. Beautiful post, Pamposh! Thank you for the interesting trip to Istanbul. Have a great week :)

  2. Ditto! This is just divine! Musey throws the best blog parties! I hope that she has another one soon!

  3. LOVE this post!! have just come back from Istanbul ...I was already feeling like 3 days were not enough for that gorgeous city and now I want to go back more than ever...enjoyed wandering with and revising some sites ...:)

  4. Love this post! having just come back from Istanbul your lovely meandering made me want to go back all over about making it a joint trip? Mona/farah

  5. Mahi-Mona-Farah :) - Would love to travel with you and have to go back to Istanbul some day. But the next destination on my list is Uzbekistan! Someday soon, I hope.

  6. Beautiful pictures and post. Thanks for sharing with us.

  7. Amazing pictures.Thanks for sharing this post with us.

  8. Our world is full of enjoyments and wonders. There is a lot to see and enjoy and in our world. Istanbul is really nice and holy place and if we go their by Orient express then our enjoyment will be double. You have made really nice post above and I like it very much.