Incredible Istanbul

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Incredible Istanbul

“If the world were a single state, Istanbul would have been its capital,” remarked French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte. I realise the spirit of his saying the moment I step into the historic part of Istanbul, the silhouette of which is dominated majestically by palace domes, mosque minarets, church spires and regal monuments.

Straddled uniquely across two continents — Asia and Europe — with air from Mediterranean and Black Sea sweeping across the land, this historic settlement on the turquoise blue Bosphorus was founded by the Greeks in the 5th century BC as Byzantium, renamed Constantinople 800 years later by Roman Emperor Constantine, and finally became Istanbul in the 15th century, when the Ottoman Sultans conquered the land. Having inspired the flourish of Christianity and Islam, Istanbul is a perfect melting pot of culture, creed and cosmopolitanism.

Like all first time visitors, I go to old Istanbul, now called Sultanahmet, to explore the Greeco-Roman leftovers and Byzantine wonders, and touch the heart of Ottoman Sultans. I complete with gusto the guided tour of the ‘must sees’, which include the iconic Blue Mosque whose interiors are gracefully decorated with 20,000-odd hand-made ceramic blue tiles; Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years; Hagia Sophia, the legendary legacy of the Christian Byzantian Empire; Hippodrome, the large site for entertainment, rebellion, victories and massacres; the waterfront Dolmabahce Palace; and Süleymaniye Mosque, the city’s largest Islamic shrine.

Ancient markets
While strolling through the historic part of Istanbul, what enlivens me more than the actual icons is the city’s overlaying ambience that can be best described as ‘Turkish mystique par excellence’. The true character of the settlement unfolds before me after I purposely lose myself in its thickly crowded streets, with exciting sights, sounds and sensations that ceaselessly keep my head spinning.

With the aroma of delicious kebabs dominating the air, I feel like being somewhere in the Middle East. The loud call to prayers, emanating from mosques, constantly reminds me that I am in an Islamic state, although women dressed in tight jeans, smoking cigarettes or a hookah while drinking beer at bars and cafés are indicators of a liberal society. My walk, however, is ceaselessly interrupted by street vendors’ sales pitches, selling almost everything from toys, homeware, scarves, shawls, underwear, slippers, fruits, vegetables, roasted nuts, grilled corn and ice creams to shoe polishing and ear cleaning services.

Identifying me as Indian, almost everyone seeks attention with a loud namaste, some trying to further impress by calling me Shah Rukh Khan. Getting a shoe polished is an accomplishment by itself. The Turkish shoe-shiners are much different to their Indian counterparts. They are reasonably well dressed, and sit on a chair with a wing-like, nicely ornamented, brass-glazed box in front. Customers rest their feet inside a groove in the box there, while the maestro uses several ingredients to give their shoes a mirror-like shine. While servicing my shoes, the elderly man asks me in broken English if I watch Bollywood movies and follow football, the game that locals are passionate about.

However, the true pulse of Istanbul hit me at the mystic Grand Bazaar, said to be the largest covered market in the world. The riot of colours and the amount of frenetic activity simply enthrall me. There are around 4,000 shops selling an array of merchandise from cheap souvenirs, homeware and delicious ‘Turkish delights’ to expensive handbags, carpets, shawls, scarves and shoes. It’s a paradise for shopaholics. A similar feeling strikes at the nearby Spice Bazaar, which has been the city’s premier spice outlet for several centuries. At both these quarters, I see traditionally-costumed water sellers in their gold braided waist coat and cap, serving water from an ornamented metallic vessel strapped on their back.

A trundle along Istikal Street, one of Istanbul’s liveliest thoroughfares, gives me the opportunity to see the union of east and west. Thousands cross this vibrant cobblestoned way, lined with boutique shops, departmental stores, art galleries, bars, cafes and restaurants; the only vehicular movement breaking the flood of human activity is the slow passage of nostalgic wooden trams, which sometimes stops service if the crowd is too thick to penetrate. It’s the den for Istanbul’s intellectuals; hideout for the modern generation, playground for the political activists to make their point, and platform for the talented — musicians, dramatists, writers and painters — to prove their skills with streetside presentations. Strolling with the crowd, I enjoy watching the blend of antiquity with modernity, fashion in tradition, and the youth in old.

The most memorable Istanbul experience comes at the end, during my visit to a public bath house for the Turkish bath — a custom handed down by the Romans to the Byzantines, later widely adopted by the Ottomans because of Islam’s strong emphasis on personal hygiene. There are almost hundreds of hamaams to choose from, but the best place to take a watery plunge is the 1741 built Cagaloglu Hamami, where many renowned personalities from King Edward, John VIII and Florence Nightingale to John Travolta and Cameron Diaz have experienced the traditional practice. It’s so famous and popular that American author Patricia Schultz has listed it in her popular book 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. The hour-long exercise generally comprises a steam bath, body massage and finally a splurge with bucket loads of water, soap and shampoo that not only bring a clean and happy ending to the ritual, but also to my visit to the exotic city.

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