Istanbul – 2 Continents and a Riot – Part 1

There is no end to the amount of intrigue and awe this city generates. From the vibrant and flourishing Constantinople of pre-medieval times to the cosmopolitan Istanbul of today where Daniel Craig can be visualized driving a motorbike across rooftops chasing some supervillain, this city has it all. The amalgamations of cultures, architecture, and even politics is like nowhere else. Blue Mosque a highly revered orthodox mosque stands across the road from Hagia Sofya, a global icon of secularism. Hagia Sofya itself has been a mosque and a church in differents regimes and retains both architectural features and art from both its avatars. The city sits across two continents and has 3 areas with distinct cultures and lifestyles divided by the Bosphorus. The city is ultra-modern in a lot of ways but retains its orthodox Islamic undertones with some historic traditions like the Turkish baths, whirling dervishes, and of course the food.

The first things you will experience in Istanbul are almost always a traffic jam and a taxi driver who will take you for a ride, both literally and figuratively. Once I had checked into the hotel, it was too hard to resist stepping out and soaking in the history and culture. I had read about an awesome fish restaurant under the Galata bridge. I took the tram right to the bridge and it wasn’t hard to find the place with delicious fish and a great view of the Bosphorus. A brilliant lunch later, the first thing you see is the grand architecture of the Suleymaniye mosque.

What the Suleymaniye mosque lacks in brand recognition and stature, it makes up in beautiful architecture and design. The stature of a mosque in the Ottoman times was defined by the number of minarets it had. Six meant you were at the absolute top, four could be built if the mosque was built but a sultan. Princes could authorize two and everyone else had to stick to the functional one. The Suleymaniye has four, that would make it stand out anywhere in the world, except Istanbul where it sits about a mile away from the Blue Mosque, with six. The stone used to build the mosque is unique and gives it a bit of an extra-terrestrial feel. The entrance is through a grand courtyard with the traditional water fountain at the center. The inside is a very traditional Turkish style of colorful geometric lines with colored glass windows providing natural light supplemented by chandeliers hung or long chains. The visitor entrance is separate from the worshiper entrance and provides a good side space to be able to click pictures of the vast interiors – remember to dress conservatively if you want to enter.

The other challenge with the Suleymaniye Mosque is the lack of good vantage points to click pictures of the complete facade. I made my job harder by getting there on an afternoon of bright sunlight. If you are there, it is a good idea to check out the Spice Bazaar just around the corner. It is one of the largest spice markets in the world (the largest is actually in Delhi) and you can buy fresh local spices and spice mixes. The mutton curry and kebab spice mixes are fabulous but the most amazing Turkish spice has to be the Sumac. It is not a mix but made out of a dried local berry and it makes an amazing topping for hummus, salads, or for me even shakshuka.

Depending on the starting point, getting to Hagia Sophia can be really hard. That is not because of the crowds or bad roads, but just because of the sheer volume of shops selling the most attractive local artwork and even more small restaurants selling local kebabs. That aroma on the street will make it next to impossible to walk further without taking a short break. Once you manage to cross the golden barriers, then you hit the crowds. The entrance to the Hagia Sophia Museum usually has a long line with about an hour of waiting.

The inside of this historic icon easily makes all the jostling crowds worth your while. The entrance is a narrow passage with a very famous motif of Jesus on the top a memory from it’s near the 1000 year reign as the largest cathedral in the world from 537 AD to 1522 AD. It was an architectural wonder for its times with the largest dome constructed at the time and showcased the scientific capabilities of the Byzantine empire. Remains of paintings and other forms all wall art from its times as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral still can be seen. For a few decades in the thirteenth century, it was converted to a Roman Catholic church the fourth crusaders. In 1453 it was converted to an Ottoman Mosque and remained that till 1931 when it was closed and reopened as a secular museum in 1935. The interiors tell stories of all phases of its life, the recent ones are more prominent, though the older ones hold their place firmly and tell deeper historic stories. The sheer scale of the interiors and the massive dome are mind-blowing especially when put together with the intricate multi-faith interior design. The lighting is very similar to the other major mosques of the city with chandeliers hung using long chains and natural light coming in through hundreds of glass windows around the domes. There are two levels and you can walk up to the first floor to see some historic art and also get some beautiful views of the ground floor and the artwork on the high ceilings.

The Blue Mosque is just across from Hagia Sophia with a large courtyard and a beautiful dancing fountain separating the two. Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, it is one of the most influential mosques in the World and had grandeur to show for it as well. The stunningly large size and the beautiful grey-blue exterior make this monument stand out at almost any time of day. The inside is no less magical than the exterior. There is a separate entrance for non-muslims and you miss the courtyard and ushered straight inside. The visitor and worshiper areas are separated but you still get a full view of the ornate domes and beautiful colored glass windows. Structurally it’s not a very different interior from the Suleymaniye Mosque, just larger and grander. You can sit inside for a while and enjoy the tranquility and peace that the massive interiors bring. Do make sure you time your visit not to coincide with prayer times because then you will be politely asked to wait or leave, depending on if you are still outside or inside.

There are a lot of amazing structures in the area including the Topkapi Palace, which is a glorious view of the life of the Ottoman Sultans. It is a glamorous and ornate palace with a harem whose stories are created to shock and scandalize. A key part I missed was the Basilica Cistern or a walk into the watery underbelly of Istanbul – it seems a photographers delight. So I would love to go back and click.

Three other things would complete a experience of the “faith” area of Istanbul. The Grand Bazaar is massive, unique and not to be missed. Several hammams in the area are centuries old and give you a cultural experience unique to the area along with immaculate cleanliness. Finally, the food at some of the many traditional establishments offering kebabs that just melt in your mouth.

The Grand Bazaar is about 20 minutes walk uptown from the Hagia Sophia completely along the tram line or you could just hop on the tram. The real bazaar is indoors and while there are shops outside, those are no different from anything else in the area. Inside, is a different world, especially once you can find one of several entrances that aren’t all the most obvious – look for the word ‘Kapalicarsi’. The name means covered market and it is a massive single story structure from the fifteenth century that has endured several fires and natural calamities but has always come back stronger. The stores sell exotic teas, belly dancing attires, spices, local lamps, sweet treats made of dry fruits and lot of beautiful ceramics. More recently a few western product stores have opened, but there are only a few of them. The displays in most stores are lavish and eye catching and there is almost always the traditional ‘evil eye’ to ward of bad influences. Prices are rarely fixed and your ability to negotiate will be tested, but the quality of local products is usually exquisite. I bought some beautiful ceramics, sweets and a few exotic teas. Even if you don’t buy much, it’s a beautiful place to walk around, click a few pictures and watch shopkeepers sip black tea in small glass tumblers.

Maybe I will leave the Hammam and the Food for the next post. They will join the Bosphorus tour, nightlife, and of course the riots!

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