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EXOTIC ISTANBUL

Our October 2003 holiday

Contents

  • Introduction
  • History
  • Day 1: The One With The Sea Bass
  • Day 2: The One On The Bosphorus
  • Day 3: The One With The Belly Dancer
  • Day 4: The One With The Carpet
  • Day 5: The One At The Bazaar
  • Conclusion

  • INTRODUCTION

    "Bond got out of bed, drew back the heavy red plush curtains and leant on the balustrade and looked out over one of the most famous views in the world - on his right the still waters of the Golden Horn, on his left the dancing waves of the unsheltered Bosphorus, and in between the tumbling roofs, soaring minarets and crouching mosques of Pera. After all, his choice had been good".

    "From Russia With Love" by Ian Fleming (1957)

    As we had done earlier in the year for a trip to St Petersburg, Roger and Vee chose the company Voyages Jules Verne [click here] for this five-day break in Istanbul, the only city in the world that bridges two continents.

    It was only a small group - just 13 in all - and we were in two different (but close) hotels, located in the Laleli district which is walking distance from the historic Sutanahmet district. Roger and Vee chose to stay at the Hotel Merit Antique [click here] which is on an art nouveau, Ottoman-style residential block. This is a 5 star hotel with 275 air-conditioned rooms which has been stylishly restored with the addition of a magnificent atrium.

    We had one guide for everything - a young woman called Seda Polat of the local company Tourama Tourism who has never left Turkey (although we hope she will visit London early in 2004). She was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and she had a delightful sense of humour (describing the location for marriage registrations as "the slavery office"). Seda told us that, in the 1850s, her great-grandmother Nadide - when only 16 - was given by the local civil leader to the sultan in Istanbul to be a concubine in the Dolmabahçe Palace. Two years later, the young woman was married off to a military man and went to live in Egypt.

    Three generations later, Seda - a very modern and cosmopolitan-minded woman - perhaps personifies the profound cultural changes which are taking place in modern-day Turkey as it bids to join the European Union.

    HISTORY

    Originally called Byzantium, then known as Constantinople, and now called Istanbul, this is a city which is reckoned to be well over 2,500 years old. For almost 1,600 of those years, it was a capital city - initially of the Byzantine Empire, the continuation of the Roman Empire in the east, and then of the Ottoman Empire. Over 120 emperors and sultans ruled from here.

    The original name of Byzantium came from the leader of the Megarians (an important city state in central Greece) called Byzas who founded a settlement in 667 BC. The later name Constantinople came when, in 330 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine chose it as the new capital of the Roman Empire, making the city the de facto capital of the world for the next 1,000 years.

    The 'fall' or the 'conquest' (depending on whether it is being seen from a Christian or a Muslim perspective) of Constantinople occurred in 1453. The Janissaries, the elite forces of Mehmet II Fatih, stormed the city after a long siege and the Emperor Constantine XI Drageses died in battle on the city walls. Mehmet renamed the city Istanbul (originally Islamboul, the City of Islam).

    The Ottoman Empire lasted almost 400 years and reached its peak in the 16th century during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566). For 50 years (1538-1588), the chief imperial architect was Mimar Sinan who was responsible for the design and construction of no less than 477 buildings. The Ottoman Empire came to an end at the conclusion of the First World War, following which the modernisation of Turkey was led by the legendary Mustafa Kemal Atatürk [click here].


    Atatürk's room (101)
    in the Petra Palas Hotel

    Although no longer the capital (since 1923, this has been Ankara), Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey with a huge (and still growing) population of some 14 million (twice that of London). It is estimated that over 40% of the population of Istanbul lives in shanty towns.

    DAY 1: THE ONE WITH THE SEA BASS

    Our Thursday morning start was a very early one - at our home in London, the alarm went at 4.15 am and a cab collected us at 5 am (ironically the driver was a Turkish Cypriot who had strongly supportive views about the illegal occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkish troops). At Heathrow Airport, it was evident that the authorities were concerned about football hooligans attending the England vs Turkey match two days away because there were policemen at both the baggage desk and the ticket desk and, as our hand luggage was being x-rayed, Roger received the most through body search of his life (does he look like a football hooligan?).

    We flew with Turkish Airlines [click here] on a Boeing 737 and the flight was just over three hours. The 13 Voyages Jules Verne tourists were met by our local guide Seda Polat and driven to our hotels in the Laleli district of central Istanbul - close by the Valens Viaduct (named after the Roman Emperor of 364-378 who had the construction built) and next to the Laleli Mosque in a district dominated by Russian and Kurdish businesses.

    Having checked into the excellent Hotel Merit Antique, Roger and Vee decided to go on short orientation tour. There is a tram running down the main road leading from the hotel to the main tourist district of Sultanahmet but we decided that it would be more fun to walk. First, we used a cash machine to obtain local currency, but we never became comfortable with the endless series of noughts on the notes (the exchange rate is a staggering 2,300,000 Turkish lira to the pound). Then we found a typical small place to have a late lunch. The food was indifferent, but we were touched by the attentiveness to us as foreigners and the squeezing of a fragrant oil onto our hands once we had finished our meal.

    As we strolled down to the Sultanahmet district, what became immediately apparent is that Istanbul is a city reeking with history where, at almost every turn, one almost literally trips over stones saturated in centuries of experiences and memories. Beyazit Square was the site of the Forum in Roman times and the early Ottomans built a palace here. Today there are several mosques and the entrance to Istanbul University and in the 1970s especially student protests were so violent there were literally bullets over Beyazit. The one place we visited that afternoon was the tomb of the sultan Mahmut II (1785-1839). In Turkish history, he is accorded an especially heroic role because in 1826 he crushed the Janissaries, an elite force of Christian soldiers originally recruited to guard the sultans who became a tyrannical independent force.

    That evening, the whole group went out for a meal together in the old Greek and Armenian quarter of Kumkapi - an area of cobbled streets and fish restaurants overlooking the Sea of Marmara. We were entertained by a group of players of traditional string and drum instruments who made it a little difficult to get to know one or another.


    Roger & Vee in front of one of
    the many minarets of Istanbul

    The format of the meal was that for all our dinners on the trip: first, a meze of small, varied dishes from which one could select as one wished; then a small fried dish called sigara böreği which is a pastry roll filled with sheep's cheese; next the main course; and finally sweets (typically the ultra sweet baklava) or fruit. On this first evening, we were at a fish restaurant called "Ecemsin" so the main course - which was chosen for us - was sea bass. Putting aside that it came with head and tail intact, there were more and thinner bones than we had even come across and Roger could not cope with it at all.

    DAY 2: THE ONE ON THE BOSPHORUS

    When we had checked on the Istanbul weather on the BBC web site before our departure, it had suggested that we could look forward to fine weather, so we took short-sleeved shirts and blouses. Friday morning, however, dawned overcast and soon it was crashing with rain. Although the remaining days of our break were dry, the temperature never did reach levels that led to the wearing of those short-sleeved items.

    Our guide Seda wanted us to make an early start (8.30 am), so that we could be at our first destination - the Sultan Süleyman Mosque - before the crowds, but it was already full of tourists when we arrived. As with each mosque we visited, we all removed our shoes and the women were encouraged to wear headscarves.

    Built on Istanbul's highest hill from 1550-1557 by the court architect Sinan for Süleyman the Magnificent, the ruler at the time of the Ottoman Empire's pinnacle, this mosque has four minarets with a total of ten balconies, reflecting that Süleyman was the fourth leader since the conquest and the tenth Ottoman sultan.

    The great dome (53 metres high and 26 metres in diameter) is supported on all four sides by a great column and ornate arches. There are around 200 double-glazed windows with some 130 of them stained glass. As in all mosques, the carpets contain rectangular areas which delineate spaces for individual worshipers and point south-east to Mecca. In her talk inside the mosque, Seda introduced us to a feature of Islamic architecture which we were to observe many times - the muqarnas, a three-dimensional pattern system used inside arches and at the top of columns and elsewhere.


    Arabic inscription over door
    at the Süleyman Mosque

    Sinan and Süleyman both have their tombs in the mosque complex but there was no time for us to view them.

    We drove from the Süleyman Mosque to visit the Egyptian bazaar or spice market, outside which hawkers were doing a brisk trade in umbrellas selling at 10 million lira.

    Located opposite the New Mosque and built as part of the same complex in 1660, the name Egyptian bazaar comes from its ancient association with the arrival of the annual 'Cairo caravan' - ships bearing rice, coffee, incense and henna from Egypt. Today it is an L-shaped vaulted corridor alive with a magical variety of smells and colours (notably yellow, brown, ochre, red) from a splendid variety of spices: clove, cardamom, paprika, saffron, sumac, basil, curry, peppers. Even the teas were colourful and exotic: apple, orange, lemon, cranberry, strawberry, rosehip, hibiscus. All these are presented in neat rows of sacks or baskets arranged at the front of one stall after another.


    Colourful display in the Spice Market

    From the spice market, we drove the entire length of the Golden Horn - said to derive its name from the reflections of the setting sun - to the enclosed northern end. Our destination was the Eyüp Sultan Mosque. This is named after Eyun Ensari, a close friend of the prophet Mohammed who was killed here during an Arab assault in the latter half of the 7th century. This is one of the most sacred Islamic sites in the world outside Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Inside a small building housing the tomb, in a glass case there is a plaster cast, allegedly of a footprint of the prophet himself.

    As we left the area of the mosque, one could not help noticing a strange smell. Seda explained that it was came from a building housing sheep for sale in order that they could be ceremonially killed - a tradition whenever a Muslim has an event such as buying a house or car. Apparently the meat from the dead animals finishes up in the local soup kitchen.

    There was one more stop before lunch and travelling there took us past the Roman city walls.

    This structure was created by the Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) between 413-447 and it is the largest remaining Byzantine structure in the city. Running for 6.5 km (4 miles), the walls comprise inner and outer ramparts with a terrace in between. The outer wall is 2 metres (7 feet) thick and around 8.5 metres (30 feet) high with 96 towers overlooking the 20-metre (70 feet) wide moat below. The inner wall is 5 metres (16 feet) thick and an incredible 12 metres (40 feet) high with a further 96 fortified towers.

    These walls were the strongest defensive system in the world at the time of the Middle Ages. Over a thousand-year period, the walls resisted more than 20 seiges. Only twice were they broken - once by the members of the Fourth Crusade and once by Mehmet the Conqueror, in both cases after a struggle.

    The last visit was to the Church of St Saviour in the Chora district. 'Chora' literally means 'in the country' which was the situation when the foundations of this Byzantine church were laid in the 11th century. It was completely restructured by Theodoros Metochites in the 14th century and the surviving mosaics and frescoes of that period are among the best preserved in the world.

    Like a number of churches in Istanbul, Chora was converted to a mosque and has finally finished up as a museum. During the period that it was a mosque, however, the Christian-era frescoes were not destroyed, but covered with curtains or plaster, which is why they have remained so well-preserved for us to admire today.

    It had been a very full morning and we were ready for some lunch. First though, we crossed the Golden Horn and drove north along the western side of the Bosphorus until we reached a point at which we could see where the Bosphorus enters the Black Sea. The place is a village called called Sariyer (named after the yellow houses that used to predominate in the area). The four-course lunch was a restaurant at called "Süper Köşem".

    The afternoon was less cultural, but much more relaxing, than the morning, as we took a one and a half hour cruise on the Bosphorus in a boat named "Reisoğlu II".

    The word Bosphorus means cow crossing. The name relates to a mythological tale about Zeus, the father of the gods, who was unfaithful to his wife Hera with a lover called Io. To hide Io from Hera, Zeus changed her into a cow, but the clever and jealous Hera sent a horse fly to sting the cow on its rump, causing the cow to swim across the straits.

    The Bosphorus is a 31 km long waterway separating Europe and Asia, 4.7 kms at its widest, but only 660 metres at its narrowest (the Turkish name for the straits 'Bogazici' means 'the man with a narrow neck').

    By now, the weather was dry and sunny, if a little breezy, so we had a delightful, relaxing trip. The shores of the Bosphorus are obviously playgrounds for the rich and there were some beautiful buildings hugging the shoreline. These included yalis which are traditional summer villas made of timber with their own jetty with kayiks, traditional boats for excursions.


    Vee & Roger on the Bosphorus cruise

    The first major landmark was the Fatih Sultan Mehmet suspension bridge which was built by a consortium of Japanese, Italian and Turkish firms and opened in 1988. Just south of this bridge are the fortresses of Rumeli and Anadolu - the first on the west side and built in 1452 and the second on the east side built in the 14th century. The second major landmark was the Bosphorus suspension bridge which was built by an Anglo-German company and opened in 1973. Just before this bridge on the east side is the Beylerbeyi Palace, the last of the Ottoman palaces. Some way beyond the bridge on the west side is the Dolmabahçe Palace (which we were to visit a couple of days later).

    As we nearer the end of the cruise, one could see off to the east a small island with a white tower known to the Turks as Maiden's Tower and in English as Leander's Tower. As well as featuring in many postcards, it was the setting for the hideout of the villainous Elektra in the James Bond film "The World Is Not Enough". The final minutes of the cruise were particularly memorable as the sky turned angry and the minarets of the New Mosque rose above the bustling port area of Eminönü.

    After a couple of hours to rest, all the group went out together for an evening meal at a restaurant called "Hamdi" back in the Eminönü district. From this restaurant, there was a breathtaking view of the illuminated New Mosque with a near full moon shining between the twin minarets with - on the far side of the Golden Horn - the illuminated Galata Tower. Indeed, if it had not been crashing with rain, we could have gone onto the restaurant's roof for a longer look.

    The meal though was wonderful. Besides the usual meze and sigara böreği, there was lentil soup, a local pizza called lahmacun, and mixed kebabs from the south-east region of Turkey. Roger was sitting next to one of the other group members called Catherine Raczynski whose father was Polish ambassador in Britain before the war and a member of the London-based, wartime Polish Government in exile.

    DAY 3: THE ONE WITH THE BELLY DANCER

    Saturday was dry and bright for another full day of sightseeing, starting at 9 am. We spent virtually all of the day in the Sultanahmet district which contains the majority of the most famous sites and is surrounded by water on three sides.

    Our coach dropped us at the site of the Ancient Roman Hippodrome. This was started by the Byzantine Emperor Septimius Severus in 203 and considerably enlarged later by Constantine the Great (324-337). At its maximum, it was 400 metres long by 120 metres wide and accommodated up to 100,000 spectators.

    In truth, there is not much to see of the site these days, as just three monuments (out of an original 17) remain to mark the centre of the running track which can only be guessed at: the bright white Egyptian obelisk from Karnak, the dark truncated Serpent Column from the temple of Apollo at Adelphi, and the crumbling Column of Constantine.

    Behind the Hippodrome, however, is the magnificent Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque. This was built by Mehmet Aga, a student of the famed Sinan, and completed in 1616. The proper name is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque named after the leader who reigned from 1603-1617 and initiated the building, but it is popularly known as the Blue Mosque because of its 20,000 blue and white Iznik tiles.


    The Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque

    This was the last of Istanbul's grand imperial mosques and the only one with six minarets (at the time of its construction, only the Prophet's mosque in Mecca had such a number - a source of some controversy). It is the largest mosque in the city (the interior is 51 x 53 metres) with four immense, hollow pillars supporting a fairly modest dome. The attractive tile work and beautiful coloured windows make it a most pleasing location.

    From the Sutanahmet mosque, we walked north-east, round the Haghia Sophia (to be visited in the afternoon) to the Topkapi Palace of the Sultans (the word 'topkapi' means cannon gate)[click here].

    In 1465, Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, decided to build this palace complex which was constructed over a period of three centuries, during which time it served as the hub of the Ottoman Empire. At its peak, some 4,000-5,000 people lived within its walls. It comprises four courts:

    The group had the opportunity to wander individually through exhibits of Chinese & Japanese porcelains and silver craftwork, but all visits to the harem have to be conducted and Seda took us through this 'world within a world'. The word 'haram' is the Arab word for 'forbidden' and the only men allowed to enter were the sultan, princes and the black enuch guards.

    The concubines were Christian or Jewish slaves who were converted to Islam and 'palace trained' in singing, dancing and more carnal pleasures. The choice of who was to sleep with the sultan was made by the mother of the sultan (known as the valide sultan), making her the most powerful woman in the land. The harem consists of some 300 brilliantly-tiled chambers and it was fascinating to wander its corridors.


    The Throne Room in the harem of the Topkapi Palace

    At this point, we were given some free time to enjoy the remainder of the palace. First things first, though - we all needed the toilet and the men were surprised to find there leading British Conservative politician Michael Portillo (on a private holiday with his wife and mother).

    Next stop was the Imperial Treasury - four rooms of sumptuous artefacts. The most famous item in the collection is the Topkapi dagger which featured in the 1964 film "Topkapi" but, during our visit, it was on loan to Japan. However, what was there was the Spoonmakers' Diamond - the fifth largest diamond in the world (86 carats) and embossed with 49 smaller diamonds. Discovered in the 17th century in a remote quarter of Istanbul, it is so called because it was exchanged by a dealer for three wooden spoons (two, short planks might have been more appropriate). Finally we wandered around the gardens of the final courtyard and took photographs of the wonderful views over the Bosphorus.

    A late lunch was taken in a local restaurant called "Masal", close by the final main site of the day: the Haghia Sofia.

    Known as the Church of Divine Wisdom, this magnificent Byzantine basilica was built in the relatively short period of six years (532-537) by order of the Emperor Justinian. For over 1,000 years, it was the largest and most glorious place of worship in Christendom. It is still the fourth largest cathedral in the world - after St Paul's in London, St Peter's in Rome and Milan Cathedral - but predates them by centuries and it is larger than either the Süleyman Mosque or the Sultanahmet Mosque.

    In 1204, it was looted by the Fourth Crusade. Then, following the conquest of 1453, it was turned into a mosque and four minarets were added. Finally, in 1934, Atatürk had it converted into a museum which it remains.

    From the outside, a notable feature is the four minarets, built in different styles. Then, on entering through the Imperial Door, one is struck by the immense sense of space and light. The great dome spans 30 metres (99 feet) and the full height from the floor to the highest point is 55.6 metres (183 feet).

    The upper walls are adorned with huge ovals carrying Arabic texts. One can walk up a series of pebbled ramps to an upper gallery where one has splendid views of the church down below and of the city through the side windows. For fans of the James Bond movies, this was the location in "From Russia With Love" where Red Grant murders an assassin who in turn was attempting to kill 007.


    View from the balcony of the Haghia Sophia

    After a mosque, a palace and a church, there was one more - rather different - place to visit today , so we crossed the Galata Bridge to the Beyoğlu district of the city to call into the Pera Palas Hotel. This was built in 1892 and, for over five decades, it was the last stop for passengers on the famed Orient Express train. A host of famous people stayed here - so it is no surprise that, in the novel "From Russia With Love", the author Ian Fleming had the spy James Bond reside at the hotel.

    The whole place has a dry, dusty, yet decadent feel, as if it is a set for "Murder On The Orient Express". After a drink in the bar, we took the lift to see some of the rooms. The lift itself is a piece of history with large, ornate gates, a velvet-covered bench, and a uniformed attendant. We were shown Room 101 where the 'father of the Turkish nation' Kemal Atatürk used to stay and Room 411, the usual haunt of the British writer Agatha Christie. Many of the other 143 rooms have plaques on the doors commemorating other famous guests such as Mata Hari, Leon Trotsky, Greta Garbo, and Ernst Hemingway.

    That was the end of the official programme for the day and we were all free to spend the evening as we wished. It was the night of England's crucial European match with Turkey which resulted in a score of 0-0 (or as the Turks put it "zeero-zeero") and one or two of our colleagues actually spent the evening watching the game on television. Seda offered the optional extra of a visit to a show. Most of our group were far too refined for such vulgarity, but Roger and Vee were certainly up for this and found two immensely congenial companions in fellow tour members Lyn Steinhilber and Kandes Freeman. Both Lyn and Kandes are Americans working in London and they are our kind of guys, so we had enormous fun.

    The venue was the Orient House located in the Beyazit district. Somehow, we had the best seats in the house, a table adjoining the centre of the stage so that, while we had our four-course meal with wine, we had a superb view of all the action. The show was a mixture of folk dancing and belly dancing.

    The folk material included traditional customs such as an Anatolian wedding ceremony and was accompanied by eight dancers in brilliantly-coloured costumes. The type of music played is called fasil and a fasil band features drum, violin, clarinet and a kind of zither.

    In the course of the evening, there were four belly dancers and they were exotic and erotic is similar measures. The first was the most voluptuous and came round afterwards to be photographed with customers. The second was the most athletic, being a former ballet dancer who could do the splits, but she was too thin to be a classic belly dancer. The third had the best belly and she could certainly move it.


    Roger does his bit for Anglo-Turkish relations
    by engaging with belly dancer No 1

    The fourth was billed as the best and was certainly the most confident and vivacious. She kept posturing in front of Roger, indicating that he should take a photograph and then, for the final segment of her act, she waved him up onto the stage.


    Belly dancer No 4
    poses for Roger

    Basically Roger had to do whatever the dancer did, but this was not an easy feat, since his Turkish is not fluent and his belly dancing skills are not current. It became really challenging when she dropped to her knees and leaned right back with her head on the ground and, at this point, Roger felt that those weekly gym sessions were proving their worth. The toughest part of the performance came at the very end when Roger had to kiss the dancer on each cheek.

    Vee was in tears of shrieking laughter, but Kandes had the presence of mind to take some photographs, so that Roger's exhilaration or humiliation (depending on your point of view) could be captured for posterity.


    Roger and belly dancer No 4
    - the new Fred and Ginger?

    We thought that the show was over now (what could top that?), but a portly guy in his sixties with a long pony tail swept onto the stage in a grandiose costume like a Turkish Liberace. What the singer lacked in youth and looks, he made up for with his enthusiasm and linguistic skills. He identified something like 20 different nationalities present - including a massive contingent from France and smaller groups from places like Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, Tunisia, and Israel. He managed to sing a popular song in each nationality's language, before persuading a dozen young women from various countries to compete in a belly dancing competition on the stage. It was not an evening of high culture, but it was such a laugh and great fun.

    On the courtesy mini bus back to the hotel, Roger and Vee found themselves in conversation with a Jordanian and a Palestinian who had both been at the show. They were staying at our hotel and invited us to have a drink with them. It was such a contrast to the rest of the evening as we found ourselves in serious discussion about the state of the Middle East. The Palestinian had lost a brother and a sister killed by the Israeli forces, while the Jordanian assured us that one of Saddam Hussain's sons is still alive. We chatted until 1.15 am.

    DAY 4: THE ONE WITH THE CARPET

    We made a slightly later start (9.30 am) on Sunday and the weather was the brightest yet. It was a less full, but no less interesting, day than the previous two.

    Our first visit was to the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. This was built by Sinan in 1561, just four years after the completion of the Süleyman Mosque. It was constructed for Rüstem Pasha, the son-in-law and vizier of the great Süleyman. It is not the most visited of the city's mosques but it is one of the most appealing. All around the mosque was a market, mainly for shoes (allegedly stolen from outside other mosques).

    Entry to the Rüstem Pasha Mosque is up a flight of stone steps and via an extensive balcony. The building is much smaller than the other mosques we had visited, but it is notable for its extensive use of Iznik coloured tiles [click here], mainly blue, and the whole ambience is one of calm and charm. Seda explained another feature of most mosques - they have at least five clocks stopped at the times scheduled for daily prayers.


    Iznik tiles at the Rüstem Pasha Mosque

    We crossed over the Golden Horn for our next destination located on the bank of the Bosphorus: the Dolmabahçe Palace (the word 'dolma' means field and the word 'bahçe' means garden). The outer façade runs for 500 metres and overlooks the sea. Built between 1843-1858, in 1855, Sultan Abdulmecit took the imperial household out of the Topkapi Palace to this new grand palace, but the new building probably bankrupted the Turkish Empire in 1876. The last three sultans lived here and the founder of modern Turkey Kemal Atatürk died here in 1938.

    This was the only part of our time in Istanbul when our guide Seda was not with us, since only palace guides can take groups round the building. However, Seda said that we might meet the spirit of her great-grandmother, the concubine who served in this palace.

    The interior houses no less than 285 rooms and some 600 paintings and all the floors are made of rose, ebony or mahogany wood. The grandest part of the palace is the State Room which is the largest throne room in Europe and stands 36 metres high. This room contains the largest crystal chandelier in the world - a smoked glass affair of 4.5 tons comprising 750 electric bulbs that was made of Irish crystal but constructed in Britain as a gift from Queen Victoria.


    The largest chandelier in the world
    at the Dolmabahçe Palace

    "The Time Out Guide To Istanbul" describes this palace as "a celebration of just about everything that was awful about 19th century design" and it certainly was a poor imitation of grander palaces like Versailles in Paris or Schönbrunn in Vienna.

    It was time for lunch and for this we were driven over the Bosphorus Bridge to the Asian side of the city which houses three-quarters of the population. First we went to a hill called Gamlica (the name means pine peak) for some splendid views in glorious sunshine across the Bosphorus back to the European side. Then we moved on to a place called Nakkastepe for some lunch which we ate at tables in the gardens.

    The final destination for today's tour was back on the European side and back in the Sultanahmet district. Located between the Sutanahmet or Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia is the Byzantine underground cistern.

    In 1963, the James Bond film "From Russia With love" was filmed in the underground waterway of Istanbul. At that time, it could only be traversed by boat but, since a restoration in 1987, there have been concrete walkways.

    This huge cistern is the only one of over 70 such water storage points which is open to the public. It was built by Justinian in the 6th century as an underground reservoir. Twelve rows of 28 pillars create an eerie stone forest of 336 columns with either Corinthian or early Byzantine capitals. One of the most interesting - and puzzling - features of this particular cistern is the presence of two massive Medusa heads - one on its side, one upside down - which have been used as column bases. Bizarrely this restored cistern has a small café and, during our visit, it contained an exhibition of modern art forms.

    The official tour was now over, but Seda offered to take those who were interested to a carpet showroom and Roger and Vee were happy to go along. The showroom selected was a jewellery and carpet place called the "Istanbul Handicraft Center" [click here] which had no less than 6,000 carpets spread around six floors. The routine was exactly as Roger and Vee had experienced nine months previously in New Delhi when we had purchased a Kashmiri silk carpet for our living room.

    First, drinks are offered - Roger had apple tea, but Vee took a local alcoholic drink called raki (a strong spirit distilled from grain and flavoured with aniseed). Second, an explanation is given on the construction of the carpets with much talk of zillions of knots per square whatever. Third, one magnificent carpet after another is rolled out in a grandiloquent style. Fourth, an individual salesman who speaks your language offers to assist you in a selection.

    Although we had bought a silk Indian carpet earlier in the year, since then our living room had been the subject of a major extension, so we were persuaded to buy a wool on cotton Turkish carpet as well. It is beautiful - a medallion design in Kayseri style. The price in Turkish currency ran into seven figures (!), but it did not look quite so bad in pounds sterling. Our purchase was folded up into a smart carrier and we walked out with it.

    After a little more than an hour back at the hotel, the whole group had one final dinner together. For this, we drove over the Golden Horn to the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul where we visited the Bâde restaurant [click here]. Roger and Vee sat with the Americans Lyn and Kandes - the occasion for more laughs.

    DAY 5: THE ONE AT THE BAZAAR

    It was Monday and we were flying home in the afternoon, but we had some free time and there was one place which had slipped off our official schedule that we just had to see. So, leaving the hotel later than usual (10.30 am) on the sunniest day yet, Roger and Vee made the 20-minute walk down to the Grand Bazaar.

    The word 'bazaar' can conjure up an image of dark and dusty lanes with aggressive hawkers and our only previous experience of a bazaar - in Cairo - was a tiny bit intimidating. However, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is a light and airy place, more like a set of arcades, and the encouragement to buy is not excessive.

    It is a huge shopping experience. A total of 16 gates lead into this veritable Aladdin's cave. At the centre of the Grand Bazaar is the Old Bazaar which dates from the time of Mehmet the Conqueror. Most of the surrounding passageways were added at the beginning of the 16th century. Today this maze of 65 streets is said to be the biggest covered market in the world.

    There are some 4,000 businesses, of which around 2,000 are jewellers. As well as the thousands of shops, there are banks, baths, mosques, and cafes. Over 20,000 people are employed here, some half a million visitors pass through the market very day, and around 100 tons of gold is sold each year.

    There was lots of gorgeous stuff on display and we had to buy something. We chose a set of six tiles which fit together in a frame to make a 'tree of life' in a lovely design with blue as the dominant colour leavened by turquoise and red.


    Vee in the Grand Bazaar

    In fact, we broke up our experience of the bazaar by going out for a while, during which time we discovered a fabulous place for refreshments. Round the corner from a set of baths dating back to 1584 called Çemberlitaş Hamam, there is the "Cennet Muhallebicisi". Customers sit on low stools around circular tables in a room where the walls are covered in carpets and cushions. In the middle of the room in a recessed section, two elderly women kneel in front of circular tables and roll dough into pancakes which are cooked on a circular hot plate. This work area is surrounded with vegetables and spices creating a truly welcoming effect.

    We could have stayed in the bazaar area for hours, but we had a plane to catch, so we returned to the hotel, stopping only to buy four boxes of Turkish delight and two large boxes of assorted baklava for friends back home.

    CONCLUSION

    Istanbul is a unique city spanning Europe and Asia with both Christian and Muslim histories and buildings. It is memorable for its incessant traffic, its insane parking, and the haunting chant of the muezzins as they broadcast the five daily calls to prayer.

    At the end of our visit, our guide Seda asked us how we saw Turkey: is it European or Asian? She sees the country as Mediterranean. Although is an applicant to the European Union and Euros are very widely accepted in Istanbul, the vast majority of the country - and even a majority of Istanbul - is in Asia. Certainly Turkey is a bridge between two continents and two cultures and we were delighted to have sampled some of its many delights.

    Links:
    Istanbul city guide click here
    Ian and Wendy's site click here


    Postcript:

    Only five weeks after our holiday in Istanbul, suicide bombers launched attacks against two Jewish synagogues in the city. Less than a week later, the British consulate and the British-based HSBC bank were the targets for further suicide attacks. The four bombs caused around 50 deaths and many hundreds of injuries.


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