As well as being the most famous city in Turkey, (though not the capital), Istanbul is the world’s only city spanning two continents. Istanbul is Turkey’s link to Asia, straddling the Bosphorus Strait, which links the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. With 15 million inhabitants Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and home to 19% of the population of Turkey. Well that’s what Wikipedia says. Taxi driver Volcan tells me it’s home to 30 million, which is half the population of Turkey. Take your pick.
Istanbul is a relatively recent name for this huge city, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. (It was previously incarnated as Byzantium and then Constantinople). Although Istanbul was usually referred to using this name by the Ottomans. It’s Greek, literally for ‘to the city.’ This ancient city was founded as Byzantion by Megarian Greek colonists in the seventh century BC. It was renamed by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, first as New Rome (Nova Roma) in 330 AD. Then megalomania set in and he changed the name to Constantinople (Constantinopolis). The city flourished, with its strategic location between the Mediterranean and Asia and the Silk Road.
The city served as the imperial capital for almost sixteen centuries: Roman/Byzantine Empires followed by the Ottoman empire. In 1923, after the Turkish War of Independence, Ankara replaced the city as the capital of the newly formed Republic of Turkey. In 1930, the city's name was officially changed to Istanbul.
Given its history and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s unsurprising that Istanbul is the world's eighth most visited city. As you would expect, this is a vibrant and multi-faceted city. I’ve also got to know it quite well, in my imagination, by reading Barbara Nadel’s fascinating Inspector Ikmen mystery series, nearly all set in Istanbul. In reality, this is my second visit to Istanbul. The first time was as part of a tour around Anatolia. Now I have a few days to wander and revisit the sights.
My hotel is a timber Ottoman mansion house, ideally located in the narrow cobbled streets of the old old town, on the European side. This area goes back 4,000 years. (The old town to the west is only 300 years old.) Non negotiables here line the refurbished (it’s ongoing) Sultanahmet Square area. This, as a whole, is a UNESCO site.
I'm having a late breakfast on my hotel roof terrace, overlooking the mouth of the Bosphorus, seagulls my steadfast and hopeful companions. It’s like being in Brighton. Ships wafting across the water. The magnificent Blue Mosque filling the window to my right. Sadly, it’s cloudy. Even the birds are shivering. I just had my PCR for the next part of my trip to Azerbaijan. Baku. The doctor comes to the hotel for 18 dollars. Very civilised.
The staff are ultra polite and friendly. The room is filled with dark wooden furniture and the walls decorated with 1930s style flower strewn wallpaper. The stairs reek. I thought it was drains at first, but now I’ve decided it’s Turkish tobacco.
The official name of the iconic Blue Mosque is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and it’s an Ottoman era (1616) still functioning mosque. Hand-painted blue tiles adorn it's interior walls, and at night the mosque is bathed in blue as lights framing the mosque’s five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes.
Next in line, the enormous Hagia Sofia. For 900 years this was the greatest church known to Christendom. It was built by the eastern Roman emperor Justinian I, as the state church of the Roman Empire in 537. It was considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, then the world's largest interior space and amongst the first churches to employ a fully pendentive dome. Hagia Sophia became the model for Orthodox church form, and its architectural style was copied by Ottoman mosques a thousand years later.
The Ottomans rededicated Hagia Sofia as a mosque, for a time, but it was replaced by the Blue Mosque. In the time of Ataturk, it became a museum. But it’s now a mosque again. It’s huge and crowded.
North of these two famous mosques is the opulent Topkapi Palace Museum (next to the archaeology museum). There’s some gorgeous intricate decoration and tile work in the four remaining courtyards that form the main structure. In addition, plenty of interesting and evocative explanation: the Grand Vizier’s Reception Room, the Hall of Eunuchs. The Room of Circumcision. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, there were 1,000 women living in 250 rooms of the harem here. It was the home of the Ottoman sultans from the early times of the empire, though later sultans preferred the lower slopes of the Bosphorus.
There’s much more to see in this historic Sultanahmet area. Ruins of towers, columns crumbling walls and half buried mosaics lurk round very corner. And there are also the views of the boats and bridges across to Asia. South west of the Haghia Sofia is the impressive sixth century (floodlit) Sunken Palace cistern. (This is the largest of several Istanbul cisterns and was built by Justinian). It’s atmospherically lit and the water levels low, so that tourists can access it without getting soaked. But not during the time of Covid.
Volcan takes me to see a section of the walls of Constantine, which used to enclose the whole of the old city. They have crumbled in parts, or been removed to make way for other building works, but there are still sections with towers, gates and 12 metre high defences. They succeed in keeping Istanbul safe until the ottomans breached them, finally. It took them two months. Volcan says that this is the second longest wall in the world after The Great Wall of China. That comes in at 13,000 miles and Istanbul’s’ walls are currently three and half miles long. I think that is another piece of information open to challenge. Even Hadrian’s Wall is 73 miles long.
A favourite stop in the Fatih district (more than once) is the labyrinth that is the Grand Bazaar, with its tempting glass lamps and pyramids of bright ceramics. It's said to be the world’s largest covered market, with 64 streets, 4,000 shops, and 25,000 workers. It’s much too easy to get lost once you’ve wandered though one of the many stone gateways and GPS inside is hopeless. I have to resort to finding someone who can speak English when I want to navigate my way out.
But, even more compulsive, is the surrounding warren of open stalls and booths that spill down the slopes to the north. Textiles, clothes, (mannequins which are just heads or only bodies), carpets, jewellery, Turkish delight piled high and slabs of cheese. Stacks of roast corn on the cob and chestnuts dipped in chocolate. Boys in braided jackets stirring deep tubs of ice cream. This is where the Turks do their shopping. It's an absolutely huge area in all, utterly chaotic, frantic and fascinating
They lead, eventually to the cavernous (it seems that very little here is small) and vibrant spice bazaar, the Misir Carsisi. Visible from the bottom of the slope several more mosques – their minarets slicing proudly through the horizon. There’s the New Mosque, built in 1665! And the largest of them all, built on a third hill, the Suleymaniye Mosque, another classic Ottoman design.
Beyond this, the Golden Horn, the grandly named estuary of the Bosphorus that separates the old city in Fatih from the northern districts on the European side – Beyoglu and then Beksitas of Football fame. Galatasaray is a little further on.. The main crossing is the ugly grey two tier Galata Bridge, which skims the water. It’s lined with seafood cafes along the bottom and crammed with men wielding fishing rods above. Though I’m not sure there’s much connection between the two.
Another slog up steep steps, (Istanbul’s built on a lot of hills,) is the Galata Tower. It was a watchtower for the old Galata quarter, which was surrounded by walls. It’s a well-known landmark, visible from Sultanahmet and a symbol of Istanbul. You can climb it, if you don’t mind still more stairs and the long queue.
North, past even more juice bars, restaurants and small shops to Istiklal Caddesi. This is Istanbul’s Oxford Street. But Istiklal is pedestrianised, the long lines of plate glass shop fronts sitting beneath restored Ottoman houses. It’s heaving and there are buskers and street dancing to distract the crowds from their shopping. It wends its way up to Taksim (Independence Square), weaving past churches, mosques and other buildings of note, as does the nostalgically old-fashioned tram, which runs through the middle. And it’s a long walk from my hotel. Thankfully, there are plenty of eating places there to choose from.
The Bosphorus is the hugely important, narrow, natural strait that connects the Black Sea (and the countries bordering it, which includes Russia) with the Sea of Marmara, and, by extension, via the Dardanelles, the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. It's an international waterway just 700 metres wide and 31 kilometres in length. And it forms part of the continental boundary between Asia and Europe, dividing Turkey by separating Anatolia from Thrace.
The idea of a bridge crossing the Bosphorus and linking Asia and Europe isn’t new. Darius the Great suggested it (according to Herodotus). Mandrocles of Samos once engineered a pontoon bridge across the Bosphorus, enabling Darius to pursue the fleeing Scythians and position his army in the Balkans to overwhelm Macedon. Leonardo da Vinci actually submitted plans to build a suspension bridge across the straits in 1503. But the first Bosphorus Bridge proper wasn’t actually constructed until 1973. There’s a Welcome to Asia sign.
I’m exploring the Anatolian side with Alex from Moscow, Tonya from Ukraine (they’re together) and taxi driver Volcan, who has put a trip together for us. We’re hugging the edge of the Bosphorus, en route, though Beyoglu, passing numerous more mosques interspersed with Ottoman mansions and palaces. The sultan’s summer palace, the Beylerbeyi Palace, is a peeling pale pink edifice just below the Bosphorus Bridge, The traffic is terrible; it’s very slow going.
The Turkish parliamentary republic was replaced with a presidential system by referendum in 2017. Since then, the new Turkish governmental system under president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party, the AKP, has often been described as Islamist, divisive and authoritarian. People are cautious about what they say. Istanbul is not only the biggest city in Europe, it has the largest court house and the biggest jail. Nevertheless, Turkey’s economy, is now the twentieth-largest in the world by nominal GDP, and the eleventh-largest by PPP. President Erdogan has a new palace up one of the hills here. We creep past it to the summit of the highest hill in Istanbul. It’s also the bearer of the largest Turkish flag. There are commonplace, fluttering on various hilltops.
On top, there’s a grand, if cloudy, view of both the European and Asian sides of the city. The Bosphorus winds beneath us, the Black Sea just out of sight to the north. I've discovered there are 3,113 mosques in Istanbul. I'm not surprised. The largest and newest is out here at Uskedar. The Grand Çamlıca Mosque was completed and opened in March 2019. It cost ten million USD to build.
Sweet apple tea to warm up. And a lokum (Turkish delight) shop, massively overcharging unwary tourists delivered here by their guides. I didn’t price it up properly beforehand. Rookie error. Nevertheless, the pomegranate and pistachio flavour is delicious.
Back down to the Galata Bridge and a boat trip up the Bosphorus, to the second bridge. (there are now three bridges and two tunnels). We get to see the exquisite facades of all the Ottoman mansions and mosques we’ve driven past earlier and another fort. Mostly, from inside the boat. It's decidedly nippy on deck.
Breakfast food is a little surprising . I haven’t exactly got what I ordered. I was given a very long list of items to place ticks against and I ordered omelette with cheese and mushrooms and a side of fried potatoes. I’ve got plain omelette with sliced luncheon meat.
With its café culture, Istanbul is also a great place for Turkish mezze and kebabs, meatballs (kofte) tender marinated meat, sesame sprinkled pide (thin Turkish Cornish pasties or calzone) and the salty yoghurt drink called ayran. Some say that that their cooking is second only to French. The Turks boast that it's the best in the world. It is very good, but it's largely meat based. and eggplant features heavily. I don’t think I will be squaring up to aubergines again for a while after this visit.
Next up, Baku and Nagorno Karabakh.
I'm on a group tour of Turkey run by an 'adventure tour company'. Turkey is almost unique in that it straddles two continents. It is located mainly in what is known as Anatolia in Western Asia, but there’s a portion in the Balkans in Southeast Europe (Thrace). So it's an exciting fusion of east and west. With such a huge landmass, Turkey enjoys a variety of climates. It's been dubbed 'The Land of Four Seasons'. It's also being marketed as The Largest Museum in the World'.
And, Turkey's history goes back a long way. Turkey, as we know it today, is one of the world's earliest permanently inhabited regions, the setting for a whole series of invasions and empires. The stones found at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey mark it as the world’s first temple and one of the most important archaeological sites ever discovered. Carbon dating shows they may be as much as 13,000 years old. The region was conquered by Alexander the Great, leading into what is known as the Hellenistic period. This overlapped in to the Byzantine Empire, later the Latin Empire, which was the successor to the Roman Empire in that region. After the Mongol invasion in 1243, the area disintegrated into small Turkish principalities.
A tribal leader called Osman began to gain power in the fourteenth century and his followers (apparently knowledge about actual events is a little hazy) evolved into the peoples known as the Ottomans (from Osman, it's thought). The Ottomans proved to be an efficient fighting unit, united the principalities and conquered the Balkans. So, Hellenism gave way to Turkification and Islam, as the Ottoman Empire expanded. During the World War I, the Ottoman government committed genocides against its Armenian, Greek and Assyrian subjects and after its defeat in the war, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned.
Turkey was proclaimed a secular, unitary and parliamentary republic, on 29 October 1923 with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the inspirational reforming leader of Turkey as its first president. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is the father of the modern Turkish nation. When he rose to power in 1921, he lifted the ban on alcohol, adopted the Gregorian calendar instead of the Islamic, made Sunday a day of rest instead of Friday, changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic letters to Roman, and mandated that the call to prayer be in Turkish rather than Arabic. He even banned the iconic red Turkish fez hat. Ataturk also developed links with the west and Turkey joined NATO as early as 1952. The economy strengthened. And the capital was moved from Istanbul, to Ankara, the second largest city, in the centre of Anatolia, the crossroads of Turkey
Ankara is our first stop. The must see is Anitkabir, the Mausoleum of Ataturk, This colonnaded monument sits high above the city fiercely guarded by goose-stepping soldiers. Next door is a museum with a wax statue of Ataturk. Other museums to visit include the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations ( ancient friezes and artefacts - a fantastic overview of Turkey's complex history) and the ethnography museum (housed in an old bazaar).
As you would expect, Ankara has a thriving cultural scene, with homes for art, ballet and opera prominent. Mosques dominate the skyline, most notably the Kocatepe Mosque, with its soaring minarets (see above). Despite its very long history, this is undoubtedly a modern city. But there are pockets of its past still discoverable, especially in the old town, with its charming, traditionally tiered Turkish houses.
Edging into Cappadocia, at Nevşehir, there’s the Hacibektas Museum. This is a Dervish dergah or lodge, now a museum, as well as a place of pilgrimage for those of the Bektaşı faith. It's a fascinating glimpse into this sect, recreating thirteenth century life. Adjacent is another much visited mausoleum – this time it’s the Sufi saint Haji Bektash Veli.
I’ve been really looking forward to Cappadocia and it doesn’t disappoint. Urgup is our base for exploring the astonishing lunar landscapes (complete with fairy chimneys) and troglodyte cave-city. Here, history that stretches back to before the Hittites (2000 BC). Over two days we trek (it's hot work) through the Kaymakli Underground City and the World Heritage-listed Goreme Open Air Museum.
Kaymakli Underground City was built by Christians escaping Arab oppression and once home to 3,500 people, this troglodyte cave-city is one of the largest of 34 similar excavations in Cappadocia. There are nearly 100 tunnels on eight subterranean floors. with stables, a church and storage places. Only four are open to the public.
Goreme Open Air Museum is Cappadocia’s main attraction. It's a complex composed of rock cut churches, monastic buildings and wall paintings. There's also the unique Pasabaglari Valley, (multiple fairy chimneys) and the remarkable Red and Rose (and yellow) Valleys (the highlight of an extraordinary conglomeration of strange and improbable shapes).
Next, more about Sufis, Rumi and whirling dervishes in Konya, Turkey's holiest city. Konya reached the height of its wealth and influence in the second half of the twelfth century, as the capital of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum. Today, this legacy is better known as the final home of Rumi (Mevlana), whose tomb is in the city. In 1273, his followers in Konya established the Mevlevi Sufi order of Islam, which became known as the Whirling Dervishes. I wish I could get to see one in action, but we're here on the wrong day. And these are decidedly spiritual sessions, not performances. (I did see one in Syria, later)
Overnight at the beautiful lakeside town of Egirdir. This is where they grow all those Turkish roses.
Pamukkale is another highlight. This area, known as the 'Cotton Castle,' takes its name from its many travertines, white calcareous deposits made by cascading mineral springs. Over hundreds of years, a unique myriad of pools, terraces, ‘frozen waterfalls’, and crystal clear turquoise pools (Don’t Touch – Hot signs) was formed. They are truly stunning.
There’s also the ancient spa of Hierapolis with a temple, holy area, monumental fountain, bath, basilica, necropolis and theatre. The only downside is that the whole area is overrun with tourists, many of them cruise ship Russians who are indifferent to local sensibilities (this is a sacred site). They are attired, for the most part, in bikinis and budgie smugglers.
Aphrodisias, another Graeco-Roman site, was the Roman provincial capital. It has a temple to Aphrodite (hence the name), a huge athletics stadium, some fine sculptures (mainly in the museum) - and a theatre. The ancient town was struck by an earthquake, the seventeenth century and was never rebuilt.
By diverting inland we've missed the bright lights of Antalya and the eastern stretch of the Turquoise Coast. Last time I was here I stayed in Kas (truly picturesque, with balconied old Greek houses, cobbled streets and lively pavement cafes). Then, I went onto the unspoilt village of Datca, the other side of cosmopolitan resort town, Marmaris.
This time, I'm heading back to Fethiye to embark on a three day gulet (Turkish traditional yacht) cruise. Fethiye is another charming port with a lively market square and a great place for al fresco dining. Once on board, we hug the coast, drift past the gorgeous turquoise blue lagoon at Olu Deniz and zig zag through the reeds of the narrow Koycegiz River at Dalyan. Here we view the Lycian tombs cut into the cliff face around Caunos. There are more Roman ruins and a dilapidated theatre. There’s even a submerged village to snorkel around, en route, at Kekova, though I’m not sure you’re still allowed to do that. They’re applying for UNESCO listing.
Life on board at (very) close proximity to the group members is interesting relationship wise. You definitely find out who you get on with. On the whole, this is a jolly group and we’ve had some riotous evenings on the Turkish vino. I’ve been bunking with Sharon and Tina. Tina looks after us all, when she's not being dizzy, so we've named her Mum. We are entertained by several single men, one of whom is an important financial adviser to the New Zealand government. His name, fittingly, is Chris Money. To pass the time on deck the group have been setting me challenges. So far I’ve done the Seven Deadly Sins, with photographic evidence, (gluttony and sloth are nicely combined by lazing on the deck demanding to be fed grapes) and the Seven Dwarves. Now we’re moving on to the Big Brother nominations. The Most Useful Trousers award and Best Meer Cat impression awards are hotly contested.
Ephesus and the famous Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is the most famous of all the ancient Turkish sites. Its excavated remains reflect centuries of history, from classical Greece to the Roman Empire. Then, it was the Mediterranean’s main commercial centre. Much here has been well preserved in the dry climate. Paved streets wind past squares, baths and monumental ruins. The Temple of Hadrian was built before 138 A.D. for Emperor Hadrian’s visit. And the most photogenic building is not either of the famous temples, but the wonderfully restored façade of the Library of Celsus.
The roads are fair and the olive groves pretty (if unrelenting). and there's time for a hammam. This is a steam bath that involves some overly vigorous exfoliation.
North to Pergamum, more Greco-Roman remains and the place that gave its name to the word 'parchment'. The Turks invented parchment - paper made out of calfskin - when the Egyptians stopped exporting papyrus to Pergamum. The Egyptians were afraid that Pergamum’s library would become larger than the library at Alexandria, the world’s largest at the time. Pergamum is most famous for its acropolis and the friezes known as the Pergamum Altar. But you'll have to go to Berlin to see those, they take pride of place in the Pergamum Museum. Of course, in Pergamum, Turkey, there's also a (very steep) theatre. As you might have gathered, I’m getting theatred out.
Then, the ancient site of Troy, renowned for the ten year Trojan War immortalised by Homer. Here, nine ruined cities, one on top of the other, have been uncovered, going back some 5,000 years. There’s also a huge wooden horse (I’m fairly sure it’s not the original).
We visit the Gallipoli (it means beautiful place) Peninsula and view the heart-breaking memorials to the dead of 1916. An ill-fated Allied campaign, utilizing the ANZAC troops, was forced to concede victory to Turkey and withdraw.
We then cross the famous Dardanelles by ferry, before following the shoreline of the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul.
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