Some holiday destinations take time to grow on you, their charms not immediately apparent. Not Istanbul. It earns pride of place in your heart even before the plane’s wheels touch the runway at Ataturk International Airport at the hinterland of the Black Sea.

Kamal Pasha was responsible for Turkey’s liberation from the Ottoman dynasty in 1923 and for whom Kabi Nazrul Islam wrote a poem and made immortal in every Bengali’s heart. Of the 80 million people of Turkey nearly half resides in its capital Istanbul, a frenetic city with a wealth of culture, history and nightlife.

The Bosphorus Strait was created by the melting waters of the last glacial iceberg. It passes through Istanbul and splits the continent into two with distinct environs but mankind has bridged them through emotional and cultural intermingling.

The thickly populated city is home to nearly 90 per cent Muslims by religion, but most are open minded and culturally inclined. Crescent moon and star studded red flags flutter everywhere against the blue sky which appear seemingly proud to declare the country’s uncompromising democracy and secularism.

 

Istanbul from Bosphorus
Istanbul from Bosphorus

 

A pleasure cruise up the Bosphorus reveals many old monuments, wooden villas, fishermen’s villages, mosques and palaces mutely describing their creation and existence in history on both, European and Asian banks.

Founded in 7th century BC on a naturally defensive site and ruled successively by the imperialists of Byzantine Greek colonists, Macedonia King Alexander the Great and Roman empires and finally the Ottoman sultans, Istanbul has witnessed the history of the two civilisations.

For almost a thousand years Constantinople was the richest Christian city. It spread out from three great buildings, the Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome and the Great Palace. Among the world’s greatest architectural achievements, the 1,400 years old Hagia Sophia, church of holy wisdom Logos, stands as a testament to the elaborate architecture of the time.

In the 15th century the Ottomans converted it into a mosque erecting minarets, tomb and fountain and disfiguring or even wiping out the splendid Byzantine mosaic arts.

A ramp leads from the ground floor to the galleries. After liberation, Ataturk converted this into a national museum to protect the secularism. Little is left of the gigantic stadium Hippodrome, the stage for famous chariot races watched by around 1 lakh people.

 

The Great Theatre at Ephesus
The Great Theatre at Ephesus

 

It was originally laid out by a Roman emperor in the 3rd century and fell into the ruins following Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. Three ancient monuments with respective artifacts remain, however, the 1,500 BC Egyptian Obelisk, the 479 BC Serpentine Column of Delphi, and the Column of Constantine or Burnt Pillar. It has witnessed the bloodiest incident in a chariot race in 532 AD when all the trapped 30,000 people were brutally killed.

From the Hippodrome one can enter the world famous Sultan Ahmed Imperial Mosque, also known as Blue Mosque because hand-painted blue Iznik tiles adorn the interior walls of main prayer room.

It has unique six marble minarets, five main and eight secondary domes. It is continuing to function as a mosque since 1616. Ablution taps, hexagonal ablution fountain, minarets with balconies and “minbar” for Friday prayer are star features.

The 15th century Topkapi Palace, at the confluence of Marmara Sea and Bosphorus, was built as the main residence and administrative headquarters of Ottoman sultans. The complex consists of four main courtyards, harem for female members and many smaller buildings for state officials.

It was transformed into a museum after liberation. Istanbul is proud of its two big markets —the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest and largest covered shopping mall with 61 roofed streets exploring some forgotten crafts in 4,000 shops, and spice market, a riot of colour, stalls and aromas of exotic spices and delicious foods.

 

Spice Market
Spice Market

 

Beyond Istanbul, Turkey also showcases many historical monuments and natural splendours. We crossed the Dardanelles Strait to move into Asia. Roads are so travel-friendly that tiredness never spoils the enjoyment.

Green olives, swaying sunflowers and red and white oleanders line the streets to soothe the eyes. Petrol pumps have restrooms, restaurants and fancy shops.

Towards south of this strait in Anatolia is the famous Iliam, the site of Trojan War as described in Iliad by Homer. Excavations in 19th century by German and British archaeologists confirmed that the Roman emperor had established habitation here 6,000 years before.

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world is the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. After Jesus was crucified, his mother Mary lived here till her death. A city grew below the temple mount in the 10th century BC.

Many other monumental buildings that came up during the 2nd century BC Roman rule include the Library of Celsus that housed 12,000 books, a theatre capable of holding 25,000 spectators, the temples of Hadrian and Nike and the agora or market.

An earthquake in 641 AD totally destroyed the city. The “cotton castle” or Pamukkale is a natural wonder at Hirapolis where calcium carbonate released from 17 natural hot springs was deposited in the entire travertine and terraces turning the 2,700 metre long range into spectacular white.

 

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque

 

Cappadocia is another natural museum of antiquity where the remnants of hundreds of volcanic chimneys with frozen-lava cover on its mouths stand erect in the valley of Central Anatolia. They are forming various fantasy figures to be called “fairy chimney”. Volcanic ashes created the hills that due to natural weathering processes opened up to form caves.

People from primitive times to latter days, took shelter here in times of need. Some are so big and deep that people enjoyed staying in this underground city. Caves have now turned into churches, hotels, museums and restaurants to please tourists.

A Turkey tour is never complete without mention of its art in calligraphy and the great Persian Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Rumi stayed and passed away at Konya where there is now a mausoleum. It is also the dervish lodge of the Mevlevi order, known as whirling dervishes.

The museum exhibits the implements Rumi used and his fine work in calligraphy. It is said that the Quran was revealed in Mecca, read in Egypt and written in Istanbul. From 15th century onward, Istanbul became the heartland of calligraphy, the art of refined writing and its mosque is like a fine art exhibition.