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Istanbul – a kaleidoscope of the Occident and the Orient

Istanbul is a city that is avant-garde, high-fashioned, sophisticatedly cultured and highly progressive: a city that blends Europe’s panache with Oriental wisdom!

Vijaya Pratap | Istanbul | Updated :


“Constantinople is a very big word; if you can’t spell it you are a fool!” This was a childhood riddle we often used to pose in school, especially to newcomers and roar with laughter when the person would start to spell slowly C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I…and falter! The answer is a simple I-T…it! This childhood riddle/fun always stays with me and brings a smile to my lips whenever the city’s name crops up in European history or literature.

While Constantinople is history, Istanbul is the ‘present’, the ‘now’ and the ‘happening’. A city that is avant-garde, high-fashioned, sophisticatedly cultured and highly progressive: a city that blends Europe’s panache with Oriental wisdom!

I recently visited Turkey, to attend the “Beyoğlu and Ankara Culture Route Festival” in the cities of Istanbul and Ankara. The festival in both cities was filled with a line-up of all-encompassing art and culture events ranging from operas, classical music concerts, exhibitions of modern and traditional art, contemporary and abstract art installations, visits to historical places and museums, etc.. showcasing the myriad facets of Istanbul.

What do India and Turkey have in common? The Sufi philosophy of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi found resonance in the Indian sub-continent with its traditions of Sufism. Both Turkish and Indian cultures are intensely family-oriented and take care of old parents and elders. Indian andTurkish cuisines share some common ingredients though the latter is quintessentially Mediterranean in its combination of meats, seafood and vegetables. Some even claim that 9,000 words are common in Hindi and Turkish languages.

My hotel ‘CVK Park Bosphorus’ is strategically located in the vibrant Taksim, a busy nightlife, shopping and dining area. With elegant décor and imposing lobbies, the hotel proved to be the right choice with all the key places close by. Portraits of noble women and celebrities of yore, oil paintings in gilt frames line the corridors and cosy lounges, their doe-eyed gaze following everyone curiously. The hotel’s rooftop restaurant offers fabulous views of the Bosphorus and the glittering city at nights.

That evening during the festival opening atAtaturk Cultural Center (AKM), I learnt that the Turkish are well into Western Classical Music and it is an integral part of their culture. AKM is an iconic building with an imposing facade, a gigantic campus consisting of large Opera, Theatre and Multipurpose Halls, galleries, restaurants, cafes and open spaces used for hosting concerts, stage plays, performances, exhibitions, conferences, interviews and many more events of art and culture. After the gala inauguration, we saw some beautiful paintings and other artworks presented by contemporary artists.

The next morning, walking up to the ‘Galata Tower’ was a lovely experience; cobbled stone lanes lined with shops; women shopping for fruits and vegetables; men rushing to work; businessmen setting up their shops; cars maneuvering in narrow streets and at some places interesting barricades with traps made of spikes preventing four-wheelers from passing through the tapering lanes.

With Romanesque architectural elements, Galata Tower is the oldest and the most iconic tower in Istanbul. While it provided excellent surveillance from inside the walls of the city and had crucial military importance, it was also used as a fire detection tower during the Ottoman Empire before it was converted into a prison during the rule of Sultan Suleiman. Constructed in 1348 by the Genoese and called Christea Turris (Tower of Christ) in the medieval ages, Galata Tower was the tallest structure in the city for centuries. Today, it still offers an impressive 360-degree view of the big city from the top balcony. The lift takes you up almost to the top, but the last two floors, you have to conquer on your own. The climb is worth it, as the magnificent views of the city are quite impressive and give you excellent photo ops for Instagram posts!

PeraMuseum’is a world-class private collection of husband-wife team Suna and Inan Kirac. The museum’s highpoint is a fascinating exhibition called “The Art of Weights and Measures”  which holds one of the world’s leading weight collections and examines the measuring practices of Mesopotamian and Anatolian cultures.

The paintings feature Turkish Orientalist themes, providing glimpses into the Ottoman world from the 17th to 20th centuries, and include some of Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings.  Besides, they have a collection of porcelain that throws light on the coffee culture in Turkey. Walking through this museum was quite educative and fulfilling.

Visiting Istanbul and not having a dervish experience? Impossible! A quiet place in a busy area, the ‘Galata Mevlevi Lodge’ is peace personified with the dervishes speaking softly and explaining in detail about the rigorous practices of the dervish life in those days, which is reflected through models, pictures and other objects in the museum. The dervish who took us around explained that a dervish is supposed to cut himself off from the outside world and dedicate himself to poverty and chastity, focusing on the universal values of love and service deserting the illusions of ego to reach God.

Founded in 1481, it is the oldest Mevlevi Lodge in Istanbul. Located close to hotels, embassies, churches, Levantines and foreign traders, and by giving them free access to their “Sema” ritual the lodge became popular mostly among foreigners.  The museum gives a peek into the life and times of whirling dervishes; features rooms with scenes of how a dervish should cook simple food, and spend his solitary life in meditation. Displays include calligraphy, musical instruments, manuscripts, and other items related to the culture of the order. There’s a cemetery on the premises where cats roamed freely and a fountain dating from 1649. The octagonal wooden Semahane (ritual hall) has two floors where Turkish calligraphy and ebru-painting are exhibited. I wanted to watch the Sema ritual that night, but could not, due to prior commitments. But I joined their procession, briefly becoming one of them.

Vintage trams shuttle along Istiklal Street, the city’s main pedestrian boulevard, which is lined with 19th century buildings housing international shopping chains, movie theatres, and cafes. The dense network of side streets is filled with bars, antique shops, and rooftop eateries overlooking the beautiful Bosphorus: the river that lends its unique charm to the city. Taksim Square and its surroundings constitute the most cosmopolitan part of İstanbul today and host a wide range of shopping addresses. Walking around this area gave me the real feel of Istanbul!

Galataport Istanbulimpressed me the most. The world’s first underground cruise ship terminal is a blend of state-of-the-art technology, aesthetics and utility. The 29,000-sqm section of the underground terminal leaves the beautiful coastline free to explore, opening the promenade to public use for the first time in approximately two centuries. It offers a healthy and safe environment for culture & arts, work, shopping, and dining.

I spent half a day in the Historical  Peninsula. That is where I got to see the famous Hagia Sofia, built on the site of the Eastern Roman Empire’s acropolis by Emperor Justinian (532-537 AD).The monument presents exquisite Eastern Roman mosaics and fine examples of Ottoman calligraphy. Dominating İstanbul’s skyline, this quaint edifice has been expanded and restored several times throughout the centuries. The mosque has imposing interiors and the hundreds of visiting tourists were mostly busy taking selfies and posing for pictures with their dear ones.

The nearby Hippodrome was the very Centre of civil activities of the ancient city, functioning as a sports centre, where the chariot races and circuses served as a diversion for the citizens. However, during the Ottoman period, the site of the arena became a public square.

In the central axis of the arena were ancient monuments such as the Egyptian obelisk – brought from Egypt in the late 4thcentury. Another monument is the Serpentine Column in the shape of three intertwined bronze serpents – this was the base of a trophy that once stood in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, a later monument in the Hippodrome is the German Fountain, a domed structure presented to the Ottoman Empire by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1895.

At the crossroads of two continents – Europe and Asia – this spectacular city has absorbed the best of both worlds. With its beautiful historic landmarks, quintessential cuisine, vibrant nightlife, festivals of art and music, a celebration of faith, labyrinths of marketplaces and shopping arcades, İstanbulis a traveller’s dream. I have realised mine. How about yours?