This article was first published in the Epoch Times Seals, puffins and a haunted castle
This article was first published in the Epoch Times Seals, puffins and a haunted castle
Memories of Istanbul Part 4: Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar, the world’s most exotic mall
Tahir is an energetic young man who works as a tour guide for Efendi Travels. We meet at a coffee shop on Yeni Akbiyik Caddesi (street), not far from the office of this travel agency, which is also called Backpacker Travels.
Well, this has all the makings of a private rendezvous, because the other two travellers who are supposed to join us on this tour are nowhere in sight.
Tahir makes a few calls on his cell phone. After making sure that the other couple are not waiting at some other meeting place or at their hotel, we set off on foot for the Aya Sofya Museum.
It’s a rainy day again, but it’s pleasant to have a walking companion who is also an enthusiastic tour guide. He assures me that in terms of architectural virtuosity, it surpasses the Blue Mosque- at least in his opinion.
As we enter the Imperial Door of what was once the greatest church in all of Christendom, my breath is quite taken away. “Wow!” I gasp. I am awestruck even after all these years of travelling and touring.
Tahir watches my reaction with pleasure. “That’s what I say every time I come in here,” he says. “Wow!”
It’s my turn to be impressed. This young man is passionate about what he does, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He is certainly not jaded after leading tour after tour of these places. Efendi Travels chooses their tour guides with care.
Rebuilt by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great, the central dome of this church once known as Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom is supported by four massive pillars and rises above its surroundings like the mother of all domes.
So impressed was Justinian at this architectural feat, that as he entered it for the first time in AD 531, he exclaimed “Oh, Solomon, I have surpassed thee,” referring to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. As Tahir tells me this little historical anecdote, I remember that Solomon’s Temple was completely destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Little did Justinian dream that a similar, if not identical fate would befall his own pride and joy. In 1453, as the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II triumphantly entered the sanctuary after the conquest of Constantinople, he ordered it to be transformed into a mosque and five centuries later, when Turkey became a secular republic, Ataturk had it opened as a museum.
I ask Tahir if he knows anything about the thousands of ordinary but skilled workers who toiled for five years to turn the architect’s vision into reality. Were they paid or were they slave labourers? Tahir replies that given the religious and cultural ethos of the time, it would have been natural for them to dedicate their skills and their time to the glory of God and of the monarch who was like God’s representative on earth.
We continue to walk around the Aya Sofya, talking in hushed whispers. It may be a secular museum now, but this space is somehow sacred, a mirror of eternity. The mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (Almighty) appears to be watching us from above. With its lifelike face and piercing eyes, it is an incredible work of art that is nothing short of miraculous.
Light, filtering in through the arched windows sheds a luminous glow on this and other equally beautiful mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary, saints and emperors, and even one Empress– Zoe–who married three times and had the artist change the face of the man at her side each time. “The first plastic surgery in history,” jokes Tahir.
I try to imagine the church at the height of its glory, with thousands of flickering candles casting a subdued light in the interior, processions of magnificently robed Orthodox priests chanting in other-worldly tones, and the prayers of the faithful wafting upwards on clouds of incense.
Tahir leads me to an upper chamber where the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople took place in the fourth century before the present church was re-built by Justinian. I experience a moment of incredulous wonder. As an Orthodox Christian of the Suryani (Syriac) tradition, I have been to countless masses where the priest chants in solemn tones that: “We …acknowledge those three synods, sacred, holy and ecumenical; namely that in Nicea, that in Constantinople, and that in Ephesus…” And now
I am actually standing in the very space where one of those councils was held!
I say nothing, but I am also somehow touched by the fact, that Tahir, the young man who led me to this place and to this moment, is a Saudi-Arabian born Muslim and that he had earlier spontaneously expressed his awe and admiration for what was once the most famous church in Christendom.
At this moment I feel a deep sense of connection with Turkey. I silently echo Pope Benedict’s prayer that this country will be a bridge of collaboration between the peoples of the Islamic and Christian faiths.
As we leave the Aya Sofya, I have a sense of coming back to reality with a jolt. The sights and sounds of modern Istanbul confront us- children splashing in the rain, hawkers peddling post cards and umbrellas; and vendors selling roasted chestnuts from carts.
But this is not end of our tour. Tahir walks me, and two others who have joined us at this point to the Basilica Cistern, another monument from the Byzantine era.
Going from the Aya Sofya to the Basilica Cistern is like travelling from the sublime and the sacred to the eerie- a complete change of atmosphere.
With its surreal lighting and two Medusa heads in its northwest corner, it is anything but a Basilica, despite its name. It is, in fact a water cistern built by Justinian in the sixth century to collect and store water for local use from the Valens Aqueduct in the Belgrade Forest, about 12 miles away.
Built on the site of an ancient Basilica, it is an eerie underground palace. With haunting background music and special lighting effects, it is like some mysterious, enchanted forest of marble columns and subterranean streams.
As I walk through it with Tahir and my tour companions, I am reminded of a Harry Potter movie. In fact, it was where some scenes of the James Bond film, “From Russia with Love” were filmed.
It’s a memorable experience indeed.
We emerge from the gloom of the Basilica Cistern into the open air. After Tahir points us to Divan Yolu the avenue from Sultanahmet to the Grand Bazaar, we part ways to explore the world’s oldest covered and perhaps most exotic shopping mall.
I stroll through the bazaar’s widest street- Kapakcilar Cadessi. Like some colourful slide show, a series of shops unfold before my eyes- selling antiques, richly embroidered carpets and kilims, every kind of souvenir from T shirts to scarves, jewelry and belly dancers’ outfits, intricately carved water pipes, boxes of dried fruit and Turkish delight.
Merchants call out and some offer me a cup of tea to check out their wares, but not being experienced in the art of haggling, I prefer to pass.
Wandering off into a back valley, I find a tea shop and enjoy a warming glass of apple tea, then leave this smorgasbord of colour and exotic fragrances to walk back to my hotel.
I’ll have to come back, I think. It would take at least half a day to explore this amazing labyrinth of shops and try the ancient art of bargaining- something that locals have done ever since Mehmet II established this market in the 15thcentury to reinvigorate trade in his newly conquered empire.
Deniz Houses Hotel
It’s late evening when I reach my hotel. Deniz Houses Hotel, welcomes me back. It’s been my home for the last few days. Certainly it’s a safe and comfortable haven from which to explore Istanbul.
For more information on the above and other half day and full day tours, contact Efendi Travels at www.efenditravels.com or www.backpackerstravels.com
Like a baklava (a sweet, rich dessert ) made with layer upon layer of sweetened pastry, Istanbul offers layer upon layer of historical and cultural treasures to be enjoyed.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in Istanbul when my friend Lale and I chose to walk in the lovely Edirnekapi neighbourhood of Istanbul.
We were walking in the shadow of Constantinople, the Byzantine city that once flourished before it was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, and renamed Istanbul.
My reward for following this historical trail? The remains of a palace built for the Byzantine Greeks rulers and a precious jewel of a church-the Chora Church, now a museum- that houses frescoes and mosaics of such transcendant beauty than even the Ottoman conquerors were moved to leave them intact rather than paint over these Christian symbols, as was their usual practice.
The city walls of Constantinople, made of the same materials as the palace, and once considered impregnable, were constructed of mortared rubble, faced with blocks of fitted limestone and reinforced by courses of layered red brick. So the guidebooks said, but my friend Lale, who is a local history expert ,informed me that the blocks were held together by the whites of millions of Ostrich eggs!
In any case, they proved to be a recipe for disaster for the Byzantines, as the armies of Mehmet II breached the walls and conquered the city in 1453, putting an end to their 1,500-reign.
Travel Tip: Although a little off the beaten track, the Edirnepaki neighbourhood offers many delights and it is well worth walking through its winding streets. Hotel receptionists in Istanbul are generally extremely helpful and eager to please, so do ask for their advice on how to get there.
Here is the remnant of a former Byzantine Palace, the home of a Byzantine Emperor, Constantine. Although now an empty shell and a shadow of its former glory, it is an excellent example of Byzantine architecture, from which the Ottomans drew many ideas.
Istanbul is far more than a tourists’ paradise, with iconic monuments such as the Aya Sophia (Church of Divine Wisdom) and the Blue Mosque that are on countless peoples’ ‘bucket’ lists.
It’s also a real, live, vibrant, modern city where people live, work, play, dance and enjoy themselves with a joie de vivre that rivals that of Paris.
I have visited Paris several times, and have tipped my hat (so to speak) to Ernest Hemingway and friends, forever associated in my mind with Cafe de Flore on Boulevard St. Germain.
A street in Istanbul- not necessarily listed in guidebooks, affords the visitor a glimpse of that environment- as I discovered on this visit.
Walking with my friend Lale Utkan on one of her favourite streets, the fashionable, elegant Istiklal Caddesi, I was enjoying its shops and historic buildings, when she led me to another street, almost hidden from view, behind the famous Galatsaray School.
A long, narrow street, descending like a stairway from the back of the school, and teeming with charming cafes , wine bars, lovely, restored terraced buildings somewhat evocative of Bohemian Paris, came into view. The atmosphere is unmistakably French art deco, and it offers an inviting setting for alfresco lunches and dinners.
Connecting with my Christian heritage
Lale and I enjoyed glasses of Suryani Sarabi, a special wine made by the Christian monks of the ancient, Mor ((Saint) Gabriel Monastery in Mardin, a city on the Eastern side of Turkey, near the Syrian border.
This was a particularly special moment for me, as I am a Suryani (an Orthodox Christian of the Syriac/Aramaic rite) , a heritage I share with the Suryanis of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Here I am, sipping Surayni wine with a Turkish Muslim friend. It doesn’t get any better than this. Here’s to interfaith and intercultural friendship, to peace, and an end to war and violence.
You never know what you’ll discover on a trip…that’s way beyond and more meaningful than the tourist scene.
Practical Tip: Walk along Istiklal Street near Taksim Square and ask anyone for directions to Algeria Street, called Cezayir Sokak in Turkish.
Safety Concerns: Turkey is generally safe, and is not a conflict zone, despite media headlines. I was there for three weeks in May-June 2016 and had a great time.
The dazzling rays of the morning sun reflected and bounced off the white stone walls as my guide Lale Utkan and I approached the church of the Aya Irini (Church of Divine Peace), located in the outer courtyard of the famous Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
The blood-red roses in full bloom in the courtyard garden were thrown into sharp relief, making it a perfect backdrop for photographs.
Far less known than than the magnificent Aya Sofia (Holy Wisdom Church), this church is nevertheless one of the hidden treasures of Istanbul, particularly if you are interested in early Christian art and architecture.
As we entered the building, my guide, an expert in Byzantine art and architecture, pointed out some of its features including the columns and arches which display superb Roman-style brick work.
Built in 324 AD by the Emperor Constantine I who laid the foundations of a Christian Empire, it occupies the site of a former Temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of Love and Beauty, and the equivalent of the Roman goddess Venus.
Today it is a museum that doubles as a concert hall because of its superb acoustics.
Practical Tip: If you are a fan of museums, consider buying a museum pass which will get you admission to Istanbul’s vast treasure trove of museums at a discounted price. Ask your hotel where you can purchase one, or check the following website.
May 18, 2016
It’s Wednesday night in Istanbul, one of the world’s largest and most vibrant cities, and Istanbullus are ready to take a break from their fast-paced, hectic lives.
Here, as in the rest of Turkey, life is to be lived… enjoyed…celebrated… with family, friends, colleagues and even strangers who instantly become friends. Unlike in many other parts of the world, they don’t wait for Friday night, but take a break in the middle of the week to recharge and enjoy themselves.
Threats of politically motivated attacks have not dampened this spirit, as I discovered after my first day of touring with my friend Lalehan Utkan.
As the stars lit up the night sky, we headed out to the Beyoglu-Taksim area, the favourite haunt of this very modern Turkish lady. As we walked along Istiklal Street, she explained the custom of taking a mid- week break and announced happily that there was a street party close to Gonul Pera, a bar she owned in this neighbourhood. (She is a freelance tour guide by day!) Her bar is named after her mother, whose love of life she has clearly inherited.
At the bar, which offers a good view of the street, she introduced me to raki, http://www.raki.com/ (the word means lion’s milk), a hyper-potent, aniseed flavoured alcoholic potion that is Turkey’s national drink. For a non-drinker like me, it was quite the experience!
Always game to do as the Romans do in Rome, or Turks do in Turkey, I sip my raki, diluted with water, ever so slowly while watching the street party scene below.
“It’s part of our Meyhane culture,” explains my friend.
Meyhane is a type of restaurant, a cross between a British tavern and a Spanish tapas bar, where people spend several enjoyable hours, relaxing, sipping raki and other drinks and nibbling away at Turkish mezes ( hors d’oeuvres) while engaging in animated conversation with their friends.
“Definitely much more fun than staring at an iPad or other mobile phone,” I respond.
We drank a toast to our new friendship before I headed back to my hotel near Taksim Square.
For more information on the meyhane experience, check the link below.
To go or not to go to Turkey? My advice is to go for it. Despite occasional violent incidents, it is as safe as any place these days. Besides, it’s ‘on sale’ as a holiday destination this year, with discount airline tickets and hotel accommodation.
May 18, 2016
My Turkish Airlines flight landed smoothly at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, named after the Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and still a beloved and revered hero of the Turkish people.
As I walked out of the exit door, I was met by a young woman Lalehan Utkan, whose charming, welcoming smile said it all.
Lalehan is a bright, attractive lady who works as a professional tour guide, and over the next five days, became my friend, rather than an impersonal tour guide reeling off facts and stats in a mechanical, text book manner. Her first name which means ‘tulip’ is so appropriate, in a country where tulips originated. (That’s right, it was from Turkey that Holland got its first tulips.)
She is a fourth generation Istanbullu and is passionate about her city and her culture. I loved exploring the city with her and seeing it through her eyes.
One of our first stops was at the Topkapi Palace where I had an intriguing glimpse of what went on in the palace kitchens, when say, Sultan (Emperor) Suleiman the Magnificent decided to throw a State banquet for a visiting dignitary. No figurehead royal, Suleiman ruled the mighty Ottoman Empire at the height of its glory, from 1520 to 1566. His numerous titles included, Emperor, Commander of the Faithful and Shadow of God on Earth. (Not unlike some of the titles held by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom today.)
The kitchens of the royal household- which included his harem and his beloved wife and Queen, Roxelana- had to produce a range of dishes from exotic soups to delectable desserts, herbal medicines and even luxury items such as soaps, perfumed candles, incense and rose oil fit for the Shadow of God on Earth and his privileged and honoured guests.
Our tour took us through the separate sections where different foods were produced ( for example the desserts and candy kitchen and the sherbets and jam room) and showed us the kitchen equipment and utensils including industrial-sized ovens.
The magnificent dishes (the Royal Doulton of the day) in which the food was served are also on display.
There is much more to the Topkapi Palace than its kitchens and it’s worth exploring all of its magnificent exhibits.
For visiting information on the Topkapi Palace, one of the main attractions of Istanbul, please see http://topkapisarayi.gov.tr/en/visit-information
Safety note: While violent incidents do happen occasionally in Turkey as elsewhere, the risk is relatively low. I’ve been there and had a great time. Go ahead and book that holiday!
Lalehan Utkan, professional tour guide, against a backdrop of roses within the precincts of the the Topkapi Palace
To all my friends around the global village:
I have just returned — for the third time in the last six years– from one of my favourite countries- breathtakingly beautiful Turkey. The following posts are meant to convince you that despite the news headlines (political problems, sporadic bursts of violence, bombings, etc) Turkey remains a dream destination filled with sensuous delights, amazing historical discoveries, delectable and varied cuisine, and best of all, friendly, warmhearted people. Tragedies strike everywhere…Paris, Brussels and even our own beloved Ottawa, but they cannot kill the spirit of a people. And they have not killed the warmth, optimism and friendliness of the Turkish people. Believe me, Turkey is addictive. You will fall in love, as I did, and will return again and again. Go and check it out for yourself!
To my friends in Turkey,
Thank you for your kind and gracious welcome . I’m sorry about the problems , which are not yours alone, but are shared in some way by the whole world. But I’m happy to see you facing then with such courage and optimism. You have a way of making people feel welcome that is matched in very few other countries. I am glad I came, and will do so again, Inshallah.
Susan Korah, from Canada with love.
May 17, 2016
Strains of the Blue Danube Waltz greeted my ears as I boarded my Montreal to Istanbul Turkish Airlines flight. Like Anne of Green Gables, I could have closed my eyes and imagined that I was a debutante sashaying into an Imperial Ball at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.
But the reality of the moment was almost the next best thing.
Turkish Airlines gives you a little preview of the hospitality and charm you will encounter in the country itself. In the mundane world of 2016, , when so many airlines have cut back on the little frills that make long-distance flying a little more bearable, Turkish Airlines makes it a pleasant experience.
The food is delicious and served by smiling flight attendants. A sample dinner menu could be: Mezes (Turkish hors d’oeuvres): mozzarella and tomato salad, beans in tomato sauce; Main course: choice of grilled minced beef Turkish style, with bulgar pilaf and sauteed vegetables, Or grilled chicken fillets with rice and vegetables; Dessert: mango mousse with the usual choice of coffee, tea, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages.
Other thoughtful touches are gift packs of including slippers, eye masks and socks that make the flight a little more comfortable, and colouring books for children.
All these came as pleasant surprises after countless bare-bones or no-service flights to different destinations around the world.
Best of all: the prices are good. Not only for flights but for hotels in Istanbul and the rest of Turkey as well. This is actually a good time to visit Turkey. Go for it!
For information on flights visit: