Journey to the ancient grand capital of the Eastern Roman Empire



      Istanbul had always been one of my dream destinations, not only because of the sights, location and its centrality in the Islamic history but also because of the immense historical importance from times unknown. I had been looking forward to this trip for months even a couple of years in advance. Even the recent Istanbul airport killings and the recent coup attempt (made by some rebels in the once powerful army against a popular democratically elected government, while nearly all the Western world wanted Erdogan to be overthrown; not miraculously but with people power unprecedented in recent years he survived) didn’t deter me. I wanted to see the Turkey and its proud people of which I had heard so much and the progress they have made over the last decade or so.

The Ataturk airport named after it founding father, who distinguished himself at Gallipoli and then fought both the Russians and British alike who wanted to carve out post world war Ottoman Turkey, with the Arab nationalism insurgent and laid the foundations for a Modern day secular republic that is Turkey; had long queues at the entry point, understandably due to the recent spate of terrorist attacks in the country since the ISIL and Syrian affair. The British Airways flight, I wont even comment upon and not likely to use again. We took a long metro ride to our rented flat in Sisli, Osmanbey was the stop, Metro looked immaculate, modern and air conditioned. Part of the way was underground and once appearing in the city, we were at the Golden Horn at Halic (pronounced khalij) where I could see the grandiosity of the Istanbul skyline towering with similar mosques with the Blue mosque Haghia Sophia and Suleymaniye mosque looking over the Bosphorus on one side!

There was a 10-15 minute walk through the district of Nisantasi, walking through narrow streets , chic shops and bustling cafes and it seemed more like a Western capital. Nisantasi I found out was named after a tradition in past when the sutans and the nobles used to aim and throw arrows and the point it landed was marked with stone, Nisantasi name coming after a monument based on such tradition.

Day 2:

Already up and and planning for the day ahead, seeing the sights and experiencing the sounds and local cuisines, I was more excited than a child, arriving here at Istanbul after a long 34 year period. Vezniciler was the metro stop, close to the historic Istanbul University, it was a short Tram ride to the famous Sultanahmet district where all the rich history resides. Walking through sultanahmet meydani, I could see the towering dome of Haghia Sophia on one side and the majestic Blue Mosque on the other, famed for its blue Iznik tile interior. I walked through the ancient Hippodrome of which only a slight remnant remains, important events and ceremonies took place in this square in the times of the Romans, for more than 1000 years. There was the remnant of the Serpentine column dating from 479 BC, shipped here from Delphi, (the head resting now in the Archaeological Museum)and the 3500 year old Theodosius Egyptian Obelisk.  Each nook and corner looked like a heritage site and a piece of history.


Blue Mosque


The Museum of Turkish and Islamic History was around the corner which was once the grand palace of the Vizier Ibrahim Pasha. It depicted various eras and periods in Turkish history form the Islamic perspective and various excellent specimens and artefacts, including copies of Quran, Sahih Bukhari and Hilia Sharif from older times gilded and calligraphed brilliantly in different eras. It was great to see the old Turkish script looking just like Urdu/Persian on many buildings’ entrances. Read Zuhr in the majestic Blue Mosque(Sultan Ahmet Camii); it looked grand with a huge chandelier and a big rotunda. The tile work was very nice but a bit too high to appreciate well, the compound gave the best views of the mosque. Afterwards there was a walk towards the Bosphorus along the ancient city walls on the Kennedy cad, which were ever so impregnable for many centuries. It was refreshing to see people swimming on the rocky shore and some fishing, a young boy proudly showing his prize catch, a jellyfish! The search for a beach was duly abandoned soon. Then I ventured inwards towards the city, alongside Topkapi walls, came across the majestic rectangular Ottoman fountain named after Ahmet III, the finest of Istanbul’s Rococo fountains inscribed with poetry likening it to the fountains of paradise, which is infact a sabeel! Later after some quick fast food, walked along the walls of the grand bazaar which we found to be closed sans a baklava shop who enticed me to get lots of it the next day. The sweet shops were just awesome with mouthwatering Turkish delight, dry fruit and varieties of Baklava, if only diabetes was taken off the face of earth! Another mosque loomed around the corner amongst the hundreds in the same typical architecture of a dome based on a rectangular base with narrow turrets on the edges. Read Asr in the Nuruosmaniye Mosque in serenity of Sunday. Close to the end of the day having failed the objective of the Bazaar, to kill another day, passed along another monument, the Cemberlitas (the Constantine Column), this 35m high column constructed in 330AD to celebrate the inauguration of the new Byzantine capital, the glorious city to dominate the ancient as well as modern history. Made of porphyry brought from Heliopolis in Egypt, used to have a statue of Constantine on the top dressed as Apollo, brought down in a storm in 1106.

Riding a tram, going along the European side of the Bosphorus, came to the Beyoglu District passing yet more Kebab and Baklava shops, in search of a beach head not to be found in Istanbul! What followed was a long steep uphill walk towards Taksim, seemingly very short on the map, but not giving any idea of the incline. The famous Taksim square, the historic site of many important events, the protests, processions and the Hyde Park of Istanbul, the centre of activity in this district with the famous Monument of the Republic depicting a young Mustafa Kemal Ataturk leading the troops alonsgside a cannon. Recent events of 7th August of a failed coup when the people’s power famously defeated an army coup of which there is no precedence in modern history, the context was aptly displayed in posters and ads against terrorism in red all over including the Metro stations. Ever since the Turkish involvement in the Middle East and the Syrian crisis, Turkey is at the forefront of the war, experiencing many terrorist attacks in recent times, one recently at the Istanbul airport, which nearly made us cancel our trip. Dead tired at the end of the day, only thing to do was to hang the feet and lie down in an air conditioned room!

Day 3:

Topkapi Sarayi(Palace) was the destination this day and it was sad to see very few visitors around, all due to the recent events happening in this area, got off at the Gulhane Tram stop, walked along the walls, another Word heritage site, cobbled streets, munching sesame covered Turkish bread bought from a hawker filled in with plenty of cold water gulped as I went along in the hot weather, a pleasant change from the chill of Britain. There were lots of things to see in the big complex and it’s a pity couldn’t take photographs in many sections. Saw the kitchens, with old menus and the amount of food made in those times in such a large scale, the swords and weapons of sultans and ornate armours and the grandiosity of the kings was so obvious and a sore to be honest at just the thought! The sword collection from different times and pottery ceramic and coin collections were nice and so were the various pavilions including the circumcision, Iftariye and Baghdad ones. Unfortunately the treasury part was under renovation.

The highlight was the sacred area Pavilion of the Holy Mantle, housing as the name suggests; resonating with Quranic recitation, housing amongst other collectable items, the ornate keys of the Kaaba, supposedly the sword of Daud AS, the staff of Musa AS, the hair from the beard of Prophet SAW, his letter written to Maquqas an invitation to Islam and an impression of the holy foot print, the ragged cloak of the daughter of the Prophet SAW Fatima RA, made my eyes well up with tears. Here was the ordinary garment of the queen of the worlds, the leader of the women in Paradise, one who led such a harsh life, one who was the most beloved to the Prophet Muhammad SAW, everytime he returned to the city she was the first person he wanted to see!

It was great to see the swords of the 4 rightly guided caliphs, including the powerful heavy blades of Umar and Ali RA. Then there was the sword of Jaffar Ibn e Abi Talib RA, Ammar bin Yassir RA, Zubayr ibn Awwam RA and most of all the Sword of Allah Khalid ibn Waleed RA……Subhan Allah, how lucky and full of emotion I was to see those relics which subdued the non believers, the famous companions and my idol heroes! The famous Quran of Usman RA when he was martyred, triggering the age long civil war which divided the Islamic world forever too. I didn’t want to come out of this place, out of reverence, Durood and prayers were incessantly coming out of the lips.

The Museum pass came handy as I went to the Haram apartments, where the Sultan and his wives and mothers used to live as well as the eunuchs, of which there was a mosque at the entrance, the Queen mother’s apartments were the best. Again very few people abound, there were excellent views from the palace walls looking over bosphorus and the golden horn.

Corn on the cob was the next snack on the way. Grand Bazaar is the oldest and largest covered mrket, foundation laid in 1461, with more than 60 streets and 3000 shops. It was built in order to generate fuds for restoration of Ayasofya. It has 20 domes and 12 columns supporting it. The hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar was ever so attractive. Rugs, carpets, souvenirs and yet more sweets…People getting themselves photographs in affluent robes of the Ottoman times. It was surprisingly very well sign posted inside when I thought we could get lost. Had Fresh Pomegranate Juice , a glass made out of 7, can you imagine not 2-3 but seven pomegranates and one could imagine how sour it would have been, never to try again, no matter how much I like the fruit, another bad experiment like the Turkish Coffee with delight!



Grand Bazaar


Grand Bazaar

On the way back, soaked up the atmosphere of the posh Nisantasi district where we were staying, with nice boutiques, fashion chains and coffee shops and big stores of which the clientele seemed to be rich Arabs or Russians, as mostly wholesale. Then there were Kebab shops, Sikander/adana or kofte kebabs…lots of them!

Olympics were going on in Rio and I was not even missing it, though catching the action and results at the end of the day though Turkish TV only showed the local athletes, one such basketball match between the Turkish girls against the Spanish was one of the closest I had ever seen, with Turkey scoring and equalizing with about 10 seconds to go, only to have a heart break when Spanish scored on the buzzer, the ball going through the ring as the bell rang after the release! Bolt was beating Gatlin again to be in Olympic folklore, defending his  Olympic 100m title twice, unprecedented in sprint history.


Harem Topkapi Palace



Harem Topkapi Palace


Harem Topkapi Palace

Day 4:

Eyup Sultan was the next destination; I had always wished once in Istanbul, this was a must visit site and the most visited tourist attraction to my surprise, the resting place of the host of the Prophet (Mihmandar-e Nabi) Muhammad SAW Abu Ayub Ansari RA, He whose blessed house the Prophet SAW stayed with on decree of Allah on his arrival in Madinah after the Hijrah; who died during the campaign in the time of the Ummayads when Muslims first attacked Constantinople in the seventh century AD. He was according to his wishes buried as close as possible to the city walls. He is amongst the most famous people including Abu Darda and Owais al Qarni RA belonging here. This is a huge complex, built in 1459, which used to impart knowledge to children as well as preparing food on a large scale and distributing to poor people, working like a Waqf, for many years. It was the first imperial mosque built by the Ottomans and its importance reflects in the fact that the girding of the sword ceremony took place here, which was the most important symbols of Ottoman power, at the time of the enthronement of a new sultan! Hundreds of devotees were thronging the area and at the prayer time, the mosque was teeming up and couldn’t hold all the worshippers, there were the historic graveyards and the various tombstones with the Fez and headwear depicting the status of the buried person. There were life lessons inscribed on the walls on the way to the Pierre Loti, a café on a high rise hill, at the end of a short cable car ride. This is named after a French novelist who lived here from 1850-1923, and reportedly fell in love with a local woman. The Café in a calm and serene place, overlooking the sloping cemetery supports nice views atop, on the other side of the Golden Horn, where MiniAturk , the mini Turkey was, which I missed on this trip!

On the way back, after having some Turkish snacks in the famous Simit Sarayi Bakery chain, and a misadventure on the bus ride home got the taste for the Turkish Metrobus, the model for the Pakistani counterpart, was impressive in the very least! Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks was on the item in the night before slumping in the bed!


Eyup Sultan

Day 5:

Late start for the day, planned to be lazy, slept very late and waking up in due time, missing some important events as the Tennis final with no luxury of the Red button of BBC. Archaelogical Museum was one I was looking forward to in this city of immense historical importance from the times of the Trojans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Byzantines and then the Muslims, leaving indelible marks on the geography and culture of this once centre of the world. There were priceless specimens and artefacts from times unknown, again very few visitors abound sadly. The Treaty of Kadesh (a tablet containing the worlds eariest surviving peace treaty agreed between the Egyptians and Hittites in  1269 BC. There was a segment on excavations of nine different civilizations t Troy (from 3000BC to the time of Christ) There were glazed friezes of bulls decorating the walls, taken from the Ishtar gate of the Great Babylon, of which I have already seen specimens in British Museum and the Louvre in Paris. There were priceless inscribed stone and clay tablets from ancient times. Saw the museum at a much hurried pace, with so much to see in the city!


Ishtar Gate, Babylon, Archaeological Museum

Haji Mustafa, the Turkish delight shop which my brother had wished for and threatened me not to come back without, was mouth-watering. Haghia Sophia (Ayasofya), the church of hold wisdom, the grand imperial church; built and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD, once the biggest in the world, was to be the highlight of the day. It was converted into a mosque when Sultan Mehmet Fateh conquered Constantinople, the minarets and tombs were added later, the huge dome reaches a height of 56 m, together with Blue Mosque and the Suleymaniye Mosque, the trio complete the skyline along the Bosphorus and the Golden horn. It was majestic in every sense and one could feel the history climbing up the stony steps. Church of Haghia Eirine was on the way, it was quite imposing, being the first church built in this city long before the Haghia Sophia was completed, ow its included in the Topkapi Palace complex. These days with its fine acoustics, it holds concerts during the Music festival. Restored Ottoman wooden houses are visible around the corner on the Sogukcesme Sokagi. Had some vegetarian food on the famed road with abundant restaurants and eating places, found an Arsenal café amongst others too!


Hagia Sophia



On the way, took the opportunity of praying in the Blue Mosque, built between 1609-1616 by the imperial architect Mehmet Agha a pupil of the famous Mimar Sinan. It is said that Sultan Ahmed I, used to carry rocks and he wanted it to be built right across the Haghia Sophia. To me it was not as impressive as I had thought from inside. Arasta Bazaar was a short distance around the corner with the Mosaic Museum housing one of the largest mosaics discovered in the area quite recently. I was the only one inside the museum, I was availing the Istanbul Muze Pass to its full! The Basilica Cistern though visible every day I couldn’t go which was a pity. The Million stone form where the distances got measured from the centre of the city was also on Sultanahmet square.

Day 6:

Day of the Bosphorus Cruise, reminiscing memories when I came here with my family about 32 years ago when our PIA flight got stuck to my delight, there is an iconic polaroid with our tour guide and another family photo with the Blue Mosque in the background!


Dolmebahce Palace


Had a long walk in the morning towards the pickup point at the Intercontinental Hotel at Taksim, getting lost in between and hiring a cab in the end to reach in time only to wait another hour for the coach to arrive, picking up customers who were late, reminding me of my home country.The serene cruise took us through the Golden Horn, The Sea of Marmara and the Straits of Bosphorus, crossing many a landmarks including the skyline towered by the Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. There were palaces, night clubs and the chic leafy Istanbul neighbourhoods, 9M Euro homes of footballers and celebrities as per our guide at least!, on the other side of the Bosphorus and the continent. There was the Vodafone arena, the home of Besiktas, the majestic Dolmebahce Palace which later I found out was very close to the area we were living in. The boat skirted near the Princes Island, to which many tourists pay a visit. Then there was a high school which lost all its pupils to Gallipoli and had no graduates for 4 years but the spirit continues after the war. The next stop was the Rumeli Hisari the simple yet elegant fortress, built by Sultan Mehmet Fateh in 1451-52 in preparation for the siege for the eventual fall of Constantinople to Muslim hands. It is on a strategic point on the European side of the Bosphorus at the narrowest point of the straits, just 660 m across, opposing the Anatolian Castle on the Anatolian side of the straits, with three towers named after the 3 viziers who supervised their construction. It was completed in a record time of just 4 months and 16 days and was vital in capturing Constantinople and cutting the lifeline to the fortress city. The Bosphorus bridge 1.6km long is just to the North of the Fortress and roughly 70 million every year. The Marmara metro line runs underneath.



Rumeli Hisari

I had a wonderful time on the cruise lasting 2 hours or so, befriending a Pakistani uncle who was living his dream and visiting places after becoming a widower in late age, always nice to see someone with high spirits on a journey like this, envied his forthcoming trip to Mashad and Isfahan. Alighted at the end and went through the Spice Bazaar, visited the grand Suleymaniye Mosque, named after Suleyman the Magnificent, architecture is not much different as compared to other mosques.


Suleymaniye Mosque

So that was the end of my trip to the magnificent city spanning east and the west, of which I saw some more glimpses on the way to the airport early next morning, nostalgic at leaving those grand city walls which were an enigma once and impenetrable for over a century! Such a rich history, so many things to see, such monuments and museums, every nook and corner storing thousands of years of rich history, awe inspiring. The street food and the baklavas and Turkish delight and the sights will always tempt me to return, and so shall I God Willing.


Nostalgic Tram

Categories: Culture, Europe, History, Islam, Memoirs, Travel, Turkey | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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