City of Sultans - Istanbul Travel Review
Issue 76 January 2011
From ancient mosques to modern high-rise malls, Istanbul is a city that can enchant you for a lifetime. Emperors and sultans have fought over this land that crosses two continents, and now presidents and prime ministers argue over its future. Mahmud Hasan went for a quick visit.
“If the world were a country,” Napoleon is reported to have said, “then Istanbul would be its capital.” High praise, indeed, but arguably true. It is a city steeped in culture and history, with stories of sultans and scoundrels; court viziers and army generals; conquests and escapades. In 2010 it was the European City of Culture, and rightly so.
Istanbul has so much to offer that a single visit is simply not enough to capture the magnificence of this great city. I stayed at the Taksim Point, a regular 4* hotel, not a million miles from the uber-deluxe Four Seasons – which used to be a prison. The night-view towards the Bosphorus from the top-floor restaurant, with the backdrop of a string duet reciting Qur’anic verses, was simultaneously surreal and unexpected. In Istanbul, it is the views of the Bosphorus that will dominate your visit. The skyline of the Old City from Uskudar is simply unmatched in any city of the world.
On my first full day, I stuck to the usual tourist haunt around Sultanahmet Square. Built by Emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia (meaning Divine Wisdom, referring to Jesus) used to be the largest cathedral in the world. In 1453 Sultan Fatih converted it to a mosque and in 1935 Ataturk turned it into a museum. As you enter through the Imperial gates, on top you will see a mosaic of Jesus, with his mother Mary to his right and Gabriel to his left, and King Leo bowing at his feet. There is an inscription from the Bible, “I am the light of the world. May peace be with you.” One is compelled to respond, “And peace be upon you too, Jesus son of Mary.”
Not to be outdone by the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia, the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed built his mosque directly opposite (on slightly higher ground). It is also known as the Blue Mosque because of the beautiful blue tiles inside and, unusually, it has six minarets – two more than normal. I stayed for two hours inside this oasis of calm and peace and listened to two young boys reciting the Qur’an. Across the road is the Islamic Arts Museum. Small but captivating, this former palace of Ibrahim Pasha contains some wonderful pieces of art and artefacts and one could easily spend hours here. Instead, I made a quick dash to the underground Basilica Cistern. Water from here used to supply all the drinking water to the Royl household.
My next stop was the Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman Sultans until Abdulmejid I. One can easily spend a whole day going from one display to another, but for me a serene hour in the last courtyard overlooking the Bosphorus and the Marmara was most delightful. Day one was completed with dinner at the Terrace Restaurant of the Golden Horn Hotel, directly overlooking the Blue Mosque, and listening to the enchanting muezzins followed by prayers at this architectural wonder.
Turkish patriotism is very strong and recently the Turks have become less embarrassed and more interested in their Islamic history. So the next day, I thought I would take in the 1453 Panorama Museum. May 1453 is a very important date in Ottoman history – that is when at the age of 21, Muhammad al-Fatih conquered (or as Muslims say – opened) Istanbul. The domed museum depicts in detail the siege of Istanbul, with the sound of live canons and bellowing soldiers.
From there I took a scenic drive along the Bosphorus coast to the delightful Sabanci Museum. Situated in a splendid villa belonging to the late industrialist and philanthropist Sakip Sabanci, the museum has a wonderful collection of 500 years of Ottoman calligraphy, rare manuscripts of the Qur’an, paintings, archaeological works from Roman times, and much more.
A two-hour boat trip along the Bosphorus up to the second bridge that crosses this waterway was a pleasure. The views are truly relaxing and the gorgeous villas along the water made a visit to the estate agent rather tempting, if only to check out the prices!
After that, I went up to the Camlica Hills to feast my eyes on the grandeur of the whole city. The view of the Old City is absolutely mesmerising. I stared for over an hour and watched the big orange sun set. Dinner that night was at the Damalis Fish restaurant in Uskudar, on the shores of the Bosphorus across the Old City.
On my last full day I decided to visit the Dolmabahce Palace. Built between 1843 and 1853 on the orders of Sultan Abdelmajid, this palace came to replace the Topkapi as the Sultan’s residence. Wahid Uddin was the last Sultan to occupy the palace after which the Republic was founded. Ataturk lived here until his death in 1938, after which it was turned into a museum. The largest painting in the Palace is of the pilgrimage caravan on its way to Makkah carrying the kiswah. Fourteen tons of gold and six tons of silver was used in the internal decorations; there is an English crystal staircase; a one-piece 124-square metre carpet; two elephant tusks gifted by the Sherif of Hejaz and a pair of bearskins courtesy of the last Czar of Russia. The Grand Ceremonial hall is simply magnificent; it is 36m high with a 26m dome, displaying a silver English chandelier with 664 lamps and weighing 4.5 tons. Eid celebrations are held in this hall.
After such grandeur, a quick visit to the Egyptian bazaar brought me back to reality, followed by a visit to the colourful Grand bazaar. The day ended with prayers at the mosque of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, one of the Companions of the blessed Prophet.
A three full-day visit to Istanbul is just perfect, but repeated visits are inevitable and advisable as the city has so much to offer. And with the Turks more eager to identify with their Islamic heritage, Istanbul is a great city for Muslims to visit.
Galata bridge, across the Golden Horn connecting the Old City with the New City. In the foreground is the Yeni Valide Mosque and in the background Nurousmaniye Mosque;
The underground Basilica Cistern
The Rumel Fort on the Bosphorus
The Maiden's Tower (Kirkulesi), now a restaurant and a scene of a James Bond movie. In the background are the splendid spires of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.