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    Volume 9 Issue 7 | February 12, 2010|

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Where East Meets West

Istanbul- A Fabulous Old City

Azizul Jalil

The Basphorus and Sultan Mehmet Bridge.

Leonardo da Vinci, the famous Italian of many talents had offered the Turkish Sultan, Bayajet II of Constantinopole (Istanbul) in 1502 a design to build a 720 feet single span bridge. The bridge was to span the Golden Horn, an inlet at the mouth of the Bosphorus River. The 20-mile long Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, flows through the European and Asian parts of Istanbul. The Sultan declined the offer- Leonardo's bridge was never built. Instead, the Sultan built a bridge of boats with Turkish expertise. That and successive floating bridges served their purpose for centuries. A majestic Bogazici Bridge was built in 1973. There is another bridge over the Bosphorus called Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, which was opened in 1988.

In February 1950, I had spent a night and part of a day in Istanbul. As a first year Dhaka University student I was on my way to attend the New York Mirror's Youth Forum representing Pakistan. Bad weather had forced Pan Am to delay our flight. I remember staying at the Park Hotel overlooking the Bosphorus, which was constantly lashing the hotel's retaining walls with its roaring waves. We were given a drive around the city but I can recollect very little of that visit. This time in the winter of 2009-10, my wife and I visited Istanbul for five days to see the old and historic city.

The Persians, the Greeks, the Byzantines, the Romans and the Ottomans ruled this strategically important area. It has a natural harbour located at the trade crossroads of Asia and Europe. In 513 BC the Persian king Darius I conquered the city of Byzantium and controlled it for a brief period. Alexander the Great captured it in 300 BC. It later came under the rule of the Roman Empire. In the 300 ADs, at the time of Emperor Constantine I, the city of Byzantium came to be known as Constantinopolis. It was the capital of the Byzantine Empire for one thousand years. From 1453 to 1922 Constantinople served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The city came to be known as Istanbul from the 1930s. The Ottomans developed from a small Turkish tribe in Central Asia; they were Muslims named Osmans. The western people called them Ottomans.

The Ottoman Sultans had a unique way of selecting their army officers and administrators. They brought young non-Muslim boys aged 10-12 as slaves from various parts of their Empire. The boys had no contact with their families and were housed in the palace to be trained till the age of 20 in languages, administration and military skills. Schools and military academies were built adjoining the palaces for their education and training. We saw one such on the banks of the Bosphorus. It was an ingenious way to bring talent from many places and to integrate the vast empire of different races, religions and territories under a unified administration. This system of employing professional and loyal civil servants and army officers prevented hereditary aristocracy which could threaten the Sultans.

The Blue Mosque.

At the height of its power in the 16-17th Century, the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents, controlling much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. According to our tour director, the expansion of the empire stopped when the Turks failed to conquer newer territories and bring wealth as war booties and tax those areas for imperial revenue. In the areas conquered earlier, as soon as the people converted to Islam, the Ottomans would forgive their taxes. This was an inducement to subject people to convert to Islam. With declining revenue, the Ottoman Empire was weakened and ultimately collapsed. Under the leadership of Kamal Attaturk, the founder of the modern, secular Turkey, the Ottoman Empire was abolished and Turkey became a republic in 1923.

We visited the Topkapi (Canon Gate) Palace. The palace complex covers an area of 700,000 sqm and is surrounded by five kilometres of high stone walls. The holy prophet's beard and teeth are displayed in the palace museum in gold cases. The prophet's bow and swords of the first four Caliphs can also be seen. We saw the place where, like the Mughals in India, periodically the Sultans would hold court within the palace for the nobility and high officials to assemble and receive command of the Sultan. We visited the large and beautiful Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also called the Blue Mosque, with its six minarets. It was unacceptable to the Muslim clergy as it equaled the number of minarets in the Holy Kaaba. When Sultan Ahmet helped build a seventh minaret in Mecca, the problem was solved. Inside the mosque, the large blue stained-glass windows, harmonious interior designs, subdued lighting and superb carpeting are of awesome beauty. Next to the Blue Mosque was the Hagia Sophia Museum. It used to be a church built by Emperor Constantine during the Roman times but later converted into a mosque like many other churches under the Ottomans. It is now a museum.

The giant Suleymaniye mosque was closed for renovation-we saw it only from outside. Situated on a hill with a series of smaller domes rising to the large dome at the top, which is typical of Turkish mosque design, it towered over the city. The mosque, the largest and most grandiose in the city, could be seen from a great distance. Interestingly, we saw the small, highly decorated Rail station, which was the terminal point of the famous Orient Express in the Asian part of Istanbul.

We took a relaxing boat ride on the Bosphorus in pouring rain and wind- a must for all tourists. It was interesting to immerse oneself in history and hear the stories narrated by our knowledgeable and humorous tour guide. Palaces and fine buildings of different periods on both sides can be seen as one pleasantly cruises on the busy strait, dividing Asia and Europe. An interesting anecdote: when the tour guide said his name was Mahomet, I informed him that my first name was Mohammed. He told me that in Turkey, people don't name children as Mohammed since they would then be unable to rebuke them, that being the name of the prophet.

The Grand Bazaar, first constructed in 1455 by Mehmed the Conqueror, is the oldest and largest covered market in the world. There are artistic paintings and designs of many colours on the arched and curved wood-paneled high ceiling. It is a town in itself with 58 streets and about 4000 shops. Jewelry, leather goods, traditional pottery, brass and copperware are available. Exquisite carpets, tapestries of cotton, silk and wool are sold here. Previously many of these items came from Uzbekistan. These are now being made in the northern part of Turkey. Uzbek artisans have settled there, making the same quality articles. These are less costly because of the absence of export taxes, closeness to market and less transportation costs. Pure silver items like chains and lockets with traditional Ottoman era designs are good buys. While enjoying Baklava and coffee in a small traditional café in the Grand Bazaar, we met a lady from West Bengal and a South Indian man, both young doctoral students at Cambridge, England. Conversation in Bangla with my wife attracted their attention and we somehow got engaged in a lively discussion on the causes of and responsibilities for the partition of India in 1947. They were not born then but evinced a lot of interest to know the history and politics of the partition. They seemed to be unburdened with any bias, so far as I could tell. I had written a number of essays on the subject and promised to email these to them.

Top: Topkapi Palace. Bottom: The grand Bazar.

The Egyptian Bazaar, also called the Spice Market, built in 1664 is filled with the fragrance of the exotic East. Numerous colourful shops were selling in large sacks hundreds of kinds of spices, including garam masala, herbs, saffron, dried fruits and nuts. It was really funny to hear some shop keepers trying to draw our attention by calling us from behind as 'Indi', meaning Indians and mentioning garam masala. Most shops were also selling mouth-watering Turkish Delights of various colours and kinds.

We attended a folk dance show, which included exotic belly dancing. It was a crowd of many nationalities enjoying an evening of fine food, drinks, music and dancing in a superb restaurant. Tourists from China, Korea, Japan, Europe, and other countries were introduced-it was indeed a mini-United Nations. A Bangladesh flag was placed on our table similarly for other guests with their respective flags. The dancers wore a variety of colourful local dresses from various parts of Turkey. The dances were rhythmic with fantastic uplifting music. We had arrived that morning after a long air journey and were hesitant to book the show, thinking we may be too tired and might fall asleep at such late evening hours. Instead, we came back refreshed and regaled by a most delightful show.

We stayed at the Senator- a nice hotel about ten minutes walk from the Grand Bazaar. One could go to nearby Turkish restaurants and enjoy the reasonably priced local food of many tasty, grilled meat items and kabobs. It was cold, rainy and windy in December and January most of the time in Istanbul. The timing of our sightseeing visit was clearly inappropriate. A better but more crowded time for a visit to this city would be between April and October.

Did the mystery and magic of this fabulous city with its mosques, minarets and palaces at the confluence of so many races, religions and empires live up to our imagination and expectation? It certainly did-we were quite fascinated by the beauty, history, geography, architecture, parks and the greenery of the ancient city of Istanbul.


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