Bosphorus Days


“Johnnie Logan is my neighbour,” the middle aged man with smiling eyes shouted after me in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Instinctively I turned and replied “He’s a good man”. Nothing else, I just walked on.
With Istanbul, you truly never know what is just around the corner. It is a city of contrasts and surprises. That is its charm.

Sited in one of the world’s most beautiful natural harbours, the Bosphorus, its seven hills mirror Rome and the aspiring minarets of some of the world’s greatest Islamic architecture reach to the sky in praise of Allah. But it is also a lived in city burgeoning with forever busy, but friendly, people – about 12 million of them.

Smog fills the streets, which seem forever cluttered with traffic. There is little greenery in this city. In contrast, the cool calm Bosphorus mirrors the skyline and ferryboats glide serenely to Asia, the edge of the Black Sea and beyond.

At the geographical cusp of two continents, Istanbul has always been a place for cultural collision, conquerors and conquering. On the ancient caravan route, it was a major hub of trade between East and West. It is the former capital of two great empires – the Byzantines and the Ottomans – and as Constantinople it was the greatest eastern city of Rome.

It conjures up images of flamboyant mega-rich Sultans living it up in sumptuous splendour. It was the sultans who ruled Turkey from Istanbul up until independence; then Ankara became capital and Istanbul lost much of its prominence.

The legacy of the dissolution of the great empires and sultanates is that Istanbul often seems to be in decay and decline. The grandeur of bygone eras is well gone and many of the great constructions seem to be slowly disintegrating.

Locals speak of a melancholic fog or huzun, which actually physically embraces the Bosphorus in the winter and never seems to leave. At other times the city bustles with positivism, magical Sufi philosophies and talk of broadband connections.

Turkey has potential to succeed greatly in the new ‘cyber-era’, with Istanbul being at the hub of a new Ottoman industrial revolution. Although percentage wise it seems that much of the Turkish population remains uneducated, the numbers of trained graduates is on the up. So there is a highly qualified workforce, albeit a minority of the population.

Some multinationals have exploited this benefit and set headquarters here with eyes on the Middle East and the Levantine should peace ever come to that region.

Istanbul is used to cultural diversity and welcomes these new immigrants with their industry. In previous times, Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims have all lived here in harmony. Although the population is now almost exclusively Muslim, the Turkish nation is ethnically diverse – a fact that is so apparent on the streets of Istanbul. Folk with Turk and Grecian faces mix with Arabs and Mongolians and some that seem to be straight from the Russian Steppes.

Turkey practices a ‘Westernised’ form of Islam and it is a great surprise that many locals don’t even visit the mosques on Friday at all.
The veil has almost been completely lifted and women afford comparative equal rights in society. Younger women wander around with bared midriffs as is the fashion currently in any European city. And yet they don’t kiss their boyfriends in public. If they wear veils it is as a fashion accessory and locals tell you that the veiled ones are those that stockpile expensive Western cosmetics.

It was Kemal Ataturk, Father of the nation, who liberalised Turkey and made it secular. He is still a hero today and his portrait adorns the bare space of many a wall.

Ataturk launched to political prominence after his heroic exploits in successfully repelling the Allies at the Dardanelles during the battle for Gallipoli of World War I. After Turkey attained independence in 1923 and he became president of the new republic he set about radical reform.

Despotic Sultans were dethroned and many Islamic sects were forced to close down their religious schools or medersas. There was no room for extremism.

Istanbul’s great mosques dominate the skyline of the city and three mosques in particular are on the tourist trail. Two of them sit on hills in the historic Sultanahmet District above Seraglio Point where the Boshphorus, Marmara Sea and Golden Horn collide and the other is in the university district of Beyazit.

The two great mosques of Sultanahmet stand facing each other across a tree lined square with a fountain sitting in the middle. Here Istanbullus congregate on summer evenings and dodge the fountainous spray.

From the square, the Blue Mosque, built for Sultan Ahmet I in 1610, stands as a cascade of imposing pale grey stone domes in harsh sunlight. The entrance is via a large exterior courtyard, which balances the space for the interior.

The inside, with its giant elephant foot pillars and blue stained glass and tiles (from Iznik), is most exquisite even if a bit overpowering. It is positively dripping with tulip and carnation motifs, cypress tree designs and details of birds (feathers and beaks). It is Islamic religious architecture at its most flamboyant. The six minarets caused a stir when it was first built, as it was viewed as too much of a rival to Mecca’s mosque.

Hagia Sophia is a living example of religious harmony in the form of stone. Proclaimed the ‘earthly mirror of the celestial heavens’ it is the prime jewel of Istanbul and a global treasure.

A former church and then a mosque, it is now houses a museum. An architectural miracle its stupendous dome defies gravity and suspends by a golden chain from midair.

It was the great Church of the Holy Wisdom of the Byzantine Empire dating to 537 AD and remnants of that time remain.

In the 15th century, the Ottomans converted it to a mosque. To their credit, they didn’t destroy some incredible golden Byzantine mosaics that have been uncovered behind the plaster. As per Islamic code, when it became a mosque the human figures were covered.

Now the juxtaposition of these golden mosaics and Efendi’s delicate Islamic calligraphy in the dome and on the great wooden roundels seems inspired and an example to us all in this modern world. Islam and Christian symbols live together so harmoniously in this place of peace and repose.

While staring at the wonderful Deesis mosaic of Christ, the Virgin and St John, in the galleries of Haghia Sofia, I witnessed the unexpected. A group of Greek and Turkish peasants met and embraced smiling and kissing. They posed for photos before the glittering gold.

It was a special moment and immediately dispelled my misconceptions about the conflict between the two great nations. They could see more of what they had in common than the differences we oft hear about.

Other remnants of the Byzantine era in Sultanahmet include the ruins of the hippodrome and some atmospheric dripping underground water cisterns. The Square of the Horses in front of the Blue Mosque gates is the central part of the ancient hippodrome arena.

Here great court ceremonies and games were held during the Byzantium Empire and when the Romans were in the city. Now all that remains are a series of monuments – an Egyptian obelisk, the Serpentine column and the Column of Constantine. The remains of the walls can be seen a little further down the street.

In Beyazit, the Suleyman Mosque is an emblem of Ottoman power. Built at the height of the empire by the most powerful sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, and designed by Turkey’s greatest architect, Sinan, it is a magnificent block of stone.

In opulent rotundity, it sits like a fat Buddha on a hill. The interior is dominated by the monumental dome and is far simpler in adornment than the Blue Mosque. In the grounds the mausoleum of the sultans is where Suleyman and his ferocious wife Roxalena lie.

Topkapi Palace, in Sultanahmet, is a sprawling collection of buildings around a series of courtyards. The Imperial Treasury more than hints at the wealth of the sultans with two of the star items on show being the emerald studded Topkapi dagger and the Spoonmakers diamond, the fifth largest diamond in the world.

The most famous religious relics are the tooth, some hair and a footprint of the Prophet himself. One of the curios on display is the sultan’s talismanic underwear with special protection verses from the Koran inscribed on them. You have to be careful with their potency as if you were not too careful it could drive you crazy as allegedly happened to two sultans who were driven crazy by their underwear.

The world of the Sultans also had a dark side. The harems were basically prisons for the Sultan’s women and their entourages where they were kept in slavery. Granted the favoured ones were kept in comfort, but for others conditions were squalid.

The entrances to the harems were guarded by eunuchs to keep them in as well as keep intruders out. Close relatives of the Sultan were kept in the infamous Cage. This was again imprisonment and was slightly better than the slightly older tradition of fratricide.

Dohlmabace, dramatic on the shores of the Bosphorus, is in Besiktas. After the dissolution of the sultanates it was used by Ataturk until he died. Besiktas is of course the home of one of the triumfurate of footballing giants in Istanbul. The other modern gladiators are Galatasary and Fenerbahce. There is no greater rivalry or passion for Turks.

Beyoglu and Taksim, north of the Golden Horn, are the most European of Istanbul’s districts. The Galata Tower built by the Genoese is symbolically higher than the mosque minarets in this part of the city. On pedestrianised, Istiklal Caddesi trendy young Turks strut their stuff during the evening promenade.

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is a souvenir hunter’s paradise, but may seem a bit overrated to those used to chaotic Middle Eastern bazaars. The Egyptian spice bazaar with its host of colourful wares, including precious Iranian caviar and saffron, is all the more authentic.

The Asian side of Uskudar is just a short ferry ride from Besiktas. In this residential district, the heart of the city beats at a decidedly more relaxed pace. The kind of place where you feel you could penetrate beyond the façade of an emerging tourist industry. And perhaps even live.

The vista across the Bosphorus of the skyline of mosques is stupendous at sunset. It is a view fit for a sultan and you wonder why they didn’t plonk one of their great palaces here. Perhaps they didn’t get planning permission.

The close proximity of Asia from European Istanbul and the fact Europe only makes up 3% of Turkey, makes you wonder why this country has always looked west. Joining the EU seems to have many obvious advantages for Turkey. But we Europeans fear them with our perception of their gigantic uneducated workforce, erratic economics and debt, and the widespread rural poverty.
Turkish treatment of minority groups such as the Kurds and the Cyprus question is considered a major hurdle to EU accession. In the case of Cyprus, the Turks seem to be winning the propaganda war with offers to negotiate a settlement coming mostly from their side. But it is a complicated question and one that accession to the EU might help solve.

Oil-rich Kurdistan is an ever bigger thorn in the Turkish side, particularly with the increasing instability of Iraq and the mistreatment of Kurds in that country too. Not all Turks would be pro EU.

Some feel it may be better to continue to straddle the geographical and cultural divide and perhaps to avoid the inevitable brain drain as a consequence of accession.

Istanbul is both European and Asian. She is a great city to visit. Chaotic, maddening and frenetic – the city leaves you tired. But it is a warm tiredness if you embrace her exotic charms. My female guide, an intelligent modern Turk, with fiery eyes, challenged me “What are you afraid of?” “I don’t know.” was the reply.

The Turks are on the rise again and we need to embrace them as brothers and not fear them and their knowledge.

Conor Caffrey is a travel writer and photographer.

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