Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Across the Bosphorus - Mission Istanbul

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul. “
Alphonse de Lamartine

What can I say about Istanbul that has not already been said before? This fascinating city sits witness to most major civilizations of the world and has been influenced by religions and cultures of all kinds. Yet, it is not as popular as some of the other high profile European destinations and I wonder why. Because it is the perfect tourist haven with beautiful architecture, amazing food,  a rich culture that is an amalgamation of so many different sub cultures and above all  wonderfully warm people who by the way happen to love Indians (specially Indian girls from the looks of it J). Strangely, I got to discover Istanbul not as a tourist but as a working professional when I got a chance to travel there for a project. I spent several months in the city and am glad that I got to see this beautiful place slowly, a weekend at a time, at a pace all my own, instead of rushing from one splendour to the other and losing the essence of this place in the process. Because truly, the beauty of Istanbul does not lie in only in what is explicit and written in the tour books, but is truly discovered while moving across the Bosphorus and experiencing the people and their lives.

Istanbul, historically known as Byzantium and Constantinople is the largest city in Turkey and 5th largest city proper in the world with a population of 12.8 million. It is also a megacity, as well as the cultural, economic, and financial centre of Turkey. It is located on the Bosphorus Strait and encompasses the natural harbour known as the Golden Horn, in the northwest of the country. It extends both on the European (Thrace) and on the Asian (Anatolia) sides of the Bosphorus, and is thereby the only metropolis in the world that is situated on two continents.  During its long history, Istanbul had previously served as the capital of the Roman Empire (330–c.395), Byzantine Empire (c.395–1204 & 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). This interesting geographical and cultural placement is what makes this city a melting pot in the truest sense and a fantastic place to explore and discover for everyone, right from history buffs to architecture aficionados to confirmed foodies and gastronomes.
Out of everything that I saw and experienced in Istanbul, what touched my heart the most are the people and the lives they tried to etch for themselves. Turkey is a country with a 98% Muslim population that tries to forge ahead strongly in today’s world on the pillars of globalization and modernization while still staying true its values and culture. It was the erstwhile president Ataturk who created a new order in this country and helped in its urbanization. It is his vision that helped Turkey adopt an English language script and encouraged women to play a critical part in economic progress. It is in this desire to progress and forge ahead as an economic power that the European side of the country gets reflected. Most youngsters in Istanbul do not like acknowledging the Asian precedents of the city and want to be known as modern and forward looking Europeans. But Asia lies just across the Bosphorus in Anatolia and comes out strongly through the close knit family culture that exists across the country.  In my effort to discover the place in a better manner, I used several modes of public transport including the ferry in Istanbul and observed the people and their outlook towards life very closely. By and large, the Turkish are a buoyant and resilient lot who do not want to get bogged down by religious fundamentalism and forge ahead, practicing their religion in their own way as they see fit. To call it as merely a liberal outlook towards life and religion would be over simplifying the hard won peace they have made with this even while extremist forces raise their head from time to time that the government and the people try to keep at bay. Yet the city is picture perfect and a perfect canvas for postcards and artists with its varied hues of architecture, minarets, villas and of course the Bosphorus that lies as a witness to major historic events.

What surprised me the most is that every time I said I was Indian, the warmth of people would double and they would ask several questions about India and its people. I remember, a colleague and I were stuck in a snow storm outside our office building and could not find any cab to get home. A waitress in a coffee shop of the building saw us struggling and gave us shelter for a few hours till things got better. When she heard that we were Indian, she plied us with free drinks and cookies and dropped us to our hotel in her car, saying all along that she loved India and was looking forward to a visit someday. On another occasion a Turkish man gave up his cab on a deserted road to help me and my friend who was also a woman to get back to our hotels while walking to his destination.  I felt it was this hospitality and warmth that was so common to both our cultures that made me feel so comfortable in a strange city so far away from home and family. Over a period of time, I realized that the commonality extended to language and food also. I discovered several common sounding words in both the languages and also hit up on the Turkish cuisine. Turkish food is full of Kebabs, dals and vegetables that are common to the Indian palate and make it very easy for people to travel across the country without pining for good food. I had the chance to go to some local eateries run from the homes of people in Anatolia where I enjoyed a delicious home cooked 5 course meal. More than anything the genuine hospitality of the locals even though we did not know their language filled my heart with much needed joy and good cheer.

The beauty about being a history buff in Istanbul is that all the greatest historical sites that one wants to see are congregated in the Sultan Ahmet district of the city, within walking distance of each other. I marvelled and enjoyed the fact that all the places I wanted to see were around a square and each one could be viewed from the gates of the other, providing a tantalizing site of treasures and stories to be discovered. The first place I saw on a quiet weekend away from work was the Hagia Sophia (pronounced as the Haya Sophia), one of the oldest historical monuments in Europe. This was built in the 6th century as a church, later converted into a mosque and now a museum. What struck me about this building was that with its domes and arches, it seemed more like a mosque than a church and I wondered about this architectural puzzle. It was on speaking to a few people that I realized that in the 6th century, churches were built with domes and minarets and this architecture was later copied by the Ottomans to build their mosques and gained popularity all across the world as the highlight of Islamic design. Now if only we could borrow so freely from each other’s faiths in the modern world and forge new faiths and cultures, our planet would be a far better place.

As I walked around the museum in jaw dropping awe at the size of the dome (touted to be the only one of its kind standing without even a pillar to support it), another fact I discovered is that for the longest time, this was the largest dome cathedral in the world. I marvelled at how clean and well preserved this old structure was and was grateful that the Byzantines and Ottomans did not destroy this sacred monument like so much else that they did in this city, to erase the marks left by old rulers and create new marks of their own. I was so fascinated by this timeless monument, that I kept going back every few nights to sit at a restaurant close by (it was convenient that it happened to be an Indian restaurantJ) and gazed at it, sparkling in the moonlight. I felt that if only buildings could talk, this monument would have so many tales to tell us about empires built, civilizations destroyed and faiths that changed, merged and started afresh. Sometimes, I felt it was whispering stories that no one around could understand and felt transported to a different era and time.
Across the road from the Hagia Sophia is another cultural and architectural splendour, the Blue Mosque also known as the Sultan Ahmet mosque.  This mosque was an Ottoman empire’s effort to leave an indelible imprint on the skyline of Istanbul. Though this mosque was built in the 16th century, the resemblance its shape and architecture has to the Hagia Sophia is truly uncanny.  What surprised and pleased me the most about the mosque was that it was the oldest working mosque in the continent and yet it allowed people from all faiths to enter and spend time in it freely, including women. One was only required to cover their heads and carry their footwear in their hands to be allowed entry into the majestic building. I kept wondering, why it was called the Blue Mosque, but this mystery was solved, when I entered the dome and saw the walls inlaid with intricate and beautiful designs in blue mosaic all over. It could not be called by any name other than the Blue mosque. Turkey tries to be largely, a non-practicing Islamic country, but its love for the spiritual side of its religion was evident in the loving restoration of this centuries old mosque that the government was conducting. I thought this was a great testimony to the European penchant for order and organization helping in preserving the Asian affinity for culture and tradition. Everything from the mosaic on the walls, to the tiles on the floor, to the sprawling Turkish carpets in the prayer area gleamed anew and was witness to the mind-set of the Turkish to preserve not just history but also the best tenets of their culture and religion. It is this interesting co-existence of the yin and yang of life that makes Istanbul such a pleasure to discover and understand.
One can’t be in Sultan Ahmet and not visit the Grand Bazaar. This is one of the oldest and largest covered shopping areas in the world and truly lives up to its name. I was not so sure about going to this covered market as it is in a rather run down area of Sultan Ahmet and did not seem very inviting to me from the outside. But a friend dragged me inside on the pretext of buying Turkish carpets and I am glad she did. From the moment I entered the Bazaar I was lost in several sensory delights. The Bazaar was a colourful panorama of shops selling several uniquely Turkish knickknacks and smelt of cloves, cardamom and several other spices. As I visited a few stores and saw the way the shopkeepers and locals haggled, I realized I had hit up on an intensely Asian side of Istanbul, a side it does not readily acknowledge to a new comer.
Shopping at the Grand Bazaar is a lesson in Turkish culture and coquetry. Yes, you read this right, coquetry. If you are of the female species, no matter what you look like, the shop keepers will say you have a face like an angel and voice like a bird. They will try every trick in the trade to flirt with you and soften you so that you buy their wares. It definitely is a great ego booster for women and keeps them coming back to be beguiled by the sly and clever shop keepers. The market hosts everything from leather goods to knick knacks to carpets to clothes several of which are imported from Ludhiana in Punjab. I had the most delightful time haggling for a few stoles with a shopkeeper who had visited Punjab several times on business and wanted to know who the bearded man in the photos he saw all over that state was. Turns out it was Guru Nanak, the revered God of the Punjabis he was talking about, we had a heart laugh about that and I came away with a whopping discount on the stoles. Time slips away as you walk thought the tiled alley ways of the Bazaar and gain not just material things but also several friends and a unique glimpse into the arts and culture of this beautiful country.  It could turn even a non-shopper like me into an avid shopaholic and I am not saying whether I enjoyed the flirting or the shopping more J
 I have always felt that it is in aimless wanderings that we discover the most significant things in life. That is how I discovered Turkish baths and dervishes. It was a cold November night when I was returning from my regular visit to the Hagia Sophia when I spotted a large board called Turkish Hammam (traditional Turkish bath). I remembered that the Ancient Romans were avid users of the Bath concept and it is the Roman rule that left this imprint on Turkey. I was feeling adventurous that night and decided to try the Hammam after checking with local friends on the safest one. I was glad of my adventurous self as it turned out to be the most calming and relaxing experience I have ever had. It started off with the attendant leading me into a warm, humid room with a raised stone platform (goebektas) in the center, surrounded by bathing alcoves, in pretty coloured quartz tiles. The tiles remove static electricity from the air, and help to relax the mind and body. The light, diffused through glass in the ceiling was soft and relaxing. I was made to sit on the platform, which is heated, and work up a sweat. The attendant then gave me the scrub of my life, quite literally and after a heavy Swedish massage left me to sleep for a bit on the platform which was a warm shelter from the cold winds outside. I emerged from the hammam feeling refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. I thought the Romans were quite smart to have hit up on this idea to relax and realized there were many such clever things that ancient civilizations had invented and sadly so many of them may have been lost as new civilizations destroyed the legacies of old ones.
Many Indians may have seen a whirling dervish for the first time in the song ‘Khwaja mere Khwaja’ from the epic Hindi movie ‘Jodha Akbar’. I was fortunate to have witnessed and seen an actual whirling dervish in another one of my aimless wanderings around Istanbul. Fortunately for me, the year in which I was in the city happened to be the 1000th year celebrations of the death of the Sufi poet, Rumi. On one of my walks around the streets of the Sultan Ahmet district I saw the advertisement inviting everyone for a whirling dervish performance in the memory of Rumi and best of all it was absolutely free. I entered what seemed like a large hall and saw several foreigners congregated, waiting expectantly for the performance to begin. Everyone was curious to know the rituals of the whirling dervishes that are symbolic of a deep seated spirituality of the Sufi sect in Islam.
The rituals of the Rumi's followers (Whirling Dervishes) are among the enduring as well as the most exquisite ceremonies of spirituality. What I realized is that the ritual whirling of the dervishes was an act of love and a drama of faith. It possessed a highly structured form within which the gentle turns become increasingly dynamic as the individual dervishes strived to achieve a state of trance. The music that accompanied the whirling from beginning to end ranged from sombre to rhapsodical, its effect intended to be mesmerizing. Chanting of poetry, rhythmic rotation, and incessant music created a synthesis which, according to the faithful, induces a feeling of soaring, of ecstasy, of mystical flight. It is then that I felt that I had not just watched a performance but the dervishes own way of paying obeisance to their supreme God through their trance like state. The dervish performers also stayed back after the performance, answering question which ranged from the inane like how they did not crash into each other to the esoteric lie what was God to them. One performer I spoke to said that he had to train for 5 years to be allowed into the monastic order he belonged to and that this was not just a dance or a performance, but his way of offering prayer to the supreme Lord. I came away in a trance myself and felt extremely fortunate that I was able to stumble upon a well-kept mystical secret of this magnificent city.
Istanbul is not just about history, art and culture but is also touted to be the party capital of Eastern Europe. Nothing proves this epithet correct like the pathways full of pubs and interesting nightspots in Taksim square. I was very keen to see a belly dance performance, a form of dance that has become a very popular export to India and trolled the streets of Taksim to find an interesting place to see this dance form. However, while I enjoyed many a night spot in Taksim, I quite did not get to see the kinds of folk dances and specially belly dancing that I wanted to see, until I stepped into the restaurant on top of the Galata Tower. The Galata Tower was built in the 13th century by the Latin rulers to serve as a lookout tower against the enemy during the crusades and is one of the longest standing and tallest structures to dot the skyline of Istanbul. What made this ancient tower even more interesting was a restaurant that had been built on the top most floor of the tower that showcased several dance forms from Turkey. It is here that I saw some authentic Turkish folk dances and also the sensuous belly dance performed by some pretty and accomplished Russians (apparently the Turkish men find Russian women more attractiveJ). I was a little mystified when the maître’ d asked us our nationality and placed an Indian flag on our table at the beginning of the meal. I forgot about it until a while later when the in house singer, Husein, came to our table, peered at our flag and started singing an old Raj Kapoor song – ‘Awara hoon’. Believe me, Raj Kapoor is still the most popular Indian hero in Turkey, even more popular than Amitabh Bachan and Shahrukh Khan and for the first time in my life, I danced to a Raj Kapoor numberJ. But it was Husein who blew our minds by singing songs in 20 different languages to cater to the people who had come from varied nationalities to share a meal and a dance at the restaurant. That night I saw another side to this city and was amused at how the icons we have forgotten are still remembered and cherished with so much love in this unlikely corner of the world.
 I am glad that out of all the chances I have had at glancing at the world, one of them was Istanbul. Even today when I close my eyes and think of the most beautiful place I have seen, the view of the magnificent city with its ancient minarets and multi layered history from the Galata Tower fills my senses and my soul. For those who have not been to this place, start saving from today itself so that you can take yourself on the adventure of a life time. Believe me you may come back poorer in money but you will be a millionaire in terms of experience and spirit.

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