Turkish Delight!

Shortly after recording the Around the World in 83 hours, my humble podcast that takes one around the world through conversations, I had quite the chance to visit Turkey, the land of Suleiman, the Magnificient, and Mehmed, the Conqueror. Located at the end of the Spice Route, (surprisingly not using any of the spices themselves, the food makes use of just salt, pepper, and chili!), Turkey has quite lost its sheen as the center of the world, yet it dazzles with a careful quotient of the old and the new. While tourism is its largest industry, the Turks begin to embrace technology, make the most fabulous cloth, smoke like a chimney (they seem quite proud of their phrase ‘Smoke like a Turk’, worship Mustafa Kemal as Ataturk translating to the Father of the Nation, call their country Turkiye to not have a namesake of a bird, revere their architect Mimar Sinan, give their hearts to the King of Hearts Rumi, are ridiculously good-looking, make perfect canvasses for make-up, carry designer handbags, wear the most stylish clothes on their already lean frames and supply the world with a truckload of Baklava. Becoming a republic on the 29th of October 1923 under the leadership of Ataturk, Turkey morphed into a secular republic and has been widely modernized ever since. Before getting into this country, which boasts of brilliant natural beauty apart from architecture that connects to the Gods, I much heard of modern furniture and saw labels on my clothes, particularly from Zara that said, “Made in Turkey”. So with a rep of a manufacturing economy, I embarked with a group of 22 architects on a mega-study trip to the only country that marks its territory in two continents of the world, 15% of Turkiye is in Europe and 85% of the territory rests in Asia. Our journey of 2000 km touched upon the erstwhile Constantinople, Istanbul, the capital Ankara, smaller towns of Edirne, Goreme, Nevsehir, Konya, Eskisehir, the regions of Cappadocia, making a foray into the Anatolian lands of Turkiye. All those travels did make me think, and consolidated in me to be peaceful with oneself, for after studying years of history, the possible surmise remains, that peace and only peace is truly profitable!

The Istanbul international airport is extremely well-connected and if not Turkish Airlines a huge number of flights including the low-cost Indigo Airlines fly from Delhi to the city of dreams. Istanbul wears its title very lightly as the City of Dreams, yet it leaves one starry-eyed. It is massive, diverse, not as diverse as India, historically significant, and holds major keys to the past as it looks forward into the future. The older areas of Sultanahmet are the center of the world-famous Hagia Sophia, a church turned into a mosque to church to mosque to the museum to finally a mosque, Sinan’s wonders like the blue-mosque, the pasha mosque, the Basilica Cistern while the new areas of the city around the Taksim Square, close to the gentrified neighborhoods of Beyoglu, Karakoy, an ever elite Bebek, punctuated by parks that are literally to die for. It’s one of those cities whose River, the mighty Bosphorous flows through unabashedly, and green lungs add a few stars to the livable quality of the city. While the city is inundated by locals and tourists alike, the chance of their collision with agents, guides, sellers, or even pickpockets remains as high as ever! The best time to visit this rather friendly and walkable country is from March to September when the sun shines brightly and one can enjoy the Turkish Ice-cream nonchalantly. The parks of Istanbul too are their pleasant best, while I got to hang out at the Bebek Park mostly, I hear the other parks too in the city are just as fun.

Staying at first at the Taksim Square we were at close proximity to the high street of Iskitlal Caddesi, the bustling shopping district, the hip-upmarket area of Beyoglu, the Galata tower and the art neighbourhood of Karakoy, if not for the Taksim square itself. So thats the route I began my foray into the city of Istanbul. Following Google Maps I headed to the Museum of Innocence after reading the similarly titled book by Orhan Pamuk, what gumption to have a museum for a fictional world that one has created, but thats Pamuk being himself, the Nobel Laureate who is so sure of himself! Later I headed down to the Beyoglu precincts through Iskitlal, that I loved, and sat for a cuppa of Hot Chocolate and a salabrious dose of San Sebastian opposite the Galata Tower. The Kahvesi had a que that literally ran around the tower and after a 45-min wait I managed to secure a table with the best view of the Tower as I precariously charged my phone, Apple phones over 2 years of age have the worst battery ever! Fueled for the evening with dangerous levels of chocolate in the bloodstream I headed to Karakoy and flitted through art Galleries that housed Turkish artists and were a treat to the eyes. After some heady walking through the steep alleyways and streets I finished my walk at Iskitlal, exchanged Euro to Lira, the currency of Turkey, a country that still works on being a part of the EU and waltzed my way back to Taksim before retiring for the night.

Previously one day before, we set sail along the Bosphorous getting on a five-hour cruise that skittles along the Golden Horn all the up to the Rumeli fortress touching upon both the European and Asian sides of this big city. The cruise served up a resplendent four-course meal that started with the soft Turkish bread, salad, soup and ended with a hearty serving of Baklava. We did notice that every meal in Turkey is served with a colourful portion of salad, we did eat the rainbow at every single meal, the food was so healthy, even more so with the admirable lack of salt! Ayran or buttermilk is a common accompaniment to every meal, another healthy practice that I am sure keeps the Turkish people so fit and good-looking. The cruise gives one a faraway glimpse of the city including all their glorious monuments including the grand Hagia Sophia, the delicious Dolmabahce palace and the Asian side that is now dotted by a newly constructed telecom tower. Giving the ferry company were several other ferries, private yachts, pirate ships(!) and a few container ships. The main port of Istanbul is located a little away from the city to keep the Bosphorous for the tourists and the city-dwellers alike. The best part of Istanbul, the City of Dreams, is undoubtedly its history, and in its gilded history standing the test of time is the Hagia Sophia, once a church today it serves as a mosque, daily prayers are held here and between the prayer times the visitors ques seem utterly endless.

With a very wise and seasoned leader guiding our trip, we entered the Hagia Sophia at 6 AM catching the morning sunrise glisten off the pink and beige form of the Hagia Sophia, also called the Aya Sofaya, the experience of seeing this massive monument built during the Justinian times is truely incomparable. It is magnificent and commands the place around it like little else, one does wonder, a true merit to a beautiful building, and captivates its audience like nothing else. Inside the Hagia Sofia the remnants of the erstwhile stare at the average visitor while the inscriptions from the Quran hang tall and mighty driving home the point of the structure. So much has been said of the Hagia Sofia, books have even been written on the light quality of its indoors, that even more said would seem like less, it is indeed poetry in stationary, but ofcourse when I first thought such feelings were due to the hour, it wasnt really so, the building looks just as grand at every time of the day, though the early morning birds do indeed catch the worm! Ahead of the Hagia Sofia is a plaza that is beautifully adorned with a fountain, that is flanked by the Hurrem Sultana Hamam, it deserves a post of its own, but the story of the Hamam takes its root from the time of the Sultana, Roxelana who rose the ranks married the Sultan, ruled the Ottomans through the Sultan and then finally when she fell sick, the Sultan built her a Hamam! On the other side of the fountain is the Hippodrome where horses were made to race. The Hagia Sofia itself is sided by the Basilica Cistern on one side and the opulent Topkapi Palace on the other side. The Basilica Cistern is a surprise, it is a water storage tank built by the Romans that carries water from the Balkan mountains through the ever famous Roman aquaducts. Today the cistern serves as an art gallery, a wishing well and is very stunning on its own. The lighting design employed today adds to its mysterious quality and entrances the visitors who courageously step down into its cavernous path down to witness the column heads of Medusa, cursed as she was.

The Topkapi Palace on the other hand was built by the Ottomans and documents the pinnacle of the Tulip-era architecture. The Library in the Topkapi palace built by Ahmed the third caught my attention as did the verandahs of the palace overlooking the Bosphorous and the chimneys that arise from the Ottoman Kitchen. The Blue Mosque or the Sulemaniye mosque opposite the Hagia Sophia was designed by the Ottoman architect Mehmet Aga. But the more known Ottoman, Sinan, has a whole university by his name, he is vastly lauded for the mosque of Selimiye in Edirne, for the Shezaade mosque and so many structures across the Ottoman kingdom, but it is very interesting to note his beginnings as a soldier, raising the ranks to finally catch the attention of the Sultan, becoming not just enigmatic but a major influence on the skyline of Istanbul. He lies buried next to the Sulemaniye mosque in a tomb that he is supposedly have designed for himself. Sinan’s Sulemaniye mosque is greatly compared to the Hagia Sophia, being right opposite, it is essentially built as a mosque as against the Hagia Sophia that was built as a church and would have done well to remain so, it is much more nimble and is constructed almost skeletonly showing off its structure just as it balances its dome with great ease. The compound of the Blue Mosque offers one stunning views of the city at large, the Golden Horn and the perennial Bosphoros river.

Though we began our trip at Edirne to view the masterpiece of Sinan, the Selimiye mosque, we could not take in the best of Sinan’s masterpiece as the building was covered in scaffolding and the dome partially cut off from the inner side too. We however got to take in the best of the Selimiye through the parts that we were allowed to enter. Edirne by itself is a quaint town, having all the trappings of a small town. It was where we ate the vegetarian durum variant of the Cigofte roll, it was delicious indeed. Located in the Thrace region of the country, close to its border with its ever troubling neighbor- Greece, Edirne is vastly influenced by the neighbour with Greek elements in architecture, food and dialect! Sharing a very animosity ridden relationship with Greece, Turkey’s diplomatic policy with Greece ran into rough waters even when we were visiting in the Aegean Sea.

The day at Ankara that followed soon after had us visiting the Anatolian Museum of civilisation and the Mausoleum of Ataturk. Both the structures with museums attached provide a plethora of knowledge about the history of the country and in general the peninsula. Right from the Neanderthals to Homo Sapiens and then the Hittites and until the Ottomans, the Museum of Anatolian civilisation is very informative. It was adjudged the best museum in Europe for the year 2015, very well deserved I must say. After disastrous museums in India where half of the exhibits are either dilapidated or with descriptions torn it was a welcome experience. The Mausoleum of Ataturk is more focussed on the makings of a republic and the man of the hour himself. Designed as a competition project the mausoleum is perched on a hill and has the entirety of Ankara looking up at it, symbolically as its people look up to the progressive modern ruler who ushered Turkey into a new era. He abolished the Fez and had people take up surnames that was not a part of the Turkish culture. His liberal views brought the country out to great beginnings and they continue to laud his efforts and have a reminder of the ruler all over the country in parks and squares, why even on the currency note. Ataturk literally translates to the Father of Turkey. After a very mind refreshing dose of knowledge in Ankara we headed to the hills of Cappadocia for some soul refreshing experience! Cappadocia is insanely beautiful with its rocky landscape, that comprises of igneous rock that is solidified lava and this process bestows beautiful valleys in colors of red, pink and beige in various proportions while also played canvas to the Hittite populace who carved into the stone their homes, underground cities, caves, churches and every imaginable dwelling. They also used the underground cities to store grapes, make wine and are responsible for introducing wine to the world. Though the Hittites are widely credited for their underground cities, much of the earlier caves were dugout by the early Christian’s. Most of those dwellings are converted into cave hotels that are a sheer delight to be in, a claustrophobes nightmare for sure! Yet with their ventilation chambers and calming forms they are the most Instagrammed place on this planet at present.

On the way to Cappadocia we found the Tuz Golu, a lake that has evaporated leaving an endless bed of salt, much like the Rann of Kutch. Flamingoes were once found in droves at this lake. The Sanpanca Golu was a lake we saw from afar, but that was one with water. The most beautiful experience of Cappadocia, that is ridden with countless experiences including treks, horse-riding rides, atv rides and the gastronomical delight that it is (every tourists dream, Cedap and Haruna are gorgeous places to tuck into here) is undoubtedly the Hot Air Balloon ride. Essentially the baap of all rides! Catching the sunrise on a hot air balloon is a must do. It did make me so very happy, the rising of the balloon, the warm fire blowing air into the climes of the balloon and simply drifting over the landscape is unimaginably beautiful. The whole experience is so meditative, must I talk of the philosophical angle of the experience?

The pilot of the balloon can only control the altitude of the balloon and not the direction, the direction is set by the wind, and when he wants to find an appropriate place to land he had to keep working on the altitude till the wind sets the balloon over a plain! The 150 balloons that are allowed to ride in the morning are a sight to watch, the beauty is in the collection of balloons as against just one balloon flying across singularly. May we all rise together! With such noble thoughts we said goodbye to one of my happiest places, like I say, happiness is all over the world, just a little more on a hot air balloon in Cappadocia, we headed to the City of Hearts to meet the King of Hearts. Before we left Cappadocia we were treated to a very calming and lovely Sema ceremony acquainting ourselves with most famous whirling dervish, who inhabited a town just as lovable.

Yes it is Konya, the land of Rumi, whose poetry must have touched one in one form or the other. He is said to be a widely published poet, selling strongly even after decades of his demise. His words are heavy and light all at once, gravitating and levitating as one pleases. On the way we halted at a caravan serai building up our interest to see the surroundings of this great man. Rumi’s tomb built by his son is also ostentatiously done with an attached museum, inside the tomb visitors and followers of Rumi who bordered on religion and free-flowing Atheism, who was the Imam of a mosque and a sufi sait, a whirling dervish and an accomplished philosopher wore many hats, not just the fez that he is known with! At his tomb his followers wept keenly feeling a strong attachment with the thoughts of Rumi, I’d highly recommend one to read his quotes that are quite insightful. At the tomb we met some female whirlers who are not dervishes but certainly enjoy the meditative aspects of whirling learning through teachers for the betterment of their lives or their states of mind! Looks real fun though by itself. Ahead of the tomb in Konya, the city is also known for various medresses where specialized learning from scholars happened in the Islamic cultures. Needless to say the medresses were exquisite in form and decoration, the glazed blue tiles beautifully covered the mosque’s interiors. Bidding adieu to Konya we headed to Eskisehir, a business like town in today’s Turkey, close to Istanbul and even closer to the erstwhile capital of Bursa. In Bursa we again halted at the Umi Cami mosque and it was at this mosque that a cat refused to leave my lap. After the caravan serai and incessant walks through the city, we headed to the mosque that again, prettily done offered us some respite to wait, much on sugared chestnuts. Sitting on an ornate bench, deeply in conversation with a fellow traveller I was surprised to have a kitty come and sit on my lap and refuse to leave. She literally dug her paws to not be lifted off me! What can I say, perhaps some spirit animal!! Heading back to Istanbul from Bursa we finished off our trip with the Topkapi, the Hurrem Sultana Hamam following a morning at Bebek and a quick trip to the Grand Bazaar.

Turkey was delightful, indeed!