A love affair with Turkey

Jan 26, 2014, 14:00 IST | Kiran Mehta

A heady mix of historic sites, modern cities, secluded islands, crowded bazaars, and delicious cuisine, leaves the first-time tourist to Turkey in absolute awe, and has the experienced traveller returning for more, says Kiran Mehta

Type: Heritage
You need: 1 week

Turkey, so far, was a tease to me as I had only transited through the Istanbul airport in the past. Time killed at the Turkish Airlines lounge had me feasting on their staple halwa dusted with powdered sugar, downing rich black coffee, savouring kebabs fresh off-the-skewer, and munching home-grown dried fruits. While I had sampled the cuisine, I knew little else of Turkey. Guidebooks made references to ‘Ottoman Sultans’, while friends described hedonistic cities. A pious neighbour mentioned the House of Mother Mary, while online research led to the relics of Prophet Mohammed. The ladies warned of the rugged-looking hustlers in the Grand Bazaar, while male friends appreciated the graceful belly dancers. With such varied descriptors, I didn’t know what to expect. But after visiting, I’d say that Turkey is where the diverse merges effortlessly. Here’s more from my travels through Turkey:

 The Library of Celsus in Ephesus, where the Greco-Roman ruins live on

“Welcome to Constantinople,” says my guide Altug Dayioglu, as we set out to discover Istanbul. His reference to the city, as it was once known, seems a tourist-trap when all I see is a fast-paced metropolis. But then, somewhere between the modern sky-line, the fable takes shape in opulent palaces, carved spires, dusty bazaars and more.

The Galata Tower is an intimidating stone structure built in 1348 AD. It was once the tallest structure in Constantinople and while it doesn’t hold that title today it continues to dominate the city’s skyline. A restaurant and cafe within the tower, offer sweeping views of Istanbul and the breathtaking Bosphorus

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque: This mosque instantly stands out from others with its grand dome and six minarets. Altug relays the legend where Sultan Ahmed I commissioned the mosque to have gold minarets (altin), which was heard by the architect as six (alti). The mosque earned the name of Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles that grace its interiors, and create a visual treat with the play of light through the stained glass windows. Watch as the sun goes down and creates unique patterns, every few minutes.

Legend has it that Sultan Ahmed I commissioned the mosque to have gold minarets (altin), misheard by the architect as six (alti)

Topkapi Palace: Once the residence of the Ottoman Sultans, for over 400 years, today this magnificent palace is a museum. It showcases holy relics such as the sword of Prophet David, Prophet Mohammed’s footprints in clay and the rod of Prophet Moses. The museum also contains other lavish artefacts such as gem-studded thrones, garish robes of the sultans etc.

Grand Bazaar: It was like walking into a scene from Arabian Nights with shops selling shiny lamps and colourful lanterns; vendors selling the age-old wisdom of herbs and spices; shops which lure you in with delicate fragrances emanating from natural, hand-made soaps, and every other commodity imagined. I lost myself here among the labyrinth of stores and landed up finding a packet of agarbattis, with Sai Baba on the cover.

In bazaars across Turkey, one can find handwoven carpets and prayer rugs in a variety of shapes

Cruise the Bosphorus: More magic awaits as Turkey is the only country on the globe which falls on two continents. I hop onboard a ferry from the Asian side of Turkey, and cruise the Bosphorous. I take in the beautiful skyline, the mesmerising view of the Dolmabahce Palace reflected on the waters, sail past little villages and just like that, I enter Europe. In that moment, borders disappear, distances meet, and people become one. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s words, ‘Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice and narrow-mindedness.’

A picture of the first view of the sepia-toned Princes’ Island from the ferry. Pics/Kiran Mehta

Princes’ Islands: This cluster of nine islands lies just off the coast of Istanbul and is easily accessible by a short ferry ride. The islands’ name comes from the fact that this was where exiled royalty lived out their days. During the Byzantine period, a ruler would banish the next in line to his throne, his brother and rival to these Islands.

I dock off at the largest of the nine islands, Buyukada, which is cut off from the outside, and seems trapped in a bygone era. I hop onto an ornate carriage and take a ride through the town dotted with charming villas, and Ottoman-era mansions. Even as we gallop into tiny streets from where I cannot see the coast, I can taste the salt in the air.

My carriage ride ends just outside a rustic tea house, the sort described by Orhan Pamuk in many of his novels. Here, retired men seated at low wooden tables, spend their savings on cards. I choose a spot by the window, and sip on a cup of strong Turkish coffee. And as I look at the carriages beyond I feel dislocated in time. I appreciate the much needed exile from my modern, tech-dependent world.

“This is my city,” says a beaming Altug. ‘It’s was also the home of Homer,’ he adds as an afterthought. The ancient city of Smyrna falls within the borders of modern-day Izmir. A coastal city and university town, it has a relaxed and youthful vibe. Bars lie within alleys, and shops sporting the latest trends lure youth with a promise of bargains. “We move with the times, but are proud of our rich past,” says Altug as we make our way to Ephesus, an hour away from Izmir city centre.

Ephesus: This is where the Greco-Roman world lives on, in magnificent ruins. Once a major trading port, Ephesus was a prosperous city. That splendour is reflected in the dusty ruins of the Library of Celsus, the amphitheatre, and temples.
One major symbol of the city was the Temple of Artemis to the Goddess of Fertility. It was the biggest temple the world had seen and it earned a spot among the ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’. Today, just a singular re-constructed column of this gigantic shrine remains.

I’ve spent the day among the many other preserved ruins and as I walk the barren site of the Temple, I try to picture it standing tall, when Altug says, “The city of Ephesus once saw a riot by those who feared for the future of this Temple. The silversmiths who made idols of the Goddess and whose livelihood was attached to the temple were worried when the Apostle Paul came to preach Christianity in Ephesus.” An incident which finds mention in the Acts of the Apostles, New Testament of the Bible. And with that we set off for a Christian shrine.

House of Mary: Just a few kilometres from Ephesus, lies Selçuk, which is famed for the House of Mother Mary. Altug relays the fascinating sequence of events behind the discovery of the house — a German nun, who had never stepped out of Germany, had visions of the house. Her visions were published in a book. A French priest read the book and set out to find the house. He sought the help of locals who recognised the exact site from the descriptions and the House of Mother Mary was discovered. While the Roman Catholic Church has not pronounced on the authenticity of the House, it was declared a Holy Place in 1951 by Pope Pius XII. Today pilgrims from across the globe visit this stone structure.

Turkey is one of those rare destinations where different religions and dynasties come together. It’s also one of those places where the past and the present play out, at once. In this, Turkey is truly fascinating.

Turkey shorts: what, how, when

In Istanbul
1. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque
2. Topkapi Palace
3. Grand Bazaar
4. Bosphorus
5. Princes’ Islands
In Izmir
1. Ephesus
2. House of Mary

Getting there: Turkish Airlines flies every day from Mumbai, directly to Istanbul. Princes’ Islands are a short ferry ride form Istanbul city. The ferry can be accessed at various points within Istnabul.  Istanbul to Izmir, on Turkish Airlines, is a one-hour flight. Izmir airport to Ephesus is almost one hour by road. best time: April to September when temperatures are mild.

Tip: To experience the best of Turkey, sign up for guided/customised tours with VIP tourism (www.viptourism.com).

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