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Istanbul, a melting pot of various cultures

Updated on: 01 September,2013 04:38 AM IST  | 
Waleed Hussain |

The confluence of Europe and Asia in Istanbul offers a perfect setting for travellers to soak in the culture by day and let their hair down by night

Istanbul, a melting pot of various cultures

Istanbul is a city rich with culture and heritage, having served as a capital under four different empires -- Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman. Nestled between the Sea of Marmara, the Black Sea and with the Bosphorous River for company, Istanbul offers you a host of assorted experiences, from traditional markets to modern, buzzing shopping arcades and nightclubs. It’s a destination that has something to offer for every kind of traveller. it has the hippest nightclubs that will send you home only after the sun rises.

Taksim Square was a place where water was distributed to people

Language may be a barrier initially but Istanbul is a world-class city and most of its population speaks English as well. The signboards are both in English and Turkish, and with the latter having a lot of similar words used in Indian languages, it’s much easier to follow them. Here are a few examples: The famous Taksim Square is in the heart of Istanbul’s lively district and it literally means to ‘distribute’ (Takseem), a word we are familiar through Urdu. In the early Turkish rule, Taksim square was a place where water was distributed to the people. Hence, the name Taksim.

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning its walls

The other famous monument is the Topkapi Palace. Here too, the palace was named after a canon (top) that welcomes you at the entrance gate. Another amazing aspect of the city is that it is one of the only known cities that is based on two different continents -- Asia and Europe. The Asian side of Istanbul has all the traditional structures that include the bazaars, the famous mosques, the landmarks and monuments. On the other hand, the European side is more modern and showcases the progress of the city. And the best part is that you can zip across two continents in less than 20 minutes.

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque

Conrad Hilton was one of the first entrepreneurs to gauge the benefits of Istanbul’s strategic location almost six decades ago. In the late 60s, Hilton set up the Hilton Istanbul as the first luxury hotel in Istanbul. He introduced the cream of Hollywood to the emerging city of Istanbul, and from then on Istanbul turned into a hot tourist destination for Americans. Over the years, the relationship proved fruitful for business and the city extended its arms and welcomed the flow of tourists. On an average 12 million tourists visit Istanbul and the numbers have only been increasing. So much so that the Hilton group now has three luxury hotels in Istanbul and is looking to add more properties to cater to the ever-increasing flow of tourists.

The narrow entry to Secret Relics. Pics/ Waleed Hussain

Considering the number of destinations and attractions Istanbul has to offer and the high cab fares, it would be wise to book a tour operator for sightseeing. The tours cover all the traditional sites such as the Sultan Ahmet mosque (Blue Mosque), the Hague Sophia (Aya Sophia), Topkapi Palace, the Obelisk, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar and the Bosphorous cruise.

The Topkapi Palace museum needs around half a day for sightseeing, and the Hague Sophia, which is next door will need an hour to explore. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque is a walk through and can be wrapped up in half an hour. However, spend some time exploring the markets and you are sure to find a killer bargain. Most shop owners will greet you with folded hands and a ‘Namaste’ and follow it up with “Hello, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan. Please come to my shop”.

Istanbul has served as the capital of Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman

Yes, Bollywood is a big attraction across the world, and so are Salman and Shah Rukh Khan. The best place to buy an assorted variety of tea, coffee and dry fruits is the Spice Market. Most of the traders are immigrants from neighbouring Arab countries and are usually willing to bargain and strike a deal. On the other hand, you can pick up fancy caps, traditional Turkish hats, lamps and crockery from the Grand Bazaar. Do browse around the market before you buy something as some shops have fixed prices while others do offer a good bargain.

After a day of sightseeing through the cultural aspects of Istanbul, it’s time to unwind in the party zone of the city. You should head out to Istiklal avenue to check out the taverns and clubs with names like Kiss & Fly. The other night hotspots are Besiktas and Beyoglu, where you can find bars, clubs and pole dancers.

The famous Spice Market is known for its traditional teas and spices

The Sacred Relics
One of the biggest attractions at the Topkapi Palace Museum is the enclosure titled Sacred Relics. This section consists of nearly 600 items that belonged to Prophets of Islam and have been procured from various museums across the world. The Sacred relics section was first set up in 1808 but was only opened to the public in 1962. u00a0The section has the many swords of Caliphs and Generals of the Islamic Army. The swords of the four Khalifas -- Abu Bakar Siddiqui, Osman Ghani, Omar Farooq and Hazrat Ali -- are among the prized possessions of the museum.

But the most precious and valuable collection of relics that the Topkapi Palace boasts of belongs to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The enclosure has the sword, the bow and a footprint of the Prophet that is among the most sought after relics in the museum. It also has the Prophet’s hair, a tooth that was lost in battle, an official seal, the mantle, three sandals and a cup used by the Prophet to drink water. The section also has the 122 cm-long staff of Moses that was used to part the Red Sea and which had turned into a snake in the court of the Pharaoh. The cooking vessel of Abraham, chiseled out of granite, the head gear of Joseph, the locks, gates and keys of the Holy Kaaba and the sword of the great general of Islam, Khalid bin Walid. The latter as undefeated in over 50 campaigns and he retired from the army having never lost a battle.

The other big prize at the Sacred Relics enclosure is the 101 cm-long sword of David. According to an inscription on a copper plate that is also housed with the sword, it was predicted that the sword would find its way to the Ottomans. It also predicts that the Mahdi will inherit the sword and it will be used by Prophet Isa to vanquish the one-eyed hypocrite Dajjal and bring order to the world.

How to get there
Turkish Airlines has a daily direct flight (six hrs) to Istanbul from Mumbai. Hire a tour operator such as Dorak Tours for sightseeing in Istanbulu00a0

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