Istanbul: a million cities rolled into one

By Gasant Abarder Time of article published Nov 19, 2015

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Istanbul - “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.” – Alphonse de Lamartine, 19th-century French writer and politician.

There are variants of this famous quote – some replace Istanbul with Constantinople, but the sentiment holds.

There are few cities as unique as the one that straddles both Asia and Europe; two continents divided by a sea and joined by bridges and tunnels that see thousands making the commute from one part of the city to the other each day.

Istanbul is a city of a staggering 20 million residents, where old world charm meets modern decadence. A city that adapts to the pace of its visitor. Live fast and play with the young at heart in one of the many nightclubs off Istiklal Street. Or shop up a storm at the Grand Bazaar – one of the largest covered markets in the world – with more than 4 000 shops. Shift a gear down and enjoy a Turkish tea like the locals while taking in the glorious views of the Bosphorous Sea.

Istanbul has 2 500 mosques, says tour guide Erkal Aykac. I’m a tour guide kind of person – much like I prefer a caddie when playing golf – and Istanbul is a tour guide kind of place. It is steeped in so much history that there’s a good chance you’ll miss a step in the remarkable story of this conquered, claimed and eventually liberated metropolis. Besides, it is the only way to see the best of Istanbul during a whistle-stop tour.

Is Erkal subjective? Sure, but that just adds to the wealth of his knowledge about his city. Erkal is one of the Muslims that make up 99 percent of the Turkish population (although he says he’s rather a “humanist”).

Five times a day, as if carefully synchronised, mu’azzins from hundreds of mosques across the city perform the call to prayer or athaan. Somehow, the harmonies never clash. But only a third of Turkey’s Muslims will answer the call to prayer as practising Muslims, says Erkal.

He often repeats the fact that while Turkey may be 99 percent Muslim, it’s not an Islamic country but a secular republic founded in 1923 by its first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Atatürk, a Turkish army officer and revolutionary, modernised Turkey by giving women equal rights, abolished all Islamic institutions, introduced western law, dress, calendar and alphabet. Arabic script was replaced with Latin.

Under his rein, Turkey enjoyed friendly relations with its neighbours – relations and a neutral diplomacy that largely remain intact today.

The revolution would see capitalism and industrialisation thrive in modern Turkey. A move that would see a king’s abode, the Ciragan Palace, transformed into a venue for grand dinners and weddings with the adjoining Ciragan Hotel – with panoramic views of the Bosphorous sea.

The evidence of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire’s Islamic legacy is provided during a visit to Sultan Ahmet, which is Istanbul’s historical centre with its Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Monuments.

It is home to the Topkapi Palace and the Roman Hippodrome, where chariot races once entertained crowds when Rome occupied the city. Roman influences litter the the city with aqueducts and a massive fortified outer city wall.

Next to the hippodrome lies the 17th century Blue Mosque that is open to all visitors for tours. If you’re not appropriately dressed to enter the mosque, you can borrow clothing that is supplied to tourists. The architecture is extraordinary and features some of the finest artistic workmanship from the era.

My personal favourite site in the historic centre is the Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sofya. It was a church that was later occupied and turned into a mosque. It is now a museum.

For a moment one forgets it is a shrine to history rather than once a place of worship. The novelty of seeing a mosaic of Christ flanked by the giant Arabic scripts of Allah, on the right, and Muhammad, on the left, is a metaphor for religious tolerance and co-existence that often doesn’t exist in the real world.

It is fair to say that to a large degree it does in Turkey. But the rest of the art in Hagia Sophia tells a different story – one of conquest and imposed ideology. The Muslim religion does not allow human or animal figures to adorn a mosque, so the intricate mosaic art in Hagia Sophia, when it was a church, was plastered over by its conquerors. Later, when Turkey was made a republic, Byzantine-era specialists set about trying to restore the works of art.

Other religious shrines worth visiting are the 13th century Chora Museum, the mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent (who was committed to abolishing class) and the Sultan Ayuub mosque. Ayuub was a close associate of Prophet Muhammad, PBUH, and newlyweds and recently circumcised little boys are brought to his gravesite to offer a blessing.

The latter is just one of the many traditions that has survived despite Atatürk’s decree to do away with institutional religious practices in the early 20th century. It’s curious for a Capetonian like me, who grew up amidst a strong sense of culture and tradition of the Muslim community, to see so many parallels between the Muslims of Cape Town and Istanbul.

For one, it’s the visits to greet and offer prayers to those who brought a positive contribution to the faith, like the kramats of the Cape. Weddings are held on Sundays and the drivers ferrying man and wife to and fro honk their hooters to notify that a newlywed couple is in transit.

Another time-honoured tradition are the announcements of funerals after the early morning or Fajr prayers from the mosques’ public address system. The skills of carpet making and ceramic art have also survived from the days of the Ottoman empire.

All Turkish rugs are made by hand and can take anything from a year to five years to complete, depending on the design and size of the carpet. It also ranges in quality from thick pile wool on cotton, cotton on cotton and the most sought-after silk carpets. Price can range from $100 (about R1 200) to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A silk rug is considered an investment that increases in value as it gets older.

The silk thread is harvested from cocoons with the help of a hand-powered machine and then coloured using natural dyes. The rugs are woven onto vertical thread on a loom and designs are drawn from different regions in Turkey.

Ceramics are also designed according to regions. The handmade pieces are all made to be functional and the clay and lacquer coatings are infused with fine quartz that make the pieces durable and glow in the dark – the latter a feature that has been patented by master Turkish ceramics artists.

These items and so much more are sold at the Spice Market as well as the bustling Grand Bazaar, where a scene of James Bond’s Skyfall was shot.

You’ll find an array of fine Turkish tea and coffee sets, Ottomon style red fezzes, traditional clothing, spices, dates and of course Turkish Delight, baklava and other treats. But you’ll also find a host of knock-off items of clothing brands, bags, shoes and watches, if that is your kind of thing. If you’re adventurous and strike up a rapport with a shopkeeper, you may even find yourself in “the shops behind the shops”, where the higher quality grey products – which Erkal calls “hocus pocus” – are sold.

Erkal advises that you can bargain as much as 40 percent off the price of an item. But be warned: these traders are persistent and once you make eye contact they will seldom let you go without a fight. The scenes and scents are exhilarating and there’s seldom buyer’s remorse when you’ve negotiated a great bargain.

If the high street is more your style, Istiklal Street near Taksim Square has all the famous global brands you’ll need and has a number of fine restaurants and 4- and 5- star hotels to choose from.

The Divan Hotel on Taksim Square, which was home for my stay, is understated 5-star quality with generous rooms, stylish finishes and can-do hospitality. Accommodation is akin to SA and affordability in general rates favourably for the SA traveller with an exchange rate of R5 to one

Turkish Lira. And the food, which is all halaal wherever you go, is best savoured slowly over several courses. But if you need to, grab a quick donner kebap on the go from one of the many takeaways or vendors that line the streets.

In short, Istanbul is a million experiences rolled into one colourful, fragrant and noisy metropolis.

And it’s even easier to get there since Turkish Airlines launched its daily direct flight from Cape Town to Istanbul on October 26. As far as international travel goes, there’s no jump in time zones between Cape Town and Instanbul and it’s a short flight. Stretch out in business class (where you’ll be fed meal after meal after meal) or fly comfortably in economy.

l For more on how to get there, visit Turkish Airlines on For more on the Divan Hotel visit Do try to get Erkal as your tour guide at

l Abarder’s trip to Istanbul was sponsored by Turkish Airlines as part of a Cape Town Tourism delegation to the city from November 5 to 10.

Gasant Abarder, Cape Times

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