To most, Turkey remains synonymous with an amputated part of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire; they could not miss the forest for the trees more. Anatolia has been witness to the ebb and flow of several civilisations over time. Close to the cradle of civilisation (from the Nile to the Ganges), Anatolia was exposed to – and at times partially conquered by – the Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Hittites, Mesopotamians, Persians, Romans, Sumerians, and others even before the common era.
Interestingly, the Turks were among the last inhabitants of their peninsula. Oghuz Turks, who had made the area between the Caspian and Aral seas their home in the 8th century were exposed to Arabs and Islam and developed trade relations with their southern and western neighbours. The slow trickle of Turks into Asia Minor via commerce was greatly hastened in the 11th century after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, in which they routed the Byzantine Empire. This once nomadic Turkic tribe, the Oghuz, became the forefathers of the later Ottoman Empire. This is not the place to discuss the delectable intricacies of Anatolian history, but this narration illustrates the rich tapestry that went into forming Turkish history.
My recent trip to Turkey, given the constraints of ten days, was most satisfying. The first surprise was the visa process – I had to apply for a Turkish visa from India as I was residing in Bangalore when I put together the trip, and imagine my joy at discovering that the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had recently initiated an e-visa scheme for people who met certain criteria! Not only did this save me 1,000-km schlep to Bombay, but I got my e-visa within minutes by email. Truly, kudos to the ministry.
The flight from Bombay to Istanbul was approximately six and a half hours long, and in my limited experience, Turkish Airlines is a good operator. For various personal reasons, we chose to go with a tour company than on our own, and their itinerary started not in the city whose walls withstood even Attila but in Kayseri, a large town in the central Anatolian region of Cappadocia.
Kayseri is the 9th largest city in Turkey and the birthplace of the renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The city is well-connected by train as well as by bus, and visitors to Cappadocia are served by two airports in the region, one in Kayseri and a smaller one in Nevşehir. Many tourists use Kayseri as merely a pit stop on the way to the scenic places the next province over, but it is an old town and has its own history and collection of Seljuq attractions. Lesser known are the excavations of Kanesh (city in third millennium BCE) at nearby Kültepe, when Kayseri was known as Mazaca.
It is not sure where the term Cappadocia comes from. Some historians say it is the Greek version of the Persian Hvaspadakhim, meaning land of fine horses, while others say it originates from another Persian word, Katpatuka. Sources indicate that the Mother Goddess cult was predominant in the region – Avanos, where we stayed overnight, is mentioned by the famed Greek geographer Strabo for its Ouenasa Zeus (Queen Sky Deity) temple.
To be clear, Cappadocia is a region in Central Anatolia and not a province. Regions tend to have rather ill-defined boundaries, as we see in the case of, say, the Middle East. However, by the time of Herodotus, Cappadocia was considered to be limited by the Pontus (area on the southern coast of the Black Sea) in the north, the Taurus mountains in the south, the upper Euphrates and the Armenian highlands in the east, and Lycaonia and eastern Galatia in the west. In today’s terms, that would be the provinces of Kirşehir, Nevşehir, Aksaray, Niğde, Kayseri, Malatya, the eastern part of Ankara, the southern parts of Yozgat and Sivas, and the northern part of Adana.
Cappadocia’s recognisable landscape was formed by volcanic activity from some 70 million years ago, and the soft tufa rock allowed early inhabitants to fashion dwellings in the rock hills themselves, not to mention the interesting shapes caused by erosion from wind and rain. Though the landscape has an inhospitable and lunar feel to it, tufa has surprising qualities that make it not only a good construction material but also fertiliser.
Mt. Argaeus (Kayseri), Mt. Hasan (Aksaray), and Mt. Göllü (Niğde) are three of the major volcanoes that formed the Cappadocian landscape that sits at an average altitude of 1,000 metres above sea level. The three mark the rough area of modern Cappadocia and are popular destinations for skiing, hiking, and mountain climbing. At the base of these mountains, people take advantage of the soil and small farms can be found.
Our first stop on the tour was the underground city of Kaymaklı. The underground network of caves was probably created by the Hittites in the second millennium BCE and was expanded by later inhabitants of the region. However, the function remained much the same – protection against hostile forces. While the commonly cited example is Christians hiding from the Romans, Kaymaklı and the towns nearby – Uchisar, Göreme, Avanos, Ürgüp, Derinkuyu, and Ihlara – sat astride profitable trade routes and were frequently attacked. At its height, Kaymaklı could hold 5,000 people, but the largest such construction in the area at Derinkuyu is thought to have been capable of sheltering up to 20,000 souls. I was struck not only by how elaborate the cave network is but also how deep the caves go – probably as much as eight to ten storeys underground!
If you are interested, you can stay in ‘cave hotels’ in Cappadocia. Some are pricey, but you can also find simple and cheap bread & breakfast type cave hotels too. Breakfast usually consists of bread, goat cheese, olives, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, meats, pastries, tea, and orange juice. Some places may offer cereals too.
In the 1980s, the Turkish government moved people out of these natural dwellings and into modern homes; whether that was necessarily a good thing is a topic for another day, but today, most of the establishments run out of the natural tufa caves are there to enhance local culture and promote tourism to the region.
Something else I noticed from the bus is that Cappadocia is wine country! The volcanic ash mixed with pigeon guano apparently makes for some excellent organic farming. Since the ash holds water very well, it allows for better soil bacteria growth and seed germination. One person I talked to explained that it also created spaces in the soil and insulated the plant better from temperature fluctuations. I also noticed potatoes and a couple of other crops growing.
Nature tourism was scheduled after lunch. We stopped by Uchisar castle, Pigeon Valley, Monk Valley (also known as Paşabağ), and Devrent Valley to see the multi-coloured bands of rock denoting abundance of certain elements, the fairy chimneys, rock dwellings, and interestingly shaped rocks formed by centuries of wind erosion. Pigeon Valley gets its name from the fact that the birds’ excrement forms a substantial part of the fertiliser in the region. Hot-air balloon rides are heavily advertised and are on the expensive side (approximately €135 per person), but the geography of the region makes them worth the price. They are usually conducted early in the morning to capture the sunrise, and the company will come to the place you are staying, pick you up, get some tea and light snacks into you and take you for an hour-long balloon ride before depositing you back at your hotel. There are basically two sizes of balloon baskets, a small one carrying six to eight people, and a larger one carrying about 20 people.
A visit to the Göreme Open-Air Museum the next day, where several rock churches of the Cappadocian Fathers can be found, gave us a closer look at the rock dwellings. Those interested in early Christian history will find the writings by the Cappadocians on the nature of the Trinity and their debates with Arianism illuminating.
While in Cappadocia, expect to walk a fair bit, and that too on uneven paths, inclines, and steep stairways. You may be able to get from Ilhara to Kaymaklı smoothly by road, but exploring the underground cities, the caves, and wandering around the sites in general will take a toll. Wear comfortable shoes! If you have a locomotive disability, I urge you to investigate your options properly.
Despite the explosion in tourism in recent years, Avanos is still a major hub for pottery owing to the silt the nearby Kizilirmak (Red River) deposits. I was impressed by the seemingly high quality of life in an area that was, let’s face it, in the middle of nowhere. The roads were decent, the neighbourhoods clean, utilities functioned well, and the inter-city transport was good. I was surprised but not shocked to discover that Turkey, about the size of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh put together, receives 35 million tourists per annum while the whole of India welcomes slightly over six million foreigners.
After Cappadocia, we started our journey to the coast, and our next stop was Konya, once the capital of the Seljuq Sultanate. On the way, a couple of caravanserais caught my attention. The few I saw were built like European keeps, reminding me of how dangerous travel used to be. On the way from Nevşehir to Konya also lies Aksaray. Just before reaching Aksaray, you will encounter the excavations of Aşıklı Höyük, an aceramic neolithic settlement dating back to 8000 BCE. Though smaller than other similar sites, Aşıklı Höyük is one of the oldest of its kind and perhaps one of the first examples of permanent settlements in Anatolia. Unless you have the historian’s disease, the site will appear plain to you and perhaps even quite boring. After all, the people there did not even have pottery! Yet to stand in the same spot as someone else did 10,000 years ago, and to try and see Asia Minor as he or she did – the findings indicate different gender roles in the society – is a heady experience…what would become known as Asia Minor 7,000 years after the said person has died!
Due to time constrictions, we could only see the much-admired mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi’s resting place and the Selimiye Mosque right next to it. Interestingly, Rumi’s influence is felt far more away from the land of his residence, on Persian and Afghan literature and on Sufism.
Like Cappadocia, Konya is also a good example of Turkey’s diverse history. Just outside the city lie the wonders of the neolithic city of Çatalhöyük, going back to approximately 7,500 BCE, Kilistra, where St. Paul gave some of his first sermons, and Hittite religious artifacts at Fasıllar and Eflatunpınar. Within the city limits, you will find the Iplikçi and Eşrefoğlu mosques from the 11th and 13th centuries respectively; both are fine examples of Seljuq architecture and from a time when minarets were not that common. The İnce Minareli Medrese’s oddly shaped minaret is also worth a quick dekho.
The same day, our group moved on to Pamukkale, which means Cotton Castle. The name derives from the very white calcium carbonate cliffs nearby. Hotels take advantage of the several thermal springs in the vicinity, as did the ancients – records indicate the use of Laodicea (later subsumed into Hierapolis) as a spa as far back as the third century BCE by the Phrygians. Hierapolis proper, however, was established by the Seleucids and attained its golden age under the Romans who rebuilt it after a severe earthquake in 60 CE. Its health spas attracted many from all over the Roman Empire, and it is rumoured that even Cleopatra may have visited its pools. The city was finally abandoned in the 1300s after one too many earthquakes.
Tourists should be prepared to walk around a bit in Hierapolis. Like any Greco-Roman city, it boasts of a necropolis, temples, baths, agoras, and odeons. The thermal springs are open to visitors, so come equipped with a swimsuit if you intend to enjoy the waters. Aside from the series of shallow pools, there is another large pool nearby for which entrance costs extra.
There is little else to offer in Denizli, and so the group rolled on to Kuşadası, where we caught our first glimpse of the Aegean Sea. Our hotel had a lovely view of the sea from the balcony. The city is a paradise for photographers, and there are several beaches to enjoy. For lovers of Ancient Greece, Kuşadası is surrounded by Greek ruins, the most famous of which are the three-thousand-year old cities of Miletus, Ephesus and the smaller Priene. We could only see Ephesus, famed for its great Celsus Library. Abandoned only in the 1500s, Ephesus is a treasure trove of Greco-Roman artifacts. Not only does it have memorials to Sulla, Domitian, Hadrian, and a massive odeon which could hold 25,000 people, but Ephesus is also thought to be where Mary spent her last days. It is not difficult, even today, to imagine the majesty of the Avenue of the Curates in its heyday. Near Ephesus is also the İsa Bey Mosque, one of the better examples of Anatolian beylik architecture.
As the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world, Turkey’s sites do not appear to have an off-season. Four cruise ships disembarked the day we visited Ephesus, and I am told it can get as high as nine ships during the tourist season. This is to say that if you are in a group, coordinate well so that you do not get lost; a tour guide for a group is a good idea, but it might be difficult to hear him or ask questions in the crowds. If you are really interested in the Greco-Roman world, I suggest the audio tour and about five to six hours on site.
I am always amused to note how few people realise that the birth of Ancient Greek philosophy happened along Anatolia’s western coast. Miletus, for example, was home to some of the earliest philosophers we know of – Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes were all from Miletus; Xenophanes was from Colophon, a few kilometres north of Ephesus, which was itself home to Heraclitus. Thus, in some ways, it can be argued that Turkey is the birthplace of Western thought.
On our way to lunch, we passed by Bergama and could not help stopping at the Kızıl Avlu. Though converted into a shrine to St. John by the Byzantines, the Kızıl Avlu was built around the time of Hadrian as a Roman shrine to Egyptian gods Isis, Osiris, Harpakhered, and Osiris. Ephesus also contains a shrine to Serapis near the market area, a testimony to the importance of Egyptian merchants to the welfare of the city. More than anything, I was reminded of the remarkable pluralism of the Greco-Roman pagans in contrast to our religious strife today.
I was curious about how Turks view Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and during our longer bus rides, I asked our guide what he thought about the man responsible for the establishment of the Turkish republic. His response was interesting: though he did not question Atatürk’s monumental role in creating the Turkish state in its present form or his military acumen, he was willing to scrutinise the Kemalist legacy on the shaping of the new republic. The name ‘Atatürk’ means ‘Father of the Turks’ and was given to him in 1934 by the country’s parliament while simultaneously banning it for any other person.
I put the same question to others I met and some Turkish friends I knew from the United States. Their reactions were similarly amorphous. There seems to be a plurality of opinions on the Latinisation of the Turkish language, the ban on hijabs, the abolishment (temporary) of certain religious orders such as the Mevlevis, the closing of Islamic law courts and the creation of a civil code, and other issues that have raised flags in Turkish society. I suppose one way to understand Atatürk’s place in Turkey is to look at Mohandas Gandhi in India, another founding figure with a mixed legacy. In both cases, my impression was that they garner greater respect outside their own countries but within, there are a gamut of opinions which eventually tilt slightly towards the positive.
For our visit to Troy, we stayed in Çanakkale, barely half an hour away. Many tourists find Troy disappointing, probably because of the grandeur of the Iliad or because they came directly from better preserved sites like Ephesus and Miletus. Yet this would be to miss that Troy is at least 2,000 years older than either Greek settlement. Furthermore, the central importance of Trojan lineage in European mythology cannot be over-emphasised. Despite the destruction, even the amateur tourist can notice a few important structures such as the sanctuary of Athena Ilias, and even the ruined walls give an idea of why it took the Achaeans ten years of siege and eventual subterfuge to breach Troy’s defences.
Troy’s long existence and repeated destruction by forces natural and unnatural means that the city was lost and rebuilt again and again; archaeologists see evidence of this in their excavations by discovering nine layers of Troy below one another as each new avatar built over the older one. With evidence from Hittite and Egyptian sources as well as the Greek material, it is now generally accepted that Troy VIIa was the Troy that fought the Trojan War around 1200 BCE. A replica of the Trojan horse stands in front of the site, and from old drawings I have seen, I surmise that it is not too much in variance with historical depictions of what the real horse might have looked like. The horse now on display, our guide informed us, was used in the filming of the movie, Troy, and was later donated to the city. Since we went early in the morning, the site was almost empty and we could spend as much time as we wanted taking photographs and wandering about the ruined city. Classics buffs might want a couple of hours more to soak in the heroism and tragedy of the War than regular blitzkrieging tourists.
While our group had little time to spend in Çanakkale, the area also has its share of beaches. Our hotel had its own private beach, which made for a nice evening walk and sunset photography. For those interested in World War I, there is the Çanakkale Naval Museum in the Çimenlik Kalesi. It was built in conjunction with the Kilitbahir fortress across the Dardanelles Strait by Sultan Mehmet in the early 1460s to control the waterway across its narrowest point. Right next door is the Military Marine Museum and its most famous artifact, two bullets striking each other in midair; it gives you a clue as to how much firing was going on during the Gallipoli campaign!
After the past few days of Hittites, Greeks, Romans, and Seljuqs, it was depressing to return to the 20th century! Nonetheless, we crossed over from Asia to Gelibolu in European Turkey by ferry, passing the Dur Yolcu Memorial on the way. It shows a huge figure of an Ottoman soldier carved into the hillside with the inscription, “Dur yolcu! Bilmeden gelip bastýöýn, Bu toprak, bir devrin battýöý yerdir.” These words, by Turkish poet Necmettin Halil Onan, may be loosely translated as, “Traveller halt! The soil you tread, Once witnessed the end of an era.”
The Gelibolu peninsula was a sombre place as battlefields usually are; we visited ANZAC Cove, Lone Pine Memorial, and the 57 nci Piyade Alayı, a memorial for the Ottoman Empire’s 57th Infantry Division which was led by Mustafa Kemal and completely wiped out. In eight months, the Battle of Çanakkale left half a million youths dead with little to show for it by either side. Soldiers who were barely more than children were mowed down in an ill-conceived campaign in an even more poorly planned war. There are 32 World War I cemeteries and almost 50 memorials on the peninsula.
The final stage of our trip, the pièce de résistance, was Istanbul. The city epitomises not only the confluence of East and West, but also tradition and modernity. Travel writers have always struggled with describing Istanbul. As the 19th century Italian novelist Edmondo de Amicis summarised, “Pertusier stammers, Tournefort declares that human speech is incapable, Pouqueville thinks he’s on another planet, La Croix is intoxicated, the Vicomte de Marcellus ecstatic, Lamartine gives thanks to God, Gautier doubts the reality of what he sees…” Istanbul is no doubt an imperial city, its majesty complete, and radiating power; it captivates, mesmerises, and seduces even the seasoned traveller.
As we drove into Istanbul, I was taken aback by the sheer number of tower cranes on the skyline – I stopped counting at 15. Part of this is to make the city more resistant to earthquakes – Istanbul lies close to the North Anatolian Fault, and the earthquake in 1999 left 18,000 dead and another one is expected soon. Another part, I expected, was the rapidly growing Turkish economy but people were less sanguine about it than I expected. Nonetheless, Istanbul and Turkey certainly seem poised for growth with several massive infrastructure projects in motion. One of these projects, the Marmaray tunnel, runs under the Bosphorus to connect the part of Istanbul that is in Asia with the part that is in Europe and was inaugurated just recently on Turkey’s 90th Republic Day. An interesting tidbit about the Marmaray project was that it was first envisioned by Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1900!
It really annoys me when people say that Constantinople was founded by Constantine, so here is a bit of a history rant to such people: Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, was actually a small Greek settlement called Byzantium from the 7th century BCE. Its famous, virtually impregnable walls were three systems of walls, the first started by Septimus Severus in the 2nd century, the second a great expansion by Constantine in the 4th century, and the third by Theodosius in the 5th century when he noticed that the city was outgrowing its walls yet again. The walls were breached just once before the advent of gunpowder, by the Fourth Crusade, and that was largely due to the complete and utter incompetence of Alexios III, then ruler of Constantinople. The walls were largely dismantled in the 19th century and little is left of these walls today for the tourist to see. However, some restoration work has also happened for tourists to get an idea of what the walls looked like. If you drive around the Golden Horn, you will still see segments, some places larger than others, of the walls that have now been incorporated into the urban landscape. One must not forget that Ottoman reinforcements like the Roumeli fortress were, technically, also part of Istanbul’s defences and these remain in good shape.
The city has had many names, Byzantium, Augustus Antonina, and New Rome, but became known as Constantinople after Constantine declared it the capital of the eastern Roman Empire in 324. At first an informal name, probably because Augustus Antonina and New Rome were a mouthful, Constantinople was officially attested by Theodosius II in the early 5th century.
An interesting factoid many people might not know is that the star and crescent of the Turkish Republic that flies over Istanbul is not uniquely Ottoman or even Islamic. Legend has it that Sultan Murat II saw the white star and crescent reflected in the blood of one of his fallen soldiers after the Battle of Kosovo in 1448, but this was not reflected in the Ottoman flag until 1793 – while crescents have always adorned the Ottoman flag, an eight-pointed star was added to the flag of the Ottoman Caliphate only in 1793 (until 1844 when the flag was changed to three crescents) and a ‘more Islamic’ five-pointed one to the flag of the Ottoman Empire in 1844. However, the star and crescent motif go back to at least Mithridates VI in the 2nd century BCE if not to the 14th century BCE and the Moabites. The Byzantines had their own stories and interpretations behind the star and crescent, as do the Muslims, but the symbol is an ancient one found across the region.
The group’s itinerary in Istanbul followed the well-pounded tourist track, particularly one whose time is limited. A Bosphorus river cruise, the Topkapı Sarayı, the Grand Bazaar, the Sultanahmet Mosque (called the Blue Mosque only by tourists), the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and the Hagia Sophia were all covered in two quick days. We stayed in the Bakırköy district of Istanbul, but the Fatih district might have been more strategic in terms of tourist attractions. The only advantage of Bakırköy is that it is closer to the airport and you run less risk of traffic on your departure. Istanbul traffic is a nightmare, so if you live far away from the sites you would like to see, factor in some extra time or be prepared to use the public transport system – bus, tram, subway, train, funicular, taxi, dolmuş, seabus, ferry – which is excellent.
My interests lean heavily towards the historical, but even if you are not that keen on the past, I suggest that you not rush Istanbul – Topkapı requires at least four hours, as would Dolmabahçe Palace. The latter allows only 1,500 visitors per day to limit the damage done by excessive human presence, so do check their website for their procedures and plan accordingly. For those not willing to be cooped up in one of the dozens of palaces, mosques, or museums, you can visit the shops and cafés of Beyoğlu, walk down Bagdat Street on the Asian side of Istanbul, or catch a show at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center. You also have the option of peeking into Balat, which was once the Jewish quarter of the city, gaze upon the colourful wooden houses on Sogukcesme Sokak, enjoy grilled fish at Eminönü Pier, enjoy the view from Pierre Lotti Tepesi, visit the affluent Bebek district, or just find your way to one of the several parks in the city, like Gülhane Park.
The Hagia Sophia, the world’s largest cathedral until the one in Seville was completed in 1520, requires at least two hours. Most do not know that the present structure was the third Hagia Sophia – the first one was built by Constantius II in 360 and was destroyed in riots in 404. The church was reconstructed by Theodosius II in 415, only to be burned down during the Nika Revolt in 532. This final version was built in 537 by Justinian. Whatever little is left of the original buildings is available on display in the gardens behind the museum. However, even this iteration of the Hagia Sophia was not left unmolested – earthquakes and fires damaged the building structure and parts were repeatedly repaired and strengthened. Meanwhile political turbulence, such as Byzantine iconoclasm in the 9th century and the looting of the Hagia Sophia by the Fourth Crusade (it was a Roman Catholic Church from 1204-1261) left their mark on the mosaics, statues, and other internal treasures of the great building. The damage you see of mosaics and images is, thus, not only an Islamic allergy to the depiction of the human form.
Something to remember is being appropriately dressed when visiting mosques – as with most religious places, bare shoulders and shorts or skirts that end above the knee are not accepted. At the Sultanahmet Mosque, you are provided headgear and a sort of South Indian mundu free of charge if you are unsuitably dressed but do not expect this service at all mosques. At all tourist attractions, be prepared for long lines! And unless you have good eyes to follow your guide through the crowd, audio tours are your friend.
Istanbul – and a large part of the world – owes much to the great Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan. Chief architect and civil engineer for three sultans, he designed the Süleymaniye Mosque and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne among many other structures for the Ottoman Empire. His students carried forward his legacy in their designs of stunning structures like the Stari Most bridge in Bosnia (Mimar Hayruddin), the Sultanahmet Mosque in Istanbul (Sedefkâr Mehmed), and the Taj Mahal in India (Isa Muhammad Effendi and Ismail Effendi). There is a probability that Sinan was of Armenian descent (but born in Kayseri), something one should avoid mentioning while in Turkey!
The Hippodrome of Constantinople that runs outside the Sultanahmet Mosque is an excellent place for a leisurely evening stroll despite the crowds everywhere else. It holds three important monuments. The first is the Obelisk of Thutmose III, brought from Karnak and erected by Theodosius in 390. The Obelisk of Theodosius, as Thutmose III’s property is also called, is remarkably well-preserved and the etchings are still sharp. The obelisks in Egypt may have the excuse of sand erosion, but few obelisks of such antiquity, the one at Place de la Concorde in Paris for example, are in such good condition. The second monument in the Hippodrome is the Walled Obelisk of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, which was originally covered with gold plates but looted by Crusaders, and third is the Serpent Column, removed from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and installed at its present location in 324 by Constantine. The top was adorned by a serpent with three heads, which was destroyed in the 17th century, and a golden bowl, which was looted by the Fourth Crusade. The Hippodrome was also the site of the great Nika Revolt in 532, in which 30,000 people are rumoured to have been killed. In 1900, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II gave Abdülhamid II and Istanbul a gift of a fountain which now sits at the northern end of the Hippodrome.
The Grand Bazaar, unless you are actually shopping, should not take more than an hour; keep an eye, however, on whence you entered, for there are 21 gates, over 60 streets, and some 4,000 shops in the place. It also sees over 250,000 visitors per day. Istanbul is a bustling metropolis with an official population of 14 million; like in all big cities, be careful with your belongings especially in crowded places.
Since I did not relish shopping, I managed to sneak away from my tour group every evening I was in Istanbul. With the clean, safe, and efficient public transport system the government has put in place, this was not that hard to do. While many people know English, you will find that it is a little harder to get around in Istanbul than other non-English speaking countries like Spain, Italy, or Germany. It is always helpful to carry a phrasebook and memorise a few well-chosen words like:
||I don’t speak Turkish
|İngilizce biliyor musunuz?
||Do you speak English?
||Where is the bathroom?
|Yardım eder misiniz?
||Can you help me?
This is even more true in the interiors of Turkey.
One of the places I wandered into on my own was the Yerebatan Sarnıcı, or the Basilica Cistern. The site featured in the James Bond movie, From Russia With Love, and yes, Hollywood skewed everything about it! The cistern, some 150 metres long and 65 metres wide, is supported by over 300 columns and can hold approximately 80 million litres of water. The site used to be a basilica in the 3rd century but was converted into a cistern later. With the new water filtration system Justinian installed in 532, the cistern continued to provide water to the environs well into modern times.
Players of Assassin’s Creed will definitely enjoy the Cistern and the Bazaar – no, the Masyaf Key is not in the Cistern, nor is Piri Reis’ shop in the Bazaar anymore 🙂 What I did like about the Cistern was that once you went down there, there was a little historical photography setup in a corner – you know, the kind where you quickly put on costumes and pretend you are a sultan or something else. If you go with your wife or girlfriend (please, not at the same time!), they will photograph the two of you as Sultan and Sultana, and also with a scimitar or some other regal paraphernelia. You can choose from the several photographs they shoot – they are 10 TL per print.
While being part of a tour group has its advantages, it also means that you have little time to wander off on your own for shopping or other things. Thankfully, our common itinerary had allocated some free time, and we could purchase a variety of Turkish delicacies from their famous baklava to their helva and lokum. Ask your guide for the best (hygiene and freshness) shops, particularly for lokum, and remember – cheap is not necessarily good! As far as baklava is concerned, Karaköy Güllüoğlu has been around since 1820 and is a recognised brand in Istanbul which you may want to try. By the way, many places you visit, especially on the tourist track, may offer you apple tea. While I hesitate to call apple tea un-Turkish, suffice it to say that it is even less Turkish than sangria is Spanish!
Turkey is also known for its dry fruits, so Ordu hazelnuts and Antep pistachios were on my list too. Tourists might also be interested in Turkish clothes and leather products. The stereotypical purchase from the Middle East would be a carpet or rug, but unless you know how to evaluate the product, stay away – rugs can be expensive and counterfeiting is not uncommon. Besides, unless you have it mailed to you, carrying it would be a nuisance.
It is always a good idea to delve a little into the local food, music, and activities to capture the pulse of a country. In Turkey, that involves various things like going to a teahouse, visiting a hamam, trying some Turkish coffee in a roadside cafe, having a meal at a kebapçı, catching a dance or whirling dervish show, or enjoying a narghile. Turkey has several kinds of dance such as the Halay, Karsilama, Hora, and Zeybek, though belly-dancing seems to have captured the foreigner’s imagination most. Some may find some of these activities offensive from their perspective, so go along with your own comfort level.
A point to note is that teahouses usually serve an entirely male clientele and women do not accompany their men as they drink copious amounts of tea and play backgammon. Narghile bars are also male-dominated but not exclusively male. Be aware of where you are so that you do not get into trouble or offend other patrons. Some of these activities are not uniquely Turkish but part of a larger Middle Eastern culture. It is also true that some activities have changed over time; for example, belly-dancing costumes have become more risqué in the last 70 years and audiences that were once exclusively women (other than in harems) have started including men.
Personally, I enjoyed the pleasant atmosphere around Taksim. Istiklal Street is a great place that stays open well into the night and has eateries, narghile bars, cafes, shopping, as well as nightclubs to dance way all those extra kebabs you ate! Karaköy is also a great place to while away an evening. Despite the crowds, Istanbul is a fairly clean city, and Turkey is a tidy country. This is not an observation one might normally make, except that my mind was fresh from a Chola Temple tour in India just two weeks earlier. As I sat people-watching and reliving my trip in one of the many open-air cafes, I was again struck by the diversity and plurality in Anatolian life – of food, music, physical appearance, and even the Mevlevi Order and Cappadocian Christianity that originated there, not to forget the significantly superior status of Ottoman Jews compared to contemporary Europe.
Could this tour have been done on one’s own? Of course. Tour operators do not have any secret information about Turkey or other places that we are not privy to. There are several reasons one might want to go with a tour company: 1. hesitation to go alone into an alien culture; 2. safety in numbers for senior citizens; 3. hassle to get visas if you do not live in a city with the appropriate consulate; 4. ease of travel – nothing to worry about in terms of lodging, transportation, or itinerary; and 5. discounts when booking aeroplane tickets and hotel rooms in bulk can be passed on to you.
Turkey’s transportation network is not online as much as some European cities have them – I could factor the train timings into planning for my Spain trip a month in advance while sitting in the United States – and that might be something you would have to be alert about while in Turkey by hitting the information bureau first thing every time you get to a new town. Also, while transportation is good to get from one city to another, Cappadocia, for example, is a region. You could either get to one of the cities there and take a local tour group or rent your own car and see the place, but getting around the nature sites in Cappadocia by public transport will require patience, perseverance, and a little research. I am told that some of the places further east are also more advisable by car or tour group.
And so, finally, it was time to fly back to Bombay. Few countries have made as much an impact on me as Turkey did, and I was sad to leave. There were many things we missed seeing and doing even along the route our itinerary took, but as any veteran traveller knows, rarely do you complete seeing a place. I shall be back, and the temptations of Bursa and Bodrum, Antalya and Sinop, Van and Şanlıurfa, and dozens of other places in between will have to wait until then.
İnşallah, en kısa sürede görüşürüz!
A few photographs from my flâneuring through western Turkey: