As Istanbul awakens
Take an early morning tour with R.J. DEVAN of a city that has been continuously lived in for 2,500 years.
BEFORE 9am, Ive come to learn, cities belong to their residents. After that, they belong to the tourists.
Those quiet hours between dawn and the closing of the breakfast buffets at the big hotels is when you see old women puttering home from the bakery with loaves of still-warm bread slung over their shoulders, when markets full of exotic-smelling fruits and vegetables seem to appear spontaneously in neighbourhood parks, when you hear garbage men singing from the backs of their garbage trucks.
In a day, when Ive adjusted to the jet lag between Kuala Lumpur and Istanbul, it will be murder to drag myself out of bed before 7am. But this morning, fresh off the plane, its too early to check into a hotel, and our guide insists on taking us on a half-day tour of the fabled city of Istanbul.
Istanbul, as every guidebook will tell you, is the only city in the world that straddles two continents. You will also read that Turkey is the only secular country in the Muslim world. Istanbul may have 2,000 mosques, the call to prayer may reverberate across the city five times a day, but there is no official state religion, and the younger generation is not beating a path to the mosques door. And Istanbul is a surprisingly young city: 60% of the population is under 24. Ask them if they consider themselves European or Asian, and the answer is so obvious theyll laugh. In the main pedestrianised shopping street at Istiklal, just 50m from the British consulate, young women gaze longingly at designer-shop windows.
For every headscarf there are a dozen miniskirts or hipsters. Western pop music blares out on to the street, and its said there are more McDonalds outlets in Istanbul than in Manhattan.
Istanbul may have hosted the Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) summit at the end of June, but the city is far prouder that it successfully staged the Eurovision Song Contest just six weeks earlier.
It is an exotic mix of old and new 40 minutes from the ultramodern Ataturk International Airport, you broach the old city walls, turn off up the hill to Sultanahmet district and you could be back in the 19th century. You can even still imagine the city where Thomas Dallam landed in 1599, bringing a wondrous organ as a gift from Elizabeth I to Sultan Mehmet III. Dallam came by ship along the Bosphorus, that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea, according to W.B. Yeats. You dont see any dolphins or hear any gongs, but the magic is still there.
Istanbul is the real eternal city, the oldest in the world. Athens and Rome were great classical centres, but for most of the Middle Ages they were little more than villages. Istanbul has been a great metropolis continuously for 2,500 years, which is why the Hagia Sophia the greatest church in Christendom for a thousand years, then a mosque, and now a museum is a living building while the Parthenon and the Colosseum are merely ruins.
After an hours drive from the airport, you step out of the bus and realise that youre standing on the track where chariots once clattered around the Hippodrome, the centre of Byzantine civic life back when the city was called Constantinople.
In front of you is a naked-looking obelisk of rough stone that was stripped of its bronze covering in the 13th century by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, who mistakenly thought it was gold.
In a few hours the Hippodrome will be bustling with tourists and their guides, tour buses and taxis and sleeve-tugging touts selling everything from headscarves and carpets to postcards and private guided tours. But now there are only a few taxi drivers sleeping in their cabs and several Islamic faithful returning to their homes and shops after morning prayers in the Blue Mosque.
You stroll over to the park between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and study the two magnificent buildings. Moustachioed men in baggy pants and embroidered vests are sweeping the sidewalks, and vendors are arriving with carts full of croissant-like pastries. Soon this spot will be infested with Istanbuls most tenacious carpet-shop hustlers, but at 9am nobody bothers you. From the park you can see how the Blue Mosque, and every other major mosque in Istanbul, was an attempt by the Ottoman Turks to surpass the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantinians' crowning masterpiece.
The largest enclosed space in the world for a millennium after it was completed in 537AD, the Hagia Sophia seems to glimmer ethereally in the early morning light. The Ottomans may have equalled the beauty of its exterior, but they could not match the genius and grace of its interior structure, could never figure out how to support such a gargantuan dome without clunky interior pillars. (The Byzantines, I learned from our guide, did it with 40 enormous ribs made with hollow bricks baked from special porous clay on the island of Rhodes.)
You turn down the street called Tava Hatun Sokak and stroll along the walls of Topkapi Palace, from which sultans once ruled the mighty Ottoman Empire and lived a life straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights.
Amid eunuchs and dwarfs, the sultans frolicked with gaggles of concubines in their harems and kept their princes locked in a gilded prison, lest they attempt to succeed their fathers via the sword.
Strolling around the maze of buildings that was the focus of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, it feels almost as though the occupants moved out only a few weeks ago, and it is easy to imagine the pervading scent of jasmine, frankincense, burning cloves and opium. The hard edges of the marble steps have been softened by centuries of brocade slippers. But the white and blue Iznik tiles are as bright as the day they were made.
For its inmates, the harem offered a life of almost unbelievable luxury and idleness, although often a dangerous one. But it is good to learn that the women of the harem were paid proper wages and could, on their retirement, live wealthy and independent lives, provided they hadnt previously been tied in weighted sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus.
The sons of the sultan also had an uncertain future in their golden cages. Mehmet III, it is said, murdered 19 of his brothers on his way to the throne.
Soon youre in front of the Sirkeci railway station it takes my travel-addled brain a moment to place this familiar name. Then the light bulb goes on: This was once the terminus of the Orient Express, where captains of industry, opera singers, spies and the crowned heads of Europe as well as the fictional Hercule Poirot once alighted from their grand carriages and drank in the sights of the mysterious East.
As you pass by, well-dressed office workers with their briefcases and folded newspapers spill out of commuter trains arriving from Istanbuls suburbs.
A few steps further, you reach the Golden Horn, where fishermen are selling shiny little fish from their bobbing boats.
You gaze across this history-soaked inlet and realise that you must be standing at the very spot where the Roman defenders of Constantinople stretched a massive chain across its opening in 1453 to try to prevent Turkish ships from sailing in and attacking their city.
And just across the Golden Horn you can see the low-lying hills of the Galata district, where the Turks transported their ships on wooden rollers in the dark of night. You can only imagine how the Byzantines felt when they awoke to find Mehmet the Conquerors navy inside their defences.
You turn right and walk a couple of blocks to Seraglio Point, and realise youve quite literally come to the end of Europe: half a mile away, on the other side of the Bosphorus, Asia begins.
You turn slowly and take in the 360° view: the hills of Istanbul, glittering with the domes and minarets of dozens of grand mosques; the freighters chugging through the Bosphorus on their way from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean; the palaces along the waterways banks; the ferries crossing from the Asian side of the city.
A detour brings us to the Imperial Suleymaniye Complex. As well as a functional mosque, the grounds host the mausoleum of Suleiman the Magnificent.
Housed in a hexagonal stone structure crowned with what appears to be an enormous turban, the coffin of Suleiman rests on a waist-high marble plinth, covered in fine, richly decorated silks.
A small placard at the foot of the coffin informs visitors that Suleiman was also known as the Lawgiver during his reign for his introduction of a sophisticated legal system. It is said that Henry VIII sent an envoy to Turkey to learn as much as possible about this code, and that on his return to England, many of Suleimans ideas were incorporated into Tudor law.
The mausoleum is clearly venerated by Turks as a site of great holiness. This morning, a cluster of men and women are gathered before the coffin, standing in respectful silence, their arms extended, palms turned towards heaven. They remained in this posture for several minutes before gently bowing to the coffin and filing out.
On the outside, one of the men I had seen paying his respects to Suleiman beckoned me over. He was a pale-skinned Turk, with reddish hair and light-brown eyes.
Come, come. Look here, He pointed to a small, bell-shaped stone above the entrance. It was pine green. This is sacred stone some say from paradise. You know paradise, yes?
Not as well as I would like, I thought, nodding in assent.
You from Pakistan? he inquired.
No, I said. Malaysia.
It is good that you come here. I come here often now, but when I was a young man it was all work and chasing girls. Now I am older I understand what is important and what is not. Please, can I help you with anything?
I told him that I was with a group and we had to head to our hotel, but thanked him anyway. He wished me well, Inshallah, and said he was sure I would learn much during my time in Turkey.
The writer's trip was organised by the Turkish Tourism and Culture Ministry, and Turkish Airlines. The carrier has daily flights from Singapore to Istanbul.
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