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At Least One Night in Istanbul

03 August, 2006

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A ship carrying tourists cruises through the glistening waters of Marmara Sea. Along the beach, scores of men and women, putting fishing rods into the sea, wait for their

luck. The reddish dying sun, amid a cool breeze, sets behind the Blue Mosque.

As traffic signal turns green on busy Vatan Jata Street (road), a crowd of people-men and women-returning from work and businesses walks fast to cross the road. Some of the women are attired in typical western dresses. There are women covering their faces and heads with headscarves or veil (Burqa). But they walk side by side.

While looking at the west-impressed women clad in short skirts and hip-hugging jeans, one may think he is in London, however, at the next glance on veiled women in black Burqas, he thinks he is wandering in a street of Murg Bazaar (chicken market) in Kabul.

But this is neither London nor Kabul. This is Istanbul, where the east and the west bump up. I was thinking about my “blind date” with Istanbul on a cosy Turkish Airlines flight on my way back to Pakistan from London. And my blind date did not disappoint me.

At least one night in Istanbul. This is one of the logos of Turkish airlines. And after seeing Istanbul, I vindicate that. One must spend at least one night in this beautiful city. Renowned historian Gibbon has included this city in one of the three “alive” cities of the world along with Baghdad and Gernata (Spain). 

Newsweek magazine has recently named Istanbul the "hippest (delighted) city of Europe", referring to it as the Turkish delight Istanbul is Turkey`s most populous city, and its cultural and economic center. It is located on the Bosphorus strait, and encompasses the natural harbor known as the Golden Horn (Turkish: Haliç), in the northwest of the country. Istanbul extends both on the European (Thrace) and on the Asian (Anatolia) side of the Bosphorus, and is thereby the only metropolis in the world which geographically is situated in two continents. Roughly 70% of Istanbulites live in the European section while remaining 30% in the Asian section.

The city, which had been the capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1453 to 1923, had many names in different eras, depending of the background of people such as language and religion. Byzantium, Constantinople and Stamboul were examples, which some are currently in active use, as depending on the culture.

In June and July, when Pakistan sizzles, Istanbul offers cool breeze to the visitors. Normally, the city is quite windy, having an average wind speed of 17 km/h (11 mph).

Summer is by far the driest season, although there is no real summer drought such as occurs  further west, and so the climate cannot be considered truly Mediterranean.

European side of Istanbul is separated by the Golden Horn from the northern part and by the Theodosian wall. North of the Golden Horn is surrounded by a chain of scores of defunct villages along the bank of Bosphorus.

Cultural activities, tourism and commerce are the identification of Istanbul.  Turkish people in general are tourist friendly. A tourist finds this famous saying “ Yare Mun Turkey wa mun Turkey nami danum” (The language of my friend is Turkish, however I can’t speak Turkish” in Istanbul, and rest of Turkey as most of the Turkish people are not familiar with English or any other language.

A new comer in Istanbul will find this city equally costly in line with other European cities. However, an old wanderer can manage the expenses. Unlike European cities, there is a little trend of fixed prices in shops and markets.

One has to be familiar with the phenomenon of bargain if he wants to save the money. The shopkeepers, especially sitting in the main bazaars of Aksaray, and Grand Bazaar start the price by multiplying it to 2. Grand Bazaar is the biggest shopping center of Istanbul. A tourist comes to Istanbul, and does not go Grand Bazaar, it is simply impossible. The bazaar comprises over 3,000 big and small shops, where one can find things ranging from needle to airplane.

The city has a well-managed underground train system, which saves tourists from the wrath of taxi drivers. Daily life in Istanbul is colorful and vibrant and continues side by side with many carefully protected Roman, Byzantine and Turkish monuments. Istanbul is often considered the capital of Turkey in terms of commerce, entertainment, culture, education, shopping, tourism and art. More than half of the population lives and works on the European side. The large number of people living in the residential areas on the Anatolian side use bridges and ferries to commute to work in a city that has been the most popular stop for voyagers throughout history.

The urban landscape is constantly changing. Traditionally Ottoman buildings were built of wood, however, in the last few decades, numerous tall structures were built around the city to accommodate a rapid growth in population.

The urban landscape of Istanbul is shaped by many communities. Important religious minorities include Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, and Sephardic Jews. In Istanbul small boroughs are inhabited by ethnic Armenians, Jews and Greeks.

In some quarters, such as Kuzguncuk, an Armenian Church sits next to a synagogue, and on the other side of the road a Greek-Orthodox church is found beside a mosque.

The seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church is in Istanbul. Also based here are, the archbishop of the Turkish-Orthodox community, an Armenian archbishop and the Turkish Grand-Rabbi.

The Sephardic Jews have lived in the city for over 500 years. They fled in 1492 from the Iberian peninsula, when they were forced to convert to Christianity after the fall of the Moorish Kingdom of Andalucia. Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512) sent a sizable fleet to Spain in order to save the Sephardic Jews. More than 200,000 fled first to Tangier, Algiers, Genova and Marseille, later to Salonica and finally to Istanbul.

The Sultan granted over 93,000 of these Spanish Jews to take refuge in the Ottoman Empire. More than 20,000 Sephardic Jews still reside in Istanbul. There are around 20 synagogues in the city, of which the most famous is Neve Shalom Synagogue inaugurated in 1951r. The Turkish Grand Rabbi in Istanbul (currently Ishak Haleva) presides over the community affairs.

Istanbul has been a cultural and ethnic melting pot. As a result, there are many historical mosques, churches, synagogues, and palaces to visit  like Anadolu Hisari

(Fortress of Anatolia) , Anadoluhisar Museum , Arap Mosque, Beylerbeyi Palace, Bulgarian St Stephen Church (also known as "Bulgarian Iron Church"), Tekfur Palace (One of the two still existing Byzantine palaces in Istanbul),  Fatih Mosque, Fethiye Museum, Pammakaristos Church, Hagia Irene (Aya Irini), Hippodrome of onstantinople, Imrahor Monument, Istanbul Modern Art Museum, Kadirga Sokullu Cami , Kalenderhane , Kilic Ali Pasha Mosque, Little Hagia Sophia Museum (Ss. Sergius and Bacchus Church) , Istanbul Archaeology Museum Aydinlatma ve Isitma Araçlari Müzesi (Museum of "ancient" Illumination & Heating Appliances) , Ortaköy Mosque, Rahmi M Koç Museum ,Rumelihisar Museum , Rüstem Pasha Mosque , Sultan Ahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Lal-e-Ali Mosque, and  Yedikulehisar Museum. 

Though, all the above-mentioned places are worth visiting, however a tourist who has a few days to spend in Istanbul should focus on Sultan Ahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque, Sultan Mehmed Fatih ( Sultan Mohammed Fatih the second)  Mosque, Hagia Sophia Museum (Ayasofya Museum), Hippodrome of Constantinople, Lal-e-Ali Mosque, Grand Bazaar, and Aksaraya.

The Fatih Mosque Complex extends along the Golden Horn side of Fevzipasa Street in Fatih. Fatih Sultan Mehmed, the conqueror of Istanbul had the complex constructed by the architect, Atik Sinan, in years 1463-1470. It was the largest example of Turkish-Islamic architecture to that date and represented an important stage in the development of classic Turkish architecture.

The complex includes a set of well-planned buildings constructed around the mosque. The original mosque at the center of the complex no longer stands today, Fatih Mosque, which now exists, was built near the end of the 18th century. The original mosque had been badly damaged in the 1509 earthquake, and  was repaired in the later years. The mosque had  been damaged again by earthquakes in 1557 and 1754 and was repaired yet again.

The present day mosque was designed by the architect, Mimar Mehmet Tahir. Fatih Mosque was constructed in the classic mosque style, but the Baroque influence can be seen on decorations. A large dome 26 meters in diameter is supported by four half-domes and rests upon four large marble columns. There are two minarets each with twin galleries. The calligraphy within the mosque exhibits a Baroque influence. The other important elements of the complex are theme dresses. Situated on both sides of the mosque,they were foundation of Istanbul`s universities and ensured the city`s place as a center of education.

On the kiblah (Mecca) side of the mosque, connected to it, stands a library and a madrassah, which Were built in 1724. The library is domed and one of its doors opens onto the street, while the two other open onto the inner courtyard of the mosque. The library is presently undergoing repairs, and the books are under protection at the Suleymaniye Library. On the kiblah side of the complex are tombs of Fatih Sultan Mehmed (the Conqueror), his wife, Gulbahar Hatun, and Sultan Mahmud II`s mother, Naksidi Sultan. Other than the tombs, a large number of graves belonging to leading state officials can be found in the enclosed cemetery.

The Hippodrome of Constantinople is one of mostly -visited places in Istanbul. Originally, it was a horse-racing track that was the sporting and social center of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and the largest city in Europe. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydani in Istanbul, with only a few fragments of  the original structure surviving.

The word hippodrome comes from the Greek word hippos (horse) and dromos ( path or Way). Horse racing and chariot racing were popular pastimes in the ancient world and hippodromes were common features of Greek cities in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.

Although the Hippodrome is usually associated with Constantinople`s days of glory as an imperial capital, it actually predates that era. The first Hippodrome was built when the city was called Byzantium or Byzantion in Greek, and was a provincial town of moderate importance.

In 203 AD, the Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the city and expanded its walls, endowing it with a hippodrome, an arena for chariot races and other entertainment.

In 324, the Emperor Constantine decided to move the seat of the government from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Nova Roma (New Rome). This name failed to impress and the city soon became known as Constantinople, the City of Constantine. Constantine greatly enlarged the city, and one of his major undertakings was the renovation of the Hippodrome.

The race-track at the Hippodrome was U-shaped, and the Emperor`s box, with four bronze statues of horses on its roof, was located at the eastern end of the track. These horses, whose exact Greek or Roman ancestry has never been determined, were looted during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and installed on the façade of St Mark`s Basilica in Venice. The track was lined with other bronze statues of famous horses and chariot drivers, none of which survive.

When you are in Rome, you must go to the fountain of fortune (Trivi), and when you are in Istanbul, you must not forget to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which in Turkish is pronounced as Sultanahmet Camii, and in English commonly called the Blue Mosque. This mosque is regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of Islamic architecture The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 on the order of Sultan Ahmed-I, after whom it is named. He is buried in the mosque`s precincts. It is located in the oldest part of Istanbul, in what was before 1453 the center of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. It is next to the site of the ancient Hippodrome, and a short distance from the great Christian Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia).

It is within walking distance of the Topkapi Palace, residence of the Ottoman Sultans until 1853 and only a short distance from the shore of the Bosphorus. Seen from the sea, its domes and minarets dominate the skyline of the old part of the city, as was its builders` intention.

The mosque was deliberately sited to face Hagia Sophia, to demonstrate that Ottoman and Islamic Architects.

The mosque became known in the west as the Blue Mosque because of the predominantly blue colouring of paint work of the interior. However this blue paint was not part of the mosque`s original decor so it is being removed. Today the interior of the mosque does not strike the visitor as being particularly blue.

The architect of the Sultan Ahmed, Sedefhar Mehmet Aga, was given a mandate to spare no expense in creating the most magnificent and beautiful place of Islamic worship in the world. The basic structure of the mosque is almost a cube measuring 53 by 51 meter . As is the case with all mosques, the cube is aligned so that when worshippers perform prayers, they are facing Makkah with mihrab (prayer niche) in front of them.

The cube is topped by an ascending system of domes and semi-domes, culminating in the central dome, which is 33 meter in diameter and 43 meter high at its central point. The overall effect is one of perfect visual harmony, leading the eye up to the peak of the dome.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the only mosque in Turkey that has six minarets. When the number of minarets was revealed, the Sultan was criticised for presumption, since this was, at the time, the same number as at the mosque of the Ka`aba in Mecca. He overcame this problem by paying for a seventh minaret at the Mecca mosque.

At its lower levels the interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, made at Iznik (the ancient Nicaea). Its upper levels are painted. More than 200 stained glass windows with intricate designs admit natural light, today assisted by chandeliers. The decoration include verses from the Quran, many of them made by Seyyid Kasim Gubari, regarded as the greatest calligrapher of his time. The floors are covered with carpets, which are donated by the faithful and are regularly replaced as they become worn.

The most important element in the interior of the mosque is the mihrab, which is made of finely carved and sculptured marble, the adjacent walls sheathed in ceramic tiles.

To the right of the mihrab is the mimber, or pulpit, where the Imam stands when he is delivering his sermon at the time of noon prayer on Fridays or on holy days. The mosque has been designed so that even when it is at its most crowded, everyone in the mosque can see and hear the Imam. Each of the minarets has three balconies, and until recently the muezzin or prayer-caller had to climb a narrow spiral staircase five times a day to announce the call to prayer. Today a public address system is used, and the call can be heard across the old part of the city, echoed by other mosques in the vicinity. Large crowds of both Turks and tourists gather at sunset in the park facing the mosque to hear the call to evening prayers, as the sun sets and the mosque is brilliantly illuminated by coloured floodlights.

A tourist has to pay 10 Turkish Lira for entry to Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), now known as the Ayasofya Museum. One may be hesitant to pay 10 Lira (Rs 500) as entry fee, but as soon as he enters the museum, he forgets about that. The structure of the museum  simply stuns the visitors.

It, is actually a former Eastern Orthodox church converted to a mosque in 1453, and converted into a museum in 193. It is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest buildings of the world  and sometimes considered the Eighth Wonder of the World. Its conquest by the Ottomans at the fall of Constantinople is considered one of the great tragedies of Christendom by the Greek Orthodox faithful.

The name comes from the Greek name ???a  a contraction of Church of the Holy Wisdom of God. It is also known as Sancta Sophia in Latin and Ayasofya in Turkey.

Hagia Sophia is covered by a central dome with a diameter of 31 meters (102 feet) and 56 meters high. The dome seems rendered weightless by the unbroken arcade of arched windows under it, which help flood the colourful interior with light.

The dome is carried on pendentives — four concave triangular sections of masonry which solve the problem of setting the circular base of a dome on a rectangular base. At Hagia Sophia,  the weight of the dome passes through the pendentives to four massive piers at the corners. Between them the dome seems to float upon four great arches.

At the western (entrance) and eastern (liturgical) ends, the arched openings are extended by half domes carried on smaller semidomed exedras. Thus a hierarchy of dome-headed elements builds up to create a vast oblong interior crowned by the main dome, a sequence unexampled in antiquity.

All interior surfaces are sheathed with polychrome marbles, green and white with purple porphyry and gold mosaics, encrusted upon the brick. On the exterior, simple stuccoed walls reveal the clarity of massed vaults and domes.Nothing remains of the first church that was built on the same site during the 4th century. Following the destruction of the first church, a second was built by Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great, but was burnt down during the Nika riots of 532. The building was rebuilt under the personal supervision of emperor Justinian-I and rededicated on December 27, 537 AD Justinian chose Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, a physicist and a mathematician, as architects; Anthemius, however, died within a year. Hagia Sophia is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. Of great artistic value was its decorated interior with mosaics and marble pillars and coverings. The temple itself was so richly and artistically decorated that Justinian proclaimed "Solomon, I have surpassed thee!". Justinian himself had overseen the completion of the greatest cathedral ever built up to that time, and it was to remain the largest cathedral for 1,000 years up until the completion of the cathedral in Seville.

The dome of the Hagia Sophia has spurred particular interest for many art historians and architects because of the innovative way the original architects envisioned the dome. The dome is supported by pendentives, which had never been used before the building of this structure. The pendentive enables the round dome to transition gracefully into the square shape of the piers below. The pendentives not only achieve a pleasing aesthetic quality, but they also restrain the lateral forces of the dome and allow the weight of the dome to flow downward.Although this design stabilizes the dome and the surrounding walls and arches, the actual construction of the walls of the Hagia Sophia weakened the overall structure. The bricklayers used more mortar than brick, which, of course, constitutes a weak wall. The structure would have been more stable had the builders at least let the mortar dry before they began the next layer, however, they did not do this. When the dome was placed atop the building, the weight of the dome caused the walls to lean outward because of the wet mortar underneath. When Isidorus the Younger rebuilt the original dome, he had to first build up the interior of the walls so that they were vertical in order to support the weight of the new dome. Another probable change in the design of the dome when it was rebuilt was the actual height of the dome. Isidorus the Younger raised the height of the dome by approximately twenty feet so that the lateral forces would not be as strong and the weight of the dome would flow more easily down the walls.

Another interesting fact about the original structure of the dome was how the architects were able to place forty windows around the base of the dome. The Hagia Sophia is famous for the mystical quality of light that reflects everywhere in the interior of the nave, which gives the dome the appearance of hovering above the nave. This design is possible because the dome is shaped like a scalloped shell or the inside of an umbrella with ribs that extend from the top of the dome down to the base. These ribs allow the weight of the dome to flow between the windows, down the pendentives, and ultimately to the foundation.

Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies. It was converted to a mosque after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. In 1935, on the order of Turkish president Kemal Atatürk, Hagia Sophia was secularized and turned into the Ayasofya Museum.

For almost 500 years the principal mosque of Istanbul, Ayasofya served as model for many of the Ottoman mosques such as the Shehzade Mosque, the Suleiman Mosque, and the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. The most famous and most extensive work was done by Mimar Sinan in the 16th century as structural supports were added to the exterior of the building, the old minarets were demolished, the minarets were added which can be seen today, as well as much of the Islamic pulpits and art.

However, the 19th century restoration of the Fossati brothers, who also built a pulpit (minbar) and the four circular medallions hanging on the walls of the nave that bear the names of Muhammad and the first caliphs, is widely deemed to have destroyed much of the original mosaics A Pakistani tourist like me was stunned to see a handsome clean-shaven young Turkish boy clad in jeans and T-shirt teaching Quran to the Turkish children, instead of a bearded traditional Maulvi Sahib in a corner of Lal-e-Ali Mosque. Pakistanis  generally attract Turks. When the clean-shaved Maulvi Sahib came to know that his listener is a Pakistan, he hugged me tightly and threw a loud Marhaba Wasalam towards me.

Lal-e-Ali Mosque, located just a kilometer away from Grand Bazaar is another fine example of traditional ottoman architect. However, it needs to be repaired as the outer look of the mosque does not attract the tourists at the first glance. 

The most popular places outside the city are the Marmara Sea`s Prince`s Islands, Silivri, Tuzla, Kilyos and Sile.

The Prince`s Islands (Prens Adalari) are a group of islands in the Marmara sea, south of the quarters Kartal and Pendik. Pine and stone-pine wooden art nouveau-style summer mansions from the turn of the twentieth century, horse-drawn carriages (motor vehicles are not permitted) and fish restaurants make them a popular trip destination.

They can be reached by ferry boats and high-speed ferries from Eminönü and Kartal. Sile is a distant and well-known Turkish seaside resort on the bank of Black Sea, some 50 kilometers off Istanbul. Kilyos is a small calm seaside resort not far from the northern European entrance of the Bosphorus at the Black Sea. The place has good swimming possibilities and has became popular in the last years among the inhabitants of Istanbul as a place for excursions.

Istanbul has always been the center of the country`s economic life because of its location at an international junction of land and sea trade routes. The economy of Istanbul stands solidly on two columns: nationally it dominates trade and it also has international significance. Istanbul employs 20% of Turkey`s industrial labour and contributes 38% of Turkey`s industrial workspace.

The city generates 55% of Turkey`s trade and 45% of the country`s wholesale trade, and Istanbul generates 21.2% of Turkey`s gross national product. Istanbul contributes  40% of all taxes collected in Turkey and produces 27.5% of Turkey`s national product.

The economy in Istanbul has improved in recent years. The gross domestic product (GDP) grew by an average of 5% a year, since 1980. One of the most important industries is tourism: there are a large number of hotels in Istanbul catering to tourists and visiting professionals.

According to the 2000 Census, the population is 8,803,468 (city proper) and 10,018,735 (province), making it, by some counts, one of the largest cities in Europe. The city has hot and humid summers with cold, rainy and often snowy winters. Yearly precipitation for Istanbul averages 870 mm. Humidity is often rather high which can make temperatures feel much warmer or colder than they actually are. The average maximum temperature during the winter months varies between 7°C (46° F) and 10°C (51° F). Snowfall is common and can occasionally be heavy. It is most likely to occur between the months of December and March. The summer months of June through September bring average daytime temperatures of 28 °C (82 °F).

The warmest month is July with on the average 23.2 degrees Celsius, coldest January with 5.4 degrees Celsius on the average. The highest recorded temperature in Istanbul is 40.5 °C (105 °F) (August 2000), with the lowest being –16.1 °C (3 °F) (February 1927). The weather becomes Slightly cooler as one moves toward eastern Istanbul.

 


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