Memories of Istanbul

I wake suddenly at night to look at the alarms I have set on my two phones. One is set to India time, the other to local time.

The local time shows 4:45AM.

I do some quick math on the India time and deduce that it should be 5:45AM, given the time zone difference.

I am still not fully awake, and the dichotomy takes its time sinking in. I indulge a fuzzy idea that perhaps I am living two moments separated by an hour at the same time – can I live in my past as well as present? I realize that there must be a simpler explanation, and vigorously shake my head to welcome sanity in.

One perceived moment of dual existence does not seem startling here. In Turkey, hyphenated dualism exists everywhere – neolithic and recent republic history, Greek and Roman legends, glorious pasts of Christianity and Islam, even the geographic reality of being in Asia as well as Europe.

The simplest explanation is that the daylight savings has kicked in. I call the reception to confirm – yes, it is indeed so.

‘Wake up,’ I tell Sudha. ‘The day has just begun.

A view of the spice market. Click to see slideshow


Turkey has held a simmering fascination for me from childhood. My history books told me – In 1453 AD, the Osmani Turks conquered Constantinople, necessitating the search for a new sea route to the east. As an unforeseen consequence, Vasco Da Gama landed near Calicut, followed by India being enslaved by the British.

A few years later, I curbed my infantile jingoism and forgave the Turks for conquering Constantinople and setting the chain of events in motion. I realized there were more interesting stories about Turkish history than the one liner in my history books. I began piecing together some history from what I could read, and filled in gaps during the trip.

Most fascinating of all was Istanbul itself, citadel of Christianity and Islam at different times, now a symbol of secular Islam.

In the 4th century AD, Istanbul (then called Byzantium) became the capital of the Byzantine empire, which promoted Christianity through Asia. Its most famous emperor and founder was, of course, Constantine. Of all the controversial stuff I’ve read about the period, the item that stands out was the allegation that Constantine himself propagated Christianity more as a political tool to control his army than for religious sentiments. However, he also convened the first Ecumenical Council which acknowledged the divinity of Jesus, stopped prosecuting Christians and financially supported the church. As God makes man, man too makes God.

Much later, in the 15th century, Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman (or Osmani – the tribe of Osman) Turks, who were suzerains of much of the Islamic world for the next four centuries. At their peak, they ruled one of the largest empires in the world. Culture flourished, as administration evolved, primarily under two of their greatest Sultans, Salim and Suleiman.

I remember but fragments of the history I read about them (well, it’s been over 8 years since I read up on their empire!) but two stories stand out. One was how the Sultans, who decreed law, would check if their policies were popular. Every mosque held the Jumma namaz, which also had a small voluntary prayer at the end for the Sultan. Depending on how many people said the last prayer, spies would inform the Sultan about his popularity – a weekly poll, methinks!

The other story is macabre. One of the reasons attributed to the decline of the Turkish empire was the end of fratricide. Yes, the end of fratricide. In the earlier times, Sultans would happily terminate all opposition to the throne, and usually their reign would be unhindered till a favorite son grew up and suddenly decided to grab the throne. The son would then put to death all his male competitors, leaving him no threat for the next couple of decades till the pattern repeated itself. Towards the later times, Sultans got more benevolent, and started imprisoning their siblings rather than simply obliterating them. As suspected in the earlier times, this lead to court rebels sensing an opportunity to rid themselves of an unpopular Sultan; they revolted to make a sibling in prison the king instead. Having spent a large part of their lives deprived, in prison, the new Sultans promptly threw themselves into a life of indulgence, enabling neighbors to keep chipping away at the borders. This ended only with the final Sultan, by then almost a puppet, siding with the Axis in World War 1, losing the battle and Mustafa Kemel Pasha finally establishing the republic of Turkey.

(Note: this is not meant to be an accurate description of history. Go to Wikipedia for that. This is just ‘my’ version :D)

Geographically, the Bosphorus strait cleaves Istanbul into its Asian and European parts, finally ending in the Marmara sea (interesting side note: Marmara is the Turkish word for marble, maybe the root for Sanghemarmar, the Hindi word?) Our tour guide told us that today, the Asian part is primarily residential, and the European part is the business hub, but you really couldn’t make out any cultural differences between them. Three bridges span the Bosphorus strait connecting the two parts, and an underground tunnel is due for completion in 2015. Currently, ferries ply across as well, carrying cars and buses as a shortcut means to get to the other side.

Later in the day, we went down to see some of the more famous sights of Istanbul. The Blue mosque, called so because of the mosaic lining its interiors, was our first stop. It is still active, and there are regular prayers conducted there. ‘There aren’t too many practicing Muslims here,’ our tour guide grumbled. ‘People no longer understand Arabic, and hate memorizing prayers.

We walked down to the Hippodrome, once a vast ground for racing horses. At the centre of the Hippodrome stands a huge obelisk of Egyptian origin. It was originally a 55mm monolith in Egypt, that the Romans wanted to bring to Byzantium. As they had no means to carry so huge a pillar, they sliced the top 19m off, and shipped it to sit in the Hippodrome.

A little ahead lies the Hagia Sophia, another ancient church and mosque. The building started off as a church, with what is the world’s fourth largest dome. The pulpit was put behind a stained glass window pointed towards Jeruselam. Later in its life, after the Muslim conquest of Constantinople, it was converted to a mosque. As Islam prohibits having any images on the walls, the ancient murals were plastered over. Huge wooden discs covered with camel skin were put up and painted with the name of the Islamic prophets.

The dome itself has an interesting history. Being extremely heavy for its span, it reportedly caved in four times in the lifetime of the building. Each time, the entire building was filled with sand, support was created for the dome, and once it was built, the sand was let out.

The building was converted to a museum in republic Turkey. As part of the restoration, the plaster covering the murals was stripped off, leaving perhaps the only place int the world where you can see Mother Mary and Infant Jesus gazing down upon the Islamic prophet names – all comfortable in their common origin.

We even saw a of the pillars in the structure that were brought from the temple of Artemis, as if symbolizing a continuity of human faith in a power divine.

We later walked to the grand bazaar, the largest covered market in the world housing over 4000 shops and then to the spice market, briefly indulging in a smile at a charming rogue of a vendor, who cried out impishly as we walked by ‘Tell me what will you buy. How can I get your money?’

Six days ago, we had set out on our tour of Turkey with the cruise of Bosphorus. We sat by the same river as we had our lunch, just before we left, sealing an unforgettable experience.

More on Turkey below:

Or read all my travel posts here.


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