Istanbul, Straddling Two Continents (2007)

Istanbul, Straddling Two Continents (2007)

The plane tilts alarmingly to the side preparatory to landing at Ataturk International Airport.  I gasp at the twinkling lights of Istanbul as they seem to rush towards me. The Bosphorus is ablaze with a zillion lights shimmering through a miasma – probably of suspended particulate matter and bunker fuel fumes.  After all, is this not the world’s second most choked waterway after Straits of Malacca?  But for the Straits of Bosphorus and its twin, Straits of Dardenelles, Russian and Caspian oil would have to circumnavigate half the globe to reach markets.  Now it is just a short haul from Novorossisk terminal to the Mediterranean.  Every year, 50,000 tankers pass through the straits carrying barrels of crude oil and other merchandise, making this one of the busiest sea lanes in the world.

Blue Mosque

The aerial view is stunning. Three seas – Black Sea, Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean –two straits – Bosphorus and Dardanelles –  and three illuminated bridges spanning the Golden Horn watched over by Topkapi Palace – make for such a dazzling combination that even smog takes on the seductive appearance of a veil that reveals more than it conceals.  Between the Bosphorous and the Sea of Marmara lies the enormous star-studded expanse that is Istanbul city. A dozen odd illuminated domes and their pencil-like minarets rise skywards as if challenging me to spot their crown jewel, the unrivalled Aya Sofia. All of them look equally grand and imposing and finally I give up trying to locate the queen among a bevy of bejewelled beauties.  .

The Straits That Divide

Bosphorus’s claim to fame extends beyond its transit route status though.  The 30 km long Straits divide Istanbul and indeed Turkey itself into two halves straddling two continents – Europe and Asia. The division is not merely geographical anymore, but has come to haunt the very psyche of the Turkish nation, its identity and its polity.  Turkey is undergoing an identity crisis that tugs at the very fabric of its society. On the one hand Turkey has been eagerly awaiting its admission into the enlarged European Union, on the other, there are forces at home that seem intent on emphasizing the country’s Islamic and Asian identity.

Headscarves are the most hotly debated issue in today’s Turkey and their significance goes beyond symbolism. Turks recently forced the withdrawal of a Presidential candidate whose wife sports a headscarf. The protesters drew support from the country’s ‘secular’ army which in the last half a century, has intervened four times to dismiss democratically elected governments. At this moment in its chequered history, Turkey is struggling to reconcile its democracy with secularism, a delicate balancing act that a much larger and more diverse India seems to have successfully accomplished with consummate deftness nearly six decades ago.


 The taxi ride to my hotel in Sultanahmet in downtown Istanbul offers me a worm’s eye view of the same illuminated monuments silhouetted against a dark blue horizon. I am still none the wiser since my taxi driver speaks no English. I check into a family-run hotel in Sultanahmet which I had booked through the internet. The surly chain-smoking manager is taciturn and unhelpful and merely nods vaguely when I ask him for directions to Aya Sofia. It is past ten, but I have been advised not to miss the sight of Aya Sofia by night. So I hurry outside into the chilly Turkish night and pick my way through the cobbled streets.  As soon as I turn the corner, just a few steps from my hotel, I am stunned into awe by a discreetly lit monument looming ahead.

Hagia Sophia

Aya Sofia – also known as Hagia Sophia or Sancta Sophia (Church of Divine Wisdom) is Istanbul’s pride and joy and quite deservedly so. It is often referred to as one of the greatest and most beautiful buildings in the world. Built by Emperor Justinian nearly 1500 years ago, this church-turned mosque turned museum stands at the same site where Byzantium’s Acropolis once stood.  Justinian’s church was completed in 532 AD and reigned as the greatest church in Christendom. It was the seat of imperial ceremonies of the Byzantine empire in days when Istanbul was known as Constantinople. Sultan Mehmet who conquered Turkey in 1453 turned it into a mosque. Mercifully, the conversion stopped short of interfering with its original structural harmony. In 1935, Kamal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic declared the monument a museum. Islamic calligraphy, emblazoned on four massive discs hangs suspended from the walls, a distinctly later addition. But it seems ill at ease in a predominantly Christian structure dominated by Roman mosaics.

Aya Sofia’s dome is grand and gorgeous. When Justinian first entered the completed church, he exclaimed, “Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon, I have outdone you”. You have to tilt your head at a complete 180 degree angle to be able to admire the elegant arches, intricate lattices and fading mosaics that seem to float somewhere so far out above at 55 meters. This dome just soars above you without any visible support. Forty concealed ribs made of special porous clay bricks brought from Rhodes support this magnificent arch. But over the years, earthquakes have brought down the dome more than once and both Byzantine and Ottoman emperors have had to rebuild the dome, the buttresses, ribs and other support systems several times. In fact, these days, the interior of Aya Sofia wears a perpetual scaffolding that covers a quarter of the dome and runs all the way from the roof to the floor. I ask the attendant how long this scaffolding will stay.  He says it has been there for over 11 years and no one knows when the work will be completed.

Glitter crowns grandeur at Aya Sofia. The latter comes from the numerous lovely golden mosaics dating back from 400 AD adorning its walls and naves. Figures of St.John of Chrysostom, St.Ignatius Theodorus of Antioch, Virgin Mary, John, the Baptist, St.Ignatius, the Younger and Madonna and Child look down upon us with benign and beatific countenance. Some of them, of course, are obscured from view by the scaffolding.


 The other jewel of Istanbul of course, is the Topkapi Palace. Built by Sultan Mehmet in 1453, this palace served as the home of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years and has witnessed its fair share of palace intrigues and conspiracies. At its zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman empire extended over three continents and included apart from Turkey, parts of Europe, North Africa, Middle East, the Caspian and Persian Gulf. It included Sudan, Yemen, Austria and Slovenia. From 1840 onwards, Turkish royals preferred the more European Dolmabahce palace to which the royal residence moved.

Entering the Topkapi is hugely expensive. Besides, one may have queue up for hours to procure a ticket, especially if you’re an individual traveller like me. Once inside, you’re treated to a parade of the most luxurious pavilions, audience chambers, courtyards, and gardens. The royal kitchen has 12,000 exhibits of lovely porcelain and china dishes. The treasury houses some exquisite objects of the Ottoman empire.  The Harem which is open to visitors for an additional extortionate fee is a huge let down. Except a couple of rooms with lovely stained glass windows and a bathroom with extravagant fittings, the Harem is disappointing. I head towards the open air pavilion overlooking the dreamy, misty Golden Horn with its incredible views.

Galata Bridge is the soul of the Golden Horn. It links the affluent northern suburbs with the bustling bazaars of the old town. Beygolu and Cihangir of which Orhan Pamuk writes with such nostalgia are at the northern end of Galata Bridge. But the bridge seems to have a life of its own.

Anglers – most seem to be office-goers on their way back home – crowd the pavements that run the entire length of the bridge, patiently waiting for their day’s catch even as trams, buses and taxis swish past them. Fishing tackle and bait are available for hire on the spot and the catch is plentiful. “These fish are doped with toxins from the ferry traffic and don’t offer much resistance” one angler tells me with a wink. At the mezzanine level of the bridge, kebabwalas and dhabas do brisk business and the place is redolent of coal smoke and singing meat. Further below, boats take off in all directions.

Crossing Over to Asia

Boats are the most-favoured transport system in Istanbul. I board a passenger ferry from Eminonu Iskelesi to take me to Uskudar in the Asian continent. The boat is packed with commuters – mostly office-goers returning to their homes on the Asian shore of Istanbul. The journey is dreamy and unlike any I have ever experienced. The shores on both sides are spangled with fairly lamps and at this hour, the Golden Horn is replete with traffic.  I am baffled by a city that is riven between two continents and linked only by ferryboats. The very concept seems incredible to me. Yet, Istanbullus take it in their stride. What if there is some accident in the Golden Horn or the Bosphorus and ferry services come to a halt, even if only for a few hours? What if there is a storm that disrupts services? How do these people reach home in such a situation? I could contain my curiosity no longer and start a conversation with a fellow commuter. He confirms that the Bosphorus is notorious for accidents and ferry services have been disrupted several times, a fact that Pamuk also mentions in his book.

I needn’t have worried. There is after all a bridge that does connect the two continents. Built in 1973, it is a gravity-anchored suspension bridge and is simply called the Bosphorus Bridge. It connects the northern shores of the Golden Horn with the Asian part. It is 1.5 km long and has a clearance of 64 meters from sea level, high enough for oil tankers to pass underneath. It comes into view as we near Uskudar. Bosphorus’s sole bridge looks more like tangled spaghetti than a lifeline between two continents.

The Asian shore is buzzing with activity. Street vendors with their carts piled high with food and fruits do brisk business. The sound of Azaan wafts from a mosque across the ferry terminal. There are many women about, some with headscarves and many without. For the moment, headscarves are certainly a matter of personal choice. How long will it remain so is the million-lira question.

Lost in Translation

I turn back lest it gets too late and I get stranded in Asia. But instead of boarding the  ferry bound for old Istanbul where my hotel is situated, I seem to have landed myself in another ferry which merrily chugs away from the by now familiar domes of Aya Sofia. And unlike the earlier boat that brought me here, this one seems virtually empty. I panic and wonder whether it is going to sail all the way to Russia/ Ukraine/Bulgaria/Greece or whatever other country that fringes the Black Sea. I rush to the captain’s wheel to find a lone deckhand to whom I gesture wildly, pointing to the receding domes of Aya Sofia.  I keep repeating ‘Eminonu”, thanking my stars for remembering my destination. He nods his head vigorously and mutters something like ‘Beskitas’. After a few minutes of this futile mime, I give up and settle down resignedly on a bench, idly watching the thinning lights ashore and ruing my folly in venturing out into the unknown. After about half an hour of this agony, the boat pulls at Beskitas terminal on the far corner of the northern shore. After wandering around a bit, I spot the tram track and follow it until I find the tram stop.  Soon I am on a tram that takes me back to Sultanahmet past the railway station where the Orient Express has just pulled into.

The next day, I board a tram and head for Pamuk’s Beyoglu, the original European sector. It drops me at the very modern funicular station. After a short haul on the metro, I find myself in Taksim Square, the  place where Istanbullus like to congregate whenever they want to demonstrate or celebrate. Turkey’s Republican movement started here and since then, the city has witnessed many an impressive gathering here.  The latest of course, was the protest by a ‘secular’ citizenry that opposed Abdullah Gul’s nomination for the country’s presidency.

However, on the day I visit Taksim, the square looks deserted except for a few tourists and some vendors hawking nuts etc. I walk down Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s fashionable highstreet and am surprised to find the French embassy jutting out into the street without the huge walls, barricades and spikes behind which an overly security-obsessed diplomatic community barricades itself in Delhi.  Nor are there any securitymen to shoo me off when I climb the steps of its portico to get a better angle for my shot of Istiklal Caddesi.

In the evening, I stroll to the Blue Mosque which looks like a newer version of Aya Sofia from a distance and has no blue colour on the outside. A closer examination reveals that there are significant differences between the two structures.   The name comes from the 20,000 blue Iznik tiles that adorn its interiors.  Built by Sultan Ahmed, the Blue Mosque has six slender minarets and is perfectly proportioned. Unlike Aya Sofia, it is a living mosque where prayers are held five times a day. While architect Mehmet Aga originally planned a worthy rival to the mighty Aya Sofia, he failed to come up with a design that would match the elegance and engineering perfection of the latter.  Instead of an unsupported dome like that of Aya Sofia, he had to build four massive columns to hold up the dome of the Blue Mosque. The interior of the mosque is stunningly beautiful. Harmoniously aligned stained-glass windows flood the interiors with natural daylight which highlights the lovely patterns on the roof and the arches. Verses from Quran have been inscribed in Arabic calligraphy. One is mesmerized by its sheer harmony and elegance.

The Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern and other sights are all within walking distance of Aya Sofia in the old town.  I make my way to the fabled bazaar to experience the sights and smells of this quintessentially oriental institution. Although it is called the ‘spice bazar’ one has to really search for the spice stalls now. It is unabashedly touristy and kitschy and even tourists avoid it now. I buy myself a Turkish treat – a box of baklavas and a cone of chewy sugar candy stuffed with walnuts and head back to Galata Bridge which is where life ‘happens’ in Istanbul. (eom)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *