You are the th visitor here since 7 April 1996 ! Welcome !
Istanbul is a large city of 12 million people. My first impression was one of disgust, as I was overwhelmed by the seemingly endless traffic jams and the crowdedness of the city. What made me felt worse was my fatigue after a long overnight journey from Sofia, and the events on the Bulgarian border, which depressed me. An Afghan businessman (ethnic Uzbek, he said) who had been a fellow traveller on the same bus from Sofia urged me to follow him to a "good and cheap hotel, and where you can find some food too". Tired and hungry, I decided to follow him. It was already quite a journey carrying my heavy backpack from the metro station to the Midi Hotel ( - cheap ? At US$15 per night, it wasn't exactly very cheap in a city where you can find even cheaper and better hotels at US$7 to US$10. He probably brought me there so that he could get some commission...What really irritated me was that the shower that wasn't working, and this was bad news for a drained out person like me who's not prepared to look for another hotel) in the Aksaray district. Thank God that Istanbul had just completed the metro. Otherwise I can't imagine taking the bus from the new bus terminal (surprisingly modern, with electronic schedules and public announcement systems, not unlike an international airport) to the city central of this huge city.
It wasn't long before I soon noticed the numerous shopping tourists in Istanbul. Busloads of Eastern Europeans ( - mainly Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbians, Macedonians, Ukrainians & Russians) arrive here everyday, to do nothing but shopping. They buy cheap consumer products and electronic goods here and sell them back home. They are everywhere and are creating a boom in the Turkish retailing businesses. And some of the women that come are known as "Natashas" - they shop in the daytime, and become prostitutes at night. So prevalent they are that Turkish housewives staged demonstrations last year, complaining that their families were falling apart because of these Natashas.
"Constantinople is an Empire of itself. It is the real keystone of power ; for he who possesses it may rule the world."
Napoleon, quoted by Count de les Cases, 1824
"Essentially the great question remains : who will hold Constantinople ?"
Napoleon, Letter to the Marquis de Caulaincourt, 1808
It wasn't long before I soon fell in love with this city and the beautiful Bosphorus. Once known as Byzantium and Constantinople, Istanbul was first settled about 1000 B.C. and its strategic location on the Bosphorus soon turned the settlement into an important trading centre. In 330 A.D., the Roman Emperor declared the city the Roman capital and renamed it after himself - Constantinople. The Byzantines, or the Eastern Roman Empire, embellished this great city with grand palaces and cathedrals, the grandest of which was Hagia Sophia.
The Byzantines ruled till 1204 when the armies of the 4th Crusade sacked the city (another example of hypocrisy and treachery in history) and set up the Latin Empire, kind of a puppet state of the Venetians. The Byzantines were back again in 1261 but they were definitely out of the Mediterranean regional politics by then. The Ottomans bypassed Constantinople and went on to capture most of the Balkans. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks under Mehmet II conquered the city and made it his capital - Istanbul.
Istanbul soon turned into an important world capital. Under the reign of Sulaiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the Ottoman Empire reached its peak - its borders spread from the gates of Vienna in the west, Yemen in the south, and the frontiers of Persia in the East. But the comfortable life soon brought decline to the Empire. The empire began to shrink slowly and the First World War dealt the final blow to the Ottomans - the empire was torn apart by the Western Powers, and Republic was declared by Ataturk ("Father of modern Turkey") in 1923, spelling the end of 500 years of the Ottoman Empire. The capital of the new Turkish Republic was shifted to Ankara, then a small provincial town close to the heart of the Anatolian plateau. However, Istanbul continues to be the economic capital of Turkey and today, the country's prime tourist attraction as well.
Any sightseeing routine in Istanbul must begin with Sultanahmet Square - this is the heart of old Istanbul. From here (with its numerous budget hotels & travel agencies), one is surrounded by the city's greatest attractions - Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, Tokapi Palace, etc.
"It is the rustiest old barn in heathendom."
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869
Hagia Sofia - known as Ayasofya in Turkish. This was Eastern Orthodoxy's greatest monument and religious centre until its conversion into a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror (who added 4 minarets). Frankly, I find the exterior of this enormous monument ugly - in particular, the fading pink walls. The interior is huge but bare as most of the original frescoes had been painted over or destroyed. The saving grace were some of the remaining fine frescoes - e.g., the Deesis mosaic, Empress Zoe mosaic, etc.
In comparison, the Sultanamet Mosque, or Blue Mosque, with its six minarets and beautiful blue tiles, is much more dignified and grander - just my personal opinion.
The Yerebatan Sarayi, or Underground reservoir, is one of the most unusual attractions in Istanbul. Here, water from the Belgrade Forest on the city's outskirts, used to supply the Byzantine imperial city with fresh water. The creative Turks have renovated this place (with 336 columns in pools) almost a decade ago, and turned what could be a boring historic site into a prime attraction, with visitors admiring the Byzantine columns and sculptures and the fishes in the pools of water beneath, while sipping coffee as classical music is being played.
One of the highlights of any visit to Istanbul is the Tokapi Palace. Covering an area of 700,000 square meters, this was the official residence of the Ottoman sultans and the political heart of the Empire. In it was the famous harem (visits allowed only on a guided tour) as well as the numerous treasures of the Ottoman sultans. Don't miss the 17th Century Sacred Relics Chamber with the Sultan's tributes to Mecca - all golden relics ! Also watch out for the legendary Tokapi dagger with its numerous diamonds and rubies - originally to be sent to the Shah of Persia as a gift, but was brought back to Istanbul by the Turkish envoy, upon hearing the death of the Shah in a palace coup. And the Spoonmaker's Diamond - the 7th largest in the world.
Fans of archaeology shouldn't miss the Istanbul Archaeological Museums - a complex of several museums exhibiting archaeological finds from throughout the old Ottoman Empire - including the Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great and various Lydian tombs. Don't miss the baked correspondences of the Hittites (you find them in Ankara as well) - they relate to many of the matters people like us worry about today - marriage, purchases, property sales, etc. The museum won the European Museum of the Year Award a few years ago.
And the Grand Bazaar - the ultimate shopping experience in Turkey - this is a huge covered area the size of several city blocks, with 5000 shops spread out In a labyrinth of little passageways. Many shops deal with tourist buys like carpets, antiques, jewelry, etc., but you can find practically anything under the sun on sale here. However, make sure you bargain when buying things at the Grand Bazaar, or you'll find that things may actually be cheaper at home ! The rule is, always start bargaining from say, one quarter (or even one-six - always try your luck - you may just get it) of the offer price, and slowing adjusting upwards.
Don't miss the exotic Egyptian Bazaar (Misir Carsisi) with its colourful spices and Turkish delights...sweet tidbits to bring home !
I soon departed for Cappadocia in central Turkey. I was to return to Istanbul again, to visit the Bosphorus before flying home.
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