Saturday, June 16, 2007

TURKISH delights

The vibrant and beautiful city of Istanbul has many an architectural splendour that dates back to thousands of centuries. A. J. Philip brings back rich images from his visit to the former Byzantine Capital, virtually straddling the continents of Europe and Asia

Haghia Sophia
Haghia Sophia is one of the world’s finest monuments — Photos by the writer

TO be put up in a hotel that once served as a major prison at the time of the Ottoman Empire was in itself a novel experience. Located in the heart of Istanbul, Four Seasons Hotel has many novelties. Built in 1917, it was meant for dissident writers. Small wonder that the organisers thought it was an ideal location for journalists from around the world to meet and deliberate on a theme of great relevance – Fact vs Rumour.

The conference room of the hotel is in the basement where the tougher prisoners were accommodated. Of course, the more privileged among them were housed on the upper floors from where a panoramic view of the Sea of Marmara was just a gaze away.

Even for the prisoners it must have been a blessing to be in this prison. Where else could you be woken up by the muezzin’s call for prayer from two mosques, which are also architectural wonders?

The courtyard of Blue Mosque was as large as its prayer hall. Leaning against a pillar was an elderly bearded man busy weaving prayer caps to make a living. He had a beatific smile on his face as tourist after tourist clicked his picture.

The Blue Mosque, which takes its name from the blue Iznik tilework decorating its interior, is in its close vicinity. Built between 1609 and 1616, it has six minarets, which was at that time considered a sacrilegious attempt to rival the architecture of the great mosque at Mecca.

From the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, the mosque provides a fascinating sight with its floodlit minarets for photographers who specialise in silhouetted objects. Having arrived a day earlier, we three journalists from India wandered around the mosque at Sultanahmet like aimless travellers.

Fishing is a favourite pastime

We realised we reached Hippodrome only when we stumbled across Constantine’s Column, constructed in 350 AD as part of the celebrations to inaugurate the new Byzantine Capital. A variety of holy relics were supposedly entombed in its base. These included the axe, which Noah used to build the ark, Mary Magdalene’s flask of anointing oil, and the remains of loaves of bread with which Christ fed the multitude.

There are two more towers at the Hippodrome – the Egyptian Obelisk, which dates back to 1500 BC and was brought to the city by Constantine, and the Serpentine Column, believed to date to 479 BC. The whole area, now an elongated garden, was once part of a gigantic stadium that could hold over a lakh of people. Beginning with the inauguration of Constantinople on May 11, 330, the Hippodrome formed the stage for the city’s greatest events for the next 1300 years. Today it is the favourite haunt of tourists, who can get an idea of how the Byzantines enjoyed watching chariot racing in the stadium. Now, instead of chariots, it is ultra-modern luxury tourist coaches that pass by.

Strolling around the ruins of the Byzantine Empire, realisation suddenly dawned on us that we had virtually circumnavigated the Blue Mosque. As the midday prayer was on, we had to wait a little to get entry. Shoes are not allowed inside. You can either keep it on a stand outside or pick up a polythene bag provided free of cost in which you can carry your shoes. Men who wear shorts are encouraged to pick up a lungi-like garment to wear it around their waist before going inside, while women who are inadequately dressed have to cover themselves with a loose gown, also provided free of charge.

Despite such strictures, there were many tourists inside the mosque who did not conform to the dress code. The courtyard was as large as the prayer hall. Leaning against a pillar was an elderly bearded man busy weaving prayer caps to make a living. He had a beatific smile on his face as tourist after tourist clicked his picture, some of them posing with him. From the courtyard below, the graceful cascade of domes and semidomes made a striking sight.

No cost seemed to have been spared in the decoration of the mosque. The minbar is intricately carved in white marble and is used by the Imam during prayers on Friday. Thick piers support the weight of the dome. Mesmeric designs, employing flowing arabesques, are painted onto the interior of the mosque’s domes and semidomes. There are over 250 windows that allow light to flood into the mosque but for an amateur photographer like me, it was still under-light.

Dazzled as we were by the grandeur of the Blue Mosque, we came out a little dazed. We were stunned to see right across the road another architectural marvel – Haghia Sophia, also known as Aya Sofya. The “Church of Holy Wisdom”, Haghia Sophia, is among the world’s greatest architectural achievements. More than 1400 years old, it stands as a testament to the sophistication of the 6th-century Byzantine capital. It had paramount influence on architecture in the following centuries.

The Egyptian Obelisk
The Egyptian Obelisk dates back to 1500 BC

Following what the westerners call the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the Easterners call the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Haghia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Fortified over the centuries, the church-turned-mosque was declared a national museum by the Turkish Parliament when Mustafa Kemal Pasa Ataturk brought to an end the institution of the Caliphate. Poor Mahatma Gandhi struggled for the restoration of the Caliph little knowing that the Turks had discarded him like an old towel.

At 10 lira, which works out to Rs 350, entry to the museum was by no means cheap. Today the Turkish lira is almost on par with the US dollar. Until two years ago, it was nightmarish for a visitor to travel in Turkey as a cup of tea would cost thousands of liras. However, the high cost did not deter thousands of people who visit the museum.

An outstanding feature of the museum, designed as an earthly mirror of the heavens, is that while converting it into a mosque and erecting Islamic motifs, Sultan Mahmut and others who followed him did not destroy the Byzantine mosaics that adorn the monument. The most splendid is the one that depicts Christ flanked by Emperor Constantine IX and his wife. There is another of the Virgin Mary with another Emperor and his wife.

Later when we visited the Church of St. Saviour in Chora, which too was used later as a mosque, we understood how the Muslims of the time took care of the mosaics. This church has mosaics and frescoes that portray all the important events in the life of Jesus. For Muslims, any figurine or picture of human face is unacceptable in a house of prayer. They overcame the problem by covering the mosaics with cloth, thus preserving for posterity some of the greatest works of divine art.

At Haghia Sophia, we had the option of entering it through the main door, which was reserved for the Emperor, or the one meant for the hoi polloi. Why should we take the common man’s gate, when we could walk through the Sultan’s Gate as it was later called? Inside, we were staggered by the vast space, which is covered by a huge dome reaching to a height of 56 metres, roughly ten floors.

We were told that the Blue Mosque was built to put into the shade Haghia Sophia, now called Aya Sophia, but the attempt does not seem to have been a great success. Many monuments, including the tomb of Mehmut, were added to the grand structure whose fame extends to the far corners of the globe.

Haghia Sophia had become the model for several mosques in Istanbul, the grandest of which is Suleymaniye Mosque. As I stood behind a couple from Morocco deeply engrossed in prayers, I remembered Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s lines in his biographical Istanbul: Memories of a City: “The beauty I see in Suleymaniye Mosque is in its lines, in the elegant spaces beneath its dome, in the opening out of its side domes, in the proportions of its walls, and empty spaces, in the counterpoint of its support towers and its little arches, in its whiteness and in the purity of the lead on its domes – none of which could be called picturesque. Even 400 years after it was built, I can look at Suleymaniye and see a mosque still standing in its entirety”.

Our guide Ahmet estimates that there are around 2,000 mosques, big and small, in Istanbul. It may appear to be a large number but given the population of the city – 12 million – and the fact that Muslims believe in collective worship, this may not be so. However, for Pamuk, the most distinguishing feature of the city is its melancholy character. The wooden houses, the stone-paved roads, the slow-moving trams, the dilapidated Ottoman villas and the crumbling walls that trace their history to the time the Byzantines fortified the city to keep the Muslims at bay all symbolise huzun, the Turkish word for melancholy.

But for us the city was vibrant and beautiful. A visit to the sea front or Bosphorus as it is called in Istanbul revealed the vitality of the city. The people were in a holiday mood with whole families spending their time on the sand enjoying the evening sun. Fishing is a hobby men, women and children pursue with gusto. Vendors did roaring business selling nuts, roasted meat and Turkish tea. At one lira, a cup of tea is not cheap. It is prepared and served differently. First, syrup of tea is made. Hot water is then added to suit the taste of the drinker.

As for coffee, Turkey is the best place to have it if you like Brazilian coffee. “Not a plant of coffee is grown in Turkey but stores are full of Turkish coffee” is how our guide described it. Even the Turkish carpets sold in the market may have a “Made in China” tag, he said when he knew that there was a Chinese professor who teaches journalism in Beijing in our group.

A visitor to Istanbul can have the unique experience of virtually straddling two continents — Europe and Asia. Half an hour is all it takes to travel from one continent to another. The visit to the Maidens Tower turned out to be an out-of-the-world experience. It is a romantic symbol of Istanbul. It is on an island at the mouth of Bosphorus erected within a distance of an arrow’s shot from the Asian coast.

It is a landmark at the confluence of Asia and Europe. The food was nothing extraordinary but the location and the orchestra were superb. Stories abound about the Tower. The most popular among them is about a lover who swims across the strait to meet his love every night. One stormy night, he is exhausted by the waves and dies. As she cannot bear separation, she jumps into the sea and unites with her sweetheart in death.

We made another boat ride to the Princes Island. It takes one and a half hours to reach there. During the Ottoman days, princes of questionable character were exiled there, only to rot and never to return. It was, perhaps, the sight of food on the ship that encouraged a flock of seagulls to follow us. They kept pace with the ship giving everyone with a camera a great photo opportunity.

Horse carriage is the preferred mode of transport in the Island, which at any point of time attracts tourists from all over the world. On the Island, as in Istanbul, it is not uncommon to find women wearing scarves around their heads. Pamuk wrote a whole novel Snow, which revolves around women who wear headscarves as a sign of protest.

Law prohibits wearing of veil in Turkey. Women holding public offices can’t wear headscarves too. During the whole visit, I could see only two girls wearing a black gown, which uncovers only the forehead, the eyes and the nose. It approximates the veil.

Turkey is unique – a Muslim majority country with a constitution that mandates the Army to protect its secularism. Nowhere else in the world do women come out on the streets in thousands in defence of secularism. With Turkey’s membership in the European Union in a limbo, efforts are on to resist pressures of Islamism, which is strengthening in the country.

In the past, Turkey lost heavily when the Ottoman rulers prohibited printing of books for nearly 275 years since the invention of the movable types. However, it does not want to lose out in this age of globalisation when smaller countries are making rapid progress. It is as much a question of straddling between two continents and two cultures as it is between modernity and orthodoxy.