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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Istanbul….. known to westerners as the gateway to Orient

From the time I saw the movie “Murder on the Orient Express” I have been fascinated by Istanbul or Constantinople as it was known earlier. In recent times I saw the movie Guru in which Mallika Sherawat’s belly dance number Maiya maiya ( eye popping number) …made me want to visit the city and lap up the night life there. I have always wanted to visit this city for a very long time and my dreams came true when I had the opportunity to visit this city from the 30th of November 2010 to the 4th December 2010 on official visit.


We flew to Istanbul through Dubai as we could not get a direct flight and hence we had over 3 hours in transit within the Dubai International Airport….omg a huge terminal stretching just about 2 km between the gates. Couple of things caught my eye, one is the luxury car on the raffle and another is the advertisement for US Dollars 2 million cash
I know each one of us wants a windfall in our lives and if that is $ 2,000,000/- than the very purpose of me staying in gulf will be fulfilled overnight….but I have to learn to woo the lady luck so that I can try to buy a ticket the next time I am transiting Dubai. During the return journey the run between the gates had me panting as we had less than 45 minutes before departure since I flight from Istanbul was delayed and at my age had to run nearly 1.5 kms….I was the last among my team to reach the gates and was immediately sent to the waiting airplane. 

Due to the exigency of our work I was not able to see any Turkish belly dance or enjoy the famous night life extolled by so many people and books that I have read.  Fortunate for us we had the Saturday morning free to go around we visited the few  monuments within the old city of Istanbul.

I am sure most of you would know that Bosporus Strait that connects the Black Sea and Marmara Sea bisects Istanbul into two parts .. the European side and the Asian side. We were staying in the European side which is further divided as new city and the old city. The moment we stepped into the city we had a feeling that we have entered Europe since the people were so civilized and courteous… road side cafes and pubs like in most of Europe. Though Turkey is 98% Islamic it does not enforce the religion on its population like most Islamic countries . May be it is because of the influence of the various occupying armies from the ancient times BC onwards (Before Christ). Anyway I liked what I saw there and would surely love to go there again and spend some time in leisure.

Being a crowded city with traffic snarls our guide stated that the vehicle would drop us off near the Hippodrome and would pick us back after we finish our tour. This Hippodrome was built in the year 203 AD and was used for Chariot racing and Gladiator fights. The central portion of the hippodrome had obelisks and columns and in the present time we can still see three of them – The Colossus erected in 940 AD, Serpentine column erected in 479 BC with snakes head cut off and the 15th century BC Egyptian obelisk which was bought to Istanbul in 390 AD. This hippodrome has a bloody history as 40,000 rebels were slaughtered here by General Belisarius during Justinian’s rule and the second slaughter took place on the behest of Sultan Mahmut II  when he ordered execution of over 30,000 rebellious janissaries.

From here we went to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque or famously known as Blue mosque as the interior of the mosque is with blue and green tiles. This is the only mosque in this world with six minarets ( though the picture taken by me does not show all the minarets).

An interesting observation as stated by the guide is that the main chandelier hung from the center of the dome has three ostrich eggs and because of this there is no cow webs being spun by spiders inside of the dome….a natural remedy against spider webs . Ostrich eggs have been distributed in various parts of the mosque for the same reason !!!!

From the blue mosque we went to Haghia Sophia Museum. Haghia Sophia means Divine Wisdom and as per the legend this was first built as a church  in the year 325 AD by Constantine and has been rebuilt number of times after having burnt down. When the Turks conquered Istanbul they converted this church into a mosque and all mosaic depicting Virgin Mary, Jesus were covered by limestone.
Over 500 years this building was used as a mosque and in 1934 it was converted as a museum. Restoration  works are in progress even to this day. This building incorporated the early warning system against earthquake. A piece of glass fixed in the wall between two bricks or stone and in case of any abnormal movement of ground the glass would break alerting of impending earth quake. Now the old gaps in the wall are being used to run camera cables and electrical cables.

You can see the restoration being done on the mosaic on the left is part of Deesis, Christ as Pantocrator


On the right is the mosaic of Jesus with Constantine IX and Zoe

From Haghia Sophia we went to Topkapi Palace which has four courtyards and the entry to the first one is free and then you need to buy an entry ticket. On the right you see the Bab-us-Selam or the Gate of peace Salutations that leads to the second courtyard

        On the right is the Justice tower

Then on to Basilica cisterns an underground water storing facility built in 532 AD.

Inside the cistern there are two columns with carving of the Medusa one upright and the other upside down… as per the greek legend Medusa was a witch with snakes as her hair and anyone looking into her eyes would become a stone. This was sculpted within the cistern to protect this from all evil spirits.


Grand Bazar where over 4000 shops ply their goods even today and finally to 

the Egyptian spice market. Istanbul is an expensive place to visit and the entry fee to Haghia Sophia and Topkapi Palace was 20 Turkish Liras each ($ 13) and to the Basilica Cistern was TL 10 ($6.5). Decent meal per person is in the range of $ 35… so for those of you planning to visit this country from India bring sufficient US$.


Trams is a cheap mode of transport but this seems to be running in the old city of the European side. Have seen lots of buses plying for which we need to buy a card at the main bus station and I believe a common card is used for all means of public transport. Cabs are expensive as is the case everywhere around the world.

There are many more places to visit in Istanbul but unfortunately we had to cut our tour short so that we could reach the airport by 3.30pm for our early evening flight to Muscat.