My time in Turkey, my third foreign destination, after the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and Beijing, began on the 15th of March from Istanbul. I visited Kuşadası, Izmir, Konya, Antalya and lastly Cappadocia. I managed to fully utilize my luggage allowance and the flight to Istanbul was really smooth. Passing over the high mountain ranges of Iran and eastern Turkey, I enjoyed an aerial view of Lake Van. Turkey, at first glance, is the perfect blend of ancient culture, religious belief and lively modernity that encapsulates the ambiance of the nation.
I had heard so much about Turkey from my late grandfather who traveled to the country more than six times under Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD). Istanbul felt like a great mix of people and cultures, which is exclusive to the city and is difficult to see elsewhere. Most of the people I came across seemed in good spirits and kind, except for a few rude cab drivers, though I do not blame them as they offer rides to all kinds of tourists. Although March is the start of the spring, I found it really cold in the metropolis.
At the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Turkey is an arguable contender for the title of "most fascinating country." I believe the country with its rich history, remarkable and mesmerizing natural landmarks and exuberant cities has the potential to create truly unforgettable travel experiences. I was deeply charmed by what Turkey had to offer and I tried my best to capture my vacation but for the first time in my life, I felt limited by the camera because I wanted to feel completely present to take in the beauty of this amazing city. On the very first day, we got on board the highly praised "Bosporus Cruise." It turned out to be a memorable experience even though I was a bit scared, case in point, Hollywood’s famous "Titanic." I loved the diverse feel of the city including both the European and the Asian sides.
Next on the travel agenda was the Dolmabahçe Palace, which I expected to be another version of the Topkapı Palace, but to my amazement, it was much bigger. It is the biggest palace in Turkey with 285 rooms, 46 halls and six hammams (baths). If you perceive the exterior to be extensively detailed, then you have not experienced the inside of this beautiful palace. The interior of Dolmabahçe was designed by the same architect responsible for the Opera Palace in Paris, giving its structure a contrasting look, which is European in essence. The palace is simply stunning, owing to its ornateness and sheer magnitude. I remember having to strain my neck to take pictures. Taking photographs and videos is strictly prohibited inside the palace but I secretly managed to snap a few.
We were lucky enough to stay in central locations at each destination. In Istanbul, we stayed right in front of the Taksim Square, next to the famed Istiklal Street, which gave us the opportunity to experience the unique energy and spirit of Istanbul at its most organic. A long stretch of shops offering every product imaginable, cafes and restaurants, live music, bars, cinemas and much more, but I believe that my trip would have been incomplete without boarding those beautiful ruby red trams while wandering the street having a juicy döner kebab wrapped in lavash.
We also visited the iconic Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. This structure is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture.” All these comments came true when I saw it for myself. I also came across the much celebrated Grand Bazaar and fell in love with it. This short visit was fun as I got a chance to meet a lot of interesting people who were willing to chat, help and drink, even offering me tea.
Being in the city of lights and colors at the crossroads of Asia and Europe reminded me of the rich historical importance of Istanbul, which I heard my father talk about quite often. He told me that his grandfather, Syed Sultan Muhammad Shah, was a member of the Khilafat Movement. This movement was established by Moulana Shaukat Ali to save the Ottoman Empire, as the people of the undivided subcontinent were very keen to play their role in saving the Ottoman Empire and in a gesture of goodwill with the Turkish people put their limited means of life at risk as they were under the British Raj in India. Although the Ottoman Empire could not succeed at the time, the gesture of the people of this part of the Indian subcontinent is still fresh in the memory of Turkish people, and their elders still cherish the memories of brotherhood like a valuable gem.
Our trip wasn’t all about Istanbul, and I believe that other parts of Turkey were equally rewarding, including a visit to Kuşadası where we booked an excursion to the ancient city of Ephesus, located on Turkey's western coast near the town of Selçuk. There, we toured the Library of Celsus, which was originally built to serve as a monumental tomb for Celsus, an ancient Greek philosopher, but later became the largest library of the ancient world. The builders here used an optical illusion to make the building look large. Another quirk of the building is that the outside shows a two-story building but the interior reading area is surrounded by three floors.
Another incredible structure in Ephesus is the theater which was built during the reign of Lysimachos during the third century B.C. It was used for plays as well as political and religious discussions. Gladiators fought in this arena, and walking through the ancient city of Ephesus was truly extraordinary. The site is so well preserved that it’s easy to imagine today how they lived there in the past. Up in the hills around 4 miles (6.43 kilometers) away from Ephesus in the House of Virgin Mary, is a small chapel in Bülbül mountain, built on the foundations of a humble dwelling where Mary was believed to have spent her last days. I left a prayer in the form of a burning candle, as it was customary to the site. I believe that you don’t have to belong to a particular religion to appreciate this serene setting.
Kuşadası will always have a very special place in my heart because I celebrated my birthday on the edge of the Aegean Sea; it was a memorable moment for me.
Next, we embarked to discover Antalya, a city overflowing with history, culture, flowers and friendly faces. It was pretty inspiring to walk over the same Roman walkway, which Hadrian, emperor from 117 to 138, once took. I witnessed the deep grooves created by the countless carts that must have passed through the city gate. Our guide told us about its history and that it was made for Hadrian when he visited the city in 130 A.D.
Throughout my trip, I was super excited to visit Konya, regarded as the heart of Turkey, a city of a million souls and an endless prairie. Then, we made our way to the tomb of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, who was a mystic and Sufi saint who loved all religions and whose own religion was love. I would not be surprised if you lose yourself as I did in the trance and dance, sometimes spinning like tops for hours on end. This is Turkey's second most-visited tourist attraction after Topkapı Palace. Here you join the awestruck and curious within the fervent walls embroidered with calligraphy, beneath ceilings creating a beautiful kaleidoscopic effect.
Rumi's tomb is covered in intricately embroidered cloth of gold and seems to radiate light, peace and mercy. Some people weep here silently, some laugh out loud, others meditate for hours on end while some hurry through. Everyone here is moved by love. I believe it’s very true when people often say that "come to Konya and you come to Turkey's soul." In Rumi's words: "Whoever you may be, come. Even though you may be an infidel, a pagan, or a fire worshipper, come our brotherhood is not one of despair though you have broken your vows of repentance a hundred times, come." I can still hear that sound playing inside the tomb, quietly and insinuating itself into our consciousness like a reed flute, it is really the sound of fire, which rises and falls inside our hearts, it's music for the soul.
After paying tribute, we continued our road trip from Konya to Cappadocia covering almost 140 miles and reached Cappadocia at 9 p.m. in the evening. We dragged our luggage to the hotel room, exhausted after traveling from Antalya to Cappadocia within a day, but when I saw the landscape, rock colors and vivid formations made by nature’s force chipping away for thousands of years, it was well worth it. I loved the cave hotel’s hospitality and amazing food.
On the last day what I saw made me stand transfixed, for the first time in my life I stood watching little flurries of snow falling in perfect synchronization, creating a thick comforter on the roofs. I would not have experienced it if I weren’t in Cappadocia at that time. It was one of the best moments of my life! We missed our hot air balloon ride due to snow but I guess the view of Cappadocia’s unsymmetrical caves covered with snow made up for it. Nevertheless, a hot air balloon ride still remains on my bucket list. From Cappadocia, I flew back home with a backpack full of wondrous memories and incredible experiences, which I will always cherish. I can not wait to revisit the home of breathtaking architecture and some of the warmest and most genuinely hospitable people I have come across in my life. I miss you Turkey!