Nine months ago, I was facing the premature end of what had been a promising new career opportunity. Another casualty of the pandemic reverberating across the globe, I decided to move back to my hometown of Islamabad to finish out the remainder of my duties remotely. Realistically, I knew it could be months before new work surfaced. As a mid-career professional, I had kept a busy schedule since the start of my undergraduate studies; the thought of staying home all day with little to keep myself busy was a daunting prospect. Bear in mind, this was in the midst of countrywide lockdowns and strict restrictions on outside activity. I needed a plan, and travel beckoned.
Turkey seemed to be a natural choice. In recent years, Turkish television dramas have taken Pakistani screens by storm. Serials like "Muhteşem Yüzyıl" ("Magnificent Century"), "Intikam" ("Revenge") and the best-loved "Diriliş: Ertuğrul"(“Resurrection Ertuğrul”) have ensconced themselves in our collective hearts. This has resulted in a huge increase in tourism and demand for products like traditional jewelry and confectionery. Although the current swell of fascination is largely cultural in nature, it speaks to a deeper connection my country feels towards Turkey, rooted in a common Islamic heritage and admiration for figures such as the founding father Atatürk.
While I hadn’t shared in the on-screen fervor, my own fascination with Turkey was well established. Most of my family had already been there. I myself had visited some years ago, but only for a two-day conference that allowed a few hours layover in Ankara; it had left me wanting more ever since. I reviewed some of the organized tours operating out of Islamabad. Most offered an economical seven- or 10-day package for a quick jaunt around the major cities, but none of them appealed. I wanted the freedom of setting my own itinerary and felt I could come up with a plan that better suited my pace.
Once I began looking at places to visit, I was overwhelmed. Turkey has so much to see and so much of everything! I realized I could recreate an experience combining the dense green forests of Eastern Europe, the hot dry plains of the Middle East, the golden beaches of the Mediterranean, and the exquisite waters of the Aegean Sea, all without crossing the Turkish borders. And this was just the physical landscape; the history of millennia of civilization and a rich cultural milieu was all within tantalizing reach.
With limited time on hand, I wanted to experience the absolute greatest extent of Turkey I could grasp. Thus began weeks of research, and what had been a rough plan for a fortnight’s worth of travel quickly turned into a nearly monthlong itinerary. The one advantage of not working full time was the opportunity for an extended vacation. Fortunately, my savings (and some careful travel planning) would allow me the experience I was aiming for. After countless days of choosing cities (and with regret for the ones I could not), I had my travel map ready. Still, with COVID-19-induced shutdowns and consequent delays, it would not be until the very end of May that I could undertake the journey.
This is the first in a weekly series of articles where I share my travel experiences on the Turkish map. From historical sites and local cuisine to interactions with the people of each city, I will take you across the country through my memories.
My Turkish Airlines flight touched down on the tarmac on Friday morning. After collecting my luggage, the first thing I did was head to the Turkcell kiosk to purchase a local sim card. Data connectivity while on the road was an absolute necessity; I was thinking Google maps, restaurant reviews and local transport schedules. Having checked before flying out, I knew the Turkcell Tourist Welcome Pack was the best fit for my needs. In less than 10 minutes the process was complete, and I went out in search of my transport.
My tour of Istanbul was divided into two parts, marking the beginning and end of my Turkey experience. For the inaugural jaunt, I had chosen to stay in the historic Sultanahmet area within easy reach of many landmarks. There are several options for going into the city from the new airport, including the economical and very practical Havaist bus service that takes you to the city center. However, I took advantage of the paid shuttle provided by my hotel, hoping to get into town quickly after an exhausting last few days. I was staying within a seven-minute walk of Hagia Sophia square. It is important to mention here that in order to check into a hotel, use any mode of intercity transport, and even to eat at certain restaurants you must have your HES (Life Fits Into Home, in Turkish "Hayat Eve Sığar") code. This is acquired prior to your departure for Turkey and is integral for movement in the country.
After checking into my room, I quickly freshened up before heading straight for the Blue Mosque. The first thing that hits you as you venture onto the cobblestoned streets is the number of voices calling out from all sides. Friendly but insistent, they greet you, ask where you are from, invite you to see their merchandise, offer you lunch menus to scan or inquire if you need a tour. It never lets up, whether you are near a historical monument or beating the pavement in search of a supermarket. While not unlike other major tourist hubs around the globe, it is, nonetheless, an overwhelming introduction to the city for someone who is still getting their bearings.
As with all mosques in Turkey, any essential covering is provided just off the entrance, both for those wishing to offer prayers as well as for the casual visitor in need of attire appropriate to a place of worship. This consists of hijabs (head covering), and open-front gowns or ankle-length skirts. As it turned out, only the main hall of the Blue Mosque was open, the rest being closed for renovations. Friday prayers had already concluded, so I offered namaz (one of the five daily prayers), took a quick tour and left shortly after. Exiting from the main doorway, I crossed the courtyard towards Sultanahmet square.
And here I was greeted with a sight I had studied for years in pictures: the Hagia Sophia.
Being able to visit this eternal monument can hold a different significance for everyone. For me, it was the emotional realization of a long-held desire, similar to what I had experienced when I first laid eyes on the ancient pyramids at Giza. I took a cup of tea from a vendor, sat on a bench and gazed at the structure, not planning to go inside just yet. This was a long-sought-after opportunity and I wanted to build up to it. My family had described the moment both mosques called out the adhan (call to prayer) at the same time, so I sat waiting for the call to asr (afternoon prayer). At the appointed hour, the muezzin of Hagia Sophia issued the first call, which was repeated by his counterpart in the Blue Mosque. Verse after verse, they continued in tandem, on territory that had heard the same call for centuries. It was a unique experience.
Afterward, I found a small restaurant nearby, had an early dinner and called it a night.
I had booked a combination Istanbul Welcome Card tour for the Basilica Cistern, Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia. It allows you to visit all three attractions within a three-day period, with a choice of time slots. I’m not one for guided tours as I prefer to take the experience at leisure, so this option was a good fit because the guide stays with you for the first 30 minutes to orient your visit, after which you continue at your own pace. The package comes with an audio guide you can download to your phone, includes entry tickets, and provides different maps for the city and select attractions. It also lets you skip the ticket line and save time; in my case this turned out to be unnecessary because the weekend curfew for residents and reduced tourism due to COVID-19 meant hardly any lines to avoid.
The palace is divided into four courtyards. The first includes the Hagia Irene, the Imperial Mint and the Archaeological Museum; the second consists of beautiful green walkways that lead to other sections such as the harem, the imperial council hall, the armory, the kitchens and the audience hall; in the third courtyard you find the library of Sultan Ahmet III, the Treasury, dormitories and important Islamic artifacts; the final courtyard includes the Revan (Yerevan), Baghdad, Mustafa Pasha and Mecidiye pavilions, with gorgeous views of the Bosporus. Bear in mind, a full exploration of the entire complex, which was a city unto itself in its heyday, will take several hours. Plan to go there first thing in the morning and you can be done by late afternoon.
For me, a major highlight of the tour was the collection of some of Islam’s holiest relics: the staff with which Prophet Moses parted the Red Sea, the swords of the first four caliphs and Prophet Abraham’s water bowl, to name a few. This is also where you find the preserved footprint, sword and water bowl of the Prophet Muhammad. For the section with these displays, you must cover with a hijab. On entering, you hear a live recitation of the Quran which is conducted without pause. Be mindful that photography is not permitted in any part of this section, so take your time with the exhibits. I chose to go back a second time before leaving.
The harem, which requires a separate ticket, is worth seeing. Although it largely consists of empty rooms with not much in the way of ornaments or artifacts, the architecture, interior decoration and history of the various living quarters is worth witnessing; it also treats you to an exquisite view of the Galata Tower from the Queen Mother’s courtyard. The palace’s exhibition of over 350 clocks and watches should not be missed either, with works from both Ottoman and European masters. I found the collection of pocket watches to be particularly breathtaking. There were pieces in all sizes inlaid with precious stone and gems, many depicting delicately crafted scenery, flora or fauna.
My last stop on the way out was at the palace kitchens. Of these, the room I liked best was the dessert kitchen, a huge brick hall with impossibly high ceilings. It had an array of enormous pots and cauldrons balanced on brick and wooden stoves, large ladles, fire tongs and such. You could easily imagine it as a hive of activity, overwhelming with the scent of spices, chefs shouting instructions at assistants who worked at breakneck pace rolling out pastry for baklava or crushing walnuts and pistachio for helva.
It was a good way to complete my voyage of discovery of how the Ottomans had run an empire from a palace.
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