May 19, 2011

Istanbul on the Hop


Ian Jarrett - The man standing outside Istanbul's Topkapi Palace is holding two small white rabbits. Intrigued, I hop across the road to find out more.

"These are," he says, pointing to Fluff and Stuff, "two very clever rabbits. They can tell fortunes."

Fair enough, for just one Turkish lira, I'll give it a go. One of the rabbits, I think it's Fluff, noses around inside a cardboard box and pulls out a small piece of white paper, which the rabbit owner then unwraps and reads.

"You will enjoy a long and prosperous life," the man says.

"Anything else?"

"You can try again if you give me another lira." I don't hang around because I'm anxious to get on with my long and prosperous life so I wink and suggest the same words are written - in Turkish - on every piece of paper.

Now confident about my own future, I wonder about the outlook for Turkey, a country with a complex and multi-layered history that continues to perch, precariously at times, between Europe and Asia, between democratic government and military rule, between a secular society and one influenced by Islam.
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The influence of the Ottomans, who knocked about these parts for centuries, pervades Istanbul, nowhere more so than in the domed and beautiful mosaic hammams (bath houses), the crowning example being the Baths of Roxelana, with its towering steam rooms, ritual washing quarters, and extensive massage platforms. Roxelana - named after the wife of a sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, became an important social centre, particularly for Muslim women.

The baths were designated for the use of the congregation of Hagia Sophia when it was used as a mosque. The women's entrance was at one end of the building and the men's at the other. Oddly, the building is now a government-run upmarket carpet shop,

Hagia Sophia, built by Constantine the Great in the fourth century and reconstructed by Justinian in the sixth century, has twice burnt down and been rebuilt. For the past 16 years the ornate ceilings have been restored to their original glory, the work finishing only last year.

Istanbul's icons also include the Ottoman Empire's Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque and the grand palaces, Dolmabahce Palace and the Ciragan Palace.

No less impressive - and my personal favourite - is Basilica Cistern, the sixth century underground cistern below St Sophia Square, built by the Romans to bring water to palaces in the vicinity.

Tucked between and beyond the most popular tourists sites, life goes on in old Istanbul pretty much undisturbed. Turkish, Arab and Kurdish families still live side by side in early 20th century apartment blocks in streets surrounding the Galata Tower.

Read more on The West: Istanbul on the Hop

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