October 10, 2011

The Perfect Trip: Turkey


Istanbul displays all the signs of bullish development you’d expect in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with shiny skyscrapers growing ever upward, shops as far as the eye can see and tankers queueing in the Bosphorus river. And yet, among the organised chaos of this great modern city, ancient mosques and palaces rise sphinx-like from the jumble of roofs.

For nearly 500 years, Istanbul – or Constantinople, as it was previously known – was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, a powerful regime that, at its height, stretched from Hungary to Iraq. In the city’s imperial days, traders sold spices from distant dominions in the bazaars, dignitaries hunted in parks lining the Bosphorus, and buildings rose to immortalise the sultans. People came here from across the empire. ‘It was global before there was “global”,’ says Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel, who has lived in the city for 25 years.

Standing proud near the city’s spice bazaar is Rüstem Pa¸sa Mosque. Built during the Ottoman Empire, it showcases the best Ottoman architecture and exquisite Iznik tiles, which cover the walls, columns and the façade of its porch. Rüstem Paşa has a stillness, beauty and calm that offers respite from the clamour of the markets outside its walls.

On a much grander scale is the famous Blue Mosque, also decorated with Iznik tiles and stained-glass windows. It lies in the Sultanahmet area, the old town centre that was once the heart of Ottoman life.

This remarkable mosque was built after the Ottomans took the city from the Christian Byzantine Empire, to compete with the Aya Sofya cathedral, which was a conspicuous reminder of the old regime. Now a museum, Aya Sofya was made into a mosque under the Ottomans. ‘It was about imperial rivalry,’ says Caroline, ‘making your own what was there before. Demolishing it by giving new meaning.’

The 1,500-year-old building of Aya Sofya still has a sacred atmosphere. Turkish families crowd the entrance, craning their necks to view the soaring ceiling. They wander through the hushed space and queue up at the weeping column, said to cure ailments with its tears. Ottoman features such as medallions with gilt Arabic calligraphy draw the eye, but the shadowy corners are rich with original Christian fragments from the Byzantine era – enduring signs of Istanbul’s rich past.

Read more on BBC Travel: The Perfect Trip: Turkey

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