April 22, 2012

Linger in Overlooked Istanbul

Originally Constantinople, it was founded in AD330 by the Christian emperor Constantine as "the second Rome", the new centre of the Roman Empire. After 1000 years of Christian rule, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, in an epic siege. 

The Ottoman Empire, ruled by sultans, lasted until World War I, when it joined with Germany. Postwar, the empire, including the Balkans and stretching in the east to Syria, fell apart. 

Kemal Ataturk (father of the Turks) then led the country to a republic, with himself as first president. The capital moved from Constantinople (which became Istanbul), with its burdened past of political intrigue, to a new site in the Anatolian heartland at Ankara a distant parallel to the founding of Canberra. Ataturk was the Turkish hero of Gallipoli, whose healing words grace the memorial there to the Allied fallen. He modernised Turkey, turning it into a democracy. Religion and state were separated, though Islam remained the dominant religion, as today. 

Contemporary Istanbul, with a healthy gross domestic product and straddling East and West, is today a vibrant city, its lively restaurants, bars and galleries offset by its many historical sights. 

One's first stop should be the Sultans' palace of Topkapi, within walking distance of the Blue Mosque Square. Unlike any Western palace, it is a cluster of buildings set in parklands. The Imperial Council Chamber, or Divan, was used for ambassadorial receptions, while the sumptuous harem is a warren of apartments decorated in multicoloured tiles. It includes concubines' quarters and eunuchs' dormitories. The Treasury holds one of the world's greatest collections of precious jewels. The palace's huge kitchens fed hundreds. The grounds include a cafeteria and a restaurant, both overlooking the Marmara Sea. If it is tulip time, and Anzac Day usually coincides, this is a good place for photographs. 

A second drawcard is the great basilica of St Sophia, built by Justinian in the 6th century, site of the crowning of Christian emperors. It was sacked by the Ottomans but is maintained as a Turkish museum. One of the great buildings of the world, its dome was the largest until St Peter's was built in Rome. Approaching through its main door, one confronts a vast interior. The ornamentation consists not of side altars or paintings but is in the precious stones and marbles of floor and columns, many ransacked from Eastern temples. The surrounding upper gallery, itself spacious, is approached not by stairs but by a broad cobblestone ramp, up which horses were ridden. Like the gold leaf of the glowing mosaics (gold for eternity), the soaring space suggests the mystical dimension of Eastern Christianity. 

Blue Mosque Square has parks, fountains, museums and Turkish tea houses, many of them open-air. Turkish tea, a reddish-brown liquid (no milk), is served in tulip-shaped glasses, rimmed with gold. The enormous mosque, backed by blue sea, dominates the square. Its domes flow downwards like cascades. Don't miss visiting nearby the mosaics, excavated and restored, of the Great Roman Palace the rest lies buried beneath later buildings. 

Read more on Herald Sun: Linger in Overlooked Istanbul


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