Istanbul: Where Ottoman Met Byzantine

Since I learnt that my grandfather had been one of Pakistan’s military representatives to the Central Treaty Organization, based in Turkey, I had always wanted to visit the country. I got my first chance last year, a few days before my birthday, when I was able to visit Istanbul. I applied for a short-term visa at the Turkish embassy in Islamabad and received it within a few days. Unlike at some other embassies, the experience at the Turkish embassy is a pleasant one.  Turkish Airlines operates regular flights between Karachi and Istanbul – Quaid-e-Azam International Airport to Kamal Ataturk International Airport.  Fall is the right time to visit, as the city’s weather is perfect.

If I were to use one word to connect the sights and sounds of the four days I spent there, it would be ‘potential.’ Istanbul delivers a rare combination – the chance to visualize an Islamic Civilization that was amongst the most advanced of its time, and an opportunity to witness the rise of modern Turkey, fueled by an exuberant, enterprising young population. For those who understand  the current state of the Islamic world, and see it not just for what it is but what it could be,  there is a place to go and be inspired.

My journey began in typical fashion, what else but an entertaining taxi ride! My gregarious cab driver and I had a great time. I had my 25-strong list of helpful Turkish words and sentences (I had conceived it in English, and then asked a porter at the airport to write down the Turkish translation), and he had a good sense of humour. As we made the long drive from the airport to the picturesque Tarabya district, he gave me a short lesson in history, explained the layout of the city, described the sights we passed by, and asked about how things were in Pakistan. He even taught me a few Turkish words, and I reciprocated with Urdu. When we parted, I could say Istanbul Chok Guzelle! (Istanbul is very beautiful!)

I would be staying with family friends, a British-Indian couple, whom we became friends with during their journalistic assignment in Islamabad. Thank you for taking such good care of me, Simon and Vandana! Your hospitality meant that I felt completely at home! Overlooking the Bosphorus river, their home ensures that you fall in love with the city every morning, and at evening when lights from ships scattered across the horizon become visible.

Let me tell you now about the sights that I saw, and what they meant to me.

THE BLUE MOSQUE

Commissioned by Sultan Ahmet 1 in 1609, and designed by architect Mehmet Agha,  the Blue Mosque is amongst the Islamic world’s finest works of architecture. Located in the Sultan Ahmet district, it is engaged in a permanent stand-off with the Hagia Sofia, whose splendor it was built to equal. Whether it surpassed it or not, is a matter of perspective. It was my first destination, and as I walked in through the outer courtyard, my eyes set upon the gold calligraphy above the main gate through the mosque’s inner wall. It was evening time and there were only a few visitors at the Mosque. Leaves rustled in the evening breeze. I stood, listened, and absorbed.

As you step into the Mosque’s main courtyard, you faced with a stunning testament to the grandeur of Islamic Architecture. The mosque’s layered dome structure, its mauve stone, and tall, slender minarets are mesmerizing. Through rectangular, evenly spaced windows, a warm glow emanates from the prayer area inside. The detailed stonework and the complex yet symmetrical structure, leave one in awe. The mosque is also organized beautifully – ablution spaces are built into the outer wall, and are easily accessible from the outer courtyard. They are simply built – stone stools facing low-hanging wall-taps.

I was in time for the evening prayer – Maghrib. The Muezzin’s call to prayer rang out from the Mosque. Its pure message was captivating. I looked around across the courtyard, imagining how it must have been when the mosque was newly built, and whether or not the courtyard was regularly full with worshipers.

Inside, the Blue Mosque is even more striking. Its walls are covered with beautiful Iznik tilework and Ayats from the Quran. Symmetrically laid out across the mosque’s domed roof are names of God, the Prophet Muhammad(s), and Islam’s first four caliphs.  A spectacular chandelier hangs from the centre dome. The lights themselves are just a short height above the ground, and are laid out in a circular pattern, producing an enchanting effect. Once inside it, there is almost a feeling of timelessness. The past and present seem to combine. A small number of people attended the prayer.  I also saw several people sitting in contemplation after prayers; they included tourists from around the world, many of them from nearby Europe.

It was evening when I stepped out, and time to return home. The Mosque had taken on a new character. An amber glow now covered the walls, domes, and minarets. Gulls could be heard in the air, betraying the presence of the Marmara Sea nearby. As I left, I spotted a poster on one of the walls; it showed a man carrying a child to safety, and belonged to a Turkish charity collecting funds for the flood victims in Pakistan. Kardish (brothers) indeed!

Outside one of the exits were women selling hand-knitted products of various kinds. I stopped to buy socks for my nieces. The lady I dealt with was very happy to learn that I was from Pakistan, and then proceeded to ask me, in a matronly tone, whether or not I had said my prayers while I was inside the Mosque; smiling friendlily when I told her that I had. I then walked back to the trams through Sultanahmet Park, which is lit by colourful lights, and is built around a fountain.

Sultanahmet Cami, or the Blue Mosque, will always remain amongst my favourite places in the world. I wish that you had been there with me.

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