Considered, the world’s sixth most popular tourist destination, Turkey simply swept us off our feet. From the word go, our 10-day journey spelt Hogeldiniz (welcome) with a big H.
From Constantinople to Istanbul
We spent the first day exploring Constantinople of yore, and today’s Istanbul; the transcontinental city straddling the Bosphorus strait. It is said that to get to know a country, one must explore the streets, sounds and sights by literally being on the street soaking the culture, norms and people, rather than straight away hitting the must-see places. Keeping this in mind we started our exploration via the tram which was like almost blending into the crowd even though — if one thinks about it — Pakistanis can be spotted easily!
The Grand Bazaar (Büyük Çar) of Istanbul provided a bird’s eye view of the hospitality and warmth of the people of Turkey. As we roamed around, I was reminded of our very own Zainab Market in Karachi. Be it handicrafts, shawls or souvenirs, it too has the most important asset for a shopper — the art of bargaining, which is a prerequisite if you want to shop like there’s no tomorrow at The Grand Bazaar.
Planning a trip to the country? Here’s what you should see and do in 10 days
On the second day it’s time to go on a city tour of Istanbul. We start our guided tour with the Hippodrome of Constantinople — a circus that was the sporting and social centre of the city. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydan (Sultan Ahmet Square), with only a few fragments of the original structure surviving.
From here, we proceed to the most dominating structure in Istanbul, that is Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the most known and historic mosque. The mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque — a term coined due to the blue tiles adorning its interior walls as well as its cascading domes and six slender minarets, built in the 17th century.
Next we step into Hagia Sophia (aka Ayasofya) called ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, a former Christian patriarchal basilica (church), that was later turned into a mosque, and is now a museum. Famous in particular for its massive dome, with renovations going on, what caught our eye at Ayasofya were the rounded calligraphic panes on the walls with beautifully written names of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his caliphs.
Feeling like royalty, we enter Topkap Palace, one of the major residents of Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years — it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985. Besides being a royal residence, the palace was also a setting for state occasions and royal entertainment. Now a museum and major tourist attraction, it also contains important holy relics of the Muslim world, including the Prophet’s (PBUH) cloak and sword.
From the third day to the culmination of our Turkish Yolculuk (journey) it was a long winding road into history, geography, culture and the works. With our tour guide, Metin Pehlivan, constantly bombarding us with information, it was like being back to school listening to our history teacher’s lecture. Though, mind you, Turkish guides are not mere guides, they have to be extremely knowledgeable and carry a degree in history.
Walking in the shadows of history
For the rest of our journey we were off to the most emotionally touching places in Turkey: the World War I (WWI) Gallipolli battlefields including Lone Pine, Chunuk Bair Memorials, Anzac Cove, The Nek, and the original trenches and tunnels. Today, the Gallipoli battlefields are silent, preserved as a national historic park, strewn with marble and bronze monuments and reminded me of the WWII cemetery in Karachi.
The next day, we reach Hisarlik, the modern name for the ancient city of Troy which existed over 4,000 years ago, and is known as the centre of ancient civilisations. It immediately brings to mind the Helen of Troy, the Trojan War and the famous Trojan Horse. One of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, its extensive remains is the most significant demonstration of the first contact between the civilisations of Anatolia and the Mediterranean world.
The ancient mode continues, and we are off to Ephesus the next day. Our visit starts with one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — the Temple of Artemis; a Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Today only foundations and sculptural fragments of the ancient city and theatre remain.
From there we head to the village of irince, formerly inhabited by Ottoman Greeks. It’s a beautiful hill town famous for its olive oil, fruit wines, other natural products, and its atmospheric boutique hotels. For us it was shopping time and traditional crafts caught our fancy; we ended up buying crochet and cross-stitch table covers.
Down the Silk Road
From here our journey weaves from Ephesus to Kuadas with an informative session on carpet weaving, another industry that Turkey and Pakistan share. Besides the weaving process the most interesting part was seeing how silk is taken out from the cocoon. As for the traditional silk carpets they were indeed as soft as silk.
We were off to Pamukkale the next day and we take our first stop to witness handcrafted leather goods through a fashion presentation.
The magnificent white calcium terraces, known as travertine terraces, were our next stop.
We also touch base at the ancient city of Hierapolis located on hot springs in south-western Anatolia. It currently comprises an archaeological museum designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
On day seven of our stay, we experience the spiritual side of Turkey, while travelling on the Silk Road visiting Sultanhani Caravanserai, a large 13th-century Seljuk caravanserai (a roadside inn for travellers), to Mevlâna Museum in Konya. Visiting the mausoleum of Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi, the Persian Sufi mystic also known as Mevlâna or Rumi, was a must on our bucket list of things to do. It was indeed a serene experience to witness the life and time of Rumi at the mausoleum-cum-museum.
To top it we also witnessed the Mevlevi (followers of Rumi), or Whirling Dervishes and a dab of mysticism was rubbed on us as well. Perhaps the most familiar aspect of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), their spellbinding worship service, or the Sema, is derived from Rumi’s habit of occasionally whirling in ecstatic joy in the streets of Konya.
When in Turkey, it is a must to watch the popular and the very old art form — belly dancing! It was thoroughly enjoyed by our group but more so by the Japanese tourists, who even shook a leg with the talented dancer.
The rock formations at Göreme, Cappadocia, were the backdrop for one of the Star Wars movies. And the best way to explore the lunar landscape of Cappadocia’s Göreme Valley is if you take a flight. Hot-air ballooning being at the top of our bucket list, we opted to do it before sunrise and were up in the air touching the skies by sunrise. Our pilot, Bekir Dursun, kept us entertained throughout the ride.
The last two days of our journey were literally spent commuting and detouring. We were supposed to head to the nation’s capital, Ankara, to visit the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Unfortunately, a bomb blast at Ankara Central Railway Station caused a change in plan and we headed straight back to Istanbul — sadly, another similarity between the two nations.
The last day in Istanbul we were free to explore the city before departing to the airport. Hence, to satisfy our sweet tooth, we headed straight to the famous Hafiz Mustafa for the traditional sweets, Turkish Delight and baklava. What a sweet ending to a memorable journey!
Teekkür Ederim (Thank you) Turkey for the hospitality.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 15th, 2016
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