Digital Editor Alex McDonald shares his top tips and an inclusive travel guide for a short break in ancient city of RomeWritten by Alex McDonald on 26th December 2017
An Insight into Istanbul
Travel writer Aamina Siddiqi gives an insight into the Turkish antique city of Istanbul
“You’ll see the walls, but they won’t speak to you,” a tour guide says to me as we stand outside Hagia Sophia, a Greek Orthodox basilica that became an imperial mosque under Ottoman rule, and is now a museum. I decline the offer for a guided tour, but the phrase remained with me throughout my stay. As I walked through museums, ancient palaces, haggle for Turkish delight at the grand bazaar, drink tea on a tiny table on the sidewalk, I would get moments of being overwhelmed by the history of Istanbul. I wondered how many stories were scattered throughout the bustling cosmopolis, held within the antiquity of the city’s walls. I ate a falafel wrap whilst sitting on the steps of a burnt column dating to 330AD, surrounded by kebab shops and an entrance to the grand bazaar - the absurdity of my lunch surroundings summed up how the history of an ancient city slots perfectly into the twenty-first century.
Istanbul straddles two continents, split by the Bosphorus. The river connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, sandwiched between Europe and Asia. So much happens on the water; Fishermen line up along bridges with the midday sun beating down on them, boats go out to catch fish to sell at the night market, ferries carrying hordes of people leave every few minutes public transportation on the water is one way to beat the commuter rush. A similar size to London albeit with a larger population, Istanbul epitomises the city that never sleeps. The hustle and noise continue long into the night and begins at the crack of dawn. The steam of ferries, trams, buses, and the flow of people on the street occupying every table at coffee shops, sitting on steps is constant and doesn’t stop. Because of the incredible transport system, cleanliness and downright friendly demeanour that the charm of the city exudes, Istanbul, at times, feels like a European destination.
Boasting a plethora of people from around the world, it is like no other place. Citizens, merchants, students, tourists, artists and more come together in unanimous harmony. Historically it was the epicentre of the Roman empire under the name Constantinople, the largest and most prosperous urban centre in the Mediterranean because of its strategic position to command trade routes into Europe and Asia across the land and sea. Following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the new ruler, Mehmed II set about to redefine the city and ordered those that had fled the siege, for fear of prosecution for their religious belief, to return. I could see evidence of this in the Sultanahmet district where I stayed, with a synagogue, church and a mosque in the same vicinity as each other. Hearing church bells amalgamated with the Muslim call to prayer and seeing men in skullcaps amid the neighbourhood hubbub was a strong reminder of the beauty of interfaith unity.
There is a Jewish district along the Golden Horn alluding to a strong history of acceptance and welcoming. Interestingly, during World War II, Turkey was a layover for European Jews fleeing Nazi prosecution. Similarly, in the present day, Turkey shelters migrants fleeing war-torn Syria. I spoke to a Syrian man selling bracelets who recounted harrowing experiences of car bombs in Damascus while studying for a masters degree in Media Production. A simple request from someone, such as asking for directions, can result in a quick life story that spans across the world. The rich diversity of languages, cultures and people give the impression that just like London, Istanbul is open.
There is so much culture and so much to explore. A museum pass kept me occupied for several days and allowed me to visit historical sites as well as art galleries. Istanbul is said to be the city of a thousand mosques, each one seeming grander than the next. The architecture and intricate paintwork inside the infamous Blue Mosque are breathtaking. As well as traditional and religious art, Istanbul boasts a modern art scene, hosting a biennial contemporary art exhibition that pioneers new artists and gives them a medium to vocalise feelings that would otherwise be impossible in Turkey’s political climate. The country appears to be caught up between the East and West. Although it is a secular state, for now, President Erdogan, a devout Muslim, would favour an Islamic overhaul. Many shopkeepers display the Turkish flag proudly to show solidarity with the government and its affiliation with religion. However, Turkey remains a favourite tourist destination, welcoming over 30 million visitors in 2017 so far and making billions in the process.
A popular tourist hotspot is visiting one of the nine Princes Islands just southeast of Istanbul located in the Sea of Marmara. I took an early morning ferry to Büyükada. Away from the mania of the mainland, time on the island passes slowly. There are no cars allowed, instead, the favoured modes of transport are bikes, horse carriages, or donkeys - the locals own scooters, it’s like stepping back a few decades. Girls are sold flower crowns to wear, almost as though it is a marker of visiting the island. The streets are lined with pine trees and wisteria, the scent of both follow you around. Peaking between luxurious Ottoman-style mansions are glimpses of the sea. Trotsky retreated here for four years when he was exiled by Stalin to write his autobiography and it is indeed an idyllic writer’s haven.
Immersing oneself in local culture is something that I believe travelling should include and in the modern age, there are no excuses. Problems such as getting lost and language barriers are lessened immensely through the wonderful apps available in mobile phones. Google Maps is incredible for navigating your way through a busy city and Istanbul proved no different. Similarly, Google Translate, particularly the feature where it translates text directly, enabled me to try things that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise. Technology is a useful tool that can enhance your prospects at trying to get an authentic experience. Istanbul is an ethereal city, rooted in history and holding its own identity in the face of a changing globalised world.