Rumi, the Sufi Saint in Konya

Fig 1: The Konya Culture Centre contained exhibits of Rumi and all related events during his lifetime of Sufi work.

 

Fig 2: This particular exhibit showed Rumi discussing with his spiritual instructor, Shams of Tabriz, who changed his life forever & his manner of thinking.

Among the Middle Eastern countries, Turkey is second only to Israel in terms of having the most number of biblical sites.  According to Temizel & Attar “Faith Tourism Potential of Konya in Terms of Christian Sacred Sites” (European Scientific Journal, July 2015), Konya has biblical significance for the Christian world.  It was mentioned in the New Testament that Konya was one of the cities visited by Apostle Paul.

 

Today, however, Konya is famous for something else.  It is famous for its mosques, its theological schools and its connection with the great Sufi saint Jalaleddin Rumi (better known as Mevlana), the founder of Mehlevi order of whirling dervishes.  Rumi was a 13th century Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic.  Rumi’s influence transcends national borders and ethnic divisions: Iranian, Tajiks, Turks, Greeks, Pashtuns and other Muslims.  Today three countries claim Rumi as their poet: Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey.

 

Konya is about 225 km from Goreme by road.  It used to be a one-street town in 1972.  After 45 years, it transformed into a big bustling city, modern and vibrant.  We took a bus to Konya for one reason only…….to visit Mevlana Museum.  Unfortunately, the culture centre was closed by the time we got there.  A notice at the reception hall announced that a sema was supposed to be held on 17th December, the anniversary of Rumi’s birthday.

 

A sema (according to https://turkeytravelplanner.com) is a mystic religious rite.  It is an elaboration of the whirling Rumi did while lost in ecstasy on the streets of Konya in the 13th century.  A sema ceremony has seven parts symbolizing the dervishes love for God, humankind and all creation. The seven parts are: 1) praise for God, Muhammad and all prophets before him; 2) beating of kettle drum symbolizing God’s command “Be”; 3) Soulful music of the Ney symbolizing breathing of life into all creatures; 4) greeting symbol of the soul being greeted as the secret soul; 5) whirling and dropping of their black cloaks to reveal white costumes, symbolizing the casting off falsehood and  the revelation of  truth, with each dervish placing their arms on the chest to symbolize belief in  Oneness of God “the One”; 6) Prayer involving recitations from the Quran and 7) Recitation of the Al-Fatiha, first surah of the Quran.  Often Non-Muslims mistake Sufism as a sect of Islam.  Sufism is not a sect of Islam.  Sufism is more accurately described as an aspect or a dimension of Islam.  Sufi orders or Tariqas can be found in Sunni, Shia etc groups.

 

Fortunately for us on that day, the young caretaker, Ibraheem, who saw us fiddling with door knobs trying to get the doors to open, was kind enough to open the exhibit hall just so we could have a quick visit, since we came from very far.  We went down the staircase into a hall of the Konya Culture Centre with a number of interesting exhibits on display (Fig 1).

 

It seemed Rumi used to be a religious teacher until he met Shams of Tabriz.  Shams of Tabriz completely transformed Rumi from a learned religious teacher into the world’s greatest poet of mystical love (Fig 2).  Shams once told Rumi:

Your preoccupation should be to know ‘Who am I, what is my essence? And to what end have I come here and where am I headed and what are my roots and what am I doing this very hour and what is my focus?

(From Shems Friedlander of “Forgotten Messages”).

Its only knowing where we come from, can we appreciate where we are going. Life is not something that just happens. We are created for a reason.  According to Ata’Illah

The purpose of the rain cloud is not to give rain; its purpose is only to bring forth fruit”.

The Sanctuary

Fig 1: The fishermen’s boat getting a push out to sea to the waiting fishing vessels
Fig 2: If you’re an avid rider, Telaga Papan will give you hours of riding pleasure

I was suddenly awakened by the cold breeze sweeping through the tent.  The  morning was so still  I could  hear the thud of a tiny casuarina seed on the roof of the tent.  The entire stretch of the beach suddenly came alive with squid rigging.  A local boy strutted past happily with his meagre catch of four squids. As I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering  carpet of calm sea in the first blush of the sun.

 

The azan rang clear, breaking the silence.  The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees. A shoal of tiny fishes jump in and out of the water in chorus, fleeing the relentless pursuit of predator fishes.  A small boat was chugging by, with the fisherman standing  stoic on the bow, a posture reminiscent of a warrior in anticipation.  It was the break of dawn.  The sun was bursting through the myriad of pink and orange clouds, like cotton candies suspended in the horizon.  It was truly a sight to behold.  Telaga Papan was the perfect setting for one seeking spiritual inspiration and closeness to god through endless hours of zikir, dua and night prayer.  But for me, I was just grateful to be a temporary guest of utopia (Fig 1&2).

 

Telaga Papan is no longer the exclusive enclave it once was planned to be.  It was targeted to be a high-end development project of a serene, quiet beach resort for the rich by the Terengganu state.  The estate development was designed to be large, wooden resort-like beach houses.  Unfortunately many were built too far out to sea.  The sea had been fiercely eroding the beach-front, uprooting the casuarinas, washing away the sand and depositing it elsewhere.  A few of the resort houses were laid to waste by the relentless sea and the state development project was duly abandoned.

 

Telaga Papan is now a hive of activity, although of a different kind. The fishermen have invaded the exclusive beach.  They found the beach rather convenient, bringing in their fishing boats (Fig 3) and selling off their catch of the day on-site.  It has lately become a routine for the village people, coming to Telaga Papan on their motorcycles or lorries, armed with baskets, waiting for the fishing boats to come ashore with their catch. But of late the fishes have gotten smaller. The bigger ones have been netted off by the big fishing trawlers belonging to Thai nationals.

 

The monsoons will be coming again this year.  For four months a year, from end of October till February of the following year, there will be a lot of rain and little sunshine.  But the other eight months more than make up for it, promising beautiful dawns, exceptional sunsets, clear skies and memorable riding experiences on the beach of Telaga Papan. Then there is the fresh fish……bakar tawar, where little spice is used.  Its delightful flavor is derived entirely from the freshness of the fish  and the hot black chilli dip.

Yesterday When I Was Young

Suspended umbrellas on Jonker Street, Chinese New year, Malacca town

Someone said that if Leonardo da Vinci had to tweet five times a day, people would still be riding bicycles. But modern living with all the technology has made us empty.  We are mostly half-present with the other foot in the digital world somewhere.  Modern life has created an urban dweller who is more isolated in the big city than his ancestors were in the kampong.  Today, modern living fail me.  My astro television subscription got cut off, my attempt at online payment  failed, my mobile phone had a flat battery, and my laptop went missing.  There was no television to watch my favourite Fox movies, no mobile phone to chat on, and no internet to browse or “google” (it seemed “google” is now accepted as a verb in modern English).

 

Suddenly I had plenty of time on my hands.  My mind began to wander back to the 1960s.  Just how did yesterday’s  9 year olds lived in the 1960s and 1970s, back in the then little town of Alor Setar, with almost no technology?  We watched black & white television, and listened to only one radio channel.  People took time to communicate with each other by having real conversations and not through whatsapp.  Young people back then  took time to read print books because print media was the only way they could get any information and bask in their imagination.  I used to read a lot of  books, the  Enid Blyton Famous Five series and as I grew older,  spy thrillers,  such as “The Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsyth, first published in 1967.  I doubt any of my children ever heard of the book.

 

In the evening I would  cycle  outside on  the dusty  laterite road on my father’s bicycle twice my height.  Riding an over-sized man’s bicycle was tricky.  It required children to contort and wrap their bodies underneath the horizontal crossbar in such a way that their legs could reach both pedals, their hands could steer the handle bar while  safely remaining in almost perpetual motion.  If only a machine of perpetual motion is possible. Regardless, I landed headlong, together with my over-sized bicycle, into the green slimy  ditch when the bicycle veered to the side and the brakes failed me.

 

But nothing beat the experience of catching fighting fish in the dark murky swamps behind my kampong house.  It never occurred to me then that there could be a python or water snake slithering in the dark mangroves.  Now I would squirm at the sight of a rattlesnake on National Geography television.  We would be so engrossed with catching the fighting fish that we almost always hardly noticed  the setting sun.  On weekends, we  would go out to play with the morning sun and head home with the setting sun.  On one occasion, I remember a second cousin being chased around the kampong by his 80 year-old grandmother because he came home late.  He was hoping to outrun her as the chase would probably tire her out.  But with a stick waving in the air just inches above his head, he was not about to take any chances.

 

Back then a household would have one bread winner present to take care of the home. Parents of that period practically allowed us children to be doing our own thing. I would like to think I was much happier than  children of nowadays living in a big city like Kuala Lumpur.   Modern mothers, hovering over their children about homework, or in anticipation of some danger lurking round the corner and fathers who never were quite home is the norm nowadays.

 

But my father was always home at magrib.  I recall my father was a man of few words and deeply, deeply religious.  He was a chief clerk in the land office in Alor Setar, and he cycled to office everyday.  I remember I was 5 or 6 years old running around in my skirts when I joined my father for magrib prayer.  He never uttered a word as he turned around to check the saf.  His gentleness and patience encouraged us all towards prayers. He hardly laid a hand on us or caned us as far as I could remember except for that one time.  Perhaps it was to teach us some much needed discipline.  My mother on the other hand, was illiterate and not able to read except for some jawi with a little rumi.  She loved to socialize, visiting friends for long hours.

 

Don’t get me wrong, we children of the 1960s had our fair share of responsibilities.  We washed, starched and ironed our own school uniforms especially during secondary school days.  During those days the girls uniforms had box pleats and ironing starched box pleats was no mean feat especially if you had only coal-fired metal irons to press clothes. Coal-fired metal irons were heavy and impossible for a child to handle. But washing  school shoes on weekends was a breeze. We helped our mothers sweep the floor or buy groceries from the nearby shop run by a Chinese family.

 

I walked to school when I was seven years old.  When it rained heavily, the river would swell, the fragile wooden bridge would be swept away by the strong currents and we had to skip school that day because there was no way of crossing the river to the other side. Sometimes I would take off my school  shoes if it rained, at the risk of my feet getting cut by broken glass buried in the mud, only so that my shoes would remain  sparkling white when I finally get to school that morning.

 

School of yesterday was not as burdensome as school of nowadays.  There was no tuition classes when we were 10 years old.  But punishment was considered necessary.  Wrong answers in class would mean a painful crack on the knuckles with the corner of a blackboard duster by the teacher.  Knuckles would get swollen but we never felt the need to report back to our parents as we took punishment as part of learning.  Perhaps we were tough kids back then.

 

I would like to believe that the punishment paid off, turning many of  us into upstanding citizens.  We became decorated naval admiral, school teachers, scientists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers.  If there was anything to be proud of,  two prime ministers of Malaysia called Alor Setar home, one even returning to serve for the second time at 93 years of age.  Alor Setar was also home to the first woman deputy prime minister of Malaysia, an achievement for kampong boys and girls like us, many with parents who were unschooled and illiterate.

 

Yesterday when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame

The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned
I always built, alas, on weak and shifting sand………………………Charles Asnavour

TO SPAIN BY TRAIN

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“For many hours, I used to stand by the window of the K3 coach, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the steppes.  The steppes, populated mainly by horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands sometimes dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia today.  After a total of 26,000 kilometres of changing landscapes crossing China, Mongolia, Siberia, the Baltic and the Balkan states, I was convinced that the most comfortable way of travelling long distances is by train……this, despite having to spend six straight days in a cubicle 1.5 meters wide, squeezing between oversized luggage bags, tight bunk beds and often, caught in the cross-fire of contentious travel mates…..” (adapted from my first book “A Train To Catch”, 2016, Husna Kassim)

 

Train travel, as Paul Theroux would have it, is:

“…a far cry from the anxious seats of doom aeroplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger…”

(The Great Railway Bazaar)

 

Travelling on a train around Europe is far more complicated than crossing the Siberian.  Even though crossing borders of most European countries was simplified by the Schengen Agreement allowing a passport-free movement, getting from one place to another can be a headache if you are unfamiliar with the local ways or don’t speak the local language.  Carefully-laid plans get derailed.  Our first class Eurail tickets got downgraded due to ineffective communication at the chaotic ticket office at Lyon train station.

 

Despite everything, the train is still the most delightful and generally pleasant way of travelling around Europe.  We took the train about seventy percent of the time.  With air travel, the checking-in at airports (especially now with the phobia of Islamist terrorism), are long and gruelling.  The bus is probably the second most convenient travel option for journeys which take three hours or less because it is almost hassle-free.  You get to see miles and miles of rolling hills with rows of olive and rapeseed trees carefully tended.  The downside is the limited leg-room and the long hours.

 

High speed trains travel through Europe covering large distances quickly.  As these trains offer more comfort & service than regional trains, they are more in demand and reservation is necessary to ensure seat availability. Both raileurope-asean.com and eurail.com, recommended making seat reservations as far back as three months before travel but a traveller has to be vigilant about fine print, in case things don’t go as planned.

 

Renfe-SNCF en cooperation is one of the international high-speed trains that connects Spain and France.  It allows you to travel quickly and comfortably between cities like Madrid and Barcelona in Spain to cities like Paris, Marseille, Lyon in France at speeds as high as 240 to 255 kilometres per hour.  Some trains have facilities to charge-up your mobile phones which comes in useful.  Depending on the train, a wifi-facility can also be available. Some train stations provide lockers for your luggage.  I paid €5 for the storage facility for 5 kg bags.

 

But that afternoon, there seemed to be a lot more happening than lugging bags and boarding the trains.  Ten minutes after leaving the Valence train station, 100 kilometers from Lyon, I heard a thud as if the coach hit a wood stump across the track.  The train stopped immediately to investigate.  After what seemed like eternity, I heard the sound of a police patrol siren some distance away and I knew there was an accident on the track.  Immediately afterwards, an announcement in French came on the air. The passenger seated in front of me (a “couple”) kindly interpreted that there was an accident.  As we sat waiting, I was apprehensive.  If the accident did not clear in time, we would all miss our train connections.  An hour later, we were informed that it was a suicide.

 

It was another two hours before the train moved again.  It seemed that suicides on the train track was not uncommon.  In 2012, 12 people committed suicides on French railways between Saturdays and Mondays (according to amp.france4.com).  In France there are 11,000 suicides each year according to suicidesinfrance.tumblr.com.   Figures from Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development or OECD, indicated that France has one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe.

 

In France it seemed suicides tend to be public in nature than anywhere else, as if symbolic, making a statement or delivering a message to the society at large.  It made me wonder what the push was to complete the “final act”.  Throwing oneself in the path of a train travelling over 300 km per hour, takes a lot of ultimate desperation, hopelessness and despair for that final step into the realm of darkness, a ghastly escape from reality…….

THE BEDOUIN

Women pilgrims leaving the Masjid Nabawi after prayers
Three lorry drivers stop at R&R on Highway 15 between Makkah & Madinah

Going down the road towards Madinah, reminded me of one particular  taxi driver, who drove us from the Hajj terminal to Madinah on one of those soul cleansing trips.  Since most passengers were flying into Jeddah  for umrah,  we were brought to the Hajj terminal instead.  Despite the crowd, the immigration processed the passengers fairly quickly that evening  and we were soon out of the terminal.

 

Once out of the terminal, we went looking for a taxi.  Finding a taxi to take us to Madinah proved rather  troublesome since there were very few private taxis at the Hajj terminal.  One taxi runner quoted SAR1500 just to take us the distance of 250 kilometers away. We thought it was rather steep.  We were then directed to a private taxi presumably an arrangement of mutual benefit for both runner and taxi driver.  After the SAR1500 shocker, any lesser offer was deemed reasonable.  Later we found an even cheaper fare of SAR500, but only if taken from the international terminal.   It was already late in the night and we settled for the only taxi-driver to drive us to Madinah in his Toyota sedan for SAR1000.

 

The taxi-man, Muhamad, was a Bedou, for the Anglicised term “Bedouin”.  The word Bedouin comes from the Arabic word Badawi which means “desert dweller”.  Badawi are nomadic Arab people who have historically inhabited the deserts of North Africa, Arabic peninsula, Iraq and the Levant.  The Arabic term Bedouin was traditionally used to differentiate between nomads, who made a living  by raising livestock and those who worked on farms or lived sedentary lives in towns.

 

Bedouins tend to be small and thin.  One reason for this is that food is scarce in the desert.  But Bedouins love freedom thus the appeal for nomadic life. The number of true nomadic Bedouins however  is dwindling.  There may be less than 3% nomads left in Iraq, Libya or Saudi Arabia.  According to Wikipedia (https://en.m.wikipedia.org), there are over 10 million in Sudan, about 2 million in Algeria, some in Egypt, Iraq, UAE, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya etc.

 

Calmness and patience are valued traits. But the one thing that struck me that particular evening was Mohamad’s Bedouin hospitality.  Bedouins, it seemed are well known for gestures like breaking bread with a stranger.  Since we wanted to reach Madinah before 2 am, we didn’t stop to have a bite to eat before boarding the taxi.  Needless to say we were grateful when Muhamad stopped along the highway and bought us cups of good strong coffee with a pinch of cardamon added. Bedouin kahwa is a strong aromatic coffee made with cardamon powder, saffron and rosewater.  Later on along the journey he again bought us bananas and juice.

 

Arab drivers in Saudi were not much different from Malaysian drivers.  They both have little  patience when it comes to driving.   I have seen similar mercurial drivers on highways and roads in Malaysia.  Muhamad, small built, his face brown and drawn, probably in his forties (though he did look older, maybe because of the dry desert winds), was blowing his horn ever so often when he wanted to overtake other vehicles.  He seemed like a dangerous driver, keeping to the fast lane and weaving in and out between trucks and buses while overtaking.  Even though we were exhausted from the flight and the journey, I couldn’t sleep a wink.  I was  rather anxious watching the way Muhamad drove.  I thought 75% of road accidents were caused by young Arab drivers but Muhamad was in his forties.  One driver had his headlights on and kept pressing the pedal as if saying “Get out of my way”.

 

It was close to midnight and Muhamad was probably very sleepy. He found many innovative ways of keeping awake while driving on the highway.  He sometimes turned on the radio way up playing traditional Bedouin music, singing and clapping loudly.  And as if he suddenly remembered we were seated behind, he would  turn down the music.  Then he would unwound his head-cloth, put on his keffiyeh and silence returned as he drove quietly on.  Sometimes he would smoke and this routine he would repeat every now and then throughout the 250 kilometers  journey.

 

We arrived in Madinah in the wee hours of the morning.   We had little exchanges with Muhamad since he knew absolutely no English and we do not speak Arabic.  He had no use for the GPS to locate the hotel.  All he did was stop  fellow drivers along the way. After doing this for a number of times, one driver relented to show us the way.  What a colorful character Muhamad was, reminding me of Lawrence of Arabia movie…. a Bedouin with a curved sword in a scabbard ornamented with silver, laid across his knees, or the Arab-speaking nomads  in Hugh Kennedy’s “The Great Arab Conquests ”, who rode their horses over 200 miles a day to spread Islam. It seemed the Bedouins possess the same endurance, strength and loyalty as the Arabian horses they rode.

A LITTLE ROMANCE ON TRANS – MONGOLIAN EXPRESS

Trans Siberian Express train to Moscow
Getting directions at Beijing Central Station

Beijing Central station was a sea of people and the van dropping us was not allowed into the station.  It probably would take an hour or so just to get inside the station, judging by the size of the crowd building up.  I have never seen so many lines queuing up to buy tickets before.  There were at least 30 lines that morning. Getting into the main building was no mean feat, given the pushing and the jostling crowd.  It was absolute chaos. I remembered Sam the Chinese van driver telling us “In Beijing there is no time to be polite”.  There was no dignity at the station that day.  Proper queuing up would have been more efficient.

 

As the Trans Mongolian Express K3 train started pulling out of Beijing Central station, I felt excitement mounting.  After all the trip was in my bucket list.  I also felt a little hungry.  I heard that food served in the restaurant on the Chinese buffet coach was similar to hawker food found in Kuala Lumpur. And the good news was that it was halal.  On the contrary food served on the Mongolian buffet coach was rather bland, especially to a palette used to everything hot and spicy.

 

As I got to the buffet coach, I noticed it was nearly full. I was counting on meeting some interesting people travelling on the train. I found a quiet corner and began scribbling some half forgotten details about Beijing in my note book while sipping some green tea. Opposite to my table was a couple of bubbly middle-aged British ladies and a young male deep in conversation interspersed with giggles like two teenage girls,  sharing some jokes.  Thank God for mobile technology, I was sufficiently entertained so as not to feel completely abandoned.

 

After some thirty minutes, my text neck left me stiff and uncomfortable.  I had to refocus.  Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to initiate a little conversation with my neighbour.  I said hello and the two ladies, probably in their early 50s, responded with a smile. We started talking.

 

They were from UK; one was a business development manager and the other was in some hospitality services. The young male happened to be a Russian model I was told.  I recognized him while we were all waiting for the K3 train on the platform back in Beijing Central station.  I could tell he was a model by his gait and a polished look of self-indulgence.

 

When the train reached Ulan Bator, a young Mongolian girl and her friend boarded the K3 and occupied the cabin next to ours.  A big buxom lady later joined them.  The Russian lady was a teacher and even though neither she spoke any English nor I any Russian, I was able to learn through the Mongolian girl, that the Russian lady taught Russian language to a school in Ulan Bator.  Russian language was a second language in Mongolia just like English was to Malaysia.

 

The Mongolian girl, Tsatsral, was heading to St Petersburg to register for a university education.  It seemed that secondary school leavers in Mongolia tend to register for college or university education in Russia. Mongolian population was about 2.4 million(in 2014) and 50% of these were women.  It was therefore understandable that Mongolia wanted to utilize their women workforce efficiently.   Women’s high level of enrolment in higher education reflected female dominance in medicine, nursing, teaching and professional child care. This same trend existed in Malaysia from as far back as ten years ago.  Unlike the concern with female purity found in southwest, south and east Asia (Malaysia included), the Mongolians preferred fertility to purity.  Mongolian women however although not shy, remained subordinate to men, as in many Asian country, I supposed.

 

While walking down the K3 corridor towards the buffet coach I met a Chinese couple on their honeymoon.  They were planning to take a photo on the platform at Malinsk train station. The couple were from Beijing and decided to celebrate their honeymoon in St Petersburg. Taking the Trans Mongolian Express seemed to be the most romantic journey to embark for couples.

 

There is something undeniably romantic about train travel.  James Blunt in his song “You’re beautiful” dealt with fleeting moments of aching, unrequited longing experienced on a train journey. A study by East Coast Trains uncovered that 1/3 of Brits believed that rail travel was synonymous with finding “the one”.  Why is it that people were more willing to chat to strangers on trains? Train journeys tend to be more enjoyable, with respect to scenery, more spacious, and trains always arrive right in town with no crazy long-line check-ins beside being more affordable.  The next time you feel like some romance, try spending 6 days on the Trans Mongolian Express K3…you will never know who you meet.

 

 

(Adapted from the book “A Train To Catch”, published by Partridge Singapore, 2016)

UNFORGETTABLE ISTANBUL

Fig 2: The Bosphorus, as seen from the Bosphorus Gate of the Dolmabahce Palace

“If there was one single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” says the French writer, Alphonse de Lamartine and I share his fascination with the city.  Just as Hollywood never had enough of the city, I try to visit the city every few years to reminisce and rediscover.  Hollywood shot some top 10 movies in Istanbul.  Imagine the opening scene of the movie “Skyfall” with Bond in a motorbike chase of an enemy operative on the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.  Crime fiction British Dame Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel “Murder on the Orient Express” at a hotel in Istanbul called Pera Palas Hotel.  The novel centred on a detective, Hercule Poirot, travelling on The Orient Express train that ran between Paris and Constantinople (Istanbul) from 1883 to 1977.

 

Istanbul’s Historical Journey

 

Istanbul has been known by several different names, the most notable besides the modern Turkish name, being Byzantium, Constantinople and Stamboul.  The different names are associated with the different phases of its history and the different languages.  First it was the Greeks’s King Byzas who called the city by the name, Byzantium, a Greek name for city on the Bosphorus.    Then the Persians ruled it briefly after which came Alexander the Great.  Then the Romans under Emperor Septimus conquered the city after which Emperor Constantine the Great made Byzantium the capital of the entire Roman Empire and called it Constantinople (www.greatistanbul.com).

 

Istanbul’s later history was full of besieges: by the Arabs, then by the Barbarians and later by the Crusaders who destroyed and took the wealth.  In 1453, The Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II, conquered Constantinople.  It was renamed “Islambol” (city of Islam in Turkish), the capital city of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule lasted until World War I when Istanbul was occupied by the Allied Forces.  After years of struggle led by Kemal Ataturk against the occupying forces, the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nationalist, was responsible for the birth of the Republic of Turkey.

 

Istanbul’s Districts

 

Istanbul is the largest city and a principal seaport of Turkey.  The city is made up of 39 districts with 25 districts in the European side and 14 districts in the Asian side which include some districts that we probably passed through such as Besiktas, known for Dolmabahce Palace (Fig 1) and the internationally renowned football team; Fatih (Istanbul’s largest district & prime tourism area including Sultan Ahmet area); Bey, Beyoglu (Istanbul’s Soho with Istiklal Caddesi as the main thoroughfare, Taksim, bohemian Cihangir); Atakoy (upmarket waterfront property), etc.

 

Fig 1: The Dolmabahce Palace is located in the Besiktas, on the European coast of the Bosphorus and served as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from 1856-1887 and 1990-1922. It has 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths (hammam) and 68 toilets. The palace was home to 6 sultans (up until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924) and where founder of the Turkish Republic,Kamal Ataturk died..

 

The Bosphorus

 

A cruise down the scenic Bhosporus Strait is worthwhile.  The Bhosporus (Fig 2) waterway runs between the Black Sea on the north, Marmara Sea on the south, continent of Asia to the east and Europe to the west. Lining the Bhosporus are beautiful homes of the rich and famous.  Seaside estates along the straits cost anything between 28 to 300 million Turkish Lira (according to mansionglobal.com). The most expensive property was sold to a Qatari businessman Abdul Hadi Mana Al-Hajri in 2015 for a whopping US106 million.

 

Sultanahmet Area

 

The tours we took to heritage sites were mainly around Besiktas, Beyoglu and Fatih districts in Istanbul.  Sultan Ahmet area is in Fatih, where attractions like the famous Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar are located. The Blue Mosque (Fig3)  is the most important mosque in Istanbul standing next to the Byzantine Hippodrome in the old city centre.  The mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque because of its bluish tiles on the wall)was built between 1606 to 1616.

 

Fig 3: Unlike many great architectural monuments built to signify victory, the Blue Mosque was built by the 13 year old Sultan Ahmet 1, after the Turkish military was defeated by the Persians in 1600s.

 

In the quieter part of the Sultan Ahmet area, are shops selling beautiful colourful mosaic and pendant lamps (Fig 4).  And if you walked further towards Gazi Atikali Pasa Camii, you might come across a Turkish peddling prayer beads or sometimes people call them worry beads for zikir purposes (Fig 5).

 

Fig 4: Beautiful Turkish pendant and mosaic lamps, seen here in Anatolian colours and signified Turkish culture.  The traditional form of lamp were first used in Istanbul bathhouses, mosques, and similar places.

 

Fig 5: Zikir beads or tasbih being peddled by a Turkish near Gazi Atikali Pasa Camii in Sultanahmet area. Zikir beads or prayer beads, also called, worry beads are made from kuka wood or boxwood, or semi-precious stones such as agate.

 

We visited the Spice Bazaar (Fig 6) as part of the Dolmabahce Palace & Two Continents Tour we signed up for.  The Spice Bazaar was originally named the Egyptian Bazaar, built using the revenue from the Ottoman eyelet of Egypt in 1660.  The bazaar was and still is the centre for spice trade in Istanbul but other types of shops have been added on in the recent years.  There are over 700 shops in the bazaar. Ceramic shops were some of the shops that you can find in the bazaar.  You can also find beautiful shawls and  pashminas at a bargain in the Spice Bazaar.

 

Fig 6: The Spice Bazaar, is one of the largest bazaars in the Eminonu quarter of Fatih district of Istanbul (after the Grand Bazaar). It is one of the biggest covered bazaars in Istanbul.

 

Taksim Square, Beyoglu

 

Taksim is situated in Beyoglu, the European part of Istanbul and the heart of modern Istanbul.  It is a major tourist and leisure district, famed for its restaurants, shops and hotels.  The most important monument at the Square is the Independence Monument.  Taksim Square is an important hub for public transportation, acting as the main transfer point for the municipal bus system for Istanbul.  Taksim Square promised a vibrant nightlife if pub-crawl is your thing.  It is where most festivals are held such as the recent 2017/2018 New Year celebration.  Taksim Square is also a landing for flights of doves and you can actually feed seeds to them. If you happen to be at the Square, be vigilant however, because nothing is as it seemed.  I was caught off-guard by an innovative form of begging by the Birdman (Fig 7).

 

Fig 7: The Birdman in Taksim Square, feeding the doves.  This was where the 2017 New Year celebration was held.  Taksim Square is an important hub for public transportation, acting as the main transfer point for the municipal bus system for Istanbul.

 

Istiklal Street

 

The Taksim Square led to Istiklal Street.  If you walk down the Istiklal, you can listen to some street performers playing their music, or stop for kebab at the restaurants, or shop at the department stores, art shops and bookshops, displaying priceless Sufi books such as Shems Friedlander’s “Forgotten Messages” on the life and time of the famous Sufi, Rumi.

 

At the end of the Istiklal Street, you can actually sit down to have a cup of tea or cay, or a glass of pomegranate juice or sample the roasted chestnuts (Fig 8). Pomegranate is native to Turkey, both in the coastal as well as the mountainous areas up to altitudes of 1000 metres, mainly in the Aegian, the Mediterranean and the South western Anatolia regions.

 

Fig 8: A vendor selling roasted chestnuts on the busy Istiklal Street in Taksim. The Istiklal Avenue-Tunel nostalgic tram line starts in Taksim.

 

A Symphony Of Sounds and Scents

 

Istanbul is the place to be.  There is the Turkish cuisine, the hammam experience, excellent museums, the architecture, open-air markets and bazaars, grand imperial mosques and historic churches.  Istanbul is a symphony of sounds and scents.

 

The haunting call for prayer or azan by the muezzin reverberating over Istanbul five times a day, from the minarets of over 3000 mosques.   Then there is the sound of the bustling city; the street musician playing the accordion on the corner of the Istiklal; the sound of laughter; and the distant sounds of the  sky larks flying over the Bosphorus.  Then the  scents emanating from all corners of Istanbul.   The unmistakable aroma of Turkish coffee; the hookah tobacco; exotic spices and herbs at the Spice Bazaar; the heavy oriental musk perfumes on the street; the sweet smell of apple tea, not forgetting the smell of sweat on the tram on Istiklal.

 

Then we have the onslaught of Istanbul by tourists with an endless appetite for the exotic.  A lady tourist travelling alone on her way back to Bangladesh from Rome.  She was engaged with United Nations (UN) and currently working for the UN funding body and the Bangladesh government.  She must be doing well because the next time I caught up with her, she was ready to buy off a carpet for TL6000 without so much as a blink.  And I always thought bargaining is part of Asian culture..

 

And then there was the expatriate from Kerala travelling with his spouse.  He looked like a retired Hindi film star. He had been employed in Bahrain for 34 years at a time when the Bahrain Dinar was three times the value of the US Dollar.  It seemed quite a number of Indian tourists on Istanbul stop-overs were expatriates working in the Middle East.  There is another wave of tourists that landed on the shores of Istanbul….loud tourists with deep pockets from Mainland China.

 

Watching the Bosphorus at sunset from the grounds of the Dolmabache Palace, reminded me of a famous Napoleon Bonaparte saying : “If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital”.