A worthwhile 12-hour layover

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul. PHOTO | COURTESY
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Even if you aren’t Muslim, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul will knock your socks off.

Feet in polythene papers, shoes in hand, I felt dwarfed by history, time and the genius of architecture as I stood in the middle of the mosque referred to as Blue Mosque.

Light shyly bounced off the blue tiles on the walls which is easily one of the last examples of Ottoman classical architecture.
Outside the six minarets, which are these tower house/ lighthouse-like structures that rise up in the sky, framed the mosque like some mythical ship docked ashore. It’s gigantic.

“It’s mind boggling that when this mosque was built in 1609 (I was reading a pamphlet), civilisation had gotten to a point of creating something so complex both in science and in design!” I told Shukri Adan, my friend.

We had some 12 hours to kill on transit to London and had decided to take advantage of Turkish Airline’s programme called Touristanbul, where international passengers on transit through Istanbul with a waiting time for at least six hours can spend the day touring the city’s historical sites with a guide at the expense of the airline and Turkey’s tourism ministry.

You are provided with breakfast, lunch, paid museum and park fees and free ground transportation to and from the airport.

“It wasn’t done at one go,” Shukri said to me earlier comment, “ it’s a work of two centuries of development and is a cross of Christian and Islamic architectural elements and is the last of its kind in this classic period.”

Later, we stepped outside into the 8-degree cold and peered out meekly through our balaclava masks, gloved hands thrust deep in our pockets. We trailed the other group of passengers to Hippodrome of Constantinople, a horse racing track built by the Romans in 200 AD.

It was the centre of life for over 1,000 years and of Ottoman life in Istanbul for over 400 years. We saw the Obelisk of Thutmose III monument and the Walled Obelisk.

We later stood at an ice cream van in the square and watched the ice cream man serve ice cream and do tricks with his ice creams.
I was more intrigued at how anyone can eat ice cream in those dreadful temperatures. The sky remained grey. Trams rumbled not too far away. A school of pigeons ignored us. Tourist couples on holiday walked hand in hand.

Hagia Sophia

We then went to Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom, as it’s known, a museum that was formerly an Orthodox patriarchal basilica, then a mosque. It was as gigantic as most things we saw in Turkey’s historical sites.

Every historical monument seems to compete for grandness. This particular one was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years.

Lore has it that supernatural powers helped construct it. Men seemed to have built these buildings to impress God or Allah because all of them either shot to the sky or were just a demonstration of man’s evolved ingenuity and craft. If buildings were related, this one would be the Blue Mosque’s first cousin.

1,200 Shops

We later went to the famous Grand Bazaar which is one of the oldest covered markets in the world. We are talking 58 covered streets and over 1,200 shops.

You will get pretty much everything there; jewellery, pottery, spice, carpets, leather products, copper silts, silver and gold jewellery.

Walking through this market was like walking through a time machine, even though obviously things have changed with the world, this market still possessed the charisma of the olden times.

We later sat in Sofa Cafe, a wonderful cafe on Minar Mehmet street, a small warm and cosy spoon with tables covered with white linen. Opposite was a tattoo parlour.

A tram-line ran outside the cafe. Men in dark jackets laughed and smoked in the streets. Some Motown blues streamed in the cafe.

Before we ordered we asked— befittingly — for Wi-Fi. Then their special tea later came in small antique-like silver kettles. Shukri and I shared a delectable cheesecake.

The waitress didn’t speak English so we communicated with our hands and eyes and smiles.

Shukir later left and I sat there alone, staring out in the street soaking in the ambience. I ordered a double whisky, soaked in as much of this special moment as I could because I knew I would be back. Something about Istanbul, spoke to the repressed loner in me.