A Trip To The Treasure Trove Of The Middle East

29 Aug 2019
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

Tradition meets modernity in Istanbul, the charming city that spans two continents. Aftab H. Kola writes…

Straddling two continents astride the picturesque Bosphorus strait, the water channel that divides Europe and Asia, Constantinople has long been the cornerstone of three great empires – Eastern Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. Renamed as Istanbul, the city wows its visitors with a range of sights, amazing food, and shopping. The city’s lifeline is charted along the Bosphorus, where its waters merge with the Sea of Marmara. In Istanbul, the Oriental ethos and gracious hospitality blends with West’s business culture.

The trio of pinnacled edifices – Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace – along the skyline identify Istanbul to the world. Sultanahmet, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to the iconic Hagia Sophia and the elegant Blue Mosque. Teeming with a sea of people, the cobbled streets of the Sultanahmet with its quaint shops, chic cafés, and interesting kitsch is distinctive of Turkey. The Grand Bazaar, or ‘Kapaliçarsi’ to the locals, dates back to 1461 and is a covered warren of more than 4,500 shops. Needless to say, it’s a great place for shopping.

Ambling down the Istiklal Avenue through the heart of modern Istanbul that spans from the steep cobbled gradients of Galata, to the massive open space of Taksim Square – a part of Beyoglu, is a great experience.

The city is a also a foodie’s paradise and Turkish cuisine, along with myriad others, is found almost everywhere, and do make sure to try out the iconic Turkish döner kebab and special salted yoghurt drink ‘ayran’.  Istanbul is also a city of defining contrast, where Roman aqueducts loops across boulevards in front of a modern city hall. The Princes’ Islands, along with the many resorts abutting the Marmara and Bosphorus, represent the city’s waterfront boundaries.

As the French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine wrote in the 19th-century: “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”

My favourite place- Topkapi, a sprawling hill-top palace that commands spectacular views of the Sea of Marmara, as well as the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus waterways. A museum since 1924, it’s rich in collections of jewels, weapons, silken gowns, and Ming porcelain, including Nadir Shah’s Peacock Throne and the famous encrusted Topkapi Dagger, plus thousands of rare treasures personally collected by the Ottoman sultans. The complex has splendid reception rooms, massive kitchens, and separate historic women’s quarters.

Highlights- Take a memorable cruise down the swift waters of the horn-shaped 32 km Bosporus strait, and bisect the ancient city at the point where Europe and Asia touch. Water-side mansions, large palaces, and plush villas can be viewed during the cruise.   

Lowlights- The Turkish cultural hub can be a bit on the pricier side.

Souvenirs- Hand-knotted carpets or kilims, pillowcases, bags, or boots; Turkish sweets called ‘loqum’ (Turkish Delight); hand-painted quartz or ceramic tiles; spices and garments.

Getting there- Oman Air operates regular flights from Muscat to Istanbul.

Where to stay- While all major hotel chains are represented in the Turkish city, the Yasmak Sultan Hotel in particular is ideally-located on the fringes of Istanbul’s tourist heartland of Sultanahmet. For this and other bookings visit Trivago, Booking.com, Agoda or other travel accommodation sites.

Top 5 things to do

1. Explore the 6th-century Hagia Sophia – a Byzantine-era cathedral.

2. Marvel at the Blue Mosque with its 21,043 hand-painted tiles and six minarets.

3. Visit the splendid Dolmabahce Palace museum which fronts a half-mile of the Bosphorus.

4. Buy exotic spices, caviar, dried herbs, honey, and more at the Ottoman-era Spice Bazaar.

5. Take in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, with nearly one million artifacts on display.

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