Ancient Istanbul Turkey

The ancient capital of the world’s most powerful kingdoms: Roman, Byzantine and the Ottomans and the present times thrilling summer destination, Istanbul is a living piece of history, culture and art which spells out the glorious past of all those who compete to hold this fascinated and beautiful city.

A well-documented past shows that Constantinople was besieged by Muslims in 674AD and was administered by the Umayyads and Abbasids until the Ottomans finally took over in 1453 AD. What is more exciting about Istanbul is one never gets tired of seeing it, every time it’s pacific and adoring breeze offer you extra charm and liking.

Something similar happens to me when I learnt that IAMCR (International Association of Media and Communication Research) is organising a conference in Istanbul’s newly and modern Kadir Has University, which stands only a few meters away from the Golden Horn.

It is surrounded by famous and historic neighbourhoods that include: Cibali, name after a soldier who first entered through settlement walls and Unkapani port. From this point one may also walk to Bosporus where East meets the West and also the Black Sea shake hands with the Sea of Marmara.

Although, I approached both the organisers and the Turkish visa consulate quite late but finally Ryan Air takes me to Sabiah Gokcen airport.  Back in November 2002, I came to Istanbul to cover elections for a Pakistani newspaper Daily Pakistan when the city was decorated with sky-high portraits of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s.

Being no stranger to Istanbul having visited the city a number of years ago nothing could have prepared me for what was in store this time whilst coming through Ataturk Airport. On my arrival, I was pleasantly dumbstruck by the changing face of Istanbul, having being reduced to a spectator looking through the coach window. I could not but notice cranes, laborers and fabulous buildings dominating the Istanbul skyline.

Having been a spectator to an interesting round of talks in our department as to whether the EU will admit predominately Muslim Turkey into the ‘club’ and if so what role will a rejuvenated buoyant nation play in the Middle East and Europe.  For many scholars, perhaps the attitude of EU towards Turkey reminds us of the spectre of Islamophobia.

Without doubt, Turkey has emerged as growing economic and military power in the Gulf and Europe with its economy growing faster than Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Greece’s economies combined. The irony being that it was these very nations that were staunchly and resolutely opposed to Turkey’s accession to the EU. In the last 10 years, Turkey’s charismatic leader Erdoğan’ has put the nation on the path of economic prosperity through his dynamic policies and it is hardly surprising to find that the nation is ranked as having the 16th largest economy in the world. 

I couldn’t escape of my past memories when in 2002 I exchanged Turkish Lira and paid for little things in thousands but now Turkey’s currency is amazingly strong compared to those times.

In an hour long coach journey, I arrived at the old part of the city and getting ready for my final destination in Sultanahmet where I booked a hotel so that I could have a spiritual overhaul by staying nearby Blue Mosque, (Sultan Ahmet Camii) a place that attracts and grabs everyone attention regardless of their beliefs.

While walking to board a taxi I noticed children from around the world were singing at a roadside staged event ‘Istanbul meetings of the world cultures and youth’ I stood to watch their performance that gave me a feeling of having a juicy bite of a cold pineapple.

Sultanahmet is the centre of historic remains dates back to sixth century, encapsulating Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule. It holds explicit memories of the past from the magnificent piece of art in the form of the Blue Mosque through to the amazing Hagia Sofia museum in Sultanahmet square.

This square can be reach by tram or even by walking, one obtains a close view of many other historic shines, mosques, water wells and other buildings of classic grandeur. The centre is surrounded by restaurants, cafes, souvenirs shops whilst the giant gardens attract the visitors’ attention and activities are a plenty where people are busy engaged in displaying their artistic flair and playing with instruments of various natures.

These recitalist love travellers who rely on these activities to supplement their livelihood and like anywhere else the natives are more inclined towards foreign travellers because they bring in much needed and welcome income. Throughout Sultanahmet the migrant workers often sell leading branded perfumes at a pittance and yes unsurprisingly it is all counterfeit.

By the time, I checked in it was almost 6pm, I decided to take a quick shower and I rushed to catch the Maghrib prayer at the Blue Mosque.  The moment I entered this great mosque I couldn’t halt my emotions and within seconds it seemed to me that my soul starts getting its diet. When it comes to manners, presentation and style, Turks have no competitor. The lebas (dress) of Imam, the way of making dua (prayer) and Azan (they have a special chabutra/place within a mosque) are all unique.

Here I met a Saudi businessman, who told me that he comes every year to Istanbul to blue mosque and especially to the Eyup Sultan mosque, located in Eyup Sultan and is a resting place of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) great companion Hazzrat Abu-Ayyub Al-Ansari.

While sitting in the mosque, I looked deep into my spiritual feelings and realise that the Blue mosque also holds the unique character of its establisher; Sultan Ahmet, who was more of a saint than a ruler. I was thinking how many people may have embraced Islam just after visiting this mosque, Very quickly, I got the answer as after the Isha prayer, few visitors from the Balkan nations surrounded the Imam and were passionate to know more about the Sultan and the mosque.

He described how every year several people who come to visit here ended up adopting Islam as their faith. To the casual observer, it may appear as an emotive conversation but it is grounded in reality that can be personally experienced and not heard of or seen on screens. Perhaps, it is fair to say that the fragrance of Sultan’s Ahmet’s righteous and truly just nature is ever present even today. The amount of tranquillity and peace of mind filled my heart and lifted the burden somewhat.

The next five days at the IAMCR conference besides debating, sharing and discussing series of interesting topics with scholars, journalist and activists from around the globe, I took time off to visit Eyup Sultan mosque and shrine, a place where contentment, spiritual fluffiness escalates and Eman rises after every salah. People who visit the shrine bring sweets and other traditional food and distribute it amongst the tourists. Outside the mosque, I pictured a little child who posed like Sultan Ahmet and realised that people of honour and commitment never die but are immortal. Every day was full of adventure and I managed to even visit Istanbul’s stunning mosques: Bayezid, Suleymaniye and Eyyup Sultan.

I enjoyed my time in this great city and particular was struck by the wonderful hospitality at the Hagia Sofia museum where the IAMCR participants were served with traditional Turkish cuisine, drink and music. 

The wonderful hospitality was even extended to a visit to the historic archives where I read that a passage stating that whilst the Europeans were busy expelling the Jews it was none other than the Ottoman Sultan who give them refuge and whilst the potato famine ravaged the Irish peoples it was again the Ottoman Sultan who came to their aid.

By Irfan Raja
Freelance Journalist