It was when I was sitting on the first floor of the charming Hafiz Mustafa café, located at a busy crossroad in the Sirkeci district, that overlooks the bustling narrow street below with its constant chime of the trams, roar of the busses, impatient hoots of the taxis and cars, jingle of the bicycles, and the steady stream of pedestrians, that I realised I am in love with the city of Istanbul. From our view on the first floor, which extended down the hill, allowing us a glimpse of the Golden Horn, we sampled a local dessert called kunefe (made with phyllo pastry, stringy cheese, syrup, and pistachios, and served hot), and devoured the most divine chocolate ganache cake we’d ever tasted, as the friendly waiters entertained our four-year-old son and offered him a complimentary glass of lemonade. My husband and I watched in contemplative silence as the people buzzed about the city in the evening, as though it was the weekend. When does this city sleep? I wondered.
Growing up, I was always fascinated with bygone eras. There’s just something about buildings (or ruins of buildings) and relics from antiquity that ignites something within me. So when I decided to visit Istanbul recently, I became enchanted with the city. About a month before we left, we began our homework. With me being the history buff and my husband being our self-appointed travel agent (thanks to TripAdvisor, online forums, and conversations with family and friends who have visited before), we planned for our seven nights in the only city in the world that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. All this included watching documentaries, reading books/blogs/reviews and even downloading helpful iPhone apps that served as our personal tour guides. My husband’s grand-uncle, who has visited the city five times before, sent us a quaint fax of must-see places. (His kind-hearted effort resulted in us visiting one of the best museums we’d seen that contained a re-enactment of the fall of Constantinople, called Panorama 1453.) Another friend arranged for us to meet a business associate of his in Istanbul, Sherif, who would show us around.
Istanbul is a city that exudes life, and contains an aura that cannot be described so easily in words. It is a mix of the ancient and the modern, remnants of the Byzantine Empire along with imperial Ottoman structures and modern edifices that dot the city. We opted to stay in the Old City, within a walking distance to the historic sites: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Eminonu Port, and Gulhane Park, the oldest park in Istanbul – something my son thoroughly enjoyed.
Islamic Interest in Istanbul
Abdullah bin Bashar Al Khath’amy narrates that he heard from his father, who heard from Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who said, “You will liberate Constantinople, blessed is the Amir who is its Amir, and blessed is the army, that army.” (Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal, Awwal Musnad al-Kufiyyin, No. 18189). There have been many attempts by the Muslims to try and conquer Constantinople but none were successful until the year 1453 when 21-year-old Sultan Muhammad (Mehmet) Al-Fatih also known as Mehmet the Conqueror, finally defeated the Byzantine Christians. This victory resulted in the Ottoman State becoming an Empire and they went on to rule for the next six centuries.
As I stood in the Hagia Sophia, looking up at the domed ceiling with the most beautifully inscribed Arabic calligraphy, I imagined the young Sultan Mehmet II, who immediately after having conquered Constantinople, marched into the thousand-year-old church and had a muezzin call out the adhaan, effectively rendering it a mosque from that day onward.
Most of the mosques that were built by the Ottomans were inspired by the Byzantine era, particularly the domed Hagia Sophia. Thus the Blue (or Sultan Ahmed) Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque, and many others contain a lot of domes, with the interiors decorated with tiles and other fine artwork. After a beautiful Jummah prayer at the Suleymaniye Mosque, it was delightful to see families picnicking on the lush green lawns in the complex. The mosque, like most other imperial Ottoman mosque complexes, was built with an adjoining madressa, school, library, public kitchen, hospital, and hammams (public baths).
Another revered mosque is Eyup Sultan, which houses the tomb of one of the greatest sahaabah, Hazrath Abu Ayyub Al Ansaari, who hosted Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when he migrated to Madinah. He fell in battle during the Arab assault in Constantinople around 670 and was buried there and today you will find a beautiful mosque that Sultan Mehmet II ordered to be built to honour him. We took the ferry across the Bosphorus to go to Eyup Sultan Mosque on a sunny Saturday morning, where we found ourselves in the midst of a nikah ceremony, as well as traditional Turkish circumcision ceremonies of a few young boys who were dressed in Ottoman regalia to mark this special moment in their lives. According to the Research Centre for Islamic History, Culture and Art in Istanbul, there are twenty nine graves of the sahaabah in Istanbul, all treated with respect and preserved during the various periods of rule in the city.
The Relics Chamber, located within the Topkapi Palace, also draws a significant amount of Muslim visitors annually, all eagerly awaiting the opportunity to view the belongings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), his family members, companions, and other Prophets (peace and blessings upon them all). For me personally, this was the highlight of my trip. Being able to view Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) hair from his beard, footprint, sword, seal, bow, the swords of the caliphs and the sahaabah as well as other relics belonging to the Ahlul Bayt, such as Sayyidah Faathima’s (RA) and Imam Hussein’s (RA) clothing, was an overwhelming and emotional experience. The staff of Prophet Moosa (AS), a pot belonging to Prophet Ibraheem (AS), the turban of Prophet Yusuf (AS), as well as previous keys of the Kaabah from centuries ago, are displayed here. A haafidh recites the Qur’an daily over microphone within this area of the museum.
Through the Eyes of a Local
While we enjoyed the experience of using the trams (which can get claustrophobic during peak hour) we welcomed the offer by Sherif, a hospitable and kind local, who showed us around the city in his car. “Istanbul is overpopulated and traffic here is very bad. There are over four million registered cars in the city,” Sherif told us as we traversed through an unbelievable gridlock on a weeknight, on our way for supper. We ate the best kofte (meatballs) on the terrace of a three-storied restaurant, Findik Kabugunda Kofte, which overlooks the Golden Horn and the Bulgarian St Stephen Church. Thereafter we had Turkish tea and coffee (definitely an acquired taste!) at a café along the Bosphorus with a view of the Bosphorus Bridge, its colourful lights illuminating the surrounding area. If you’re a cat-lover like me, you’ll welcome the friendly rubs of the cats all around the city, especially in the mosque yards. That night along the Bosphorus saw a gorgeous feline make himself comfy on my lap for the entire evening!
Due to the recent unrest, we were two-minded about visiting Taksim Square. However, Sherif accompanied us there (having only being reopened to the public prior to our arrival in Istanbul) and to Istiklal Avenue, the pedestrian street that’s over a kilometre long and home to shops, cafes, theatres, galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. The presence of armed forces did nothing to soothe our nerves. This modern part of Istanbul is frequented mainly by the youth and students.
Initially sceptical about taking our four-year-old with, we found Istanbul to be incredibly child-friendly. With playgrounds literally all over the city, families are always out together. From my son’s perspective, Miniaturk (similar to Durban’s MiniTown but on a grander scale, complete with multilingual audio guides on every structure) and Istanbul’s Cevahir Mall (the largest in Europe until 2011), which has an indoor rollercoaster and an entertainment galore for kids, rank high among the best things about the city.
Since my bookshelf at home contains five volumes of The Mathnawi by Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (RA), naturally, I wanted to visit the Mevlana (as he is affectionately known in Turkey) Museum in Konya. However, it was proving too costly before we left for our trip so I resigned myself to accept that I would probably have to visit some other time. Thanks to Sherif, who insisted that we check again for flights since it is quite economical, we found return flights for the day from Istanbul to Konya for 19 Turkish Lira (excluding taxes) on the low-cost airline Anadalu Jet (equivalent to SAA’s Mango Airlines). So our second-last day was spent in peaceful Konya, away from the chaos of Istanbul.
Our trip would have been incomplete if we didn’t buy any lokum (Turkish Delight) and my husband insisted on buying the most genuine and tastiest of this confection. This quest of his led us to a part of Istanbul, through narrow alleys where the locals speak no English, but their kindness evident through their hand gestures as they assisted us in locating a small, 148-year-old family-run business called Altan Sekerleme. The generous and humble owner allowed us to sample their authentic lokum (no chemicals and dyes) made with fresh pistachios, pomegranate, honey, and a range of other nuts and fruit. The result? We left the shop with ten kilos of the best Turkish Delight (perfect gifts for family and friends) at a fraction of the price we would have paid at the other bazaars.
I left Istanbul content and in awe of the captivating history of the land, the beautiful hues and designs of the magnificent mosques and buildings, the peaceful melodious sounds of the adhaan, the incredible views of the Bosphorus, the sumptuous flavours of the local cuisine, and the warmth of the people I encountered in the week I was there.