Traveling by a single Pakistani girl: Istanbul is calling

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Nine months ago I was facing the premature end of a promising new career opportunity. As another victim of the pandemic that reverberated around the world, I decided to return to my hometown, Islamabad, to do the rest of my duties remotely. Realistically, I knew it could take months for new work to show up. As a career starter, I had a busy schedule since the beginning of my bachelor’s degree; the thought of staying home all day without bothering me was a daunting prospect. Remember, this happened amid statewide bans and strict restrictions on outdoor activities. I needed a plan, and travel was tempting.

Turkey seemed like a natural choice. In recent years, Turkish television dramas have taken Pakistani screens by storm. Series like “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (“Great Century”), “Intikam” (“Vengeance”) and the most popular “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” (“Resurrection of Ertuğrul”) have settled in our collective hearts. This has resulted in a huge surge in tourism and the demand for products such as traditional jewelry and confectionery. Although the current fascination is mainly cultural, it speaks for a deeper bond between my country and Turkey, rooted in a shared Islamic heritage and admiration for personalities like the founding father Ataturk.

The basilica cistern. (Shutterstock photo)

Although I hadn’t shared the on-screen excitement, my own fascination with Turkey was well established. Most of my family has already been there. I had visited them myself a few years ago, but only for a two-day conference that allowed them to stay in Ankara for a few hours; since then I wanted more. I checked out some of the organized tours that run from Islamabad. Most offered an inexpensive seven- or ten-day package for a quick trip to the big cities, but none of them were attractive. I wanted the freedom to set my own itinerary and felt like I could come up with a plan that better suited my pace.

When I started sightseeing, I was overwhelmed. Turkey has so much to see and so much of everything! I realized that I could have an experience combining the dense green forests of Eastern Europe, the hot arid plains of the Middle East, the golden beaches of the Mediterranean and the exquisite waters of the Aegean Sea without crossing Turkish borders. And this was just the physical landscape; the history of a millennia-old civilization and a rich cultural milieu were within reach.

With limited time, I wanted to experience the absolute greatest extent of Turkey that I could capture. This was how weeks of research began, and a rough plan for a fourteen-day trip quickly turned into an almost one-month itinerary. The only benefit of not working full-time was the option to take longer vacations. Fortunately, my savings (and some careful travel planning) enabled me to have the experience I was aiming for. After countless days of city selection (and with regret for those I couldn’t) I had my travel map ready. In view of the COVID-19-related standstills and the resulting delays, I would not be able to start the trip until the end of May.

This is the first of a weekly series of articles sharing my travel experience on the Turkish map. From historic sites and local cuisine to interactions with the people of each city, I’ll take you across the country through my memories.

Arrival in Istanbul

My Turkish Airlines flight landed on the tarmac on Friday morning. After collecting my luggage, the first thing I did was go to the Turkcell kiosk to buy a local SIM card. Data connectivity on the go was an absolute necessity; I thought of Google Maps, restaurant reviews, and local transport timetables. After checking before departure I knew the Turkcell Tourist Welcome Pack was best for my needs. The process was completed in less than 10 minutes and I started looking for my means of transport.

My tour of Istanbul was split into two parts that marked the beginning and the end of my Turkey experience. For the inaugural excursion, I decided to stay in the historic Sultanahmet district, close to many sights. There are several ways to get to the city from the new airport, including the inexpensive and very convenient Havaist bus service that will get you downtown. However, I used my hotel’s paid shuttle in the hope of getting into town quickly after the stressful last few days. I was only a seven minute walk from Hagia Sophia Square. It is important to mention that you must have your HES code (Life Fits Into Home, “Hayat Eve Sığar” in Turkish) to check into a hotel, use any intercity transport, and even eat at certain restaurants. This is purchased before you leave for Turkey and is essential for traveling in the country.

The first view of the Great Mosque Hagia Sophia.  (Aiza ​​Azam for Daily Sabah)

The first view of the Great Mosque Hagia Sophia. (Aiza ​​Azam for Daily Sabah)

After moving into my room, I quickly freshened up before going straight to the Blue Mosque. The first thing that strikes you as you venture out onto the cobbled streets is the number of voices calling from all sides. They greet you in a friendly but urgent manner, ask where you are from, invite you to take a look at their goods, offer lunch menus to be scanned in or ask if you need a tour. It never lets up, whether you’re near a historic monument or hitting the sidewalk in search of a supermarket. While not dissimilar to other major tourist hubs around the world, it is still an overwhelming introduction to the city for someone who can still find their way around.

As with all mosques in Turkey, every necessary cover is provided at the entrance, both for those who wish to offer prayers and for the occasional visitor who needs appropriate clothing for a place of worship. This consists of hijabs (headgear) and open dresses or ankle-length skirts. As it turned out, only the main hall of the Blue Mosque was open, the rest closed for renovations. Friday prayer was already over, so I offered namaz (one of the five daily prayers), took a short tour, and left shortly afterwards. I left the main entrance and crossed the courtyard to Sultanahmet Square.

And here I was greeted with a sight that I had studied in pictures for years: the Hagia Sophia.

The opportunity to visit this eternal monument can mean different things to everyone. For me it was the emotional fulfillment of a long-cherished wish, similar to what I had experienced when I first saw the ancient pyramids of Giza. I took a cup of tea from a salesman, sat on a bench and looked at the building, but I wasn’t about to go inside. This was a long-awaited opportunity and I wanted to build on it. My family had described the moment when both mosques shouted the adhan (call to prayer) at the same time, so I sat waiting for the call to the asr (afternoon prayer). At the appointed hour, the muezzin of Hagia Sophia made the first call, which was repeated by his counterpart in the Blue Mosque. They went on in tandem, verse after verse, in a territory that had heard the same call for centuries. It was a unique experience.

Great mosque Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  (Shutterstock photo)

Great mosque Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. (Shutterstock photo)

After that, I found a small restaurant nearby, had an early evening meal, and then went home.

Topkapi Palace

I had booked a combined Istanbul Welcome Card Tour for the Basilica Cistern, Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia. It allows you to visit all three attractions within three days with a choice of time slots. I’m not a fan of guided tours as I prefer to enjoy the experience in peace, so this option fitted well as the guide stays with you for the first 30 minutes to orientate your visit, after which it’s at your own pace further. The package includes an audio guide that you can download to your phone, includes entrance tickets, and offers various maps for the city and selected attractions. You can also skip the ticket line and save time. In my case, this turned out to be unnecessary as the weekend curfew for residents and the reduced tourism due to COVID-19 meant hard-to-avoid lines.

The palace is divided into four courtyards. The first includes the Hagia Irene, the Imperial Mint and the Archaeological Museum; the second consists of beautiful green walkways that lead to other sections such as the harem, the imperial council hall, the armory, the kitchens, and the audience hall; in the third courtyard you will find the library of Sultan Ahmet III, the treasury, dormitories and important Islamic artifacts; The final courtyard includes the Revan (Yerevan), Baghdad, Mustafa Pasha and Mecidiye pavilions with great views of the Bosphorus. Keep in mind that a full exploration of the entire complex, which was a city in itself in its heyday, will take several hours. Plan to go there first thing in the morning and you can be ready by the late afternoon.

The beautifully decorated buildings in Topkapı Palace.  (Shutterstock photo)

The beautifully decorated buildings in Topkapı Palace. (Shutterstock photo)

A big highlight of the tour for me was the collection of some of the most sacred relics of Islam: the staff with which the prophet Moses divided the Red Sea, the swords of the first four caliphs and the water bowl of the prophet Abraham, to name a few. Here you will also find the preserved footprint, sword and water bowl of the Prophet Mohammed. For the section with these displays, you need to cover with a hijab. Upon entering, you will hear a live recitation of the Koran, which is performed without a break. Remember that photography is not permitted in any area in this area. So take your time with the exhibits. I decided to go back a second time before leaving.

The harem, for which a separate ticket is required, is well worth a visit. Although it consists mostly of empty rooms with few ornaments or artifacts, the architecture, interior design and history of the various living spaces are worth seeing; it also pampers you with an exquisite view of the Galata Tower from the Queen Mother’s court. Not to be missed is the palace exhibition with over 350 clocks and works by Ottoman and European masters. I found the collection of pocket watches particularly breathtaking. There were pieces of all sizes with inlaid gemstones and gemstones, and many showed finely crafted landscapes, flora or fauna.

My last stop on the way out was the palace kitchen. What I liked best was the dessert kitchen, a huge brick hall with incredibly high ceilings. It had a series of huge pots and kettles balanced on brick and wood stoves, large ladles, fire tongs, and the like. It could easily be thought of as a swarm of bees overwhelmed by the scent of spices, cooks shouting instructions to their assistants, rolling out pastries for baklava or chopping walnuts and pistachios for helva at breakneck speed.

It was a great way to end my journey of discovery of how the Ottomans ruled an empire from a palace.



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