Friday 29 August 2014

Turkish Delight: On Top of The World

Galata Bridge, Eminonu Pier and Sultanahmet in the backdrop

View from the Galata

Another wonderful view from the Galata Tower

View from the Galata 4

Inside the Basilica Cistern

Another view of Basilica Cistern

Traveling to other countries and exploring different cultures is a wonderful experience. Most people that I talk to are afraid to visit another country ‘alone’. I never had any such apprehensions while visiting Turkey. I believe that it is easier and more feasible logistics-wise to travel alone as it gives one absolute freedom to pursue anything that one fancies.
Most (if not all) good pictures of Istanbul include the Galata tower in their backdrop. It is one of the icons of Istanbul’s historic skyline. On my third day in the city, I had wanted to visit the top of Galata tower and had reached it the other evening, but I could not reach its top due to closing hours. My first mission on Saturday was to reach the top of Galata and take a look at the majestic surroundings of Fatih area. After finishing my usual breakfast (yogurt, boiled egg, cucumbers, chocolate-toasted bread and watermelons) I took the tram to Karakoy. Walked up the steep incline to arrive at the basement of Galata Tower. Fortunately, the queue was not very long and I was able to purchase the ticket within minutes of arrival. Once you line up in the queue, you have to wait for your turn to buy the ticket and then wait for the next elevator lift to arrive at the ground floor. The elevator can accommodate around 6-7 people and it takes the visitors to the floor just below the sky deck. The reception at that floor has a gift shop and a photography setup where one can get pictures taken while wearing Ottoman attire.

After two short flights of stairs, the Sky deck awaits eager visitors. At any given time, no more than 20 people can use the Sky deck so one has to move faster or give other people some space to navigate. The Galata tower was built of wood as a lighthouse in 528 by Byzantine empire Anastasius Oilosuz. It was rebuilt of stone masonry and called Christea Turris(Christ Tower) by the Genoese in 1348. The tower is almost 67 Meters high from the ground and 140 Meters high from sea level. 

I have been to some really tall buildings and have seen skylines of New York City, Chicago and St. Louis. I had seen many cities of Pakistan from places up top. Despite all that experience, the view from Galata tower blew my mind away. It was probably the most beautiful view I had ever seen. There's a verse by Pakistan's national poet Iqbal(in Persian Language)which says that “If there is a heaven on earth, it would have to be in Kashmir”. I partly agree with this opinion as I've witnessed the green magic of Kashmir, but this, this was probably better than that. It was an out of the world experience.

I was smitten. I took a lot of pictures from the top but what I felt at the moment cannot be adequately described in words or pictures. It was a feeling, of unadulterated joy. Shakespeare wrote many centuries ago that 'a thing of beauty, is a joy to behold'. I had a similar experience. While doing the photo shoot from the skydeck, I was approached by a young Turkish woman who wanted her pictures taken with the historic skyline as the background. I did my best to do as I was instructed. I just hope that she was pleased to see the results. After spending almost 30 minutes up there, I came downstairs(without getting the Ottoman attire pictures) and went back to Sultanahmet.  

My next stop was Basilica Cistern, a place that I couldn't visit last year due to the reluctance of my friends to visit any place that had tickets for entry. The queue for entry was not that long and a group of ridiculously blonde people was ahead of me in the line. I had wanted to visit the place ever since I read Dan Brown's novel "Inferno". Much of its action and drama had happened in and around the Cistern. It was an interesting place, with ancient pillars supporting so much weight till today and waterways that had fish, visible from the surface. The two heads of Medusa were a sight to behold. 

The Basilica Cistern was constructed in the 6th century, during the reign of Emperor Justinianus. It is 70 meters wide and 140 meters in length. The dome covers an area of 9800 meters square, and has 336 marble columns arranged in 12 rows each. The capitals of these 9 meter high columns are a blend of Corinthian and Ionic styles. The water reserved in the cistern was transported from the Belgrade forest which is 19 kilometers away from the city. 
On my way back to the hotel, I saw Kaan and we got to talking. He invited me for lunch at the volunteer office. We had some time to kill so we roamed around the hippodrome area and still managed to reach the volunteer office ahead of time. I wasn't particularly hungry so I took a pack of Aryan and a piece of watermelon. At lunch, I met Meltem and Mehmet, who were deputed to look after the Gülhane area. I walked with them to Gülhane Park and talked to them for some time. Mehmet is studying forest engineering and his hometown(in the Anatolian heartland) had many forests which is a good thing for him, career-wise. He lamented that popular Turkish dramas are distorting the historical events and that he looks slightly like Behlul. He mentioned his fondness for Erdoğan and the popularity of AK party. Meltem explained to me the social customs in Turkey for young adults. 

While we were sitting near the entrance of Gülhane park, Some American tourists came over and asked for directions. We offered to accompany them to their destination, and one of them asked "how many?". We told him that we were volunteers providing free information. He said that he got it, he was jokingly asking 'how many of you would accompany me?"(there were 4 of us :P). That incident justified my liking for American people and how fun-loving they are. 
After a wonderful discussion with Meltem,I walked from Gülhane towards the German fountain and struck up conversation with Ahmet Kaya, Aysenur and Mustafa. It was there that I met Hatice, and discussed my favorite American dramas with her for many hours. Hatice(Hatijay) is the Turkish equivalent of the Arabic name “Khadija”. There was a brief interlude as I had to take a quick detour of my Otel to call my mother, but we resumed our conversation after that. She loves Sheldon(like myself) and had watched different TV series. She was shocked to hear my indifference towards Game of Thrones and gave out a spoiler regarding the next 'Hunger Games' movie. Ahmet taunted her as a "nerd" while I kept telling him that he was too young to be a volunteer and that he should stay and home and enjoy life for a while. 
Throughout my interactions with the volunteers, American pop culture references were a common factor between me and them. It truly is a globalized(Americanized?) world.
Hatice was one of the very few girls I met who did NOT want to become a doctor or a psychologist. Some unruly Turkish men approached us and asked the girls about the German fountain in broken English. They were obviously trying to harass the poor souls and If it were in my power, I'd have gotten them arrested. The most memorable part was the arrival of baby Majed. Her mother brought his walker near us and we were stunned to see a cherubic baby with golden hair and blue eyes. Her mother asked us something in English(to our mighty relief) and we talked to her for a while. 

She let us play with Majed who enjoyed playing with water. Hatice fell in love with him and asked him to remember her when he grew up. Afterwards, we were sitting at the steps of German fountain when we got invaded by pigeon-poop. Ahmet got a stain on his trousers while I got my shoes dirty. Hatice was kind enough to lend a few wet wipes from a Turkish family so that I could clean up my footwear. We witnessed a very ‘modern’ problem while sitting near an ancient monument. There were three Turkish girls at the fountain who were trying to get a picture taken with the monument. First they tried themselves, then they asked Ahmet, then someone else, but were still not satisfied by the end result and were arguing about it for almost an hour. 

As soon as the clock struck 5.45 pm, volunteers from nearby thronged to the fountain and waited for the supervisor to come, to mark their attendance. She arrived a few minutes late, and in a few minutes everyone was on their way home. 

I was supposed to accompany my Mexican friend to a concert in Beşiktaş but I was stoop up, so I walked over to sea-side and sat there for a while.
Later in the evening, I visited Burger King outlet in Sultanahmet area where a teenager bumped into me, got confused and said "Thank you"!! I replied with “Bişey değil” which means “not a problem”(Its Spanish equivalent is de nada). He was with some of his friends and they all laughed. He said ‘Sorry’ correctly after that.

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