Words & Images By: Mohd Zarith Md Hanipah
In May 2014, I had the unexpected golden opportunity to travel to Istanbul. I was supposed to go to Milan but when I did my online check-in, I was astounded that my destination was Istanbul! I did not check in online as I thought there was a computer or system glitch. As I Arrived at KLIA, my horror materialised! The flight was delayed and I was re-routed to Istanbul and from there on I had to take a later Alitalia flight to Milan. At first, I was disappointed but then the passion of travelling in me was beyond boiling point and took me over. I saw it as an adventure and my prayers were answered.
I was overjoyed and couldn’t hold my excitement. I was very lucky too as I was given a room in Istanbul Radisson Blu because of another cock up, which was with Turkish Airlines. By midnight, I was finally being let in the Virgin Australia flight to transit in Abu Dhabi. On another leg of the journey with Turkish Airlines, as usual I was chatty and friendly with the cabin crew. They were so nice and gave me a “Fast-Track” card and subsequently I came out from Istanbul Attarturk airport earlier than expected. It was quite a privilege and I got out in next to no time. I changed some money and familiarised myself with Istanbul’s city trains. It is worth to note that, Istanbul has the second oldest underground train network behind London in late 1875 and also the first urban rail line in continental Europe. I checked myself in the hotel and didn’t waste my time to explore the city.
In fact, when I was in the train itself, I met a young man originally from Syria but now residing in Cyprus. His name is Ammar. He was having a vacation in Istanbul. He has been to Istanbul many times and guess what? He offered to me to be his free tour guide and to show me the city. I was more than happy to have at least someone who has local knowledge and saves me a lot of time on research. He was so wonderful and turns out very knowledgeable about the city. I was so grateful for his time. However, I knew the first place that I needed to run to is the incomparable Blue Mosque or officially known as Sultan Ahmet Mosque. We headed there as our first stop. At the time, it was Asar prayer time and we did our prayer there. I can safely swear that it was the most serene, peaceful place that I’ve ever been. The interior is grandiosely magnificent with many chandeliers hanging in different tiers and sizes. The Blue Mosque name came about with regards to the blue colour which dominates the ethereal dome’s interior. It was exquisitely decorated in a floral, leafy theme and Quranic verses. I felt like I was in heaven. As I gazed outside the mosque, the Bosphorus Sea was in front of me and Asia was on the other side. I just pictured it and thought to myself how amazing is this place that has been standing for centuries and what it was like then. It was overwhelmingly touching to the extent that I didn’t want to leave. Throngs of tourists, from the barricaded area wouldn’t know how it must have felt and more so too as a Muslim . I made prayers for my parents, family and friends and I hope I will have the same serenity for years to come, as well as for everyone in this world. One thing I forgot to mention is the ablution area. It was very traditional and clever engineering from the height of the Ottoman Empire that crafted this facility. It was as if the water from the mountain was channelled to the mosque and I drank the water and it was pristine, refreshing and an absolute treat. We took some pictures inside and within the mosque’s courtyard there is a miniature version of the Blue Mosque so that people could comprehend the sheer scale of the mosque and the intricate artistry of the exterior façade. We came out of the mosque and went to Hagia Sofia that was just walking distance from the Blue Mosque. Again, it was breathtaking to see the Byzantine era structure in all its glory. I was told that it was the world’s biggest cathedral to begin with but when Muslims gained control of the city, it was turned into a mosque, with later addition of minarets. The city too gained its name from Constantinople to Istanbul as the consequence of the war. One thing that is evident though, the Muslim did not desecrate nor demolish the historical religious building and left it as it is. As a result of the Ottoman Empire preserving Hagia Sofia, we saw both religious symbols and angelic decorations blended in harmoniously and possibly the only monument as such. It is now regarded as a museum but I heard the calling of the prayer too.
As we left the two spectacular buildings, we headed down to the city centre to get some food. Ammar introduced me to the freshly cooked mussels and of course Turkish kebabs. After, as it was getting late and I was exhausted with the flights and the tour, I went back to the hotel . We stayed in contact through social media and planned to meet again the next morning. As Radisson Blu Istanbul is quite out of the city, I decided to call it a day although there is free shuttle coach back and forth. In the morning, I had a quick breakfast. I grabbed cereal bars and apples provided and met Ammar at Sultan Ahmet park. The park was beautifully manicured and kept with all kinds of flowers including tulips. It was spring and everything was very beautiful. The layout is very relaxed and not too sculptured. There were two cats that came to us when we were lying on the grass. The friendly furry creatures were just charming and we fed them generously with some of our packed lunch. Its safe to say that the cats were plumper as we left. At the time, I realised that I didn’t see any dog in Istanbul. Then I remembered that Turkey is an Islamic country. This is truly a city where the feline rules. We had a quick nap under the tree shades and from thereon, we went to the extraordinary Bosphorus Bridge that separates the Asian and European continents. Bosphorus’ waters flowed underneath and many ships of all sizes made their way there. It was an engineering feat.
We then went to the historic section of the city and leisurely strolled along the eccentric Beyoĝlu district. There were many cafes, restaurants and dessert shops. Ammar kindly treated me with an array of Turkish delights including the famous baklavas and Turkish coffees. I wanted to pay for both of us but he insisted and we had a lovely time. As I could only spend a few hours more in Istanbul, we headed to Pera Museum which displays works of arts from the Ottoman Empire and also works from the renowned artish Rembrant. Beyoĝlu really fascinated me as it is blended with Genoese, Venetian, Greek and Turkish elements both in architecture and the society. On that note, I rushed back to the hotel and got the free airport shuttle. Ammar and I kept in touch and I invited him for a visit to Malaysia and the Philippines. Istanbul really inspired me and I hope to return to this magnificent transcontinental, cosmopolitan cultured city and explore other parts of Turkey too.