Alluring Istanbul Links Cultures, Religions and Two Continents and Offers Something for Everybody

Devout Hindu Finds Space in Istanbul’s “Blue Mosque”
Which She Can Relate To

by Radhika Mehta, Ottawa
Special to Simerg.

I so wanted to eternally hang on to those wonderfully uplifting feelings, that I went and bought a couple of beautiful Iznik tiles to bring back home with me, and even a quick daily glance at them washes my very heart and soul with serene and peaceful vibrations

ISTANBUL…A mystical and magical metropolis inhabited by approximately 13 million people, where avant-garde blends perfectly with conservatism, where contemporary gently weaves itself with tradition and time-honored culture. It is an unforgettable city that leaves its mark in the hearts and minds of anyone who visits it. My family and I also fell for its ultra-modern charm and old-world attraction…it was impossible not to!

The Bosphorus is the 32 km (20-mi)-long strait which joins the Sea of Marmara with Black Sea. It separates the two continents, Europe and Asia. The width of the Bosphorus varies from 500 meters (1640 feet) to 3 km (2 miles), its depth from 50 to 120 meters (164 to 394 feet), averaging about 60 meters (197 feet) deep.

We began our stay in Istanbul with a boat cruise on the famous Bosphorus, the jade-colored strait whose waters separate Istanbul from Europe on one side and Asia on the other. After the delightful Bosphorus cruise, it was off to visit the very popular tourist destinations of The Spice Market and The Grand Bazaar, the over 700 year old labyrinth-like shopping arcades dotted with tiny retail stores selling exotic Arabic spices, Turkish kilims, gorgeous pottery and tiles, cheap designer knock-offs and anything else under the retail sun!

The Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi in Turkish) is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. It was built of wood after the Conquest of Istanbul around an old Byzantine building which became the part of Old Bedesten (Old Bazaar) today, and got bigger and larger throughout the centuries with the addition of new sections and inns. Today it covers an area of approximately 31thousand square meters with its over 3000 shops (some even say 4000), 17 inns (Han), 61 streets, over 20thousand employees, 4 fountains, 10 wells, 2 mosques, several cafes and restaurants, change offices, a police station, and 22 gates. It resembles a giant labyrinth and can be a little complicated for the first time visitor, but after a couple of visits there you can familiarize with it because streets are arranged almost on a grid plan, and shops tend to group themselves according to the type of goods they sell.

It was a great experience just walking through the maze-like passages, where in a time gone by, Ottoman royalty would indulge in shopping sprees along with their concubines to beautify their palaces and harems.

The following day started with a visit to one of the eight wonders of the world, the grand and impressive Haghia Sophia. The massive structure was originally built by the Romans during the 6th century as a church, with incredibly ornate Byzantine frescoes adorning its ultra-high ceiling and numerous walls.

The ancient Byzantine church, built by Justinian I between 532-537 AD after the Nika Riot, was later converted to a mosque with the addition of minarets in mid-15th century. The remarkable structure with its 56m high immense dome is a museum today in which you can see both Christian and Islamic art. There are good examples of the Byzantine mosaics as well. For about 1000 years this was the largest church in the world, and glory of the Byzantine Empire.

The church was later on invaded by the Ottoman Turks and consequently converted into a mosque by constructing minarets to its exterior facade and adding structures in the building’s interior which depict a strong Islamic influence. This was an awe-inspiring edifice dating back over 1700 years with so many of the wall and ceiling paintings preserved in their original state and form.

Our next stop was to pay respects to The Blue Mosque, one of the largest places of worship for Muslims. Followers of Islam from all over the world converge here to offer their prayers. It is a massive building, well kept and fervently preserved. Just outside in the courtyard leading up to the inner sanctum sanctorum there is a flurry of noisea nd activity as the tourists and locals all wait for the guards to open the doors to let them inside the main praying area. Whatever mayhem and chaos was outside completely disappears once you step inside the holy chamber. Peace and tranquility descend despite the throngs of worshippers silently praying inside this hall too. It was such an inspiring and humbling experience to see the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, all bending down and quietly getting up in unison, time and time again during their prayer call. But serenity is not the only hallmark of this renowned mosque as there is breathtaking artistic beauty on its walls and ceiling too.

This 17th century mosque, near Haghia Sophia, is famous for the beautiful blue tile work ornamenting its walls. Its surrounding six slim minarets distinguish it from other mosques which normally have two or four minarets. It was built by architect Mehmet Aga by the order of Sultan Ahmed I as a complex in seven years and became the most important mosque of the city, right in Sultanahmet square.

Exquisite Iznik tiles in gorgeous floral prints adorn the inner chamber’s ancient walls and from the ceiling drops a gigantic chandelier that is lit with traditional oil lamps.

However, the real beauty of this legendary mosque lies in the spiritual and divine ambience that permeates through its historical walls and surrounding sacred environment. How else could a devout Hindu like myself experience the spiritual energy and holy vibes floating around this sanctified structure of stone and marble. It is the religious faith and belief that spiritual believers bring to the steps of this place, be they Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews etc., that touches the very core of one’s inner and deeper humble being. And in my opinion, that is what truly makes this mosque magnificent and grand. I personally feel that every spiritual visitor that may have come through the doors of this mosque may have left some divine energy and vibrations behind that are picked up, felt, spiritually experienced and ultimately cherished by visitors that follow thereafter. In my mind, this is the only logical rationale that explains how a non-Muslim like myself could experience such deep spiritual sensations in a non-temple-like atmosphere. I so wanted to eternally hang on to those wonderfully uplifting feelings, that I went and bought a couple of beautiful Iznik tiles to bring back home with me, and even a quick daily glance at them washes my very heart and soul with serene and peaceful vibrations.

Iznik Tile - brings back memories of Istanbul's spiritual impact

We finished our sightseeing tour of Istanbul with a visit to The Topkapi Palace, where the all-powerful Ottoman Sultans formerly resided and where they once indulged in their opulent and often decadent lifestyles with multiple concubines and harems, pampering Turkish Hamams etc. It was ironic how one could feel a spiritual high and a human low in a matter of minutes in two distinct places that were only a few walking steps from one another!

Topkapi was the first Ottoman palace to be built (1466-1478) in the newly conquered capital of the Empire by Mehmet II. Located on the spot where the foundations of the city were first laid in ancient times by Megarian Chief Byzas in the 7th century BC, the palace boasts one of the most beautiful views of Istanbul, incorporating the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the two shores and the sea of Marmara. Unlike the European palaces, Topkapi is not a single monumental structure but a more organic complex made up of various kiosks, gardens and areas spread over the tip of the historical peninsula at the entry of the Golden Horn. Topkapi Palace served as the residence of Ottoman sultans for about 400 years, until Abdulmecid built the Dolmabahce Palace. In its hey-days, there were between 8-10 thousand people living in the palace, mostly being the Janissaries.

In concluding, Istanbul was everything that I had fascinatingly read about and mentally imagined, but wait, it gave me much more, as it sent me back home with an offering of spiritual peace and soulful harmony….an experience that I will treasure in my heart for as long as I live.



Photo Credits: Turkish Culture and Tourism Office

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One thought on “Alluring Istanbul Links Cultures, Religions and Two Continents and Offers Something for Everybody

  1. It could not have been expressed with such depth …. thank you for your lovely article. you made me fall in love with my city once more. But do not forget the truth that “the beauty is in the eye of the beholder” says the Master… no doubt you can see so much wherever you look at….

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