The great travel writer Bill Bryson and I have something in common. We both sat at the edge of Bosporus, once in our lives, and pondered about travelling further. He was looking towards east and yours truly towards west. Will come to that in a bit.
There are places, temples and monuments which take your breath away when you first see them, and, for the rest of your lives, it stays that way. It can be a whole city like Hampi, or the Oriental Palace in Beijing, or the pyramids of Egypt or St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. You just keep wondering how did they even conceive building them let alone actually executing the plan. Once such architectural wonder is Hagia Sophia. It just blows your breath away.
It is not easy to write (one should not even attempt) to write the history of one of the continuous inhabited city for many centuries in a blog. Constantinople, the modern day Istanbul is one such place. The history of the place goes back to 7th Century BC or BCE. It was developed into a great city first by the Byzantine empire and was their seat of power for many centuries before Mehmet the great of conquered it, and Istanbul became the crowing glory of Ottoman Empire.
Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya in Turkish was completed in 537 CE. I am sure the construction must have started decades earlier if not couple of centuries earlier. As Bill Bryson summed it up once, ‘We used to build civilizations now we build shopping malls.’ Hagia Sophia was formerly the state church of the Roman Empire.
I had mentioned in my blog ‘Two Great Teachers,‘ how teachers over the years shaped my life and about the book ‘The Great Leaders of the World,’ presented to me by a teacher when I was ten years old. The book had an essay about ‘Mustafa Kemal Pasha.’ Again, as I had mentioned in the blog, I must have read that essay a hundred times like I did all the other essays in the book. Well, Mustafa Kemal Pasha or Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881 – 1938) was a field marshal, revolutionary statesman and the founding father of The Republic of Turkey. Actually I didn’t remember much about Byzantine Empire or Ottoman Empire or Constantinople/Istanbul about which I studied in History lessons, when I first went to Istanbul. I was more interested in knowing about the Pasha the great.
When I had a chance to visit Istanbul in 2006, I just grabbed it. The first thing you notice about Turkey as you drive from the airport to your hotel, is, Turkey or at least the Istanbul part of it is not the same you see in Islamic countries (for e.g. the countries in middle east or even Malaysia or Indonesia). People are attired in western outfits and the trade mark Muslim beard is not commonly visible.
The host Mr. Efe, who invited me to Turkey was more, for want of better word, let me use this much overkilled word in India, ‘secular.’ I knew of two famous things in Turkey. The Turkish coffee and Turkish shaving experience. The Turkish shave went something like this (as I have read about it). Once you had this shave you would feel your facial skin had changed forever. They just did not shave. They dug deep into the skin, plucked each hair out of it’s roots and you ended up with a feeling that you might not able to sport a beard in your life. It was more of a surgery than a shave.
I had no inclination for this experience. So I settled for a Turkish cup of coffee. Turkish coffee is something different from any cup of coffee you have tasted before. Even for a coffee aficionado like me, it took some time to appreciate that coffee. The consistency of the coffee is thicker, much thicker, than the normal coffee. On a one to ten scale, if an Americano is one, the Turkish coffee will tilt the scale beyond ten. The consistency of the coffee is more akin to Sambhar than coffee and the tastes lingers in your mouth hours afterwards.
Coffee and official work done, I requested Mr. Efe to show me Istanbul and that’s how we ended up first in ‘Hagia Sophia.’
To just call Hagia Sofia is beautiful would be an understatement of a century. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the architecture, the majesty, the scale, the murals and the magnificent dome. So I will connect the Wikipedia page on Hagia Sophia here. Hagia Sophia attracts millions of visitors every year and the most visited place in Istanbul. The architecture is the pinnacle of Byzantine glory and the finest example of their building capabilities.
To write this blog, I tried to get the photos I had taken during my visit. But two days of frenetic search even by the official photos archiver of our family, Renuka did not produce any result. All I have is, a postcard of Blue Mosque & Ahmet Çeşmesi, fountain of Ahmed III, at the entrance of the Topkapi palace, which I bought for Rachna but did not post, is produced below.
Blue Mosque and the Fountain – Finest example of Ottoman Architecture.
I also visited the Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque and the palace. Unlike Hagia Sophia, there is no confusion as far as Blue Mosque is concerned. It was constructed by Ottoman rulers and as majestic as the Hagia Sophia.
Even if you are a regular reader of Newspaper and watch all the news channels, if you had blinked for a millisecond, you would have missed the recent news on Hagia Sophia. Mr. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, one of my childhood heroes, the father of Modern Republic of Turkey and their benevolent dictator, had turned the Hagia Sophia Mosque into a museum in 1930 as an example for the secular values he put forth for the republic. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it remained a museum till about a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Erdogan, the current president of Turkey had converted this back to a Mosque a couple of weeks back. He just declared the Hagia Sophia will now be a Mosque and the country’s highest court had concurred. Let us not get into the right or wrong about the decision. We (Indians) have our own disputes to take care of.
I can understand why our Government did not make any official statement (even if it is the so called right wing or Hindutva Government). After telling every one (every country rather) not to interfere with our internal affairs repeatedly, we can’t poke our nose in other countries’ affairs. Also we are not ruled (thankfully) by Mr. Trump who can say/tweet whatever he wants, and let his administration clean the ceiling when shit hits it. So obviously there was no reaction from our PM or the administration.
But, what surprised me about the whole affair is, why our media just did not cover it. There was some news in some obscure corner, hidden somewhere, which I probably did not see. Of course there were protests from Orthodox Churches, His Holiness THE POPE and UNESCO which I saw in BBC but not in our papers. The reason for the news blackout is not hard to guess. To be called ‘secular’ in India you have to be ‘pro’ something. The problem here is, if you support the conversion back to Mosque, you would be hurting the Christians and if you had opposed, then you had it. You can’t write anything against you know what. So the best thing is just to ignore the news as it never happened. Finest form of Indian Secularism.
I may be wrong here. But I tend to support an army dominance over ‘elected?’ rule only in Turkey. Turkey is the only country with a majority Muslim population which goes about its business (at least it used to), without talking/arguing/discussing about religion. All recent attempts by their army to keep Turkey secular have failed. So, Mr. Erdogan is fully free to do whatever he chooses to do.
One feels happy about visiting few places before they become what they are. I am happy that I went to Hong Kong when it was still a BOT (British Overseas Territory?) and Macau, a former Portuguese Colony before they were rightfully handed back to China and both became SARC. Don’t confuse SARC with SARS. Though both have Chinese origins, SARC denotes ‘Special Administrative Region of Republic of China‘ and SARS, as you know is ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.’ Seeing what is happening in Hong Kong now, one gets a feeling that you went there when it was one of the most fashion conscious cities in the world, where everyone carried a Gucci bag and lived in match box sized apartment or queued in front of an ATM machine while talking on a cell phone. Hope Mr. Erdogan will not make Istanbul (the highest populated metro city in the world) falls in to this category.
I am not sure if the millennials in India know anything about one of our former Prime Minister Mr. Chandra Shekhar (1927 – 2007). He and his band in the Congress Party (while he was in the GOP) were called ‘Young Turks.’ The term ‘Young Turks’ originally was coined for Mr. Kemal Pasha and his band in the army who had radical thoughts about modernizing Turkey. The term is widely used now to call any group in an organization who espouse radical or modern thoughts. History lesson for the day for the millennials.
So at last I come to where I started the blog. At the end of his travel through Europe ‘Neither here nor there: travels in Europe,’ Mr. Bryson, sitting with a coke in hand, looks towards east and ponders should he travel further into Asia but decides not to go. I sat on the same banks, sipping a cup of coffee looking towards ‘west,’ desperate to get into Europe. Bulgaria was a stone throw away and so was rest of Europe. But then, I did not have a valid visa, the problem Mr. Bryson, probably did not have.
One more year passed by before I put a foot in Europe. But I am not sure if Mr. Bryson did come to Asia later. I have not seen a travelogue from Mr. Bryson on Asia so I am assuming he has not visited so far. Does this make yours truly more widely travelled than Mr. Bryson?