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The Middle East (Part 1/8) - Turkey - Anatolian Delights

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

"If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital" - Napolean Bonaparte

Cappadocia - hot air balloons at dawn
Ballooons at dawn over Cappadocia: an iconic picture of this stunning region


This trip took place in the late summer of 2008, three years before the conflict in Syria began. In the intervening ten years, the classic Middle East overland route between Istanbul and Cairo, traversing Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, has disappeared from all but the most adventurous backpackers' itineraries. Syria of course is still wracked by civil war and is impossible to enter, whilst the other countries listed above are considered far too risky by many, or simply in the wrong neighbourhood. This is a great shame, because in all my time travelling, this trip stands out as one of the most rewarding in so many ways. It was a superb budget destination for one thing - a six week trip to the region was managed with only about $2500. Secondly, the scenery was superb. Spanning historic cities like Istanbul, Damascus, Jerusalem and Cairo, natural splendours like Cappadocia, the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts and Wadi Rum to world heritage sites such as Petra and Palmyra, this region really has it all. Thirdly, the food and drink in this region is outstanding - Middle Eastern food is incredibly varied and interesting, and eating out is almost always a joy. Finally, the people - almost everywhere I went, but especially in Syria, travellers and tourists alike are treated as welcome guests and, often, leave as friends. I went away from this part of the world with a warm glow and a new understanding of hospitality. I am truly grateful I did this trip, and hope - though don't expect any time soon, if ever - that one day it will be a viable option again. We need it to be safe, not just from a travel perspective, but from one of world peace and harmony in general.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul: not very blue

Istanbul - not Constantinople

I'd taken a flight from Krakow to Burgas in Bulgaria, a budget flight with Wizzair, and travelled overland from there to Istanbul. A fairly straightforward bus journey from there took me through Thrace - the sliver of Turkish territory that is deemed to be European - through pleasant if unspectacular rolling countryside, mainly farms and small villages with occasional larger settlements such as Kirklareli. This region has been fought over for thousands of years and has changed hands between the Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians and Macedonians countless times. It's where Europe officially ends and Asia begins, but who can really decide on such things? The Bosphorous is generally accepted as the dividing point between these two colliding continents, but Georgia and Armenia, several hundred miles to the east, are also in Europe, so geographical vagaries shouldn't concern us overly. Turkey has always occupied a fault-line, a place where cultures and religions have clashed or mixed for thousands of years, and as such it should be considered as belonging wholly to neither. Istanbul, or as it used to be known, Constantinople, is a perfect case in point. A great Greek civilization sprang up here, and it was known even earlier as Byzantium - after Rome, one of the most important centres of Christianity. The Ottoman Empire conquered it in the 15th Century and created one of the finest cities that exists in Europe or Asia - and also one of the greatest cities of Islam. This wasn't the first time I'd come to Istanbul - I'd arrived previously in 2002 by ferry from Odessa in Ukraine, a two day chug across the Black Sea in a slow boat, at dawn on the Bospherous. Arrival by land is of course a trifle less romantic, but you get a feel for the immense size of the place this way. As we made our way along the glittering blue Sea of Marmara, an entree to the main course that is the Mediterranean, we came upon Istanbul by increments. You seem to enter the suburbs of the city about two hours before arriving to the centre; its estimated 15 million inhabitants (a conservative estimate, some say), crammed into semi-shanty suburbs, stretch out for miles and miles in every direction, and you get a sense of the size and importance of the place from this fact alone. That this is not the capital of Turkey does not overly concern the average Istanbulli; Ankara is the boring, administrative hub of the country much like Canberra is in Australia or Brasilia is in Brazil. Istanbul is where it's at, and everyone knows this is the real heart and soul of the country. It's also where most people come to search for work from across the vast Anatolian plain that stretches to the east. Istanbul, to many is Turkey.

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sofia: expect crowds

End-of-empire melancholy

Orhan Pamuk, arguably Turkey's greatest writer, said the following about Istanbul, which I partly subscribe to: "For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy or (like all İstanbullus) making it my own". Istanbul presents the visitor with some glittering tourist sights, and when you are around the so-called 'Golden Horn' or Sultanahmet (old town) area of the city which contains the majority of its crown jewels, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and Topkapi Palace, you are surrounded by majesty and grandeur. You are also surrounded by a lot of tourists and related tourist paraphenalia in a relatively concentrated area. Yet, walk a few streets away into another neighbourhood - and particularly on the Asian side of Istanbul, across the Bospherous - and you get what Pamuk meant. There is an air of faded grandeur to the city which is hard to avoid - decrepit buildings, a sense of decay and greater times gone by. To me, this adds to the appeal and mystique of the city greatly, and I admire it even more. You can easily spend five days in this great city, and I could write several more paragraphs describing the city's beauty. I'll stick to a couple though. The sights mentioned above are must-see and will be seen by almost every visitor to Istanbul. A good tip for all of them, but especially Aya Sofia which attracts huge amounts of people, is to try to visit when a large cruise ship hasn't just landed. Large queues and considerable waits are common. Hagia Sofia, it must be said, justifies the attention. It is probably the pick of all the sights in Istanbul, and if you only queue up to see inside one mosque here, make it this one. The interior, a huge domed affair, contains some brilliant Byzantine Christian mosaics from the 9th century (the building was converted to Islam use after the Ottoman invasion). The sense of history here is palpable, and you get a very good sense of the Greek/Turkish history of the city just by touring this building. Slightly less-visited is the Suleymaniye Mosque, designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan for Suliyman the Magnificent. Newly restored to its original splendour, its generally regarded as one of the best of the 42 mosques he designed for Istanbul. To get a flavour of Byzantine Istanbul, check out the Chora Church. It's a bit of a schlep to get there, but the restored church in the remains of the old city walls offer a stunning glimpse of Byzantine splendour, its walls and ceilings decorated with beautiful frescoes and paintings.

The Blue Mosque from the Bospherous, Istanbul, Turkey
The Blue Mosque from the Bospherous: a boat trip is de rigeur

Visiting Istanbul without either crossing the Bospherous or having a boat trip along it would be a grave mistake, mainly for the different vantage point it gives you of the city; Istanbul is a city built on, and defined by, water. It is surrounded by it on all sides, and is divided by it into two distinct parts - European and Asian Istanbul. The Asian part is less touristy, so head there to get a real flavour of how Istanbullis live. You can try some of the local catches being cooked up by the ferry ports - some of the local stuffed mussels are delicious with a squeeze of lemon. Another area most tourists end up is Beyoglu - the more upmarket, westernised areas of the city where most of the nightlife and restaurants are. Here is where most Istanbullis with a bit of cash come to show off and flaunt it, and you really don't feel to be in an Asian city at all. A great place to go to get a view of the watery city is Galata Tower, built by the Genoese. It's in the heart of Beyoglu, at the top of a hill, and costs $5 to enter. For those with a little more time, a boat trip to one of the Prince's Islands off the coast of Istanbul is recommended. I took one, one afternoon , to Buyukada, when the heat and crowds of the city were getting too much, and it was a perfect antidote. A half hour, $10 return trip takes you to a different world, where no cars exist and people are riding around on bicycles or horses and carts. It's another opportunity to get a great view of the city from the sea, and though there isn't too much to see or do there, the opportunity to laze around, relax and swim is a very pleasant one after a few days battling the crowds of the city. Whilst it's possible to stay the night there, the lack of things to do means that most people visit as a day trip as I did.

Istaklal Avenue in Beyoglu, Istanbul, Turkey