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Beyond Africa: Turkey





Boss of the Bosphorus

Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis on the Bosphorus Straits where you can easily breakfast in Europe and lunch in Asia on the opposite bank. Ancient and modern exist side by side in Turkey, where you can play sultan or cave dweller amid a treasure trove of cultures. By Marion Whitehead.

Soft, silky pashminas in vivid hues crowd tiny stalls. Handbags, jewellery, ceramics and carpets make rich splashes of colour. A rainbow of tiny glittering lanterns lures you down another narrow passage and the aroma of spices piled high in plastic basins fills your nostrils. ‘I give you good price,’ beckons a vendor. ‘Just 10 lira, nice price.’

You’d have to be a human GPS not to get lost in the maze of what’s said to be the largest covered bazaar in the world. Even if it’s not really the biggest, when you’re in the clutches of KapaliÇarsi’s66 alleys of temptations in Istanbul, you certainly believe it.

Turkish delight is displayed alongside more sweet towers of confectionary. ‘Just taste,’ invites a wiley vendor – and you’re hooked. Besides, a box of real Turkish delight is a great gift for the folks back home that slips easily into the bottom of your suitcase.

My pretty, dark-haired friend is having the kind of fun normally reserved for blondes in the West as she shops for silver earrings and flirts with a young jewellery salesman. He slips her a necklace as a gift, hoping she’ll accept his invitation for a date that night. We giggle and allow ourselves to be swept away in the constant throng of people in the market.

Turkey-Blue-Mosque-with-TouristsSunday is not a good day to shop in Istanbul, one of Europe’s largest cities where modern, ancient and in-between architecture co-exist in a massive sprawl. On a fine morning, the city’s towers of apartments disgorge their tenants into the glorious sunshine and crowds collect in parks around landmarks such as the Blue Mosque, recognisable by its six minarets. In this city of around 15-million people, you have to be really wealthy to afford your own house and garden. Add a pre-election buzzin the streets with colourfulflag-waving electioneering in what’s regarded by many as a working model for Muslim democracy and even downtown Johannesburg begins to look like a picnic in the country.

Turkey’s rapid rise from basket case to economic success story in the last decade has put it in a strong position to use its location at a crossroads between Europe and Asia to re-enact its centuries-old role as a hub for trade between East, West and Africa. Long a melting pot of cultures, it has seen great civilisations come and go – and often collide at this strategic point.

Palace fit for a sultan
Needing a break from sensory overload, we headed down to the Bosphorus, a narrow 30-kilometre long strip of water that connects the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea in the south to the Black Sea in the north. A short ferry ride across it allows you to set foot in Asia to check if Turkey’s popular meze dishes and kebabs taste the same on a different continent.

Turkey-Bosphorus-ShipMost tourists take a boat ride up the steely blue Bosphorus for a relaxing overview of both sides of Istanbul,which was originally built on seven hills overlooking the strait. You chug along with views of the grand Topkapi Palace on a strategic promontory, heart of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries and from where 25 sultans ruled. Today, tourists wander past the kitchens where meals were prepared for 4000 people five times each day and queue to see the fabulous jewels and silk embroidered kaftans displayed in the elaborate palace. Now that it is Turkey’s most important museum, you can even go inside the 400-room harem and it’s worth taking a guided tour to get the juicy inside stories about this mystical place of pleasure.

In the heart of the old city district of Sutanahmet, the skyline is pierced by more great domed mosques than you can shake a prayer mat at – it’s said that no one has to walk more than 10 minutes to worship in one of these beautiful buildings erected by sultans who competed to build the most outstanding. Along the waterfront, palaces now jostle for position with chi-chi cocktail bars.

Two long suspension bridges span the strait, which is Russia’s only outlet to the Mediterranean and a busy shipping lane. On the western skyline, the landmark 20-storey Marmara Hotel marks Taksim Square and the business district where you’ll find the modern city’s trendiest hotels, bars, restaurants and clubs. The Asian skyline is dominated not by minarets, but by the spikes of telecoms towers.

Turkish-CoffeeOnce called Constantinople, one of the most striking cluesto the city’s turbulent times are the ancient walls, whichhark back to Byzantine times and were built during Theodosius II’s reign to keep out marauders such as Attila the Hun. About 6,5 kilometres of the thick stone walls still stand, despite some powerful earthquakes over the centuries. Coming around a corner on a busy street, you forget to breathe when you’re unexpectedly confronted by graceful double rows of stone arches thousands of years old making a frame for gleaming skyscrapers. It comes as no surprise that Istanbul was declared European Capital of Culture in 2010.

The Bosphorus flows like a deep, dark scar through Turkey’s troubled past. Sail its waters south to where it joins the island-studded Marmaranand Aegean Seasand you’ll find aplethora of Hellenic ruins. The remains of Troy, near Canakkale, may have a wooden replica of a wooden horse outside its crumbling walls, but it’s no grand Hollywood set with Brad Pitt sulking around in a mini toga and sandals.

Further down the coast, Ephesus near Kusadassi is among the largest and best preserved of the ancient Mediterranean cities. These days, it’s crowded with tourists snapping away with their digicams, but in its heyday, people came to worship at the temple built around 1000BC to honour Artemis, goddess of the wilderness, hunting, forests and fertility.

Modern Turkey emerged from the ashes of World War I thanks to the strong leadership of Kemal Ataturk and today you still see his proud, defiant image on flags everywhere, including hanging among stalls selling tourist tat.

Volcanoes and fairy chimneys
Some of Turkey’s most fascinating antiquarian treasures are hidden in Cappadocia, the highlands of the Anatolian peninsula where volcanic eruptions 10 million years agohave formed a landscape that boggles the imagination.Thick layers of volcanic ash and mud were compressed over time into soft white rock known as tuff, which was easily worn away by wind and water into weird shapes – it’s not difficult to see a camel rock or even the likeness of the Virgin Mary in stone. Where a layer of hard basalt has protected the tuff below, cones and towers evolved – the famous fairy chimneys of Cappadocia.

Turkish-Rock-HouseEarly people took advantage of the softness of the rock to hew out cave dwellings. Many are still inhabited today and are comfortably furnished. One I visited in Pigeon Valley had a television antenna stuck on the side and a flush toilet inside. The idea of playing troglodyte bystaying in one and then strolling to a nearby Internet café has a peculiar appeal.

There are even large underground citieschipped out of the tuff. They are thought to have been created by the Hittites as shelters from invaders around 1200 BC and enlarged by subsequent inhabitants, including early Christians hiding from persecution.

The biggest underground cities housed 30 000 people and were eight levels deep, designed with ventilation shafts and deep wells. Large ‘sliding’ circular doors sealed off each level and were impossible to shift from outside once stoppered closed with a rock. Judging by the size of the tunnels, the inhabitants were a lot smaller than we are today. Derinkuyu is the largest underground city open to the public, but Kaymakli, also south of Nevsehir, is quieter and less crowded by tour buses.

During the first millennium when Cappadocia was a vital centre for Christianity with more than its fair share of saints, cave churches were chipped out of the volcanic tuff. The best examples with frescos are outside Goreme at the Open-Air Museum, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The different styles of painting reflect the various periods; during the iconoclastic controversy in the AD 700s, symbols were used to depict the Holy Trinity and a grasshopper was used to represent the devil.

An enduring symbol of the region is an equine one. ‘Cappadocia’ was derived from the Hittite word for horses and through the ages this region has been famous for its magnificent steeds. These swift, brave and graceful creatures were sought-after tax payments by occupying regimes and were popular in Rome for chariot racing in the Circus Maximus, while the Byzantine army sourced their warhorses from here.

You’ll still see horses working in the largely agricultural economy of rural Cappadocia. Vineyards, vegetables, fruit and cereal crops spread right to the edge of canyons pocked with fairy chimneys and fallow fields of poppies add splashes of brilliant red and orange to dusty landscapes. It feels as if little has changed over the millennia in this part of the world, once a crucible of old civilisations. But then, the charm of Turkey is that you can be as modern or as ancient as youwish.

Istanbul must-sees
Topkapi Palace, grand seat of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years.

SultanahmetCamii, the ‘Blue Mosque’, considered the last great mosque of the Classical period with its six minarets and cascade of domes.

Aya Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, a 6th century Byzantine church with a seemingly unsupported dome, one of the architectural marvels of the world.

Best markets: KapaliCarsicovered bazaar and MisirCarsisi, the spice bazaar

The Bosphorus by boat

Turkey-Hot-Air-BalloonsCappadocia must-do’s
Go ballooning over the remarkable fairy chimney landscape.

Visit Goreme Open-Air Museum to see the frescos in the 30 cave churches.

Walk through an underground city.

Watch a performance of the whirling dervishes.

Sleep in a cave house.

Travel planner
Getting thereGetaway’s trip was hosted by Turkish Airlines, whichnow flies daily from Cape Town and Johannesburg directly to Istanbul and back.

Their Airbus 330 and 340 provide an easy link to Europe about nine hours from Joburg, flying in an almost straight line north with much shorter flying times than airlines going via the Middle East. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of their food, plus the leg space in economy class was better than on most other long-haul flights I’ve tried.
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This is an extract from an article which first appeared in Getaway International.