Thursday, 11 June 2020

LOCKDOWN TRAVELS | Istanbul, Turkey | 2013

LOCKDOWN TRAVELS | Home to some astonishing sights, Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents; Europe and Asia.

The Hagia Sophia is an excellent example of different cultures pushing against eachother and fusing together. It began as a Christian cathedral 537AD when it was considered to be the largest building on earth. The subsequent 900 years saw it exchange hands between Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Greek orthodox, ending as an Ottoman Mosque in 1453. Now it's a museum welcoming people through its doors to see the architectural marvel in which you can clearly see the additions and adaptations each ruling religion.

Separated by a park and fountain, is the magnificent Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet Camii which was built a millennium after its neighbour, Hagia Sophia. This inspiring 17th century mosque and its minarets soar majestically high into the sky above Istanbul. Entering the mosque is one of those peaceful and profound experiences you remember. The intricately decorated interior of the dome is etched forever in my memory.

Down the hill sits the famous Grand Bazaar which is thought to be one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Walking over the threshold you are instantly confronted with a plethora of smells, sounds and the ability of buying anything you could ever want. Lanterns hang from the ceilings, spices are neatly piled up into little pyramids and the some 4,000 shop keepers haggle with the more than 250,000 customers who walk through the bazaar each day.

Crossing over the Golden Horn into the district of Karakoy, the Galata Bridge hosts numerous restaurants specialising in fish dishes and plays host to locals who cast their fishing lines into the river going to get a good catch. Karakoy is a slightly more modern part of the city. Climbing up a narrow street lined with restaurants you reach Galata tower. A 15th century tower with sublime views of Istanbul and the mighty Bosphorus which cuts through the land mass and divides Europe with Asia and linking the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea.

Istanbul can credit much of its success and power to its geographic location. Similar to Gibraltar, it sits at a highly strategic place and can control movement of ships between the greater Mediterranean region into the Black Sea, and vice versa which is seen by NATO partners as far more important as it is one of the few ways Russia gains access to the open seas. Further up the hill is a cosmopolitan area with bars, restaurants and many of the big shops. An area of the city which demonstrates the secularism and Eurasian culture of Turkey.

During my visit to the city, mass demonstrations were being held in the area around Taksim. They stemmed from the planned Urban development of nearby Gezi Park. Protesters who were against the plans undertook a peaceful sit-in until they were violently evicted by the authorities. The protests evolved into anti government demonstrations and continued for months and saw 22 people die and over 8,000 injured. Whilst visiting Istanbul, we witnessed the demonstrations first hand.

During the day, Taksim held a jubilant and determined atmosphere with people chanting, talking and shouting their demands. There was a police presence lined up to contain the protesters. As the light began to fade, the atmosphere changed. The tension built and nervousness was palpable. The police began moving and with increased pace they charged and began firing tear gas and pepper bullets into the crowd. Panic began to spread as the crowd were forced out of the square down two roads. I ended up running away down the smaller road. A stinging sensation radiated from my calf as a pepper bullet hit me and expelled it's contents into the air. People were coughing, tears were falling as the pepper reached the face. People were falling over and people were dragging them back to their feet to stop them from being trampled. I had long lost Adrian and Dean. The street began to open up and the density of people eased. We had been successfully expelled from Taksim. Not knowing where the other two were and in need to clear my eyes, I headed back to the hostel which we were staying in and were reunited largely unscathed from our experience.

I'm conflicted by this experience. Whilst we wanted to show our solidarity with the people, I'm no longer sure whether it was wise or right for us to be there.

Not all travel experiences are beautiful.

Istanbul is a wonderful city. I've had the pleasure of visiting the city twice. And Turkey three times in total. The people are warm, welcoming and friendly. I've made good friends during my time there and look forward to returning once again soon!

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