Philip LI CHING HUM

Of all destinations I have ever visited so far, Turkey turns out to be the best of my best ones in spite of all prejudices, clichés and rhetorics. Istanbul buzzes with activities and remains the melting-pot of cultures where East and West meet. It is a frenetic city with a wealth of culture, history and nightlife. It offers a feast of sights, sounds and smells. The city blends two civilisations together. Under a sweltering heat we visited the two unequalled architectural feats one close to the other Hagia Sophia (the church of the holy wisdom) and the Blue Mosque. We stood marvelled at their exquisite beauty.

The Church’s marvellous Byzantine mosaics depict Christ flanked by Emperor Constantine IX and his wife the Empress. On the dome is inscribed the calligraphy of Islam. We strolled along the narrow streets filled with frenetic commerce. Erected by Emperor Justinian in 537, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in the 15th century by the Ottomans. On our first visit a decade ago many scaffolds built for renovation precluded us from admiring its beauty.
The splendour of the Blue Mosque left deep imprints in our imagination. Inside the mosque, mesmeric designs are painted onto the domes. The graceful cascade of domes and semi domes makes a striking sight when viewed from the courtyard below. An atmosphere of piety and religious fervour prevailed inside the mosque. A whole day was not sufficient to visit such architectural beauty. History lovers will delight in the journey into the past against the background of Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The interior of Hagia Sophia imparted a truly celestial feel within us. Strict measures of security are taken inside and outside.

There is no safer place than Turkey. Tourists are cordially welcome amid the hurly-burly. We were mistaken to be Chinese tourists with NiHao all along our way. Tourists from different climes and horizons swarm to these places of unequalled beauty. We befriended visitors from far-flung countries like Kirghizstan, Azerbaijan and Letonia. This time, on our second visit, we could feel the pulse of the Turks as we took the tram during rush hours and we were helped by the local people to get down at our right station in spite of language barriers. How soul-stirring and therapeutic to listen to the muezzins from the balcony of minarets over the loudspeakers calling the faithful to prayers! Along the streets of the bustling city in our shopping spree I managed to lay hands on books on Islam in a well-equipped bookshop and the bookseller apparently with high intellect had a lengthy and insightful conversation with us. He castigated energetically the propaganda of the West.

The visit would not be complete without an incursion into Topkapi museum built by Mehmet the Second and without a cruise along the Bosphorus where Europe and Asia melt together. The Topkapi Museum, a relic of Ottoman Empire, treasures a trove of its fine art collections, opulent rooms and shady courtyards. An incursion to the Grand bazaar was a delight to our eyes and mouths. The flavour of spices invaded our nostrils. Everywhere goods tumble out of the shops onto the pavement. It is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of shops as it has several gateways. The shopkeepers were jovial, amiable and communicative. Then we hailed a taxi to go to Taksim square. It is the hub of activity. The 1928 Monument of Independence stands majestically to welcome visitors and local shoppers. We spent an enjoyable time reveling in the Turkish delights, ice cream, creamy goat’s cheese and kebabs. On our way back to our hotel our taxi was caught in a huge traffic jam and we learnt from the exuberant driver that sporadic demonstrations were organized to denounce President Trump’s economic sanctions against Turkey. It was late in the evening that we reached our hotel completely exhausted on the other side of Istanbul but a Turkish bath relieved us of all the fatigue of the day.