Very small things can endear you to a city. Istanbul is very much a tourism-oriented city. At every corner, you get accosted by a smiling man asking you to come and eat in his little streetside/rooftop cafe. “Biradar (brother),” he calls. And if you refuse, he says, “Maybe tomorrow?”. Don’t break his heart by refusing him, be polite and say, another time! To me, this ritual captures the essence of this genteel culture, this fascinating mix of East and West, this city that was the seat of Christianity for a thousand years, then the seat of Islam for another several centuries. With a predominantly Muslim population, today Turkey holds forth as a beacon of tolerance and modernity in a world that is increasingly suspicious, divided and myopic in the way it views other cultures.
Today was our best day here so far. We had no game plan in mind and the entire day unfolded beautifully and effortlessly, starting with a long walk by the Sea of Marmara (marble) along the Golden Horn and right next to the old city walls. We saw the locals enjoy their Sunday in the most simple and delightful ways, fishing, sunbathing, strolling.
We ambled through Gulhane Park and into the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, which has an impressive collection of Antiquities art, especially of the necrophiliac kind!
We visited the Topkapi Palace next, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire in its hey days. In terms of scale, it was larger than Fatehpur Sikri perhaps, and much more ornate. Items from the royal treasury and armory were in display and despite the tourist hordes, it was fascinating. The palace is located at the highest point in the city, so the views were rewarding by themselves.
We took in a show of whirling dervishes in the evening at a charming theater called the Hodja Pasha. It used to be a Turkish hammam, and now the ladies and gents bathing chambers have been converted into performing spaces. The dervishes whirled beautifully in their pristine white flowing robes, just as I had imagined them. I don’t quite think this is supposed to be a performing art form though, considering about 40% of the audience was dozing off!
As we got off the tram to head back to the hotel, we were captivated by the lighting on the two jewels of this city- the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, the latter we hadn’t seen yet. To our delight, it was still open and we had a peaceful viewing and opportunities for some night time photography.
Before I sign off, I have to say I love how the public spaces are used by residents in Istanbul. We’ve seen birthday celebrations replete with confetti happening on the streets. Lovers cuddle and families picnic in the gardens everywhere. Well-maintained infrastructure and efficient and low-key policing facilitate this, but it is also about a culture of using the city as a canvas for your life. How I wish we did this more in Delhi, which in my opinion rivals Istanbul in its legacy and character!
Delhi offers its residents numerous opportunities to enjoy open air recreation in a heritage context. Lodi gardens, Purana Qila, Lala Qila, Qutb Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, Safdarjung Tomb…I could go on, and these are only the most obvious places to visit.
Mum, me and the kids decided to celebrate the last weekend before school begins again by taking a stroll in one of these. We opted for the Qutb Minar, despite anticipating the tourist hordes, merely because its closest to Gurgaon. We did meet the tourist hordes, but we regretted the outing not a teeny weeny bit!
We had low expectations at the outset. We had all been here before, so it wasn’t a touristy thing to do; rather, we approached it in the manner of paying a casual visit to an old friend. A warm, sunny winter afternoon it was, getting there and parking were not a hassle, ticketing and entry were organized (except that Udai’s bat and ball were politely confiscated and kept safely until we returned) and the crowds were convivial and relaxed as well.
I was struck by the merry atmosphere here and the myriad ways in which people were enjoying the space. Many were viewing everything through the lens of their cameras–from serious enthusiasts armed with digital SLRs (how I missed mine today! It’s being repaired!) to those who recorded their visits on mobile phone cameras, capturing the frame and moment was the order of the day. Others merely lay around the vast lawns–families watching kids play, friends chattering, lovers in silent communication. Tourists listened avidly to guides belting out history lessons in English, French, German and Japanese. We saw a very elegant pair of English (perhaps) ladies, dressed in their pearls and well cut pant suits asking an equally dressed set of Pakistani lady tourists to pose with them for pictures!
Amongst us, too, each person’s agenda varied slightly. Aadyaa clearly viewed the complex as a very interesting obstacle course, constantly looking for appropriate spaces to jump over, climb up and slopes to run down! Udai was willing to get the occasional history lesson, reading the plaques and asking us questions; but simply loved exploring the ruins that comprise Alauddin Khilji’s tomb. For mum, it was partly walk down memory lane thinking about many previous visits, and mostly relaxed observations about the place and the people. As for me, I whipped out my little sketch book and doodled a bit, besides taking pictures and running around with the kids.
For me, these experiences are an integral part of Delhi’s charm and what bind me to this city despite its many frustrating contradictions. I love the strong backdrop that heritage provides, that adds to our lives a sense of history, art, architecture, proportion…in short, beauty packaged in an easy-to-enjoy form!
I came away imagining toothless skeletal smiles inside the graves of good ‘ol Qutb-ud-din, Iltutmish and the rest of the Mamluk, Tughlaq and Khilji clans who created the wonderful complex over time!