BEIJING, Aug. 30 (Xinhuanet) -- Istanbul is by far the most exotic megacity I have ever experienced. Every time I visit this metropolis, which uniquely straddles Asia and Europe, I am always, without fail, blown away by the sounds, sights and smells of this gem mounted in its unique setting on the Bosporus strait. And as luck would have it, the best time to visit this tourist Mecca is the next few months.
|Istanbul is actually an extremely interesting city.|
(Source: Global Times/IC)
Istanbul has about the same number of people as Beijing, but it is completely different. Both cities are full of history and grand archeological monuments, but they feel worlds apart.
The city's character stems from its rich history. Once part of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Constantine made it his capital, Constantinople, in 324. That Byzantine Empire lasted a thousand years. In 1453 it became the Ottoman Empire, which for several centuries encompassed much of the Middle East, North Africa and southeastern Europe. In the 20th century, Constantinople became Istanbul and the Turkish Republic was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on October 29, 1923.
I remember when I first visited in 1997, what struck me was the special nature of the city. At the same time neither completely European nor Asian, Istanbul is an exotic mixture not to be found anywhere else on earth.
Istanbul's majestic mosques are some of the grandest places of worship on earth. The 17th-century Blue Mosque is renowned for the beautiful blue tile work adorning its walls. The Suleymaniye mosque, built a century earlier, dominates the skyline with its four minarets (or towers).
Now a museum and before that a mosque, the Hagia Sophia started off as a Christian house of worship and was the world's largest cathedral for nearly a millennium. It is thought by many to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture.
And then there were the sounds. According to tradition, worshippers are called to prayer five times a day from dawn until two hours after sunset. The call is distinctive and from the heart. Because there are so many mosques, it seems like a thousand calls punctuate the air.
The smells too have been firmly wedged somewhere between my nose and brain. The strongest ones are to be found in the Spice Ba
Another thing that Istanbul has that Beijing doesn't is an abundance of water. Water separates Europe from Asia. The Bosporus connects to the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. You can take a ferry or tour boat up the Bosporus to the Black Sea, passing many fine homes, restaurants and such monuments as the Fortress of Europe, which dates from 1452. Another leisurely trip goes to the four Princes' Islands, once a place of exile but now a traffic-free paradise of horse-drawn carriages a short boat ride from Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara.
Another must-see spot is the world-famous Topkapi Palace, the home of the sultans for much of the Ottoman Empire. My favorite part is the beautifully decorated harem. Men can go there in safety now, but in former times only eunuchs were permitted. The famous Iznik ceramics there are a memorable highlight. Close by is the sultans' collection of 2,000 exceptional pieces of Chinese porcelain, which survived the hazardous journey by ship from Chinese ports to Europe.
Istanbul is a city for shoppers. Some of the most modern and elegant shopping centers to be found anywhere are there. Call me old-fashioned, but my favorite place to shop is the Grand Bazaar opened in 1461. It has 58 covered streets and hundreds of shops. Fine carpets, antiques and jewelry are specialties. Bargaining is a must so all of us here in Beijing will feel right at home. Most merchants will offer you a Turkish coffee, tea or my favorite, apple tea, while you sit comfortably in their shop.
Living in Beijing, I appreciate the fact that Istanbul is safe. In fact, its overall crime rate is lower than that of other cities of a comparable size. Not only that but I am always made to feel welcome by the Istanbullus, who go out of their way to be hospitable and welcoming.
It is little wonder then that this year Istanbul was designated by the European Union as the European Capital of Culture. I hope you can go and experience this special place for yourself. It will certainly be a trip that you will never forget.
- Istanbul: Where east meets west 2010-06-28