Exciting and ancient Istanbul

HE could have been no more than 10 years of age, dressed splendidly from head to toe in white with gold and blue trimmings.

Today, he is out on the town in Istanbul with his proud parents.

It’s a special day ahead of a very special day: the day he is to be ceremonially circumcised.

Circumcision is among the most significant traditional procedures for a Turkish Anatolian boy. The ceremony is a kind of coming-of-age for the boys to earn respectability in the community.

It may be painful for them but it is a source of considerable joy and pride for the parents.

A family starts preparing for the event about two months beforehand. Printed invitations to attend the ceremony are sent out to family and friends.

Today’s public parading in the special circumcision outfit, when the boy is given special treats, is the most important part of the preparations. Rich families adorn their sons with jewels.

On the day of the ceremony, guests will shower the boy with gifts such as gold, money, clothing and household goods.

Our chance meeting with the boy on the eve of his ceremony is one of the fascinating experiences of Istanbul, a city we never tire of visiting. It is a living museum, sitting on the boundaries between Europe and Asia and reflecting the cultures and religions of both.

Built, like Rome, on seven hills, its strategic location has also meant that it has been invaded more often than the Sydney Cricket Ground and gone through a couple of name changes, from Constantinople to present-day Istanbul.

Against a backdrop of minarets and mosques, the ancient city of Istanbul today presents a step back in time.

Byzantine and Ottoman emperors employed the most famous architects to build and decorate the greatest and most beautiful religious and civic structures.

Few other places offer such a rich blend of art treasures and architecture. Thousand-year-old buildings rub shoulders with modern commercial buildings.

Its population of about 13 million is swelled each year by the inflow of an estimated 700,000 immigrants. About 1000 new streets are added to the city annually.

We’re in the square outside two of Istanbul’s most famous buildings, the Blue Mosque and Saint (Hagia) Sophia. We’re crowd- watching as we sit over a cup of strong Turkish coffee. A boy hawking wooden tops sells us several (about $1 each) which we will take home as gifts.

A few metres away is one of the city’s “newer” attractions, the spectacular Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan): the most accessible and interesting of the city’s hundreds of gloomy Byzantine cisterns, or underground water storage.

Remember the scene in the James Bond movie From Russia With Love when Bond is rowing a small boat through a forest of marble columns? That scene was shot in the Yerebatan cistern.

The cisterns were built more than 1500 years ago to supply the city with water.

Walkways and atmospheric lighting together with soft classical music were added to Yerebatan in the 1990s and the cistern opened to the public.

Its size is impressive. It measures 140m long and 70m wide. It has 336 marble columns, each nine metres high. Fish now live in the clear water.

Some two million tourists pack the city each year, mostly in the warmer months. So you’ll be in a crowd wherever you go.

For first-time visitors to Istanbul, do what we always do when we visit a city for the first time: take an open-top, hop-on-hop-off red bus tour (adult 20 Euros or $27). Istanbul’s red bus lists 70-plus places of interest along the route which takes 90 minutes to circle the city.

Your red bus tour will drop you back near the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), a 6th century church converted to a mosque in the 15th century and now a museum. It was said to be the greatest church in Christendom for 1000 years until St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was built. Along with the Topkapi Palace, and the

Blue Mosque, it is a highlight of an Istanbul visit. Fortunately, they are clustered in Istanbul’s centre.

The Topkapi Palace is top of most visitors’ list of sights to see.

So get there early (about 9am) and go straight to the Harem.

Entry to the palace is free but there is a small charge to enter the Harem. Don’t miss the Treasury in the third courtyard. It exhibits incredible gems, gold and works of art.

The high ceiling of the 400-year-old Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) is lined with 21,043 blue tiles that give the mosque its popular name.

The most notable features of the Blue Mosque are visible from far away: its six minarets. Most mosques have four, two, or just one minaret. According to one account, the sultan directed his architect to make gold (altin) minarets, which was misunderstood as six (alti) minarets.

Whatever the origins of the unique feature, the six minarets caused quite a scandal, as the Haram mosque in Mecca (the holiest in the world) also had six minarets. In the end, the sultan solved the problem by sending his architect to Mecca to add a seventh minaret.

The Spice Market, as you’d expect, is a heady brew of fragrances: spices, dried fruits, nuts and seeds. And you can buy the real Turkish delight.

You’ll need to practise your bargaining skills if you want to shop for the best deal.

And watch out for pickpockets and bag-slashers.

The reward is about the most exciting market shopping experience you can find anywhere in the world.

GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT ISTANBUL

Flight Centre has return airfares to Istanbul from $1999 (including taxes) departing Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and from $1899 departing Perth.

Valid for travel until June 14, and from August 16 to December 2, 2011.

Flight Centre has a new 11-day trip called Turkish Classics, including a full-day Istanbul city tour and travel to Ankara, Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Ephesus, Kudasai, Troy, Cannakkale and Gallipoli.

Prices start from $914ppts, including 10 nights accommodation, transport by air-conditioned vehicle, breakfast daily and seven dinners, services of a tour guide, entrance fees, service charges and local taxes.

The trip is valid for travel to December 23.

Phone Flight Centre on 1300 939 414 or www.flightcentre.com.au



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