Whirling around Istanbul
Busy markets in Istanbul. Picture: Frank Molloy

An eight-day trip to Istanbul in early spring left me entranced like the group of white-skirted Sufi dancers I saw whirling in performance there.

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The ancient Byzantine and Ottoman dynasty city, which has lost its status as Turkey's capital to Ankara, more than lived up to my expectations. Its location is renowned - where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus.

A triple crown of World Heritage sites on just one peninsula - Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque - alone rewards any effort and saving that might be necessary to make the trip.

But having reached Istanbul, so much more awaits the traveller than these three monumental buildings.

First you need to get the lie of the land and realise that this huge metropolis of some 13 million people - formerly called Constantinople - is in three parts separated by water.

This is where Europe and Asia meet. There are old and new European sides connected by the Galata Bridge which spans the Golden Horn estuary.

The Asian side is separated from the European side by the Bosphorus and can be reached by ferry or car across a kilometre-wide suspension bridge which regularly jams with traffic. Pedestrians cannot cross it.

The ferry trip is quite simply one of the great short boat rides. There are distant views of the famous buildings on the old European side and the ferries dock at Eminonou near the Galata Bridge, a marvellous two-tiered faded blue cast iron structure for pedestrians, trams and cars.

I loved this bridge, not only for its industrial-age design, but would struggle to think of a place where I have felt more uplifted simply by being in the crowd. It is permeated by the sounds of ship horns, seagulls, traffic and the smell of fish.

I counted 16 ferries and ships plying the Bosphorus where it enters the Sea of Marmara on my last walk across the bridge on a warm April afternoon that also happened to be a memorable birthday.

From the ferry dock there's a good view of the 14th century Galata Tower, formerly a fire lookout and Istanbul's first lighthouse. Now photographers head for it to get 360-degree views.

Istanbul: Hagia Sophia. Picture: Frank Molloy
The conical limestone tower makes a superbly proportioned focal point on the new European side. Without it there would be a less remarkable patchwork hillside of buildings named Galatasaray which will be familiar to soccer fans.

I climbed the tower with my Thai travel partner Ittidet on our first day when the museums were closed, but we were not blessed with blue sky. The city is earthquake prone and though the tower must have survived many, I was glad to be back on the ground. There is now a lift that takes visitors almost to the viewing walkway.

Two funiculars take passengers up the steep incline to the shopping hub near Taksim Square.

This is also an embassy area. A busy pedestrian promenade, Istiklal Caddesi, leads to the square from the funiculars. We ate in a popular Art Deco-style arcade of seafood restaurants there and I browsed in bookshops while Ittidet shopped. There are nightclubs in the maze of streets around Istiklal Caddesi in the district called Beyoglu. Tourists are warned to be careful late at night.

Taksim Square is one of many places with a prominent statue of the adored founder and first president of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He not only sanctioned the naming of Anzac Cove at Gallipoli where he had fought as a colonel, but also wrote that the mothers of fallen Anzacs should: "… weep no more. After having lost their lives in this country they have become our sons as well."

Like Australia, Turkey is a party-based liberal democracy and is secular. Islam is the predominant religion. Ataturk, after whom the international airport is named, opened the country to western influence and famously discarded traditional clothing for western attire. The red fez, Turkey's pre-republic identifying headpiece, is now sold only in markets as a souvenir.

Once the museums reopened after being shut for the first two days of the week, we headed immediately for Hagia Sophia.

We were joined after a couple of emails and a phone-call by my Turkish-speaking cousin from England. Margaret kindly offered to fly in and meet us. Not only was she a guide for the building which is an icon - and I use the word advisedly - of Istanbul, but without her we would have missed another lesser-known treasure, the Kariye (or Chora) museum's 11th-14th century Byzantine Christian mosaics and frescoes.

Hagia Sophia, a domed, balustraded architectural masterpiece, is a thousand years older than the cathedrals of St Peter's in Rome or London's St Paul's.

Since its dedication in 360 the Hagia Sophia has been a Greek Orthodox basilica, a Roman Catholic cathedral, a mosque and a museum. Picture: Frank Molloy
Since its dedication in 360 it has been a Greek Orthodox basilica, a Roman Catholic cathedral, a mosque and a museum. The current structure is the third church on the site and was completed in the sixth century.

We spent two hours with Margaret absorbed by the space, light, history and mosaics, all under the impossibly huge and heavy dome.

Margaret took us by bus after lunch to Kariye museum to see the mosaics and frescoes. Even though we had just come from Hagia Sophia, which could be expected to take the wind out of any other museum, seeing the exceptional quality of the art remains a highlight of the trip.

Perhaps it was here that I truly christened my new Leica camera before the gracious and finely constructed mosaic images of Christ, Mary, saints and biblical stories.

Ittidet and I had visited the enormous Sultan Ahmed (or Blue) Mosque on our first day. Apart from its size and age - it was completed in 1616 - the Blue Mosque is remarkable for its glazed blue tile interior, enormous dome and six minarets.

Beside the Blue Mosque is the hippodrome which dates to the Roman occupation of the city when it was called Constantinople, after the emperor Constantine.

It was Emperor Justinian who oversaw the building of Hagia Sophia and the nearby cistern, a subterranean water supply supported by hundreds of carved columns. The cistern has been turned into a popular tourist attraction.

The tourist office at the train station makes available a free high-quality city guide book.

By the time we had collected it we had already visited the vast and varied grand bazaar, the aromatic and colourful spice bazaar and the impressive mosque (Yeni Camii Kulliyesi) near the Galata Bridge.

But with only three days remaining, we still hadn't seen the Topkapi Palace nor taken a ferry along the Bosphorus.

We consulted the weather forecast and chose accordingly. A rainy Saturday saw us inside the other-worldly Ottoman palace, viewing the sacred relics, priceless jewellery, ancient weapons, the inner sanctum of the harem and the outer circumcision room.

A Bosphorus cruise gave us a perfect sunny break from museums, spruikers, overwhelming architecture and crowds. The ferry leaves at 10.35am and returns at 3pm.

So was it for entertainment or something else that we bought tickets at the train station to see the Sufi dance ceremony called sema with flute, strings, drums and vocal accompaniment?

The brochure says: The ceremony highlights a mystical journey of spiritual ascent through the mind and love to "perfection". It takes place most evenings in a hall of the centrally located 19th century train station - terminus of the Oriental Express - beneath a magnificent and appropriate stained-glass mandala window.

The four dancers don tall woven hats before starting to whirl, raising their hands from a crossed arm position (symbolising Oneness). They become mesmerised by the music and singing, their white skirts fill with air, heads turn to the side and around they go, on and on . . . like Istanbul.

The city is earthquake prone and though the tower must have survived many, I was glad to be back on the ground.


Turkish travel tips

• Turkey has porous borders with eight countries and no immigration card was necessary to enter, though a 90-day $20 visa was required.
• We saved the $40 taxi fare from the airport by using the train and tram to the Holiday Inn at Pazartekke station, about 25 minutes from the Galata Bridge.
• Ittidet received a discounted rate through the Burswood Entertainment Complex at the Holiday Inn. However, the tram becomes crowded on weekends and at peak hours. We were fortunate that our flights fitted neatly with times when the tram was not crowded.
• Tokens called jetons can be used interchangeably on public transport and an akbil is a reusable card that can be topped up.

Frank Molloy teaches English as an additional language/dialect at Cyril Jackson Senior Campus in Bassendean.

The West Australian

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