What to see and do in Istanbul and Ankara, from culture and art to fat cats

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is one of the top attractions in Turkiye. — Photos: MELODY L. GOH/The Star

At a small park by the entrance of a historical neighbourhood called Hamamonu in the Turkiye capital of Ankara, lies the statue of an overweight ... actually, an extremely obese white cat. Close by is a replica of a cannon, or perhaps it is an old cannon that no longer works today. I have no idea why they are at the park, as there are no plaques or signboards around the area to explain their existence.

Honestly though, I also couldn’t really be bothered to find out why but I was rather amused by the statue as it reminded me of the famous cat meme, “Oh lawd he comin’!”

“I don’t know why the cat is so fat, who made the statue or why it is here, but Ankara does have its own cat breed – the Turkish Angora,” said one of our Turkish guides, a shy and soft-spoken young woman who we referred to as “Begum” throughout our recent seven-day work trip to Turkiye.

The “we” mentioned here is a group of journalists from Malaysia, South Korea, Indonesia and India who were invited by the Turkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (or Go Turkiye) to check out the Beyoglu and Ankara Culture Route Festivals that were recently held in both Istanbul and the capital city.

The events were part of Turkiye’s larger Culture Route Festival programme, an initiative that began last year by the Tourism and Culture Ministry to promote culture, history and the arts in the republic.

The programme is also aimed at reviving cultural heritage in Turkiye, and getting citizens to rediscover the country’s history and roots via specially curated activities like art exhibitions, theatre shows, concerts and workshops.

Tourists, too, benefit from the programme as most of the activities are free, and held in popular and easily accessible spots.

We began our visit in Istanbul, the largest city in the country and a favourite among many Malaysian holidaymakers. It’s a crowded place, or at least it was in tourist hotspots like Taksim Square, Istiklal Avenue and Galata Tower. It’s certainly a welcome sight, especially for local businesses that had struggled to make ends meet during the height of the pandemic.

Today, Istanbul is bustling with tourists taking pictures and videos of everything, buying souvenirs and trying out Turkish cuisines like the ubiquitous kebap (grilled meat served with flat bread and vegetables) and simit, a pretzel-like snack usually eaten on the go. Locals are also out and about either doing their daily chores or just lounging around in the parks and cafes.

There were plenty of exhibitions curated for the Beyoglu Culture Route Festival – Beyoglu is the “European” side of Istanbul – and a handful of them were held in restored heritage buildings like the Pera Museum, Istanbul Cinema Museum and Mesher Exhibition Space. Our lead guide, Yavuz Sezen, regaled us with stories of each of the buildings and areas, telling us their cultural and historical significances.

Turkiye certainly does have a long and complex history, one that can’t possibly be told over a single cup of strong Turkish coffee and baklava. But you also don’t need to know everything about the Ottoman or Byzantine empires (I confess that I barely knew anything before the trip), or the formation of the republic, to enjoy your visit to the country.

All you need is a good local guide who knows how to summarise the story and insert important or interesting facts in between casual chats.

“Why are there so many stray cats in Istanbul?” I asked on the first day, as we passed by a clowder of cats lining a wall near Taksim Square.

“Well ... why not?” said the guide, laughing, as he proceeded to tell me about the Republic Monument standing in the middle of the square.

There were also a lot of stray cats and dogs in Ankara, by the way, and they all looked clean, healthy and well fed.

But back to the exhibitions in Istanbul.

At the Pera Museum was the The Art Of Weights And Measures exhibit, a permanent exhibition showcasing ... weights and measures used throughout the empire’s civilisation. From ancient seeds to intricately carved marble pebbles and tiny kettlebell-looking bronze weights, the collection of artefacts in this exhibit was amazing to say the least.

(Malaysia’s Muzium Negara has a similar exhibit – though with a much smaller collection – in case you weren’t aware.)

Pera Museum is also the host of the ongoing 17th Istanbul Biennial, which will be held until Nov 20, so for those who are planning to visit Istanbul in the next few weeks, do try to check it out. There are a few shows at the museum under this banner, including Pera Film and Colours Of The Earth.

Apart from the museum, 11 other venues around the city are taking part in the biennial.

The Osman Hamdi Bey section is another fantastic collection that you can catch at the museum. A painter from the Ottoman era, Osman Hamdi Bey is one of Turkiye’s most celebrated intellectuals who “made substantial, diversified and life-long contributions to various fields of culture and arts such as painting, archaeology, museology, and art education”, said the description.

Other interesting exhibitions that will still be on until next year include the I Am Nobody. Are You Nobody Too? (on until Feb 12, 2023) and the Stanley Kubrick exhibit (until March 1, 2023). The former is located at the Mesher Exhibition Space while the latter is at the Istanbul Cinema Museum.

The historical Galata Mevlevi Lodge, currently a museum, was built in 1491 and is the first Mevlevi house in Istanbul.The historical Galata Mevlevi Lodge, currently a museum, was built in 1491 and is the first Mevlevi house in Istanbul.

Old and new

Of course, you can’t go to Istanbul and not check out the dervish community or Mevlevis at the Galata Mevlevi Lodge. The historical lodge was built in 1491 and was the first Mevlevi house in Istanbul. Today, it is a museum that houses traditional costumes, musical instruments and other artefacts that the Mevlevis use in their ceremonies.

During our visit, we were fortunate enough to catch one of the rituals – the marching of the dervishes through Istiklal Avenue, where they chant and sing praises to the Almighty.

For tourists, the highlight of visiting the lodge would be the Whirling Dervish “show”, where the Mevlevis whirl as a form of prayer to God. Unfortunately for our group, we did not manage to catch this as we were whisked off to an opera – George Bizet’s Carmen performed by the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet – at the swanky new (opened a year ago) Ataturk Cultural Centre.

Also new is Galataport Istanbul, a multi-billion mixed-use development located along the 1.2km shoreline of the historical Karakoy neighbourhood in the city. This modern development was launched in October 2021, and faces the Bosphorus Strait and the Historical Peninsula.

Here you will find top hotels, local artisans and fashion brands, F&B outlets (“Salt Bae” has a burger joint here) and offices, as well as the world’s first underground cruise ship terminal.

The design of Galataport itself is what’s really special about the place. The underground terminal is an ultra-modern facility that functions just like an airport – cruise passengers check in at the counters with their luggage, then head on over to their boarding gate, where the ship’s entrance awaits. All this is done two levels below ground; tour buses and shuttles are also able to drop off their passengers or wait for them at the same place.

Galataport Istanbul was developed with sustainability in mind, where construction and operations were done with minimal negative impact on the environment and reduced carbon footprint.

Another must-see in Istanbul is, without a doubt, the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque or, as our guide corrected us, the “Ayasofya”. This Unesco World Heritage Site is definitely worth a visit as it is an architectural masterpiece, and one of the most important cultural and religious sites in the world.

One thing to take note of before visiting is that everybody else – local and international tourists, and worshippers – goes there. There is no entrance fee but the line to get in can stretch a long way. This is because in Turkiye, it is compulsory to have your bags checked at every building you enter, with restaurants and cafes being the exception.

For women, remember to bring along a scarf large enough to cover your head; if you forget or don’t have any, you can get one for free near the entrance. Also, you would need to take off your shoes just before entering the mosque as the floor is covered in carpet. This makes it easier for people to sit on the floor in quiet contemplation ... except that most of the people who visited that day seemed to only be interested in taking videos and selfies.

Oh well.

Yavuz pointed out parts of the mosque that we should pay extra attention to, like the seraphim mosaic with its uncovered face.

“It’s the Archangel Gabriel,” he noted. The large mosaic of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus is covered with a few white cloths, although you can still sort of make out the outline of the image. There are a few other Byzantine mosaics that you can find in the mosque, and if you go with a good local guide, they would be able to tell you their specific locations.

Since the Hagia Sophia was opened up as a mosque in 2020, there are several sections where Muslims can pray in peace without worrying about getting disrupted by tourists, although you are also welcome to pray anywhere else within the building.

Next to the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque, also a must-see monument in Turkiye. However, the mosque has been undergoing major restoration work since 2017 (some say it started a few years before that) and is only expected to be complete in 2024. As it is still a functioning mosque, you are allowed to pray there, but tourists are only able to see parts of the vicinity as most of the place is covered in scaffolding.

The Ankara factor

Most tourists would usually include a second or third city after Istanbul in their Turkiye holiday itinerary, with the most popular destination being Cappadocia, thanks to all the pretty pictures of folks riding in hot air balloons amid a backdrop of fairy chimneys.

But if you’re looking for a more substantial cultural experience, head to Ankara which is only a one-hour flight from Istanbul via Turkish Airlines. In the capital city, you get a good mix of ancient civilisations and the modern world.

This was also where we got a good insight into the formation of the republic, and a look at the life of its founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who also served as Turkiye’s first president (1923 to 1938).

“He was very fashionable, and kind of short (he was 1.74m, “short” by Western standards),” Yavuz shared, gesturing at old pictures of Ataturk and displays of his fancy tuxedos, coats and shoes at the Republic Museum.

The museum, built in 1923, is also known as the Second Parliament House. This was where parliamentary proceedings were held from 1924 to 1960. Today, the space can be rented out to hold events and activities, like the New Media: From Sketch To Digital Art exhibition we checked out as part of the Ankara Culture Route Festival.

Meanwhile, at the Ankara Ethnography Museum, you can find the former leader’s sarcophagus, in which his casket was once kept. The casket was moved to Anitkabir, Ataturk’s mausoleum, when it was finally completed on Nov 10, 1953.

Some of the things to check out at the museum include artefacts collected from various regions of Anatolia (or Asia Minor, a large part of which makes up the “Asian” side of Turkiye) including clothing, rugs, household equipment, weapons, cutleries, and pottery.

Right next to this building is the Ankara State Art and Sculpture Museum, once used as an official meeting place for ministers and foreign political guests. There’s a grand 400-seat theatre called the Turkish Hall within the building, where operas and performances were once held for Ataturk, as well as other ministers and special guests.

The museum is currently used to hold multiple exhibitions featuring important Turkish artists like Seker Ahmet Pasa, Hoca Ali Riza and of course, Osman Hamdi Bey. Newer, more modern works are also featured here.

Romans and museums

At the Roman Baths Of Ankara, you will find remnants of an ancient hammam or public bath. Situated on a plateau that rises 2.5m above street level, the hammam was said to be built in early third century by the Roman Emperor Caracalla. The ruins were first uncovered during an excavation in 1937, and the project continued until 1944. It is considered one of Ankara’s most important archaeological sites, and it isn’t hard to see why.

The ancient Roman Baths in Ankara is a fantastic archaeological site.The ancient Roman Baths in Ankara is a fantastic archaeological site.

Frames, structures and even basins can clearly be seen, while some paths and columns remain intact. Yavuz told us that hot water was constantly supplied to the large bath basins.

“Hot water? How?” I asked.

“Slaves,” he said bluntly, showing us roughly where these slaves would typically sit and work the kiln to heat the water.

If you would like to know how the place was uncovered and get a basic lesson on the history of the Roman empire in Turkiye, check out the Rome’s Ancyra, Juliopolis Ancient City Excavations exhibition located a few minutes’ walk away from the hammam.

Another popular spot for tourists in Ankara is Hamamonu, the hamlet with the fat cat statue mentioned earlier. This place had been restored to showcase its original Ottoman architecture and other traditional features. A pedestrian-only area, Hamamonu is packed with souvenir shops and restaurants selling Turkish meals and snacks.

Frankly, the place seems a little too touristy, although the story of what it once was is interesting.

Another historical site is the Ankara Castle (Ankara Kalesi), one of the city’s oldest landmarks that dates back to the Roman, Seljuk and Ottoman empires. From the citadel, you can get a good panoramic view of Ankara – this is also where you can see the vast difference between the old part of the city and the more modern areas.

A word of advice, though, you’d have to hike up a slope and take many stairs to get to the citadel so be prepared for the exercise.

The mysterious fat cat statue at Hamamonu in Ankara.The mysterious fat cat statue at Hamamonu in Ankara.

Close by is the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, one of my favourite places in the whole trip. This was where I got a good look at the skull of King Midas (he’s not a mythical figure, although many stories relating to him, like turning everything he touches into gold, are said to be myths), and learn more about ancient societies and civilisations like the Hittites, Phrygians and Urartians.

The museum has a comprehensive collection of works and artefacts that date back all the way to the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages. It occupies two Ottoman- age buildings which have been renovated and restored over the years.

A visit to Turkiye will most definitely include lots of cultural experiences. Its tourism ministry is aware of that and leverages on the country’s rich history and heritage to attract even more visitors post-lockdown. Annual events like the Cultural Route Festival also make it easier for visitors to plan their trips to Turkiye, so that they can participate in all the specially curated programmes.

More bang for your buck, for sure!

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