A minister’s grand tour of Istanbul

If you are ever so lucky to be a senior minister, taking a leisure tour during the worst disaster in your homeland, I urge you to take the Full-Day Tour with Turkey Local Guides in Istanbul.

Unlike common people banned from travelling overseas for leisure, there is no such restriction for politicians. You can travel across the district, state, country… Istanbul or Paris, a freehand to your itinerary. Unlike common people who need to stay quarantined for 14 days after returning, as a minister you have an option to do only 10, or sometimes 3. You have done it before.

Notwithstanding the sprouting of new Covid variants of Beta, Delta or Lambda that originate overseas, they are just Greek to you. Here is your itinerary for the Full-Day Tour with Turkey Local Guides; we promise many “historical stories”:

9AM: Blue Mosque

To fully appreciate the significance of the mosque, I need you to close your eyes and imagine yourself as Sultan Ahmet I. 

You are only 13 years old, but you are already sultan of the capital city, Istanbul, and you control a large empire that spans across three continents – Asia, Europe, and Africa. You stand on the shoulders of giants such as Suleiman the Magnificent and Mehmed the Conqueror. 

Deep down, you know that you are not as able as they are. You cannot fight well, nor can you manage the empire well. The only way that people will remember you is to build one of the best mosques with the most expensive and elegant materials. Not only that, but you also want the Blue Mosque to be directly opposite the majestic Hagia Sophia and Hippodrome, as well as the Ottoman royal residence. You also want to install 6 minarets, equalling the mosques in Mecca. 

That is the true sign of power and control. Does that get you excited? 

Back home, this is the same exercise of power for you. Politicians of high positions can carry on with their lives unaffected, whereas common people are locked at home. You can eat with your friends indoors or outdoors, you can celebrate the durian festival with cheer and a little lie, you can attend cycling “fun ride” events when most could not even jog around their housing compound. 

True power, however, is to bite your tongue when you see common people getting fined when you do not. Either the small-time grocery trader who received a RM50,000 fine for leaving a small door opened, or the single mother who was jailed for 8 days for buying drinks and chatting with a friend, or the RM1,500 fine on students at their university café. 

10AM: Hagia Sophia

The 1,500-year UNESCO World Heritage site reveals the legacy of a Christian church and a Muslim mosque. Built by a mathematician, a scientist, and a physicist, Hagia Sophia’s majesty is visible from afar. When inside, the 40 windows in the worship area reflect a mystical light; a source of miracle and inspiration. 

But there is a secret I only tell to you. There is a well at the centre of Hagia Sophia that could cure disease. Sufferers are advised to visit the well three Saturdays in a row and drink water directly from the well. All diseases of the head and heart would thus be cured. The marble column around is also powerful. Emperor Justinian managed to cure a migraine headache by leaning on the column for a few seconds. 

The Malaysian people are not so lucky to experience such miracles. The Covid-19 disease spreads like wildfire, registering record-high daily counts of nearly 10,000-a-day to numb their faith. More than 6,000 lives have been lost, with a sevenfold increase of those dying before reaching the hospital, stacked into containers and waiting for their queue to be buried. 

The diseases of the mind have also started to hurt us. Anxiety, depression, and stress symptoms surged at every lockdown. Government distress hotlines are ringing unceasingly, and suicide cases remind us that it is harder than we think. 

Maybe Malaysia is different from Turkey. No miracles here. 

2PM: Topkapi Palace

This is where the sultans stayed for almost 400 years. Other than the “opulent pavilions, jewel-filled Treasury and sprawling Harem”, you are also likely to learn about the most “colourful stories than most of the world’s museums put together.” But what you would be most impressed with is the sheer size of this palace.

The First Court is the largest; this was where ceremonies and processions were held. The Second Court is where the palace business is run. The Third Court is where the sultan, his family, his servants, and invited visitors lived. No one could make eye contact or speak directly to the sultan. And lastly,the Fourth Court is where the terraced gardens and pavilions are located. Sultans would break their fast here during Ramadhan. 

This is almost too different from the lack of space in Malaysian public hospitals now. Hospital beds and ICU facilities have long run out. So when you arrive at a public hospital in Selangor, you would see patients lying on the bed at the parking lot, or sleeping upright on a bench. They would be sharing ventilators a few times overcapacity, and they would sit in close distance with little standing room between them. 

There is no First Court to Fourth Court here; there is just a single Hospital Court of exhausted, overworked, burnt out – but tremendously committed and persevering – medical staff,who dread the choice of “who shall live” and “who shall die”. 

How ideal it would have been to have a private garden where we could tend to flowers, instead of rushing Covid families in and seeing none of them out. 

4PM: Grand Bazaar

Built in the 15th century, the Grand Bazaar is the oldest and biggest covered market in the world. With over 4,000 shops, this is a place that is hard to resist, even for those who do not shop. You can take a look at famous Turkish lamps, rugs, and textiles. But the selection of food here is something not to be missed.

Turkey’s own black tea is a must-try, quality Middle Eastern saffron, meatball spices, fermented flour, curry powders, and the endless selection of Turkish delights from innumerable kiosks are sure to make your mouth water. You can play sultan and pick and choose a little bit of everything. 

This may look different from what you have in Malaysia now. Millions are starving after losing jobs and income for a while. Mydin’s boss said people no longer steal luxury goods like TV anymore; petty thefts of fish and vegetables seem most popular now. There is no protein in most meals, let alone proper nutrition. 

Instead of nice cloth and textile, people are waving white flags from their windows. There is no luxury here. Only the most desperate it has ever been. 

5PM: End of tour

I’m sorry this tour has to come to an end. I hope that you and your family had a good time. Istanbul can look quite different from Malaysia.

Oh, before I forget. I left one place out from the itinerary – the Hippodrome. There lies a monument called the Serpent Column. It consists of three snakes twisting around each other to form a column shaft. The strange thing is, only the snakes’ bodies were left – the three snake heads were knocked off

Do you happen to see it?

(Malaysiakini: https://m.malaysiakini.com/columns/582826)


1. Malaysiakini

2. Islamicity

3. Radison Blu Blog

4. Islamic Landmarks

5. Move 2 Turkey

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