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The Turkish Connection: What Kathmandu can learn from Istanbul?

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Looking at the Galata Tower from the Bhosphorus straits in Istanbul, the part of my mind given to making comparisons reminded me of Kathmandu’s Dharahara. Both are nine-story tall (Galata stands at 66.9 m, just a little taller than Dharahara’s 61.8 m). Dharahara, also called Bhimsen Tower, was Kathmandu’s tallest structure when it was built in 1832, and so was the conical-shaped Galata when it was constructed in 1348. And both towers command a huddle of tightly-packed houses and buildings in the heart of the respective cities.

Though Kathmandu’s Dharahara cannot match the architectural splendor of Galata Tower, the likeness between the two cities of antiquity doesn't end here.

To start with, writers and poets sometimes invoke Kathmandu’s  historical names - “Kantipur” and “Kasthamandup” – to call to mind the city’s former beauty while Istanbul could be referred to by many as “Constantinople”. (The Istanbul guide book I was carrying mentioned a certain Lale Pudding Shop at Divanyolu neighborhood, calling it the“fabled halfway point to Kathmandu of 60’s hippie lore”). And if Kathmandu is the City of Gods with hundreds of beautiful temples, shrines, stupas and monasteries in ancient city squares, palaces, narrow alleyways, and street corners  Istanbul is the City of Mosques. The first thing that strikes visitors to this city are the imposing, visually stunning domes and edifices of mosques which dot the city. The former imperial city that served as the capital of four empires – Megarian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman, making it the crossroads of various civilisations -  has altogether 3,113 mosques, minarets and madrashas.

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also called the 'Blue' MosqueAnd the most famous of it all is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Built in 1616, the mosque is popularly known as the “Blue” Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its magnificent interior. We marveled at the striking grandiose of the mosque with one main dome, six needle-like minarets that pierce the sky, and eight secondary domes and then another equally majestic Byzantine era cathedral turned mosque, the Hagia Sophia. Then further on is the Basilica Cistern, the Egyptian obelisk and minarets and the sprawling majesty of the Topkapi Palace, the former royal residence of the Ottoman Sultans which now houses finest treasures of Ottoman era as well as important relics of the Muslim world. Walking past the narrow, sometimes cobblestone streets that run along the Hippodrome Square which lead to the famous labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar with only trams running occasionally in the name of traffic and the pedestrinized streets of Istaklal Caddesi and Bahariye in Kadikoy, I imagined how wonderful it would have been if the old quarters of Kathmandu and Patan - the historical Durbar Squares in the two cities and even New Road and Thamel - were also without the irritation of motorbikes, cars, and their beeping horns.

“Those pedestrianized streets are just some of the things Kathmandu could learn from Istanbul,” a friend who divides his time between the US, Istanbul and Kathmandu each year told me.

Hagji SophiaAnd like the friend had advised me, I took a little ferry from Galata Bridge in the Golden Horn to the Bosphorous (that flows towards the Black Sea), sailing past Galata Tower, St Antoine Church, the long graceful row of Dolmabahce Palace and other architectural marvels interspersed with colourful mix of houses, apartment blocks and hotels on both the European and Asian side of the city that rise and fall with the rolling hills.   

“In the year 2000 you couldn't get within a hundred yards of the Golden Horn because of the smell—much worse than even the Bagmati. Now it’s beautiful,” my friend said, and it was indeed true. The sparkling blue of the Golden Horn and Bhosphorus on a sunny day matched the seagulls flying low and swift against the clear, blue sky.    

And as the ferry ride ended with the red sun setting behind the giant mosques and neon signs flickering to welcome the night, we could hear the evening call for prayer at the New Mosque. The scene around the place was frenetic with the human torrent crisscrossing the Galata bridge as vehicles engaged in rush hour grid-lock and smell of fish wafted from a bevy of restaurants below it in the city half-way between the East and the West. With the irresistible mixture of cultures of Europe and Asia, in Istanbul ‘the East’ did really meet ‘West’.  

Turkish Delight

If Istanbul, the ‘mystical capital of the Orient’, got me equating the city with Kathmandu, which with its location between ancient civilizations of India and China has developed a distinct form of art, culture and mysticism, I was also tempted to put Nepal and Turkey side by side to appraise the similarities between the two countries.

The interior of Hagji SophiaTo look at Nepal’s geography is to consider a narrow brick shaped territory between two of the world’s most populous countries, India and China, which also happen to be the super-powers of the 21st century. Turkey, on the other hand, is a bulky strip of elongaged rectangle located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. So their location makes Nepal and Turkey countries of significant geo-strategic importance.

But the similarity is not limited to geography alone. Both Nepali and Turkish people pepper their everday language with Persian words. According to an article in a leading weekly paper of Kathmandu, till 50 years ago the word for 'holiday' in Nepali was the Turkic word, 'tatil'.

Turkey is country with the best food and rich variety of cuisines. And much like any Nepali, Turkish people also enjoy dahl (called dal in Nepali), a lentil soup before relishing delicious rise dish of pilav (pulao). Having a sweet tooth, Turkish people almost always end their meal with an assortment of sweet confections such as Turkish delight and helva (halwa in Nepali).   Grills like kebabs are popular in Turkey as it is in Nepal. Moreover, Turkish hospitality is similar to the one unassuming guests find in Nepali household: Dishes after dishes will be served to a guest overwhelmed with kindness of his host and Turkish people do not take no for an answer. Also, like in Nepal, Turkish people generally don’t allow shoes in the house.

‘Rags to Riches’

Once dubbed the ‘Sick man of Europe’, Turkey’s rise from the ruins of the Great Ottoman Empire (which collapsed in mid-19th century) to the economic miracle it is today is simply astounding. Despite being a Muslim majority country, Turkey’s most revered and visionary leader Kemal Ataturk transformed the old Ottoman state into a secular and forward-looking republic  through many radical reforms.

Today, Turkey is identified as one of the "Mint" countries - Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey – which are tipped as the next economic powerhouses. Being in both the East and West, Turkey enjoys expanding trade links with Europe and Asia and has a well-diversified economy in the region with engineering, textiles, food processing and petrochemicals its main industries.

One of Istanbul's popular pedestrianized streetsA visit to the headquarters of the Turkish Airlines (THY), the national flag-carrier of Turkey, on the grounds of Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was enough to give a sense of commercial acumen and purpose stirred with creativity that the whole country is charged with. And it also had a few lessons for Nepal’s own beleaguered national carrier.
Having started its service with just five small aeroplanes in 1933, Turkish Airlines fleet consists of 224 passengers aircraft as of December 2013. Turkish Airlines is also the world’s fastest growing airline and has been awarded with the title of Europe’s best airline for three consecutive years.       

In a meeting with media representatives and travel writers from various countries, its jovial and soft-spoken President and CEO, Temel Kotil, said, “The importance Turkish Airlines attaches to providing excellent service to passengers coupled with the diligence and hardwork of our employees is the reason we are Europe’s strongest carrier and world’s fastest growing airline company.”

However, the journey was not easy as the airline was beset by many difficulties and challenges. But it soon underwent massive makeover in the 80s thanks to a reformist government which recongnised it as “Turkey’s ambassador to the world” and initiated fleet expansion program, built state-of-the art technical and training facilities and modernized the country’s international airports. These timely upgrades together with Turkish government’s privatization program for THY (the Turkish government owned 98 % of its shares till 2004, now it owns a 49.12% interest in THY while 50.88 % of shares are publicly traded) and its booming tourism industry also helped the carrier bring in much needed capital flow to expand its internationl network and survive global aviation crisis through excellent entrepreneurial management.

The airline which was at one period Turkey's largest source of foreign currency now flies to 245 destination around the world spanning 105 countries (including Nepal) and is the world’s fourth-largest carrier in terms of number of destinations.

Kotil further said that Nepal is a very good and profitable destination for the Turkish Airlines. “Even though it has just been four months that Turkish Airlines started operating regular flights between Istanbul and Kathmandu, we are happy to be in Nepal. It is one of the most beautiful countries and top holiday destinations for people from all over the world including Europe. We are flying in full capacity and experiencing steady growth in passengers flying to and from Nepal. This is a very encouraging sign and because of this we are soon going to operate daily flights in the route,” he informed.   

One reason for Turkish Airlines’ success at a time of global aviation crisis - when world’s leading airlines are getting rid of loss-making routes - is its commitment to growth at any cost. Turkish Airlines has launched its operation in 24 new international destination in the last four months alone (including four weekly flights to Kathmandu) in order to fulfill its goal to fly to the largest number of countries around the world. And this despite the fact that just a couple of years ago half a dozen or so European Airlines operators ceased their service to Nepal citing heavy losses.

“Critics even dubbed our move to enhance Turkish airlines’ international network in such a short period of time as total madness. Nevertheless, we were successful and this has contributed to growth of passengers and concurrently our profits,” Kotil said, and added flashing a knowing smile, “We are one of the best airline companies, but in order to succeed we have to also take into consideration the political, geographical and economic realities of our country. Ours is a proof that if there is a strong commitment from the government level, even struggling national carriers can flourish and gain newer heights.”

Is anybody at Nepal Airlines listening?       

Gurung is a travel writer who has published a book titled ‘Journalism & Journeys’ (Vajra Books). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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