Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Bulgaria: the gateway to Europe

Sofia is not well known for tourism. The capital of Bulgaria has no recognizable icons like the Eiffel Tower nor commercial attractions like Disneyland. In fact, most people will be hard pressed to place Sofia - or even Bulgaria - on a map of Europe.

Nonetheless, for any traveler proceeding to Europe from the East by land, Bulgaria is unavoidable. On their march to siege the city walls of Vienna, Ottoman Sultans proceeded westwards into Europe through Bulgaria. The road to Vienna traveled through Sofia and while borders may change, geography does not. Hence, it was through Sofia that I went westwards, deeper into Balkan Europe.

Sofia's impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Bulgars are a predominantly Eastern Orthodox people following their own church, the Church of Bulgaria. The Church of Bulgaria is one of the oldest churches within Christianity, formally recognized by the Constantinople hierarchy in the early 900s. Not surprisingly, one of the top sights in the city is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, catherdal church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria.

The Nevsky Cathedral in just over 100 years old. The structure was completed in 1912. The cathedral has a capacity of 10,000 persons and is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals in the world. The cathedral is named after Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince. The cathedral also honors Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-78, following which Bulgaria obtained its independence after almost five centuries of Ottoman rule.

During Ottoman times Sofia had over seventy mosques but today only one remains, the Banya Bashi Mosque. The remainder were destroyed once the Ottomans were vanquished by Bulgarian nationalists. The Banya Bashi Mosque is one more marvel of Ottoman Master Architect Sinan. The mosque was completed in 1576 and, unusually, was built over natural thermal spas. The mosque serves the city's Muslim minority. Muslims comprise almost ten percent of Bulgaria's present population.

Sofia's sole surviving mosque, the Banya Bashi Mosque, completed in 1576
Outside of Sofia there is a beautiful monastery located high in the Rile mountains. The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila or the Rila Monastery is located approximately 120 kilometers south of Sofia and at an elevation of 1,150 meters above sea level. The monastery was founded in the tenth century and also houses a museum. A visit to the monastery makes for a pleasant day trip.

A view of the Rila Monastery as seen on the back of the One Lev banknote
Undoubtedly, Bulgaria is European. Indeed, for railway enthusiasts Sofia is also the perfect starting point for any rail journey heading west into Europe. So while Bulgaria has been part of the European Union since 2007, the nation is anything but mainstream Europe. The remnants of decades of communism and political isolation are still pervasive – though slowly disappearing - making Bulgaria an unique travel experience.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Balkans Express: Istanbul to Sofia train

A few years I had a pleasant experience traveling on a Turkish Railways (TCDD) sleeper overnight train from Istanbul to Sofia, Bulgaria. So while planning my latest European rail extravaganza (yes, extravaganza!) I didn't think twice about repeating the journey. Particularly because Sofia is a nice entry point into Eastern Europe with a direct train to Belgrade, my next destination.

The first sniff that something was not right came when the TCDD officer in Istanbul's Sirkeci railway station informed us the journey to the Bulgarian border was by 'special' coach. Subsequently, after crossing into Bulgaria, all passengers will board a Bulgarian train for the remainder of the journey to Sofia.

The Turkish border town of Kapikule located on the Turkish - Bukgarian frontier
Ok, slightly inconvenient but really not such a big deal? Right - wrong, very wrong!

The journey began uneventfully enough. A comfortable TCDD operated coach to the Turkish border town of Kapikule. Turkish immigration formalities were completed at Kapikule. Once out of Turkey, a Bulgarian train was waiting to take us all the way to Sofia. Or so we thought!

The train left Kapikule as expected. Bulgarian immigration officers boarded the train and completed immigration formalities on the moving train. (Singapore and Malaysia: please implement similar immigration procedures for rail passengers traveling between the two countries). Again, nothing unusual.

The bombshell was dropped by a Bulgarian railways conductor a little while later. The present train terminated at Plovdiv – about 160 kilometers short of Sofia! All passengers were required to board a connecting train to Sofia at Plovdiv. A hassle, but not the end of the world. The only hitch: there was a transit time of two hours in Plovdiv. Not exactly how one wanted to spend the morning after an all night, coach – train journey.

Stuck for two hours in Plovdiv without any Bulgarian Lev and not knowing if any shops – or money changers – in town are open! Certainly an enticing and ominous way to inaugurate Europe Extravaganza 2015 rail journeys?!

The front of the train station at the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv - an unscheduled detour in Bulgaria!
Traveling, like life, means rolling with the punches and looking at the bright side. The bright side? I got almost an hour wandering around Plovdiv, even eating some Bulgarian pizza in the bargain.

The Sofia train departed Plovdiv as scheduled and rolled into Sofia at lunchtime. Sure, a 634 kilometer journey from Istanbul to Sofia took approximately half a day … but the sun was shining in Sofia and my 'Europe 2015 Extravaganza' had well and truly begun.

It can only get better from here onwards!
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Byzantine churches, Ottoman mosques and Constantinople's conversion to Istanbul

Many in predominantly Christian parts of Europe associate Turks and Turkey only with Islam. I have even heard some refer to a mosque as a 'Turkish temple!' Not surprising given Turkey's population is over 99 percent Muslim.

Nonetheless, some of the nicest attractions in Istanbul happen to be non-Muslim monuments. Relics from the glory days of the Byzantine Empire located in its erstwhile headquarters, the city of Constantinople. While the Hagia Sophia may be the best known church from the Byzantine days there are other churches worth a visit.

A fresco of the Virgin Mary and Child inside the Chora Church
One such Byzantine church is the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, now known as the Chora Museum. The first church on its present site was built in the fifth century. The church was located outside the walls of the main city. Hence the name which when translated means, 'The Church of the Holy Redeemer in the Fields.'

Much of the present structure dates from the eleventh century. The church saw many modifications until the early 1500s when it was converted into a mosque. In 1948 a project to restore the building's many frescoes began. By 1958 the building was reopened as a museum. Anyone with a few hours to spare in Istanbul will find the museum a pleasant surprise. Such old buildings along with its beautiful frescoes are rare.

As a bonus to any visitor, there are two additional sights to see within a few minutes walking distance from the Chora Museum, i.e. the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque and a section of Constantinople's defensive wall.

A view of Sinan's Mihrimah Sultan Mosque
The Mihrimah Mosque was built by Ottoman master architect Sinan between 1562-65. Dedicated and named after Emperor Sultan the Magnificent's favorite daughter, Mihrimar, the mosque is as good a specimen of Sinan's work as his more well known structures, e.g. Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul or the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. Sinan's style is well reflected in Istanbul's iconic Blue Mosque, designed by one of his assistant's – Sedefkar Mehmed Agha.

Near the mosque is a section of Constantinople's historical defensive wall. Bravehearted travelers can climb a section of the wall to obtain a panoramic view of the city from a higher vantage point. The hill is near the highest vantage point in the city. The less daring may stroll through the wall's gate, the same gate which Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II used to ceremoniously entered the city after its fall.

A 1903 painting depicting Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II at the 1453 Siege of Constantinople
Istanbul oozes history. A decidedly European city with an Islamic flavor. Or, if you prefer, a decidedly Islamic city, with an European flavor. Seeing two beautiful places of worship, a mosque and church, alongside each provides a glimpse into the deep soul of this unique city. 
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He has been a regular traveler to Istanbul since 2003. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Ataturk's withering Istanbul?

Istanbul is one of my favorite cities. I first visited Istanbul in February 2003, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. From 2003 onwards, I have visited Istanbul regularly.

In Istanbul, one cannot take more than a few steps without running into a historical monument or place of worship. Istanbul, after all, was the home of the Ottoman Empire – the Sublime Porte. An Empire which attempted to synthesize modernity and Islam, ultimately leading to the personality of Ataturk and ideas associated with Kemalism.

A painting of Ottoman era Istanbul. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia are visible in the background. 
For me, Turkey is Ataturk's Turkey. A nation pursuing a staunch, fascist-like, secular vision believing secularist thought is a prerequisite for modernizing society. Headscarves were not permitted in government institutions. Islamist tending politicians were persona non grata in Ankara, the nation's capital. Any deviation from Ataturk's path and the military flexes its muscles to remind society of the correct way. Remember Turkey's 'post-modern' coup and the fate of Erbekan's Islamist government in 1997?

Since 2003, Istanbul's character has changed. Along with the rest of the world, Turkey has seen a resurgence of religiosity in the post 9/11 environment. Ataturk's secular ideals have withered with time. Secularism is all but dead.

A process helped on its way by three successive governments formed by the Islamically inclined Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since the AKP's first election victory in 2002, the party swept the polls again in 2007 and most recently in 2011.

Tayyip Erdogan, in his capacity as Prime Minister from 2003-2014 and from 2014 as President, has presided over many far reaching changes in Turkish society. The headscarf debate is history. His wife – as Turkey's First Lady - adorns the headscarf at state functions. The AKP's symbolic victory in the headscarf debate underscores the increasing influence of religion in Ataturk's secular Turkey.

To the AKP's credit, Turkey has seen its status and image in the world transformed. With the largest standing army within the NATO alliance, Turkey was always an important state militarily. However, Turkey is now an economic powerhouse too. At the end of 2012, Istanbul had twenty-four billionaire residents, ranking it at number seven in the list of cities with the most billionaires. According to compiled by the CIA, Turkey's economy is the seventeenth largest in the world. It's GDP per capita on a purchasing parity basis is over USD 15,000. Turkish companies are global players with large overseas investments, particularly in neighboring Central Asian and Balkan states.

Politically, Turkey now pursues a more muscular and independent foreign policy – often bringing the country into conflict with its traditional US and NATO allies. Consider Turkey's vacillations over supporting Kurdish militias in battling extremist Islamic State fighters lodged in the Syrian city of Kobani. Or Turkey's increasingly active role in regional conflict zones such as Libya and Palestine.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, seen in his military uniform (1918)
Perhaps all of these changes simply represent a maturing of Turkish society? Or maybe the shift towards Islam is a belated recognition of the European Union's non-acceptance of Turkey as an European state? (Turkey has virtually abandoned the formal process of becoming an EU member state.) More likely, it is a combination of several factors. Whatever the reasons, the changes are unlikely to stop me from visiting Istanbul again in the coming years – as often as I possibly can. It remains a charmingly, beautiful city with many hidden secrets I have yet to uncover!
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Grand Moofti's (East and Central) European Rail Tour 2015

Following from my rail journey from Istanbul to London (via Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna, Munich, Cologne, Bruges) in late 2012, it was time to embark on another epic European land adventure. In 2015, my travels focus on Central and Eastern Europe, including three former Yugoslav republics.

The Sirkeji train station in Istanbul, Turkey. The starting point for Tour Europe 2015.
The 2015 itinerary – at the time of writing I am in Sarajevo – with planned mode of transport between cities is as follows:

Singapore – Istanbul (Turkey). Air.

Istanbul – Sofia (Bulgaria). Combination of bus and train.

Sofia – Belgrade (Serbia). Train.

Belgrade – Sarajevo (Bosnia). Bus.

Sarajevo – Mostar (Bosnia). Bus.

Mostar – Sarajevo (Bosnia). Train.

Sarajevo – Zagreb (Croatia). Train.

Zagreb – Budapest (Hungary). Train.

Budapest – Bratislava (Slovakia). Train.

Bratislava – Prague (Czech Republic). Train.

Prague – Munich (Germany). Train.

Munich – London (England). Train. End of journey.

London – Singapore. Air.

I will pen my thoughts as I go along. Follow my experiences on Twitter (@grandmoofti) and on this blog.

Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Pakistan's Peshawar: Gandharan relics, warriors and food all wrapped in Pashtun hospitality!

In only a few days Peshawar and its people have won me over! The City of Flowers history, tradition and warm people have more than compensated for the awful dark skies and rain which welcomed me to the provincial capital earlier this week.

Street side stall holder proudly displays his selection of food. Peshawar's food, especially kababs, is divine 
During the last few years, Peshawar has disappeared from the radar of most travelers, Pakistani and international alike. The Taliban Trail of Terror has replaced the Hippie Trail. Still, in the intervening years the city seems to have lost none of its charm. (I must confess my last visit to Peshawar was at least twenty years ago – so long that I don't even remember the exact year!)

For those interested in history and religion, the Peshawar Museum hosts the world's largest collection of artifacts from the Gandharan civilization, which flourished for almost one thousand years, c. 1500 to 500 BC. Gandhara was an ancient kingdom centered around the regions of modern day Peshawar and the Swat Valley. The Gandhara Kingdom was a center of Buddhism, Hinduism and Greco-Buddhism. Greco-Buddhism is the cultural syncretism between Hellenistic culture and Buddhism, which developed between the 4th century BCE and the 5th century CE.” (Source: Wikipedia)

The entrance to the Peshawar Museum, which houses the world's largest collection of Gandharan artifacts
Other aspects of Peshawar's history can be found in the Storytellers Bazaar or the Qissa Khawani Bazaar. The bazaar dates back at least two thousand years. More recently, in 1930 the Bazaar was the site of a massacre by British colonial authorities of unarmed civilians agitating for independence against British rule.

The imposing Bala Hissar Fort, which sits regally atop a hill, symbolizes the city's strategic and military importance for invaders and defenders as the gateway to India (through the fabled Khyber Pass). It is believed some sort of a fortification has stood on the elevated site since the seventh century. The present structure, used as the Headquarters for the Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps since 1949, was built in the 1830s by the then Sikh rulers of Peshawar.

Peshawar will be done a great injustice if I don't mention the great 'frontier' food found in every nook and cranny of this city. Simply put, anyone leaving Peshawar without trying local barbecue specialties like chapli kababs, seekh kabas or Kabuli pulao cannot claim to have visited Peshawar! Stay away from the fancy restaurants, instead make a beeline for the 'hole in the wall' cafes sprinkled across the city.

Kababs being marinated and barbecued / cooked on coal at a streetside cafe
Perhaps more than the rest of Pakistan, Peshawar has suffered tremendously due to violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists. Nonetheless, Peshawar is a city like no other. A city of warriors, food and people with big hearts. Not surprisingly, despite the recent ravages of terror, the city's soul remains intact. That soul will surely touch any visitor to the ancient Gandharan city of Purushapura (aka Peshawar). 

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Mohatta Palace Museum: a cultural oasis

Karachi may be Pakistan's largest city and commercial capital but it is a relatively new city. Karachi's newness was underscored at a recent map exhibition titled 'Drawing the Line' at the city's Mohatta Palace Museum.

The exhibition also highlights the continuing impact colonial 'lines' have on today's world. From border disputes to nationalist ethnic movements, 'artificial' frontiers created by colonial bureaucratic cartographers are the bane of many present day disputes. Pakistan, a 'new' nation built on the tenuous premise of a shared religion, itself suffers from many of these 'post-colonial nation building' obstacles.

As Pakistan grapples with varying – often competing - notions of what it means to be an 'Islamic Republic,' indigenous culture and history circumscribes the country's debate about national identity. Museums, as caretakers or even creators of culture, play an instrumental role in these formative discussions.

Karachi's Mohatta Palace Museum provides a welcome voice to the national cultural discussions.

The Mohatta Palace Museum entrance, displaying one of the magnficient gardens around the structure
The museum, owned by the Government of Sindh, is housed in a unique structure constructed in the 1920s as a residence for Shiv Rattan Mohatta, a Hindu businessman from Rajasthan. The architecture of Mohatta Palace contains strong influences from Rajput found in Jaipur, especially in the use of pink Jodhpur stone. Strong Mogul influences are also visible in the building's design.

The building was designed by Agha Ahmed Hussain, believed to be the first Muslim architect in India. Hussain had recently arrived in Karachi from Jaipur to take up the post of Chief Surveyor for the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC).

In 1947, Mohatta Palace was acquired by the newly independent state of Pakistan and became the official Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. It remained the Foreign ministry's office until Pakistan's new custom built capital of Islamabad was completed in 1966. Following a brief stay of three years (1964-1967) by Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan's founder Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the palace was abandoned and remained in disrepair until 1995.

Friendly peacocks freely roam the museum gardens and grounds. Here one is seen 'speaking' with your blogger!
In 1995 Mohatta Palace was purchased by the Government of Sindh and converted into a museum. Drawing the Line is simply one of the many exhibitions held at the museum during the last two decades.

The Mohatta Palace Museum is a must see for any person interested in Pakistan's culture and history.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.