Istanbul, Where Cultures Meld

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Every year, the Turkish Airline organises media trip for journalists across Africa as part of its corporate social responsibilities. Joseph Ushigiale who is just back from Istanbul and was part of this year’s event that drew media people from across 22 African countries and others from Nepal and Pakistan reports on his experiences

“Ladies and gentlemen, children; from the cockpit this is your captain speaking. I welcome you on board flight TK 0626 taking us direct to Istanbul. Our flight time is approximately six hours thirty minutes and we will be cruising at an altitude of 41,000 feet. Weather condition enroute Istanbul is fine but will experience turbulence as we climb out of Lagos. Please seat back and enjoy your flight.”

With this announcement from the captain, our journey to Istanbul commenced. This reporter including his colleagues from the Guardian and Vanguard and another media consultant, Mr. (Pastor) Kunle Hamilton (formerly Editor, Glitterati, a sister publication of THISDAY Newspapers) were part of the 102 journalists drawn from across 23 African countries and few other journalists from Pakistan and Nepal by the Turkish Airlines to come and have a feel of Istanbul.

The consultant to Turkish Airline, Mr. Sam Adeoye whose organisation put this trip together told THISDAY that it is part of the Turkish Airlines’ “corporate social responsibility initiative aimed at partnering with media practitioners wherever it does business to showcase not only the airline’s niche services but also market Turkey as a destination.”

Beyond that, it is also worth noting that our trip was coming in the immediate aftermath of two major events that shook Turkey to its very foundation, threatened it democracy and unity: the June 28, 2016 terrorists attack at the Ataturk Airport and the subsequent July 15, 2016 coup to topple President Recep Erdogan.

As soon as the captain obtained final clearance from the air traffic controller to roll, we were airborne shortly after. Once we maintained considerable altitude and the fasten seat belt sign was off, dinner was served by the ever smiling flight attendants. This reporter’s seat number was 5D which is in the business class cabin. After dinner, I reclined my seat and decided to sleep for some few hours. I must confess that for the very first time in my entire flying experience either local or international, I had never as much as winked while airborne out of fear that the plane would tumble down and crash.

But Turkish Airlines’ flight TK 0626 banished that phobia as it flew us assuredly on its Boeing 777-300 ER series, an aircraft where you will experience absolute comfort and luxury while in the air. We landed Istanbul in the early hours of the next morning and were lodged at Radisson Blu. Later that day, we had a press conference with the Chief Executive Officer of the airline Dr. Temel Kotil who condemned the twin incidents and warned the visiting journalists to beware of the machinations of the coupists whom he said are believed to have presence in many countries and the capability of infiltrating several organisations including the media.

Kotil also used the opportunity to lay out a broad outline of the future projections for the airline. He said although passenger traffic has peaked at about 50m a year, its projection is to increase traffic to 90m in the next few years. He explained that to support these projections, the airline is to construct a bigger airport in addition to the present Ataturk Airport and expand its fleet which is about the youngest in the world from 336 to 500 aircrafts.

The next morning, we were driven to the airline’s flight training centre overlooking Ataturk International Airport from where you can watch as planes land and take-off every minute. This centre was opened in 1994 and has 21 high tech simulators built and installed by Thale of France. It boosts of 60 classrooms capable of training 1500 persons simultaneously and has a massive conference centre. It carries out various theories and practical trainings for flight crew, cockpit ground crew, cabin crew training on different aircraft types.

We also visited Do & Co which describes itself as the gourmet company that caters not only to Turkish Airlines alone but services over 23 other airlines globally. At the airline’s catering wing, we were shown through the entire catering value chain and were informed that the subsidiary produces 200,000 plates of fresh foods daily to service its flights worldwide. It also carries out events hosting and management, private and corporate catering etc.

On the last day of our visit, we departed quite early and while we drove along the coastline, our guide gave us a brief history of Turkey and especially Istanbul. As we drove in a snail speed, bumper to bumper along the road, to our left, were multiple mosques but the most prominent according to our guide was the blue mosque.

The Blue Mosque (Called Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) is an historical mosque in Istanbul. The mosque is known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls of interior design. Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 years, during the rule of Ahmed I. Just like many other mosques, it also comprises a tomb of the founder, a madrasa and a hospice. Besides still used as a mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque has also become a popular tourist attraction in Istanbul.

According to our guide “Turkey occupies Asia Minor which covers about 97 per cent while a small portion of Europe occupies three per cent. It is bounded on the west by the Aegean Sea; on the northwest by the Sea of Marmara, Greece, and Bulgaria; on the north by the Black Sea; on the east by Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran; and on the south by Iraq, Syria, and the Mediterranean.

“Although Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) is the major city with 5 provinces out of the entire 81 provinces in Turkey and was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the first president—Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—chose Ankara, an interior Anatolian city, as the capital in 1923 when it gained independence,” he explained.

Our bus meandered its way right up to the quayside where we alighted to take a boat cruise on the Bosphorus. A recent visitor described the Bosphorus as “the most scenic and the most romantic part of Istanbul. It is a strait that connects the Black Sea on north with the Marmara Sea on south. It is a natural border between Europe and Asia and it is the only outlet of the Black Sea, which is connected to the Aegean through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. The most beautiful mansions and palaces of Istanbul, mosques restaurants and beaches along its shores are located on two sides of this natural waterway.”

After about an hour’s boat cruise within which we enjoyed Istanbul’s aquatic splendor, the beautiful tour boats, cruise liners and elegant yachts littered on the waterfronts, two suspended bridges linking Asian continent, we finally arrived at the other end behind the famous museum which houses Topkapı Palace and was constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror Palace served as the home of the Ottoman sultans and their court until the middle of the 19th century. To access the palace, you have to buy a pass and cameras, pictures and video making equipment are prohibited and the entire palace is heavily guarded.

After lunch at a very famous restaurant believed to have hosted two American Presidents: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, we were unleashed on the grand bazaar. According to its website, The Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) in Istanbul is one of the largest covered markets in the world with 60 streets and 5,000 shops, and attracts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.

It is well known for its jewellery, hand-painted ceramics, carpets, embroideries, spices and antique shops. Many of the stalls in the bazaar are grouped by type of goods, with special areas for leather, gold jewellery and the like. The bazaar has been an important trading centre since 1461 and its labyrinthine vaults feature two bedestens (domed buildings), the first of which was constructed between 1455 and 1461 by the order of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. The bazaar was vastly enlarged in the 16th century, during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and in 1894 underwent a major restoration following an earthquake.

The dinner that night signaled the end of our tour and itinerary for our return trip was handed to each group from their respective countries. There is however an aspect of Turkish life that you cannot overlook; that aspect is its security consciousness. It would be an almost impossible for you to get away even with car snatching in Istanbul. The security apparatus is razor and they have effective deployment of CCTV all over the place which makes it almost impossible for criminals to get away with any crime they commit.

Another noticeable thing about Istanbul is that it is landlocked because you either see water or rocky and difficult terrain as dry land. The traffic jams make Lagos’ traffic a child’s play. Therefore to accomplish anything meaningful, you must be ready to trek the distance to your destination because there are some areas vehicles are restricted and not accessible.

It is also a great marvel how a country, divided by two continents, Europe and Asia Turkey has succeeded in blending these two separate entities to create a formidable and united country. Indeed it could be what makes Turkey an interesting country with its rich multicultural and linguistic heritages.
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According to www.everyculture.com present-day Turkey was founded in 1923 as an offspring of the multiethnic and multilingual Ottoman Empire, which existed between the fourteenth and early twentieth centuries and embraced much of the Middle East along with parts of Southeastern Europe and North Africa in the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century, when the Balkans and the Trans-Caspian regions were separated from the empire, many non-Turkish Ottoman citizens fled or migrated to Anatolia and Turkish Thrace to resettle.

With the Ottoman Empire’s demise in World War I, the heartland of the old empire—Istanbul and Asia Minor—was reconstituted as the Republic of Turkey under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (later called Mustafa Kemal Atatürk). To make Turkey a modern, Western-style, secular nation-state, Atatürk disestablished Islam as the state religion, adopted Western legal codes, and established a compulsory secular educational system in which all young Muslim citizens, regardless of ethnicity, were taught that they were ethnically Turkish and citizens of a Turkish nation-state.

After centuries of intermarriage with Mediterranean and Balkan peoples and the assimilation of those peoples into the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish state, the vast majority of today’s Turks physically resemble southern Europeans rather than central Asiatics.

The big lesson from Istanbul is that tourism is big business in Turkey and contributes substantially to its gross domestic product. The sector is well organised with registered tour companies parading well trained courteous staff branded with tour buses etc. The major thing going for the country is that it has been able to deliberately identify with it cultural heritage and traditions and took time to preserve and in some cases, recreated its various historical sites to make the country a compelling destination.

It has also succeeded in designing and deploying remarkable and effective brands and marketing strategies alongside creating synergy between the Tourism ministry and Turkish airlines to drive traffic. Istanbul is a must-see city both as a tourism centre and a commercial hub.

The trip by Turkish Airline was indeed an eye opener and reinforces the need for the floating of a national carrier in Nigeria. The opening of an office by Airbus of France in Nigeria and the resolve of the present administration to float a national airline could not have come at a better time. Apart from national pride, a national carrier has a multiplier effect on the economy.

Turkish Airline has been flying since 1933 and has over 4500 pilots and over 10,000 flight attendants and ground crew. Nigeria has a lot to learn from the Turkish Airline model which makes it one of the most competitive airline which contributes 5.3 per cent to it country’s GDP and controls over 300 aircraft in its fleet flying to over 291 destinations in 110 countries.

As the push to float a national carrier gathers momentum in Nigeria, there is a lot to learn from the Turkish Airlines’ experience and model given that the airline is also state-owned yet runs profitably and is quoted on the Turkish Stock Exchange. Although Turkish Airline is 83 years old this year, it is not too late for Nigeria to start her own airline, afterall we should be comforted by and learn from Kenny Rogers’ lyrics in his song ‘Going Back to Alabama’ where he sang that a man who walks by the side of the road can turn himself around. He can pick himself fast, just himself fast and start all over again.’ Nigeria can sure turn itself around on this one and it is better late than never.