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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Turkish Delight

Having travelled to Istanbul last year I have had at least the personal pleasure of seeing that city's daily life close up and of course its fascinating urban transport network. In particular following on announcements made last week by Turkey's Government that the landmark Hagia Sofia structure was to revert to becoming a Mosque - I had at least the chance to visit this iconic former Byzantine cathedral in its more recent museum status as a World Heritage Site. With my wife we toured inside to gaze at an interior only previously viewed online or through a travel programme. To consider that Viking warriors enlisted to protect Byzantine Emperors had carved their names or something possibly more prosaic in the balcony stonework way above the ground level mosaics - was really awe inspiring even if we didn't get to see the actual inscriptions.

To get to the Hagia Sofia one can walk of course, or go by one of several tram routes which run immediately past its public entranceway. Loud and frequent articulated cars maintain services alongside many of the important heritage points in the city - usually always busy to capacity. Heritage trams in the city are confined to two seperated lines - the one to Taksim Square being the most popular with visitors operating one or two traditional Istanbul two axle trams on a nearly dead straight line along a commercial street. The other is to be found on the Asia side of the city reachable both by smart subway service and also by ferry service to Kadikoy on the far side of the Bosphorus. The ferry is slightly more attractive than the version crossing the River Wyre to Knott End - and takes a journey time of 20 - 30 minutes from the main Ferry terminal adjoining the Galatea Bridge linking Asian and European Istanbul. Unlike the Taksim heritage tram, the Kadikoy service operates on a circular route through an upmarket district passing residential and retail areas on its curving line with steep ascents and descents. Much like at Fleetwood the tram also has a principal stop by the Ferry terminal in Kadikoy.

Just what changes and limitations for public access will ensue through the official designation of the Hagia Sofia as a mosque remains to be seen. Its history includes lengthy duration as a christian cathedral for which it was originally built - then designated as the principal mosque of Constantinople (after the Byzantine Emperor Constantine) for several centuries following the Saracen defeat of the Byzantine dynasty - and in the last century becoming a museum in the newly secularised state of Turkey led by Kemal Ataturk.

German commercial, political and military influence held sway in the country leading up to World War One (and during that war). A consequence was the development of electric trams and supply of rolling stock by German companies. The trams on both of the two heritage lines today reflect German equipment and design but from two entirely different era. The tramway to Taksim Square is operated by a mini fleet of pre-World War One type trams - whilst the newer service in Kadikoy ironically is maintained by a specially acquired number of single truck 'Reko' trams from the former DDR. It is an interesting experience taking a ride through an Istanbul district (away from the visitor dominated centre) in a communist era German tram on a regular scheduled service. Below : a sampling of a DDR era two axle Gotha built car now providing regular service in Istanbul !

Quite apart from these older types there is a hectic procession of modern trams, usually in coupled pairs, dominating several of the main streets in Istanbul's heart. Because of the narrow confines of the roads in the central district, the trams are gutter running in places and driven at speed; making pedestrians stick carefully to the pavement and looking out at most road crossings. All stops are fitted with low platforms and electronic access gates which require advance pre-paid 'oyster' type cards to enter. Lessons for Blackpool perhaps? Visitors find it easy to familiarise themselves with the system, but there is need for care in planning travel over any distance given the complicated public transport network.

Below : the tram stop for the Hagia Sofia (Museum - now Mosque) in the background.

Below : two glimpses inside this amazing structure. Closeup of decorated interior arches and a partial view of the vaulted space for worship.

Other tramways in the middle east at one time reflected colonial pasts with Syria and Lebanon having electric trams operated (and owned in some cases) by French companies with rolling stock imported from France initially. Egypt had a combination of Belgian and British influence, whilst Khartoum in The Sudan naturally evolved from British investment and tramcar design. The latter system acquiring centre entrance trailer trams to a familiar design to Blackpool's 1950s versions. Although with significantly different interior features such as female only compartments and lacking glazing! Tunisia and Algeria reflected French influence in their choice of electric rolling stock - naturally.

Turkey today has a remarkable number of tramways of which the Istanbul network is naturally the largest. It also operates the only heritage trams in that country (again in Istanbul); whilst the city has a remarkable privately run transport museum complete with trams, trains, buses, cars, boats, some aircraft, and excellent model display. Highly recommended for enthusiasts. Below : Taksim Heritage tram service with 'outriders' perched on the sloping metal covers over the fenders (no deterrent apparantly)

Below : the slightly basic stabling line next to Taksim Square terminus.

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