How do you write about Istanbul, one of the greatest and most historic cities on earth? One option would be to take the John Julius Norwich approach, and write a massive three-volume history of Byzantium, though of course that only covered a portion of the city’s history, up until the victorious Ottomans appeared. Since he’s already done that, though, I’ll keep this somewhat more brief.Few cities can claim such a prominent history and such a profound impact on the world. With its position on the eastern edge of Europe, linking to Asia just across the Bosphorus Strait, and controlling the seaway that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, it was bound to be an important place. Early in the fourth century Emperor Constantine decided it was time to move the capital of the Roman Empire east, to reflect the changing geography of the Empire. On May 11, 330, then, Rome was essentially abandoned and “New Rome” was declared the capital. Over time, of course, it became known as Constantinople and remained the capital of what we call the Byzantine Empire (though they called it the Roman Empire) until the Byzantines were conquered by the Ottomans on May 29, 1453. In other words, it served as the capital of the Roman Empire for precisely 1,123 years and 19 days.
The city’s glory days, of course, weren’t over. When Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople he made it the capital of the new Ottoman Empire; that lasted until November 1, 1922 when the Republicans won the Turkish War of Independence and established the modern Republic of Turkey with its capital at Ankara. So after it’s long reign as capital of Byzantium (or Rome) it had another 469 years, five months, and three days as the capital of a major empire. It will take Washington DC a while to match that nearly 1,600-year record.Though not the political capital, it remains the cultural and economic center of Turkey and indeed, with 14.4 million people, the largest city in Europe. It’s a lively, vibrant, exciting city, with a ton of things to do and restaurants to sample. And as a bonus it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than most big cities!
What do you do with five days in Istanbul? Fortunately, we’ve been here before so we didn’t have to start from scratch. Still, there are things you just have to see when you’re here, starting with Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”), originally built as the basilica of Constantinople in 537 AD. Do the math – that makes it nearly 1,500 years old. In other words, when St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was started in the early 16th century, Hagia Sophia was nearly 1,000 years old. We can’t think of a building that’s been in regular use (as opposed to, say, the Pyramids, which are just burial chambers) for anywhere near as long. When we were in Ephesus, we toured the ruins of St. John’s cathedral, built by Emperor Justinian at the same time as Hagia Sophia was being built. That of course, was the ruins of St. John’s, a bunch of rocks strewn about. This place is still standing, still being used, and still stunning.
By way of quick background, after the Ottomans took over they converted the church to a mosque and, sadly, covered over all the gorgeous mosaics. When Ataturk made Turkey into a secular republic, though, he had the mosque “repurposed” as a museum so today it is shared and enjoyed by everyone. And fortunately many of the old Christian mosaics were just covered over by the Moslems and thus have been able to be recovered, at least in part. Simply put it is, even for a second or third time, an amazing site to visit.Of course, for a city with such a storied history there are plenty of other museums to visit. Istanbul has a great five-day pass that lets you into maybe a dozen museums and we took good advantage of the card. Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman Sultans, is another must-see site. My favorite there was the room with religious artifacts the Sultans had collected over time, including Moses’ staff, a pan Abraham used for cooking, and a sword of David. You have to wonder, did they really believe someone had somehow recovered Abraham’s cooking gear? Weird. We also toured an archeological museum and a museum dedicated to the Great Palace Mosaic, remnants of a mosaic floor that once comprised perhaps 80 million tiny cubes to cover some 1,500 to 2,000 square meters of floor space. There is so much to see in Istanbul.
At the same time, part of the joy of traveling there is just hanging out, walking around, and watching people go about their lives. Some of it was fascinating. There’s a shoe-shine scam that we fortunately didn’t fall for. It goes like this: A guy is walking down the street carrying his shoe-shine equipment. He drops something but doesn’t notice it and keeps walking. You call to him, point what he dropped; he’s very grateful and offers to shine your shoes. That’s how far we got, but I wasn’t interested in having my walking shoes shined so we just kept going. The next time Mark was walking alone, though, and a guy “dropped” his brush Mark just ignored it and pretty soon the guy walked back to get it. And again when Mark & I were walking together, same thing. Presumably if you bite, if you let him give you his free shine in gratitude, at the end he hits you up for money and says he never offered it for free. Nice scam.
Some of the street life is truly sad; I’ve never seen so many child beggars or mothers with little babies begging except in India. And the burkhas. Perhaps it doesn’t speak well of me, but I just can’t accept the way conservative Moslems feel women need to be hidden from the rest of the world (or, to be precise, from men). In Turkey you see the whole spectrum of dress, from fully westernized clothes to scarves to full burkhas. I even saw two women whose Burkhas did not include the half-inch eye slit which is typically the most covered you see. Presumably the veil over their eyes was sufficiently translucent that they could see out, but still, your eyes can’t even be seen? Do you think they whisper “What tramps?” when they see women walking around with that half-inch slit so they can see out?And then some of the city life is just colorful. The men – almost exclusively, perhaps entirely exclusively men – fishing on the Galata Bridge at the mouth of the Golden Horn. Lots of people walking, strolling, fishing, and occasionally swimming along the coast of the Sea of Marmara. Boys doing swan dives from the Galata Bridge into the Golden Horn beneath. Incredible crowds of people walking up and down Iskadel Cadessi – Istanbul’s pedestrian thoroughfare – all through the evening. Streets packed with restaurants and bars and live music and street performers. Lots to enjoy.
Alas, after nearly six weeks it’s time to leave Turkey. We’ll miss a lot of things: olives and yogurt for breakfast, hammams, beaches, ancient ruins, cheap hotels, great food, cheap hotels, easy bus routes. But there are probably more adventures to be had as we head next to Italy for a couple weeks.