Byzantium, Nova Roma, Tsargrad, Miklagård, Constantinople, Istanbul. It is a city that has known many names and which straddles two continents. It has been a city of emperors. It was the center of Holy Rome and of the Eastern Empire that lasted a thousand years after the Christian world fractured in half leaving the western half in fragments and foundering through a time we now call the dark ages. The Turks swept out of Central Asia in a storm of swords, spears and horses to conquer Arab nations and swallow up the once great Byzantine empire. The Ottoman empire flourished for hundreds of years before ultimately going the way of all empires. A new Turkey arose out of these ashes led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This is just a small sampling of a fantastically rich history; a primer. This blog is about just what a truly amazing place Istanbul is today. There are so many things to do in Istanbul and I have only seen a small part of it. It is one of the largest and most sprawling cities on the planet. I mainly stuck to the more historic spots.
Every traveler at some point or another has been lost. There you are, standing on a corner somewhere, probably with a map in your hands and keenly self-aware of how much you stick out like a sore thumb. In most places, you flag down a passerby and do your best to beg directions out of him. In two countries though, to get help getting where I’m going, all I have to do is look lost; those countries are Ireland and Turkey. Turks are generous and friendly for the most part. In the touristy parts of town, a kind of national outlook combined with a sales mentality makes for some very savvy, very persuasive salesmen. In my experience, Thais are more persistent in their quest to sell a tourist something, while Turks are far more crafty. They will invite you into their lovely store and offer you a cup of delicious apple tea, have some pleasant small talk and then… the sales pitch begins. Turkish rugs are hand-woven and beautiful, but if I had bought one from everybody who made me want to buy one, I’d have a warehouse full and would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. I enjoyed Istanbul so much. It’s a place both western and eastern. While you might see a Turkish woman covered from head to foot, as we in the west have come to expect an Islamic woman to be dressed, you are just as likely to see a woman wearing a mini-skirt and a belly ring. There may be no more cosmopolitan city in the world. The sites to see in Istanbul are some of the best the world has to offer.
The first place I had to see was the Hagia Sophia. For a thousand years this was the largest and greatest Christian Cathedral in the world. It was the jewel in the the crown of the Byzantine Empire and even today, a millennium and a half later, it still strikes awe like a thunderbolt from the hand of god. When Byzantium was finally sacked by the Turks in the 1400s, it became the most impressive mosque in the world. Many of the mosaics and other artworks were plastered over and, ironically, this preserved them. A great deal of the greatest treasures of Istanbul were actually looted by Christian Crusaders and taken back to western Europe. When Atatürk officially made the Hagia Sophia a museum, a restoration was begun. Found underneath these layers of plaster were archaeological Christian treasures of mosaic iconographies preserved from the ravages of time
Directly across from this archeology and history lays another such structure: the Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sophia, I believe, is now just officially a museum, but the Blue Mosque is still just as much of a place of worship as St. Peter’s is in Rome. We were careful to dress conservatively and my lovely traveling companion covered her hair. Just like ancient Christianity did, Islam frowns on iconography, so there are no pictures. Yet, the inside of the mosque is decorated richly in beautiful calligraphy from what must be the Koran. In some ways, the simplicity of the script adorning every surface is more elegant and lovely than the stained glass, icons and sculptures that adorn European style cathedrals. Just like the Hagia Sophia, the architecture itself is a marvel.
Not far away is the historical residence of the Sultan of the Ottoman empire: the Topkapi palace. The grounds are beautiful and artful as one would expect, but what surprised me were the museums that are now built into it. I liked seeing where the harem used to live and seeing the bedroom where the Sultan slept, seeing the commanding view of the Bosporus that is so lovely. However, it was the museums that got to me. I’m a sucker from them. Some of you may have been to London’s unparalleled British Museum. One of the reasons the British Museum is so great is because, at one time, the sun never set on the British Empire and the Brits took the best stuff from all over the world. They put a lot of it in the British Museum making it the finest chronicle of human history in the world. I have to give a huge prop to Britain on this one; they also decided to make it free. On the same note, though not free, the museums in Topkapi Palace have treasures from Algeria to Persia and from the Balkans to Egypt.
Another very interesting visit is the Basilica Cistern. Built during Roman times, this structure is yet another stunning example of the amazing ingenuity of ancient architects. In times of drought, this underground water storage, and others like it, allowed the city to survive. Today, with modern plumbing, it’s hardly necessary, but its beauty is untarnished and perhaps even improved upon with the weight of antiquity that has gathered upon it. Also, if anyone knows the story of the Medusa heads of carved stone that serve as bases for two of the dozens of columns that hold up the cistern, please let me know. All I know is that they were hauled from far away for some reason and were placed quite strangely. It must have been on purpose and I wonder what that purpose was. It makes me so curious I want to crawl out of my skin.
Go try a Turkish bath, a Hamam. Being an intrepid traveler, I went and did it trying to forget all of the jokes I ever heard about Turkish baths. I won’t get into that story too much. It’s mostly pretty funny, amounting to me being naked except for a short towel while being scrubbed and massaged by a huge man with a handlebar mustache who also only wore a short towel. However, despite my fears, the experience was pleasant and not anymore risqué than getting a massage anywhere else. Except, when I get a massage back here in Boulder, I tell the masseuse to lower the table and try to hurt me. Let me tell you, these guys at the Hamam, were not messing around. These were big, strong dudes that gave my muscles a work-over that nearly brought tears to my eyes. As they scrubbed and massaged, they also sang as they worked, cracking jokes the way men to do when they are working any job anywhere. For these guys, it was just a job; a job they were very good at. I walked out of there clean, relaxed and feeling sheepish for even thinking for a second that all of those Turkish bath jokes I’d heard over the years had any basis in reality at all. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I would go back to Turkey in a heartbeat. It is one of my favorite of all time countries.
I could go on and on about Istanbul. I must have tried fifty different kinds of baklava, each one more tasty than the last. I developed a flavor for Turkish Delight which is sold everywhere there but seems to be impossible to get (at least anything good) outside of Turkey. There are many other sights to see such as the Obelisk of Theodosius, an Egyptian pylon from Karnak that is well over 3000 years old and was brought to the hippodrome in Istanbul as a monument to the emperor of the same name. Go get lost in the Grand Bazaar for a shopping trip that will leave you bewildered, lost and probably with your arms full of Turkish treasures. Go to the Spice Market and feast your eyes, ears and nose on the herbs, salts and seasonings gathered there. There is so much to see and do in Istanbul, I’ve only given you a glimpse.