“If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
A quick historical context here: Istanbul was first founded around 660 BC as Byzantium. For around 16 years following its re-establishment as Constantinople in 330 AD the city served as the capital for four empires: the Roman, Latin, Byzantine, and Ottoman. Istanbul was crucial to the spread of Christianity during the Roman and Byzantine times before the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 and made it an Islamic stronghold.
Basically, Istanbul is important and has been for a very, very long time. Contrary to current pop culture thought, it has much more to offer than terrorism and opportunity for Liam Neeson to prevent you from being “taken.”
Look at me, I went to Istanbul last weekend, and now I’m back in Rome, and unless I’m not me, I was not taken. And, if i’m not me, then I should have much bigger concerns than writing this post. That’s for sure.
Thursday I skipped a class and caught a train to Bologna to catch a plane to Istanbul. Who can do class when Napoleon is tempting you with a quote like that? Meeting my cousin Will and his girlfriend and friend in Bologna, we all arrived in Turkey late Thursday night and at our hostel even later. Two travel notes: Turkish Air, some of the best in-flight food and beverage that I’ve ever had. Where Easyjet taunts you with pictures of food, Turkish air gives you menu options. Wow. And, our hostel was named Sultan Hostel. How fitting.
Friday morning Rick Steves pulled us out of bed with the promise of great walking tours. By now he knows that I’ll always oblige. We started off our day at the Topkapi Palace. This is where, for 400 years, the Sultans lived, ate, planted lots of tulips, did harem things, and collected important relics like Moses’s staff, Joseph’s hat, Abraham’s bowl, and hair from Mohammed’s beard. Yes, all those things, I say. Now you can do all those things too, minus the planting and harem-ing for a cool 25 Turkish Lira.
Next was a doner kebab (kebap if you prefer) and the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya, again if you prefer). What a masterpiece of a building. So much more than a building. From 360 until 1453, it served as and Eastern Orthodox cathedral, except between 1204 and 1261 when it went Roman Catholic for a bit under the Latins. Sophia became a mosque in 1453 until 1931 when secularized and prepared to open as a museum. This varied history creates a mosaic aesthetic of mosaics, chandeliers, Christian imagery, Islamic emblems, Turkish design, and ancient etched graffiti. After all the Roman basilicas, Hagia Sophia was different and impressive and interesting and like nothing else. There is a reason this is a crown jewel of Istanbul. I was struck dumb (thank goodness for Steves).
Next, across the street to the Blue Mosque. Sultan Ahmed constructed this mosque as an answer to the Hagia Sophia. Now they sit in a permanent stare-down, daring the other to proclaim itself the more beautiful. We arrived at one of the five Islamic prayer times, so we waited for its completion to cover our heads and take off our shoes and enter. The interior is amazingly covered with zigging and zagging blue patterned design work. The eye never finds a place to linger or rest. Its a maze of design and pigment that somehow works in its overwhelmingness.
On to the Turkish bath, another must. I’m absolutely serious. Go get naked with the Turks – you won’t regret it one Turkish Lira. Cembrelitas Hamam got me good. I never wanted to leave. I felt like a little kid as my large Turkish bather-woman scrubbed me down and pulled me seated to pour water over my head. Turkey, thank you. I’m properly exfoliated.
Clothed again, we strolled to dinner at a little neighborhood kebab place where the kind owner brought complementary pistachio backlava to the four Americans and broke us off pieces from a little circle bread cake straight from the hot oven. Another kind Turk, as they all were, really. Liam Neeson, you can take a holiday.
Some melon hookah and a Turkish beer at the Sultan (from the Sultan?), and I was asleep. Saturday led us to the Grand Bazaar, where I paid homage to the Silk Road, and the Egyptian Spice Market. This was by way of fresh squeezed orange and pomegranate juice (they’re WILD about fresh juice, vendors fill the streets) and ring bread called Simit. I’m wild about both. We walked across Galata Bridge to the new side of Istanbul. I led my three companions on a death march up the long, commercialized Istiklal Avenue – complete with protesters and riot police. We ended at Taksim Square and Taksim Park where we Tooksome time to rest our tired feet.
A wonderful dinner and some after dinner purchases, and I said goodnight to the Turkish capital. Also notable: Turkish delight – not bad at all, but I’m no Edmund. Sahlep, hibiscus root milk drink. Yes, a thousand times, yes.
We awoke at 6am the next morning to almost miss our flight, make our flight, enjoy Turkish Air again, arrive in Bologna, and split up on our various train tickets.
I chose to spend my layover with some tagliatelle Bolognese – because I WAS in Bologna, back in Italy, and I call myself a cultural indulger, and it seemed right. When life puts you in a place with great pasta, eat it. That’s no accident.
So, closing remarks: Istanbul. Unlike anything that I’ve ever experienced. Not the Aladin-world I may have been subconsciously expecting. The city of 14 million is a city. Huge, commercialized, industrial at times, sprawling, hazy, filled. The old Istanbul is imposingly beautiful with its domes and minarets. I doubt that I’ll ever see anything that twins the Hagia Sophia. I don’t know if I would want to.
The five calls to prayer projected over the city remind you that you are in a different place, they muffle the McDonald’s call for camouflaging globalization. Istanbul won’t let you forget the past empires in its massive contemporary self. And, as my first foray into the Middle East, I won’t forget Istanbul.
Its twisted into my memory like the designs on the Blue Mosque tilework. I bathed in it at the Hamam. And, while I don’t have my dead skin anymore, I do have my own layer of the Istanbul collage. I think Bonaparte would approve.