We just got back from a 4-day trip to Istanbul, a city I had always wanted to visit and which did not disappoint. It has a superb location and I could immediately see why it was such a prize for invaders from both the east as well as the west.
It is partly in Europe and partly in Asia with the Bosphorus running through it from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The western, european side is further slightly divided by an inlet of the Sea of Marmara called The Golden Horn. I’m telling you all of this because it took me a while to understand the layout of the city with its various bodies of water. The Greeks invaded it first naming it Byzantium, then came the Romans who made it the capital of the Eastern Roman empire and called it Constantinople after the Emperoror Constantine, then the Slavs and finally the Ottoman Sultans. It was renamed Istanbul only in 1930, a few years after the Republic of Turkey had been formed. What took us by surprise was how hilly it is. There are 7 hills just like in Rome and the Emperor Constantine actually named it Nuova Roma except people preferred to call it Constantinople in honour of him.
We stayed in an old renovated Ottoman mansion overlooking The Golden Horn close to the magnificent Sulemaniye mosque which you can see on the right in the main photo above. Many of these mansions have disappeared as they were made of wood and easily burned down or have been replaced by concrete apartment blocks, or are in a state of complete disrepair. The turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in his memoir about Istanbul, talks about ‘huzun’ which is a sort of melancholy about the loss of the past. One begins to understand ‘huzun’ seeing these beautiful old houses and we were glad to see that some are being restored to their former grandeur. The population of Istanbul has increased at an alarming rate from around a million in the 1960s, to 3 million in the 1980s, and is now around 12 million. A lot of very ugly building has taken place in the suburbs and also in the city centre dwarfing the ancient buildings close by except for the Galata Tower and Sulemaniye mosque which dominate the skyline.
The city is made up of a number of neighbourhoods which range from highly modern with cafes, shops and restaurants like you would see in any other European city, to very traditional bazaar-type shopping areas. You see women dressed in full hijab, or wearing modern clothes and a headscarf, or completely dressed in western clothing.
Almost all the churches, of which there were many, were converted into mosques during the Ottoman era. The Aya Sophia for example was built as a Greek Orthodox church, subsequently served as a Catholic church (the largest in Europe until 1420) and was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman era with the addition of 4 minarets.
Its magnificient frescoes and mosaics were painted or plastered over as the Islamic religion does not allow figurative art, all Christian relics and icons were destroyed and minarets were added. Aya Sophia is now a museum and some of the mosaics have been restored with further restoration in progress.
There are mosques everywhere and with the call to prayer taking place five times a day and broadcast from the minarets, its easy to keep track of the time of day!
We loved the street food, kebabs, borek which are layers of pastry interspersed with cheese, meat or vegetables, pide which is a kind of turkish pizza and of course baklava type pastries, halva and lokoum also called turkish delight.
The bazaars are like going into Alladin’s cave, filled with all kinds of stores selling everything one might possibly want and more. Both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are covered while outside of them are open markets teeming with people. The displays are wonderful and even something simple like soap is artfully presented.
Ramadan started when we were there. At sundown on the first day, at the break of the fast, people poured out from the mosques and dined outside on tables specially set up for communal dining or sat in the parks having large picnics or poured into adjoining restaurants. It was fascinating to watch this communal event. We were told that at the end of Ramadan, its customary for people go to each other’s houses sampling food from each house.
At present, Istanbul seems like a progressive and liberal city and Turkey is still a secular state as was founded by Ataturk. I hope it stays that way.