I had long been promising myself a visit to Istanbul, European Capital of Culture for 2010. So with the Bayram festival now approaching and the summer sun warming the earth, I couldn’t resist a visit to this most ostentatious city of spires, a fabulously inspiring metropolis of imperial dreams; and it was only a magic carpet ride away. I arrived exhausted but excited, my heart in my hands here at the epicentre of three empires.
Straddling two continents, segmented by the Straits of Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, roughly divided into ancient and modern with evidence of every age between, uniting civilisations in a melting pot of contemporary identities, this sprawling conurbation is a unique blend of every culture, custom and ethnicity under the sun.
Just a short, pleasant journey through gently rolling countryside from the coastal border of the Aegean Sea landed me wide-eyed in child-like anticipation at the axis point of history, the juxtaposition of continents and cultures. I had tired of riding trains, buses and trams, so slipping on comfortable shoes I wandered through the maze of the old capital on foot.
I began my sojourn with a walk along the Golden Horn, the river that flows into the Bosphorus, to gaze upon one of my favourite structures anywhere in the world, the Galata Tower. This colossal structure was built in the 6th century (though there is continuing debate about its designers – with some claiming it as a Venetian enterprise) and it looks out across the straits as a watchtower surveying its domain. Today its top floors contain a restaurant and nightclub offering a traditional mixture of entertainment with belly dancers and pop music – I highly recommend it for the view alone.
In a short walk around central Istanbul one can encounter Roman aqueducts that rise above busy city thoroughfares, archaic cathedrals that claim outstanding architectural features, majestic mosques built by some of the most colourful characters in the Islamic canon, beautiful urban parks complete with fountains and wildlife, and post-modern skyscrapers looking out over a complex industrial and commercial region controlling vast wealth accumulated over many hundreds of years.
Old Istanbul is built on seven hills, and a vantage point from the Bosphorus allows the visitor to observe in full 360-degree panoramic splendour the diverse skyline. To be fair, the old town was never called Istanbul, that name came with the Ottomans, long after it was a walled city of major importance. Originally, it was Byzantium, though the Byzantines called it Constantinople.
The politics of the old world is far too complex and involved to be of consequence to most people, beyond the historical markers intentionally created to invoke admiration and wonder dotted around the inner urban area. Although there’s a long and fascinating history of conquest and administrative wrangling attached to this place, for now I was only interested in experiencing the present, and this city felt like a gift being offered for my appreciation.
In my enthusiasm for discovering the hidden capital, I realised I had made a wrong turn somewhere. Suddenly, I was standing in the middle of a winding alley of cobbled steps, the tightly woven lanes around me like a code to be cracked. I meandered under a frescoed arch that hung over the narrow road, casting a shadow as long as the hill was steep, and knew too late I was lost. I turned to go back the way I had come but recognised no sign or facade, no route of escape from these intricate cobbled corridors.
I tried following the alley around the bend only to discover I had entered a series of passageways as complex and labyrinthine as the ancient schemes of Byzantine emperors. I came face to face with butcher shops, sheep and goat heads hanging from bloodied hooks across the open windows, stalls selling meerschaum pipes as long as a man’s arm, the outlawed Fez hat stacked like cups along the street, and old men wrapped in robes and rough blankets, their eyes concealed from the midday sun.
Eagerly anticipating the sundown celebrations centred round the Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque because of the colour of the mosaic patterned tiles in the ceiling and walls of the interior (which anyone can enter provided they’re appropriately attired and leave their shoes at the door – women can borrow a colourful shawl to cover arms or legs if necessary), I had wanted to leave myself time to visit some sites of personal interest, including smoking a very fruitful hookah pipe. I wanted time to visit the gardens of Topkapi Palace and wander among the faded psychedelic patterns of the old shopping districts before returning to the hub of activity at nightfall, when the call of the muezzin would ring out across the city in echo of ages when the faithful would fall to their knees in supplication; but now it was only a distant view of minaret tips above grey stone apartments.
The imposing and truly massive construction of the Blue Mosque caused a bit of a scandal when first unveiled to the public some 500 years ago. With six minarets surrounding the main building it was perceived as trying to outshine the holiest site in Islam, that of the mosque in Mecca where the Ka’aba rests. So, planners were quickly despatched to Arabia to rectify the situation by adding a further two minarets to that most important hall of worship. Unfortunately, one has to be Muslim to enter Mecca during Ramadan, circle the place of pilgrimage and touch the sacred stone; a large chunk of meteorite gathered from the earth some two thousand odd years ago.
As Mecca was founded from a single small dwelling situated at a junction of roads between mountains in the desert where Abraham is thought to have stayed, Istanbul was intentionally established at an intersection of waterways, the crossroads of civilisation; it was a crucial historical judgment. The legendary story of the decision to establish the capital at this juncture suggests that Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, sent off emissaries to seek out the best location for his new capital city, and their first stop was the all-important oracle. The soothsayer told them they would find the place they were searching for “across from the village of the blind.”
When the envoys sailed up the Sea of Marmara to the Straits of Bosphorus which link to the Black Sea a few miles away, and looked out on the Golden Horn, they quickly recognised what a fabulously beautiful and distinctly strategic location they had discovered. Noticing a small community already settled on the opposite shore they said, “Why would anyone build over there when they could have claimed this site? Those people must be blind.” Immediately they recalled the words of the prophet. Realising this must be the place the visionary had described, they dropped anchor and sent word to the emperor that his judgement had proved triumphant.
Now those same waterways that brought the first settlers provide transport for the city’s millions of workers as everyday they traverse the Sea of Marmaris or Straits of Bosphorus, shuttling between homes and businesses on either side of the three shores. Ferryboats are constantly bustling around the crowded docks, with hundreds of them navigating the busy routes at any one time. Boats are an essential feature of this sprawling city, connected as it is by the ubiquitous canals of shipping lines and cruise ships that compete for space with the fishermen and sightseers. It is almost impossible to appreciate Istanbul without recognising the importance of the seas with their vital trade and transport links. Tickets are cheap and readily available, and highly recommended, as Mark Twain suggested, the best way to approach Istanbul is from the sea.
When Constantine founded this Eastern capital of the Roman Empire early in the 4th century, building aqueducts, villas and fortresses, he set into motion a chain of events that forced a shift in the course of history – a result that still has resonance today. This decision to divide the realm and attempt to realign the centre of the known world away from the stronghold of Rome caused a schism the crux of which, like it or not, still underlies the contemporary feudal relationship of political affairs; the need to retain power in the West and the desire in the East for recognition of their stature.
While Rome burned and semi-nomadic hordes overran the city, leaving it to dwell in the ashes of the past, the star of enlightenment rose over the East, and Istanbul became the centre of culture and capital of commerce for hundreds of years. The vacuum left by the crumbling of marble halls and rhetorical supremacy in Diocletian’s reign of terror enabled transference of control to an oriental approach in diplomacy, gradually creating an imbalance that threatened the status quo.
Constantine’s own mother loved this part of the world and it was she who first went in search of places of interest such at the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus and the healing mineral baths of Pamukkale, where previous queens as famous as Cleopatra and Nefertiti had also spent their holidays.
History remains in the past, but the present is filled with the contributions that enabled us to advance in thinking and technology. When the sun is shining across the Bosphorus and so many locals and tourists sit casually sipping tea beside the seemingly infinite seas that geographically divide and psychologically unite the city, all of time seems to stand still in acceptance of the age and the interconnected global society where we all play a minor role.
Strolling around these vast sanctuaries today one cannot help but sense the intrigue of power struggles that accompanied the rise and fall of each empire in turn, but at the moment I may as well have been a thousand years in the past. I tried asking for advice from several of the men gathered in doorways, but my Turkish wasn’t adequate and their English was unhelpful beyond pointing a general direction. Many were tired and hungry, making them a little grumpy, for this summer was the season of the fast when nothing may pass the lips during daylight hours. I saw fish restaurants where salted sea bass baked in the heat of the day, and kebab shops with their slowly revolving skewers of meat being sliced into thin strips for packing between pita breads. Eventually, I glimpsed the sea, and heading toward the sunlit ripples I led myself out of the tunnel of darkness into the copper light of evening to find myself in the Grand Bazaar, a covered market spanning many streets and enclosing hundreds of shops.
The Bayram festivities had been gathering momentum for days and as the sun set on the final day the merrymaking began in earnest. Mostly it consisted of traditional folk music played outdoors and lots of specialty foods and sweet delights consumed in the parks, although along the streets and in the arcades there was a general carnival atmosphere of friendship and joyful pageantry. So many people were crammed into Gulhane Park and the historic tourist district around the old town that even grabbing a seat in one of the open-air cafes along the main thoroughfares proved difficult.
Ramadan connects Muslims from around the world in fasting and thoughtful reflection and urges participants to remember their place in the grand scheme of the universal plan, and at the end of the month to come together in commemoration and subdued revelry. Istanbul is one of the most revered centres of the celebrations and makes a significant show of its remarkable place in the history of Islam and the culture of the modern world.
The affluent in their designer clothes from upmarket fashion boutiques were mingling with pilgrims in full burkhas arriving from destinations across the world to pray in the majestic mosques and admire the awesome museums. There were youngsters kicking balls and blowing bubbles from guns and shooting off fireworks in the streets, and the elderly who had seen it all before parked on benches soaking up the sights.
The scent of cooking and baking was everywhere in the humid night; an irresistible and overwhelming mix of spices and sugars and savoury snacks all floating through the heat and making the mouth water in anticipation of devouring the scrumptious food on offer. Restaurants and market stalls competed for the attention of the senses and called out their wares to potential customers.
Ataturk Bridge, a magnificent modern structure spanning the straits, was a magical display of kaleidoscopic colours changing every few minutes through a pantone display of the spectrum. The shrines were alight with hundreds of tinted bulbs and lasers of green, blue and red were being blasted into the cloudless sky. The Grand Bazaar was lively with trade and every underpass was jam-packed with salespeople flogging merchandise to the bustling crowds. Brilliantly lit boats rocked and buffeted along the waterfront as they fried fresh fish on griddles installed on the decks for the hungry masses waiting at quayside tables for their supper, and everywhere people were laughing and talking and even dancing under the glow of the crescent moon.
The mood was stimulating and sedate, a real paradox of emotion that ranged from sheer excitement to the mellow relaxation of contented pleasure. It was a dignified presentation of the people and city itself, a shufti into the true spirit of the grand cosmopolitan arcade that is Istanbul.
The presence of so many ghosts, like a pantheon of great figures who stand proudly among the monuments bind us all to a shared past, reminding the attentive how insignificant we are as individuals – regardless of accomplishment, and yet how important a singular character can be in the evolution of our collective enterprise.
The enduring spectre of the ancients is to be found in the art and architecture, the philosophical and literary writings, and the scientific discoveries of many people who populated this region over the centuries, and exists today as a mutual record of achievements and glory of cultural evolution that makes us the people we are in this era and at this moment in time.
Naturally it is difficult to know how well informed the general populace was about such events and upheavals in the great scheme of things, for day to day life was not dominated by the media and change was not so immediately apparent. Custom was slow in evolving a sense of difference, except of course when the ‘barbarians’ were banging on the gates and battering the walls of the city – a trial the Eastern throne managed to avoid for another thousand years, when the Ottomans arrived on their doorstep.
This Orthodox Christian realm persisted for a millennia, becoming the bastion of philosophical endeavours as well as a deeply complicated political and some would say superstitiously religious social order. The emergent Islamic society of the Persian caliphates and provinces of the Moors developed mathematics and painting and architecture as well as advances in science, such as the telescope, that we still find invaluable today. Over the years less people in the East spoke Latin and those in the West lost the Greek philosophical writings of Aristotle and Plato – which were not reintroduced until the Scholastic age of Abelard and Anselm.
Learning any new language takes effort and patience – Turkish people are considerate and patient and always helpful with their assistance, although, because most native speakers are interested in acquiring English language skills it usually involves a little bartering – you tell me what this word is in English and I will help you learn the word for such and such a thing – verbs being that little bit trickier than standard nouns of course.
The monks Cyril and Methodius, in the late tenth century created the possibility of a future history when they travelled north from the capital to organise the languages of the Russian steppes into a written script today called Cyrillic. This singular act enabled diverse peoples to communicate and led to founding Moscow and St Petersburg as the eventual symbolic capitals of the Orthodox Empire some centuries later when at the height of nineteenth century modernism these cities were at the forefront of art and design.
However, Istanbul was still a centre of culture and everything civilisation represented even after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453. The Sultanahmet was built facing the Aya (Hagia) Sophia, which was rededicated as a mosque complete with four minarets, the Dolmabache and Topkapi Palaces expanded and the politics developed a further layer of inner secrecy cloaked in mystery as the Sultan’s dwelling became a hotbed of infighting between wives and concubines, viziers and eunuchs and clerics.
I have always loved the architecture of the ancient world, the elegant minarets and the rough-hewn stone of walls and barricades that offered protection and security to those who dwelled within. However, almost nothing on earth can compete with the majesty of the cathedrals built at the height of the Christian era. The dome on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was the largest in the world for ten centuries (until St Peter’s in Rome was built) and really should be experienced to be believed, although now it is a colossal museum of vestiges representing a by-gone age.
I hope to return to this magnificent metropolis soon; perhaps to teach, or write and paint amongst the historical and contemporary milieu that is Istanbul. Although I have other roads to travel, I know that a part of me will always remain here; as a part of me resides in the other interesting and culturally unique places I have lived or visited frequently.
Although from time to time I get lost along this restless road, and often a path will take me in directions I hadn’t anticipated, I will always be a seeker, an adventurous soul who wants only to grow in knowledge and wisdom while retaining that innocent quality of starry-eyed wonder at every new encounter; special moments from a life made up of instants to create the continuity of being and becoming.
I know part of my spirit will always be connected to the magical and mysterious city of Istanbul, for I had so many wonderful experiences here. My recent excursion filled me with hope for the future and I look forward to a continued love affair with this eternally enigmatic and contrary city of dreams.