May 04, 2008

Where Europe Meets Asia

A hilarious 1990 song by a band called They Might Be Giants offers a brief geopolitcal lesson:
Istanbul was Constantinople/
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople/
Why did Constantinople get the works?/
That's nobody's business but the Turks

Last week we discovered that in a city as big and with as much rich history as Istanbul, there's plenty of room for Constantinople and Istanbul, for past and present, for East and West, for Christianity and Islam. From the sights to the sounds to the food, everything about the city spoke of a place on the edge of two very different continents. In short, it was one hell of a trip.

[Editor's note: To prevent this post from running as long as the Istanbul phone book (population: 12 million, fourth largest city in the world), I'll stick to the absolute highlights. As always, many more pictures can be found by clicking on "Our Photos" on the right sidebar.]

During our stay in the city, we (Jillian and I plus four other volunteers--Carolyn, Kathy, Erin, and Vanessa) stayed in a hostel in the most majestic section of town, Sultan Ahmed, which lies on the Golden Horn. We slept in the shadow of two of the most magnificent (and enormous) buildings we've ever seen, Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque.

Age before beauty: Ayasofya is a church built in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire. It's massive and is considered the height of Byzantine architecture with its towering dome. Its weathered exterior belies the elegant, cavernous scene we discovered upon entering.

And here's where things really got interesting. Ayasofya was the crown jewel of the empire until the city was finally conquered by the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire in 1453. Rather than pull a Taliban and destroy the church, Sultan Mehmet II chose to convert it into a mosque, which it remained until 1935 when it was made a museum. Thus the interior is decorated with symbols of both Christianity and Islam.

Directly across the Hippodrome (literally: "horse grounds", now a park) from Ayasofya is the Sultan Ahmed Blue Mosque, thus called because of the many blue tiles adorning the interior. Converting the old church into a mosque wasn't enough for the Ottoman ruler and so by 1616 a rival had been constructed. Not as large as Ayasofya, the Blue Mosque is far more beautiful from the outside. Its six minarets are the most for any mosque outside of Mecca (which apparently got the old sultan in a bit of hot water) and it is still a working mosque. Tourists are allowed inside, but all visitors must remove their shoes and women must cover their heads with scarves.

Venturing away from these historic temples, we found the streets of Istanbul busy and intoxicating. Witty merchants stood out in front of their shops, soliciting tourists and locals alike as they passed. A few of my favorite lines:
"How can I help you spend your money today?"
"May I hassle you a bit?"
"I have the perfect gift for your mother-in-law."

Real pros, clearly. For shoppers (this group doesn't really include me, but what can I say, I was traveling with five women) the Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar are must-sees. Affordable jewelry, scarves, pashminas, dresses, and perfumes abound. Notice I didn't mention anything for men, which explains why by the end of the trip the Jillian Gift Account had been depleted and the Dan Gift Account had been transferred into Jillian's name. Oh well. At least Effes, the local Turkish beer, was cheap.

When we first arrived the weather wasn't cooperating a whole lot, but by day three the sun was out and the temperature was into the 70s. We crossed over into an area of the city called Beyoglu which had a distinctly different feel from where we'd been. [Side note: Everywhere we walked I got the "Hey Sultan, is that your harem?" joke, followed by the kind of laugh that suggests the guy just thought that one up.] Climbing a hill, we accessed Galata Tower, a cylindrical structure built by the Byzantines as a lighthouse and then refurbished around 1350 to keep a watch on the city, most notably for fires. It now serves as an excellent, 360-degree vantage point from which to view the city, especially the Golden Horn and the entry point to the Bosporus Strait (more on that one later).

I really can't stress enough how impressed we were with the architecture of Istanbul. In addition to the aforementioned buildings, there were Topkapi Palace--sort of the Versailles of the Ottoman world--and Istanbul University. Both contained an air of regalness and sophistication, but also the sort of exoticness you'd expect in the last stop on the Orient Express.

Finally, our boat trip up the Bosporus. Istanbul rests on the Marmara Sea, a sort of inlet sea between the more mighty Aegean and Black Seas. To access the Black Sea from Istanbul, ships must pass through the Bosporus, a roughly 12-mile route lined with historic castles and palaces, as well as cute fishing villages and elegant seaside homes.

This was a real steal: the boat trip coast less than ten dollars and included a three-hour stopover in Anadolu Kavagi, one of those fishing villages and the last stop before the Black Sea. The weather was positively gorgeous as the boat made its 90-minute trek. We passed Rumeli Hisari, or Mighty Fortress of Europe, a castle built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (in only four months!) as he prepared to accomplish what many armies had tried and failed: to conquer Constantinople. At the age of 21 he succeeded and ushered in a few hundred years of Ottoman domination.

[On the subject of Turkish pride, one constant in Istanbul are the Turkish flags. They're everywhere--small, large, gargantuan. It's difficult to stand on any street corner and not see one flapping in the wind. Turkey is most certainly a very nationalistic society and that sentiment comes not from just being Turk, but from living in the Turkish state, which they see as a model of secularism and devoutness, modernity and tradition, and the bridge between Europe and Asia. The question of whether Turkey will someday join the European Union has been hotly debated as of late, and I'd be willing to bet that Istanbul is all for it. I couldn't help but notice that Turkish license plates look nearly identical to EU plates.]

The ship docked and we debarked for our three hours in Anadolu Kavagi, which lies on the Asian side of the Bosporus (much of Istanbul is in Europe). Above the town sits the ruins of Yoros Kalesi, a castle built by the Byzantine Empire and later used by the Ottomans. It's easy to see why a fortress was built there--the high position provides excellent views of the Bosporus and the Black Sea.

Concluding, I'd like to note that in their song about this city, They Might Be Giants also add this bit of dating advice:
All the girls in Constantinople/
Live in Istanbul, not Constantinople/
So if you've got a date in Constantinople/
She'll be waiting in Istanbul

If I learned anything from our trip, it's that in today's Istanbul it can be difficult to tell what era you might be standing near. Just to the right of Ayasofya is a tall stone structure, the last remnant of an old gate. At the base of that structure is the Milion, the zero-mile marker for the road that connected Rome to Constantinople. Transportation may have improved since then, but it seems safe to say that going east is still quite a trip.


Hotel Concierge:: said...

"Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
People just liked it better that way"

Hotel Concierge:: said...
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