We are blown away by the sights (and tastes) of Istanbul
14.06.2012 - 20.09.2012
Is Turkey part of Europe or the Middle East? This question has plagued the Anatolian nation ever since the days of the Ottoman Empire. To make a decision for yourself there is only one place you can go, where the country truly does straddle two continents, Istanbul. Although it is no longer the capital, Istanbul is still the gem in Turkey's crown. Beautiful, eclectic, mysterious and wonderful. Covering both sides of the Bosphorous, greater Istanbul is the largest Islamic city in the world, with over 24 million people swarming her streets.
Trapped between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is definitely a unique city. The skyline of the city is like no other. Gazing out towards the Bosphorous the lines of buildings reach as far as the eye can see, and rising from among these endless buildings are the unmistakable shapes of the Ottoman mosques. Large and squat with magnificent domes and soaring minaret towers, the gigantic buildings look more like futuristic space stations than ancient religious centres. Yet, as you come closer, the years of wear and tear on these fabulous structures becomes apparent. If the exterior of the mosques doesn't satisfy you, more awaits inside. Entering one of Istanbul's almost 3,000 mosques is like stepping into a new world. The grand domes, so impressive from the outside, rise above you covered in fantastic Arabic calligraphy and mosaics. The bright sunlight of the world outside is replaced by the glowing red of hundreds of lights, hanging above you in ornate chandeliers, and the hum of traffic is exchanged for the soft sound of footsteps on the colourful carpet. Although we visited a number of mosques around the city, the two most impressive were the Blue Mosque and New Mosque (Yeni Cami). These beautiful buildings truly reflect the power and grandeur that was the Ottoman empire.
Though Istanbul has long been associated with Muslim culture, its history reaches far back beyond Islam to its time as a Roman city. Byzantium (as it was once called), was founded in the 600's BC by a Greek general, and almost 900 years later was made the capital of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine and renamed Constantinople. As the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine's city was once covered in churches. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Constantinople remained a powerhouse of Christianity, as the head of the Byzantine Empire until the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. In fact, it has only been the past 500 years, less than a quarter of its lifetime, in which Istanbul (the city was renamed in 1920's) has been a Muslim city. This long history as a Christian capital has left a legacy still palpable today, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Aya Sophia. Once the great church of the city, the Aya Sophia has since spent time as a fortress, a mosque and currently as a museum. Excellent restoration work has helped uncover remnants of the early Byzantine mosaics, many of which had been covered up when the building was converted into a mosque. As you stand on the upper levels of the immense building you can see long golden waves of Arabic script exquisitely painted on the walls next to 1,500 year old mosaics of Jesus and Mary, all within the towering interior of the religious fortress. The history of the Aya Sophia is reflective of the history of Istanbul as a whole, buffeted by the winds of history from Christian Europe and Islamic Asia to create a melting pot of religion and culture.
To really get an idea of the conflicting identity of Istanbul a visit to Topkapi palace is almost a necessity. We hopped on a clean and timely tram (very European) into the Sultanhamet district. The Palace sits overlooking the opening of the Bosphorous strait, in idyllic gardens full of towering pine trees. Topkapi was the residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, growing into an extensive complex including a treasury, barracks and luxurious family quarters. As you first enter the complex the similarities to the French kings' Palace of Versailles are everywhere. From the neatly manicured gardens, to the finely carved wooden awnings and grand bedrooms, the feeling of being in a European royal residence is unmistakable. Yet, as you wander through the mosques, past the private harem and ornately mosaiced terraces, you feel again the cultural conflict between Europe and Asia which so fittingly represents Istanbul. It is unsurprising that this conflict should culminate in the Palace of the sultans, who's empire once spanned from Vienna all the way to Morocco, with Istanbul at its head.
So, is Turkey part of Europe or Asia? Although historically, religious differences once placed the Ottoman Empire outside of Europe, in today's modern world it is more difficult to so easily separate Turkey from the nations to her west. For us, arriving from the Middle East, the distinction seemed obvious. Istanbul is orderly and clean, much more like a European capital than a Middle Eastern city like Ciairo. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit more of Turkey than her cultural capital, but the distinction still seemed fairly clear. Of course, different people always seem to come to different conclusions. If you really want to find out for yourself you need to explore the beauty of Istanbul. Leaving the city after a week, we felt that Istanbul more than deserves to be found beside Paris or London in a list of great cities.
Some observations from Istanbul:
1. No matter where you go, you can always hear seagulls.
2. The food is an attraction in itself. Try everything and anything.
3. If you think the Grand Bazaar is too much for you, you probably shouldn't go any deeper into the Middle East.