Part I May 15-17, 2005
Istanbul, home to the Grand Bazaar where sesame pretzels, roasted chestnuts, blue evil eyes, hand-woven carpets, aromatic spices and boxes of Turkish Delight crowd the stalls.
Istanbul, the last stop on the Orient Express.
Istanbul, where women so shrouded in black veils that only their dark brown eyes show.
Istanbul, the only place you can see venders with urns of cherry juice strapped to their backs as well as such man-made wonders as the vast Hagia Sophia or the six slender minarets (forcing Mecca to add an seventh) of the Blue Mosque.
The old city, surrounded by remnants of defensive walls (Justin’s in 600 BC, Constantine’s in 300 BC and Septimus Severus’ in 193 BC) is separated from the new city, with its modern skyscrapers and shopping malls, by the Golden Horn (an inlet of the Bosphorus).
According to our tour guide Gazi Seyit, Istanbul got its name from a corruption of a Turkish sign reading “to the city.” Twelve million people make their home there at night. A million more fill the city streets during the day.
Istanbul was first established by the Megaran leader Byzas (and named Byzantium) in 657 B.C. The oracle at Delphi told Byzas to settle across from the “land of the blind ones” but the area known as Anatolia (“land of sunrise”) could have been inhabited as early as 3000 B.C.
Byzas immediately realized the wisdom of the oracle when he saw the strategic potential (trade and defense) of the Bosphorus (“White Cow”). Empire builders from King Midas to Alexander the Great all appreciated the idea that Byzantium had “location, location, location” going for it but fortunately for the residents, nearly a millennium would pass before the city would fall under the control of the Holy Roman Empire via the conquest by Septimus Severus.
Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes of the original Istanbul, a new city, initially called New Rome, but later re-christened Constantinople, was founded in 330 by Constantine to house the countless cultural treasures he pilfered from the ancient world.
The next hundred years would be a time of tremendous upheaval for the Roman Empire with barbarian hordes (Their language sounded like “bar-bar-bar” to the Greeks) laying siege to the west. The Byzantine Empire in the east, however, flourished.
Constantinople, a truly international city, borrowed from every culture that invaded or traded with its residents. Waterways and walls came from Rome; carpets and coffee from Vienna; and the military cannon and goulash from Hungary.
Thanks to Constantine and Justinian, the streets of Constantinople were both paved and protected from the elements by coverings, decorated by beautiful fountains, and punctuated by magnificent buildings utilizing the graceful columns and intricate capitals of Rome.
But turnabout's fair play and courtesy of Italian crusaders, the four golden horses that once decorated the Hippodrome now top the portal of St. Mark’s in Venice. Constantine established the Hippodrome’s arena (crowd capacity 100,000) as the public center of the city. We were able to wonder at the Obelisk of Pharoah Thutmose (plundered from Karnak in Egypt), the Serpentine Column (stolen from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi) and the Column of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (with charmic justice, its bronze plates ended up in Venice). By the 9th Century, the population of Constantinople had reached one million. Although over the next few centuries, Constantinople, coveted for its incomparable location by Persians, Arabs, and nomads, managed to survive. It was the knights of the Fourth Crusade, diverted from Jerusalem, who finally sacked the city in 1204. All that remains from the Imperial Palace (Bukoleon Sarayi), a structure of 500 interconnected halls and 30 gold mosaic-decorated chapels is a single length of crumbling wall. Legend has it that the Byzantine emperors enjoyed a life so luxurious that even the birds sang at their command--a tree made from pure gold was said to be filled with mechanical singing birds.
Weakened by constant conflict during the next two hundred years, Constantinople was finished off by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Under Sultan Mehmet II, the city was renamed Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire (Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Azebaijan,Bahrain, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cypress, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Israel, Joran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen, Yugoslavia, and the Ukraine ) too saw its collapse in 1918.
The Janissaries, basically slave soldiers kidnapped from farm families and indoctrinated into Islam as an elite praetorian force, became the terror of the Ottoman Empire. After a while, however, their power, as Lord Actin predicted, corrupted them. The Ottoman Empire lost its monopoly over trade routes once Christopher Columbus opened up the New World. Since Islam restricted scientific inquiry, the Ottomans lost the technological race to more developed nations. Their finances came under Western financial control as a result of an 1825 bankruptcy. They chose the losing side in WW I--Gallipoli was their only victory against Allies
The Republic of Turkey originated in 1923 after the War of Independence and Kemal Ataturk secularized the Moslem empire of the Ottomans. It wouldn’t be until the 80s and 90s, however, that tourism would prosper the Turkish economy. Germans seem to be in the majority these days and hotels especially cater to them with meat- heavy breakfasts and ugh, caffeine-challenged Sanka.
Islam remains the predominate religion--which has led to considerable resistance on the part of member nations of the E.U. (in addition to unfair labor practices) to Turkish membership.The two most famous buildings (Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque) in Istanbul are located right across Sulltanahmet Square from one another. Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), the greatest surviving example of Byzantine architecture, is enjoying its third reincarnation as a church. Nothing remains of the first, which was destroyed by protestors when Emperor Arcadius sent Archbishop John Chrysostom into exile in 404 AD. The second, rebuilt by Theodosium II, was torched during the Nika riots of 532. The third time proved the charm with Justinian, who chose professors of geometry (Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Thralles) as his architects. He rededicated the huge, 260’ by 270’ structure on December 26, 536.The interiors are so embellished with marble, mosaics, and frescoes that Justinian is said to have proclaimed “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” In addition, the marble walls reflected candlelight so brilliantly that the church also served as a lighthouse. The entrance door was supposedly carved from a remnant of Noah’s Ark. The first thing you notice is the Pantheon-sized “vault of heaven” dome (diameter 102’) rising 210’ above the floor which is illuminated from underneath by light streaming through an unbroken arcade of arched windows.
We were told that 100,000 laborers spent six years on an edifice constructed in the days before steel reinforcement. The ancients placed glass panels in the walls to serve as “earthquake alarms” after the structure was seriously damaged in 558 AD, 563 AD, 989 AD, and 1346 AD (causing the walls to lean like Pisa and the dome to be replaced twice).
The “sweating column” on the main floor is said to have cured Justinian of a migraine--centuries of visitors touching the same spot have resulted in a worn, round indentation. When the church was converted into a mosque in 1453, Sultan Mehmet purportedly placed his hand in “the holy hole, ” tracing the interior all the way around, which supposedly caused the building to turn around and face Mecca.
Since conservative factions of Islam found human figures sacrilegious, all frescoes, with the exception of those featuring Jesus and Mary (venerated by Moslems) were plastered over or destroyed. Islamic decorations, added when the edifice became a mosque, consisted of huge banners on which phrases offering praise to Allah were rendered in calligraphy. Under Ataturk, the church-cum-mosque was secularized as the Aysofia Museum. The extensive scaffolding attests to the fact that entrance fees are being used to undertake the considerable repair wrought by centuries of neglect.
There is not much about the Blue Mosque that is really blue except for 17th Century Iznik tiles on the upper level. Built by Sultan Ahmet I to compete with Hagia Sophia in size, splendor, and solemnity, the structure (Sultan Ahmet I Camii) took seven years to complete. There are six minarets because the architect misunderstood “altin” (which means “gold”) as “alti” (which mean “six”).
Moslems, who pray five times a day, must prepare by washing face, mouth, nose, arms, neck, and feet. All visitors to the mosque must remove their shoes and women are required to cover their arms and legs (to the knees) or they will be forced to wear a rather malodorous piece of blue cloth.
The first thing you notice upon entering is the geometrically-patterned Seljuk (first Turkish Empire) wooden gate and the low-hanging, wrought iron chandeliers. The dome is 77’ in diameter and rises 140’ above a floor covered with layers of prayer rugs. Light filters in via 260 windows. Outbuildings include a religious school, hospital, caravansaray (protected rest stop for pilgrims) and soup kitchen.
Driving around Istanbul you notice that retail stores selling the same product tend to cluster together--it could be guitars, photo finishing, or plumbing supplies. In one neighborhood identified as ultra-traditional, 13 bridal shops featuring storybook white dresses in the window could be counted within three blocks. We also noted, in a more secularized neighborhood, a couple of shops simply sold store mannequins.
The boat trip down the Bosphorus proved a special Turkish delight. The highlight was seeing the hospital where Florence Nightingale turned around the British mortality rate by merely improving cleanliness and hygiene. She traveled there in 1834 during the Crimean War. Ironically, when the Moslems were attacked by Russia, it was Christian England, France, and Italy that saved them.