To traverse the harbour and streets of Istanbul is to cross centuries, millennia, and continents, it is to see the growth, rise and fall of empires and religions, and yet, steeped in all that history, still find yourself in a modern city, in a country keen to join Europe. It is quite something to be eating breakfast in a modern hotel, a hotel you booked on the internet from across the world, and that has free wi-fi and all the mod-cons, and yet at breakfast find yourself sitting beside ruins of the ancient palace of the Byzantine era, thoughtfully incorporated into the architecture of the new building. To be in a city that already seems ancient, and to find it is built on even more ancient ruins, reminds you how small, how young, and how vulnerable we are; how we measure history by electoral cycles, Rugby World Cup wins, or even by the time of European settlement, whereas in other parts of the world, these mere centuries are insignificant.
Just a few minutes from our hotel, as we navigated the wonky footpaths, and dodged the inevitable traffic jam of tour buses struggling to squeeze through the narrow streets, we came to the ancient centre of Istanbul, first known as Byzantium, and then Constantinople. Roman Emperor Constantine I moved the centre of his Christian empire to the city in the 4th Century AD, and this eventually became known as the Byzantine Empire (to distinguish it from the Rome-based Roman Empire), and lasted for more than a thousand years.
To our right was the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia in Greek). Built around 550 AD, it was a major architectural achievement then, and is still awe-inspiring now. For a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia was the cathedral of Constantinople and the largest cathedral in the world. In the 15th century, it was converted to a mosque, and today it is a secular museum. You can see its history at one end of the building. At ground level is the door marking the direction of Mecca. Lift your eyes to the roof, and there is a painting of the Madonna and Child.
To our left, and just across the road, is an almost mirror image of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque. Built in the early 1600s, it is named for its blue mosaic tiles, and was notable for daring to have six minarets. Only the most holy Haram Mosque in Mecca had six minarets at the time. Fortunately, the Sultan managed to save the situation by sending his architect to build a seventh minaret at the mosque in Mecca.
The mosque is built on the site of the Byzantine imperial palace, and the hippodrome is adjacent. These historic places form a vast pedestrian space, perfect for tourists and the faithful to mingle, relax, reflect, and of course, photograph. The other tourists were often as fascinating as the locals, with a preponderance of Muslim visitors showing their origin by their style of dress – the black niqabs of Saudi Arabia and abayas of Qatar, the scarves of the rural Turkish and neighbouring Bulgarians, and the colourful hijabs of Muslim women from all over the world.
The bright sunlight was at times unrelenting, especially coming from a southern winter, and so it was a relief to escape to the Basilica Cistern, hidden under the streets of Istanbul. One of hundreds in Istanbul, it was constructed in the 6th century, and stored water for the Imperial Palace, water brought from the Belgrade Forest 20 kilometres north of the city, and remained in operation for over a thousand years.
Behind the Hagia Sophia was the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Empire, the home of the Sultans, the home of the Harem, as well as the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. A travellers’ tip we discovered by accident was to go to the Museum on the day that the Palace itself is closed, and vice versa. Whilst they might be side by side, they still have separate entrances (and entrance fees) and we found both venues less crowded than they otherwise would have been. The grounds of the Palace were green and peaceful, and it was possible to imagine yourself there at the heights of the Empire, several hundred years ago. The Harem itself was a beautiful, intricately decorated prison, at which I both marvelled and, imagining the lives of the women who lived there, recoiled.
The Museum was informative, impressive, foot-wearying, and had enough sarcophagi to last me a lifetime. Disappointingly, the Alexander Sarcophagus is not the tomb of Alexander the Great. It is simply decorated with depictions of the Great Alexander. False advertising is clearly not only a modern practice.
One of the highlights of being in Istanbul is the food. Meals were a delight, with spiced stews, lots of eggplant and capsicums, soft Turkish bread puffed up with air, and the ubiquitous tomato dip. Of course, we were stuffed with stuffed food: stuffed pastries with cheese, pancakes stuffed with cheese, stuffed cabbage leaves, stuffed vine leaves, stuffed zucchini, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed eggplant, and the list goes on. And in Istanbul, you must – at least once – have dinner on the top floor terrace of a building, catching the breeze, in the sunset, with the minarets of the Hagia Sophia behind you, the boats plying the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus in front of you, and later, encircled by the lights of Istanbul from both Europe and Asia.
But the street food must not be missed either, even if you might pay the price later (enough said). Ice-cream, simit bread, grilled corn on the cob, and fresh pomegranates were on sale from street vendors. Most amusing was the ice-cream. Delicious, it had an almost clotted cream sticky texture, due perhaps to the work-out the vendors would give it – they would stir it, pump it up and down in its cold, stainless steel container, and at times pull it out and whirl it around.
The main street behind the square was the main tram stop for the historic sites, and was lined with jewellery stores, restaurants, and stores selling baklava and Turkish Delight. The array of Turkish Delight flavours was staggering, but it was possible to buy a selection; those filled with nuts were a chewy favourite, the citrus flavours were tangy and delicious, and of course, the traditional rose-flavoured Turkish Delight is simply that.
I also fell in love with baklava. I’ve never enjoyed it when I’ve tried it in New Zealand or elsewhere, finding it too cloyingly sweet. But in Turkey, the baklava was not so sweet, and was served in tiny portions, maybe an inch square – the perfect size to go with a cup of apple tea.
Fortunately, after all this food, we walked for hours a day. We walked to the harbour, we walked across the bridge at the Golden Horn, and along the main shopping street of Beyoglu, then down to the banks of the Bosphorus.
With sore feet, it was essential to take a break. Taking a break in Istanbul was one of the delights of our visit. We took the opportunity to linger over lunch on the banks of the Golden Horn, and to rest our feet on a boat heading up the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea.
We enjoyed cabbage rolls and kebabs for lunch over-looking a square filled with union protesters and the media filming them, a phalanx of police in riot gear keeping a low profile off in the corner. We took breaks to enjoy some tea in the Grand Bazaar, after a futile search for a souvenir in what is now pretty much a tourist trap.
And every day, just at dusk, we would quench our thirst at a bar on the side of the street. Later, we would sit with other tourists and religious observers outside the Blue Mosque as the sun set, enjoying the cooler temperatures, indulging in yet another spot of people watching.
After all, Istanbul has been there for centuries. Rushing through it doesn’t do it justice. It is a city where you should sit, take time, remember its past, and contemplate its future. Because if history teaches us anything, it is that Istanbul will continue to thrive.
Note: The photographs are so much better if you click on them!