Like many of my far-flung travels, my recent trip to Turkey begins with two words: “Yes! When?”
At the other end of the phone half way around the world, a friend is telling me of her upcoming business in Istanbul, and can I get myself there for a bit of exploring afterward. As simply as that, thoughts of visiting Turkey “someday” become “next month.” Four weeks later, I am landing at Istanbul Atatürk Airport; and find myself immediately immersed in the mystique of the millennia-old oriental city.
The drive from the airport takes me along the Bosphorus, the legendary boundary between Europe and Asia that flows through the middle of the city, east to west from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. On both sides, Istanbul spreads from its endless waterfront over wooded hills.
At the crossroads of cultures
Fortunately for visitors to this sprawling city, successive dynasties of Byzantine kings, Roman caesars and Ottoman sultans conveniently settled themselves within and on top of their predecessors’ seat of power, in the Old City neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Bound by water on three sides (the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara to the north, east and south respectively), and the ancient city walls to the west, this peninsula holds what once was Constantinople and Byzantium before that.
We spend the next three days bouncing back and forth between empires. Our first stop, Aya Sofia, is a metaphor for the evolution of Istanbul. A massive structure whose huge dome is considered to this day one of the world’s great architectural achievements, it was built in the sixth century as a Christian cathedral by Byzantine emperor Justinian. Eight centuries later, following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Aya Sofia became a mosque, its soaring domes and elaborate mosaics covered with Arabic script and gold for the next five century, until it became a museum in 1931. Now some beautifully restored Byzantine mosaics can be seen again along with the Ottoman artwork.
From there we walk across a small park toward the cascade of domed roofs and the spear-like minarets of the seventeenth century Sultanahmet Mosque (a.k.a. Blue Mosque). Rumor has it that when Sultan Ahmet I set out to build the mosque that bears his name, he wanted to surpass the grandeur and beauty of Aya Sofia. While I am no expert, I will call the endeavor a draw.
The Blue Mosque is indeed as stunning as its sixth century neighbor. Its central dome rises 140 feet (43 meters), held by four giant columns. The mosque’s interior is covered in elaborate abstract patterns of Iznik tiles. Light streaming from 260 windows set high into the domes plays on the tiles and creates an otherworldly atmosphere. While it is one of Istanbul’s prime tourist attractions, the Blue Mosque is still a place of worship that can hold up to 10,000 worshipers.
Down into the sunken palace
After this architectural extravaganza, the small bunker-like building across the street from Aya Sofia that marks the entrance to the Basilica Cistern is a bit of a let down. Inside its non-descript doorway, we start down an ancient stone staircase. Fifty-two damp steps later, we reach a surreal underground world of towering Hellenic marble columns (336 in all, lined in 12 rows of 28 each) rising from a dark pool of water. We are in the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici (Sunken Palace). Originally constructed in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, the cistern was enlarged in 532 to its present state by Justinian to meet the water needs of the Great Palace imperial complex. The 30-foot (nine meter) high columns are thought to be “recycled” from various parts of the empire. For me, this unique watery cathedral-like space is one of the most striking sights of Istanbul.
The next morning we board a public ferry to cruise from the Golden Horn, the crescent-shaped inlet that has served as a natural harbor for Istanbul since before it was Byzantium, out into the Bosphorus and east toward the Black Sea. We pass the great 19th century Ottoman waterfront palaces, then the colossal medieval walls of the Rumelian fortress. Further east still, we discover traditional fishing villages and yalis (seashore wooden villas).
No end of Treasures
What about all the other much vaunted “guidebook musts?” Yes, we do fit those in also. We wander through Topkapi Palace, a labyrinth of ornate rooms that conjure images of turbaned sultans and their harems, before enjoying a panoramic view of the Sea of Marmara from its private terraces. We dutifully follow the crowds through the Dolmabahce Palace – think Versailles on the Bosphorus. And we make the de rigueur stop at the Grand Bazaar. This ancestor of the shopping mall is now overflowing with overpriced goods for tourists. The Spice Bazaar, a vast aromatic market piled high with coffees, dried fruits, spices and herbs feels more enticing. Besides, locals still shop there; always a good sign.
On the last day, an afterthought visit to the out-of-the-way Church of the Holly Savior in Chora (now Chora Museum) delivers one of the biggest thrills of my stay in Istanbul. The current structure, build in 1081 on the site a fifth century church, is considered one of the most striking surviving example of a Byzantine church. In the early fourteenth century, Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites endowed the church with exquisite mosaics and frescos that illustrate the genealogy, birth, life and resurrection of Jesus. After the fall of the city to the Ottomans, the Chora Church was converted into a mosque and its glorious artworks plastered over. Thus they remained mainly intact throughout the centuries, to be cleared and restored when the mosque was turned into a museum in the late 1950’s. These are the most breathtaking Byzantine mosaics I have ever seen.