A few weeks ago, I had the extreme pleasure of visiting one of the oldest cities in human history. Nestled in the cradle of the ancient world – a mere stones throw from the centers of vast empires like Athens, Rome, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt – Istanbul is a vibrant, urban sprawl in which east meets west and contemporary meets antiquity.
Just as Allah has many names (99 in fact), so too does the nation of Turkiye have an associated multitude of call-signs as well. The land first known as Anatolia soon transformed into Asia Minor and then became Byzantine, followed by Ottoman, until finally arriving at the present iteration.
Likewise, Istanbul was founded by the Greeks as Byzantium in 657 BC; however, the Roman emperor Constantine renamed the city after himself, claiming it as the new capital for the Roman Empire in 330 AD, Constantinople (or Konstantinopolis in Turkish). The city’s moniker officially changed to Istanbul in 1453 when the Ottomans took control – prior to that date, the locals had been using the name for almost 500 years.
Strategically located along the ‘silk road’ (the medieval trade route between Europe and the Orient), Istanbul began as one of the most significant centers in human history and is still considered a very important economic powerhouse. Straddling the ultra-busy Bosporus Strait, it is one of the few transcontinental cities on the globe. Additionally, Istanbul is split into geographic thirds so that two of parts lie on the European side, while the last remains firmly planted in Asia. Interestingly enough, it became the capital for not one (Roman), but four (Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman) separate empires before Mustafa Kemal Ataturk relocated Turkiye’s principal city to Ankara in 1923.
In 2013, Istanbul is over 5,000 square kilometers; however, the oldest section of the city – the neighborhood formerly known as Constantinople – Sultanahmet, is a mere 4 square kilometers. It is within this area that most, if not all, of this city’s majestic history and splendor is found. It is fascinating to experience how the Islamic culture of the Middle East slams directly into the Judeo-Christian world of Europe – on every corner… If you are a traveler, Istanbul is not to be missed!
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) – The original “Great Church”, constructed in the 4th century and commissioned by Constantinus II, burned to the ground in 404 AD and the construction of a substitute began almost immediately. The current structure, however, is the third – completed in 537 AD on orders from Emperor Justinian (hehe) – as well as the oldest building I have ever set foot inside. It was converted to a Mosque during the Ottoman Empire and the Muslims made every effort to replace any and all Christian motifs, but since time was of the essence, the Sultan suggested they simply cover the tiled mosaics and frescoes instead of ripping them out and beginning anew. Thank God for small favors because Ataturk decreed the structure a museum and a national treasure in 1935 and plans began to restore it to its original glory – removing the Islamic designs and uncovering the centuries old Christian imagery. This is the most glaringly obvious place (other than perhaps the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem) to see the clashing of these two religions.
Galata Tower – Almost as old as the Hagia Sophia stands a tower (just north and across one of the waterways) 67 meters tall that was originally called the Tower of Christ and built as a lighthouse. The original structure, much like the Hagia Sophia, burned down and the Italians moved in to rebuild it using stone, brick, and mortar in 1348. Once the Ottomans took over, they used it for fire-watch and the building often became a hero of sorts in saving other important landmarks. Today, visitors and tourists can scale to the top and look across the water toward the many wondrous sights of Istanbul.
Topkapi Palace – This expansive castle-like compound was home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years. Comprised of four main courtyards, mosques, bakeries, a harem, a mint, and a hospital, 4,000 people once lived within the protection of its outer walls. Since 1924, it has been used as a museum in an effort to preserve history – and not just the structure. Contained in the ‘Treasury’ are various religious artifacts including many from the Prophet Mohammed (including fragments of his teeth and beard), as well as a sword the Turks claim to have belonged to King David, and a wooden stick supposedly Moses’ Rod. I may be a skeptic; however, you’d have to be pretty gullible to believe the staff of Moses – that God turned into a serpent – is sitting inside a Plexiglas case in a random Istanbul museum (sorry guys, no pics were allowed but you can Google it if you’d like).
Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque – The most famous mosque in the world stands just on the other side of the garden fountain from the Hagia Sophia. Named by visitors due to the brilliant blue tiles adorning the interior walls, the Blue Mosque was built in 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I – who’s almost solely responsible for many of the still-standing structures in Sultanahmet (many Sultans of the Ottoman Empire were apparently very educated in a variety of subjects including architecture). The mosque is composed of nine domes and six minarets – far more than even the most elaborate of mosques. The inner ceiling is full of exquisitely detailed painted tile-work and the sheer awe one feels when entering is astounding (the size of the space is incredible and was hard to capture in photographs).
Suleymaniye Hamam (or Turkish Bath) – Having experienced the Korean bathhouse, I felt that the Turkish variety was a must on the to-do list. This particular hamam is one of the oldest in the city, having been built between 1520 and 1566 by its namesake Sultan. The building is lavishly arched and domed, with marble inlay work on the walls and consists of three sections: cold, lukewarm, and hot. Temperatures in the hot area can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit! Incidentally, this is the only hamam in which men and women enter together. The best part of this experience was the marble slab on which I was scrubbed and exfoliated happened to be the slab of choice of the magnificent Sultan himself!
Basilica Cistern – Also known as the Sunken Palace, was built by over 7,000 slaves in the 6th century under the orders of Roman emperor Justinian. The cistern is the largest of several hundred (believe it or not) beneath the city, located approximately 500 feet southwest of the Hagia Sophia. Today, it’s virtually empty although the room has the capacity to store 100,000 gallons of water! The source of the cistern’s supply was in the Belgrade Forest, 12 miles north of the original boundaries of Constantinople. The most interesting feature of the cistern is a pair of Medusa heads at the base of a couple columns in the northwest corner – one sideways and the other completely upside-down for the purpose of negating the power of her gaze.
Until Next Time…