Istanbul - Where Continents & Culture Converge
Istanbul has been on our short list due to its long and rich history. Our preference is to travel independently and immerse ourselves in the local way of life; however, since this was our first trip to this part of the world, we chose a more conservative approach. Home base was a modern western hotel and professionals guided us through the unending maze of Istanbul. We hope our story provides some insight about this amazing metropolis that spans 2 continents and served as the throne of power to emperors and sultans for some of the great world empires.
Landing and getting around
Twenty million people call Istanbul home so getting from the airport to the hotel was an unexpected adventure! There appear to be no traffic rules other than cars may not drive on the sidewalk. Autos, bikes of all types and scooters drive on the wrong side of road, on the wrong side of a 4 lane highway, drive on stairs and tram tracks as well as pedestrian walk ways. And even with all of these short cuts, traffic is insane. The 1 hour taxi ride cost only 85 TL or $20. Our driver, apparently with Formula 1 racing in his blood, sped down the freeway until traffic abruptly stopped. He quickly exited into a vacant stadium parking lot and zoomed past the freeway of stopped cars. Next, he whipped up, down and around narrow winding streets, blasting the horn to warn pedestrians as we flew by. We arrived safely at our hotel in a newer section of town with shopping, cafes and restaurants.
Public transport is fast and economical. Use the Istanbul Transit Card to access trams, buses or ferries. Pre-load the card with currency at the automatic kiosk, and off you go. Tip - the transit machines do not take coins or give cash back. Purchase an Istanbul card for transit before you board. The public transport systems are crowded so prepare for limited personal space. Taxis are also inexpensive but are subject to traffic snarls. Uber was unavailable during our trip. And don't forget to bring your best urban hikers because no matter how you get from A to B, you end up walking and using stairs.
Seeing the City- 4 Days and 2 guides
Our goals were to see the historical sights and to take some nice photos. 2 different goals required 2 guides.
If viewing historical monuments and major sites is of interest, Daily Istanbul Tours offers a variety of tours. Our knowledgable guide, Özlem, customized the agenda so that we could experience local life as well as tour major tourist hot spots. By employing an official tour guide with credentials we gained immediate access to the major monuments and exhibitions. Even with prepaid tickets, wait times are long. Her knowledge of history is impressive and navigation of the Hagia Sofia got us in and out quickly.
If taking quality images is your objective, we recommend local photo guide, Enis Yücel. He guided us through parts of the city that few tourists see. View his work here. Enis navigated the back streets and introduced us to the Hans where we met a few local craftsmen who work there.
We enjoyed Turkish coffee, good food and Turkish Delight with both guides. We sampled local cuisine in back alley restaurants and enjoyed spectacular views of the city. We enjoyed sharing thoughts and ideas which added depth and texture to our Istanbul experience. If you visit Istanbul, consider touring the city with someone who calls it home.
Major Historical Sites
The Hagia Sophia
With 3.5 million visitors per year, the Hagia Sophia is the city's most popular attraction. Lines are long, however, professional guides have priority access which means you get in quickly.
The structure is a great architectural achievement and an important monument for both Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The Hagia Sophia was first a church, later a mosque and now a museum. The huge dome soars 180 feet high (about 18 stories) and is covered with gold mosaics. Your significance shrinks inside this enormous space as you walk in and gaze upwards in quiet awe. For centuries, emperors, sultans and citizens considered this complex the center of spiritual life.
Constantine began construction in 360 AD and Emperor Justinian expanded the structure in 537 AD. The central dome rests on a ring of windows that are supported by two semi-domes and two arched openings which create a large nave. The walls were originally lined with intricate Byzantine mosaics of gold, silver, glass, terra cotta and colorful gem stones which portrayed well-known scenes and figures from the Christian Gospels. Today visitors may view remnants of the mosaics that remain. The Hagia Sophia’s 104 columns were imported from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. For 900 years the Hagia Sophia stood as the Byzantine's unequivocal symbol of God on earth.
In 1204 Venetian Crusaders sacked Constantinople and stripped the church of the gold, silver and jewels embedded in the mosaics. The structure was later repaired but the gold and jewels disappeared. Much of the stolen wealth is displayed in Venice today.
In 1453 Mehmet the Conqueror recognized the building's significance and converted it into a mosque. Almost every Christian symbol was destroyed and replaced with Islamic verses and calligraphy. Four minarets frame the Hagia Sophia and for the next 500 years it served as one of the most celebrated Ottoman mosques.
In 1935 President Atatürk converted the mosque into a national museum so everyone can enjoy its magnificent beauty. The Hagia Sophia’s symbolism is inescapable. As a national museum there was no call to prayer. However, the call to prayer is currently broadcast from the Hagia Sophia.
The Basilica Cistern
Next to the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern which was constructed by Justinianus I, the Byzantium Emperor (527-565), to supply the city with clean water. Constantinople was built on top of a large underground water reservoir. Inside the cistern are rows and rows of magnificent marble columns which create space for a receptacle for the water and structure for the city. The Basilica Cistern is called that because a basilica was formerly perched on the ground above.
At 140 m long and 70 m wide, the structure is massive and contains 336 columns and each is 9 m high. Some columns are carved with sculptures. The most famous are the Medusa heads which support 2 columns.
The Topkapi Palace
Close to the Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern is the Topkapi Palace built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1460. The palace served as the sultan's residence and center of government of the Ottoman Empire until the middle of the 19th century. Topkapi was built on the Acropolis of ancient Constantinople since emperor Constantine's great palace was destroyed and Sultan Mehmet required a new palace. The best craftsman of the empire built the palace and no expense was spared and is more of a city than a home. 3 great courtyards are filled with trees and gardens. In one of the courtyards are the Janissari trees. The Janissaries were the Sultan's private guards and elite fighting force. The Ottomans abducted young Christian boys from the families of conquered lands. They received superb military indoctrination at an early age and were transformed into a formidable, loyal fighting force. Some of the Janissaries rose to prominent positions of power within the Ottoman Empire. But power corrupts and the once elite fighting force became loyal to themselves. In 1826 Sultan Mahmud II eradicated the Janissaries in a dark event as The Auspicious Incident. Jason Goodwin's novel The Janissary Tree speculates the soldiers were hung in the Topkapi Palace trees in the courtyard to serve as a deterrent.The Janissary Trees still stand in the courtyard next to the Hagia Irene.
The Hagia Irene is the first church of Constantinople and was commissioned by Constantine in the 4th century. It is one of the few ancient churches in the city never converted to a mosque.
The Grand Bazaar
In order to experience Istanbul, visit the Grand Bazaar. It is one of the world's largest, oldest enclosed markets with 4 entrances, over 60 streets and around 4,000 shops that attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. It is located in the Fatih district. Merchants sit on stools, nursing cups of steaming hot Turkish tea and wait for customers. Young tea runners walk briskly through the winding lanes, deftly swinging beautiful trays as they deliver fresh cups and collect the empty ones. Exotic spices, dried fruits, olives and Turkish Delight are piled high in baskets. Many shops sell jewelry, rugs and local handiwork as well. Once you stop at a shop to admire an item, merchants spring into action and the bartering begins!
For well over 500 years a mostly hidden world existed above the Grand Bazaar. This area provided lodging for travelers and traders who came to buy and sell exotic goods from Asia, Africa and Europe. The world above the Grand Bazaar is a community unto itself.
Today the Hans houses workshops for local craftsmen to make many of the items sold in the Grand Bazaar below such as lamps, intricate brass creations and jewelry. The main thoroughfares are where you’ll find the most popular shops and restaurants, but just like any city, the coolest spots are tucked away in its less-visited corners.
Tip - Explore the Hans with a guide so you won't get lost. Entry and exit ways are not marked.
The Galata Bridge
The Galata Bridge crosses the Golden Horn which is the body of water that separates old and new Istanbul. For over 1500 years people have passed over the Golden Horn on some type of bridge. Plans exist for a bridge designed by Leonardo da Vinci but it was never built. There are many shops and cafes under the Galata Bridge while cars and trams flow across the top of the bridge as boats float below. Sidewalks are lined with fisherman hoping to catch fresh fish for dinner. Tip - Walk across the bridge to get the full experience.
Additional side trips
Visit Kadiköy on the Asian side of the Bosphorous for a different experience and to get a sense of how locals live in the suburbs. Take the ferry from the Galata Bridge terminal and be sure to check out the fresh fish market. This side of the Bosphorous is well worth a visit because the pace is a bit more relaxed and fewer tourists take the time to stop by.
Kadiköy is where life slows down although the narrow streets are busy with locals shopping, enjoying Turkish tea and conversation or sharing a meal with friends or family at one of the many, casual restaurants. Our historical guide, Özlem pointed out a couple of her favorite places and we enjoyed mezes until we could eat no more. Then wandered until we found the perfect place to sit and enjoy a Turkish coffee.
Our photography guide, Enis, recommended a visit to the beautiful Suleymaniye Mosque because the layout clearly demonstrates Islamic life. Gardens, walkways, shops and a library surround the mosque so when locals come to pray, they also spend time with their neighbors in a variety of settings. As we strolled the grounds, Enis shared his perspectives on Islam which was interesting and helpful to understand the Muslim culture.
He said Islam is more than a religion, it is alive and a way of life. Even though Turkey is a "secular" nation, 95% of the population is Muslim. The vast majority are practicing Muslims with only 30-35% secular or non-practicing. People may differ in how they practice Islam but that difference does not change the essence of Islam. He shared the 5 pillars of Islam.
- First pillar is openly profess your faith which serves to align the community around a single set of beliefs.
- Second pillar is pray 5 times a day. While not part of the pillar, praying at the local mosque brings the neighborhood together.
- Third pillar is annually donate 2.5% of your wealth or income to the poor and those in need. This is over and above any taxes paid to the government.
- Fourth pillar is fasting during Ramadan which teaches you to control your desires. Fasting includes no water or food.
- Fifth pillar is the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ideally done later in life when the pilgrim has lived enough life and is ready.
Photos of the Suleymaniye Mosque are below.
Unfortunately, the historic and sacred Blue Mosque is undergoing renovation so we can't comment other than to recommend a visit if you are there when it reopens. Its beauty is evident from the outside and inside the intricate blue tiles are the inspiration for the name.
The old European section of Istanbul contains the famed Theodocian walls that protected the city from invasion for over 1000 years. Sprinkled around the old town are the aqueduct ruins which supplied water to the ancient city.
Visit the Egyptian Spice Bazaar (going strong since the 1600s) which is the place to purchase exotic spices. As you enter, your sense of smell is fully engaged! Tip - This bazaar is smaller and more easily navigated than the Grand Bazaar.
Take a cruise on one of the numerous ferry boats and sail the Bosphorus. You use your Istanbul transit card for the ferry. Enjoy the pleasant sea breeze and watch the city go on and on. Palaces from long gone sultans and homes of modern day sultans (the wealthy of Istanbul) dot the coastline. You will likely pass by the famous Rumeli Fortress built by Mehmet the Conqueror.
Visit the Beylerbeyi Palace also known as the summer palace of the sultans and built by Sultan Abdülaziz in 1861. The architecture is a fusion of 19th century European and Ottoman. One of the rooms contains a massive bath where the sultan would conduct important meetings since the sound of flowing water provided protection from listening ears. As you walk through the building, you get a sense of the sultan's total power. Even the sultan's mother was a slave, she did have a nice palace apartment. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the palace.
Next, visit the highest hill on the Asian side of Istanbul called Camlica Hill or Pine Tree Hill which is a flower and tree filled park with expansive views of the Bosphorous and the European side of the city.
The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (now a museum) is one of the world's oldest Greek Orthodox churches. Intricate, emotive mosaics and frescos once completely covered the walls and ceiling. It is located in an old neighborhood and getting there is an adventure in itself since you glimpse local life in a neighborhood that tourists don't usually enter.
Turkish food is delicious, fresh and inexpensive. Try a Meze or starter sampler plate. Mezes are savory Turkish appetizers and make an easy meal.
Looking for a special night out? Visit Vogue where the food and the views are amazing. Reservations recommended. Arrive before sunset and enjoy the city views as day turns to night.
Stop at the Four Seasons and enjoy a drink at sunset. The hotel is located at the water's edge and the view from the outdoor bar is spectacular.
Some of the best food can be sampled in little shops and cafes all over town. For a special treat try the stuffed mussels!! The meat of the mussel is mixed with spices and rice, then put back in the shell and baked. You can buy one or a bucketful.
A Little History (Not Really!)
Emperors and sultans ruled this area for 3000 years. Byzantium, founded by the Greeks then transformed by the Romans into Constantinople and later transformed by the Ottomans to Istanbul. Today, 20 million people live in this transcontinental city in Eurasia, which straddles the Bosphorus strait (which separates Europe and Asia). Additionally, the city sits between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. According to legend, the Greeks colonized and named the settlement, Byzantium after their chief Byzas in 658 BC. Istanbul has seen centuries of conflict, warring with Persia and Greece, internal Roman civil wars, Venice and Ottomans.
Constantine and Constantinople
In 324 AD emperor Constantine renamed the city Constantinople and made it the capital of the Roman empire. Constantine was ruthless. In order to secure his destiny as sole emperor, he killed his wife, son and father in-law. This is somewhat ironic in his role as Christian Emperor who is credited with converting the Roman empire to Christianity. Constantinople became the Christian empire capital city as well as the center for Orthodox Christianity which spread through eastern Europe and Asia. He ruled until his death in 337 AD.
At the city's center and symbolic heart of the Roman Empire stood the Column of Constantine. The marble column of purple (color of royalty) was adorned with gold and relics important to both Pagans and Christians. On top of the Column rested a gold statue of Constantine and at the column's base was a statue of Athena from the conquest of Troy. The column also purportedly contained Christian relics such as a portion of the True Cross, baskets from the multiplication of bread, the ax used by Noah to make the ark, the rock from which water sprang at the command of Moses, nails from the Passion of Christ and wood from the crosses of the two thieves.
The short video below shows the grandeur of the column as it stood in ancient Constantinople.
Divided Roman Empire
The Roman Empire grew too large to manage efficiently so it split into east and west for administrative reasons. Constantinople became the eastern capital and Rome (later Ravenna) was the western capital. This division caused the Christian religion to divide as well. Rome (the West) aligned with the Roman Catholic church. Constantinople (the East) practiced Orthodox Christianity. The East spoke Greek and the West spoke Latin. Over time, the division of language, religion and miles divided the Christian faith.
In 1054 AD the East-West Schism occurred. While modern readers may interpret the theological differences as small and perhaps trivial, they were substantial to the devoutly faithful of the time. One contentious point was the relationship of the Holy Trinity known as Filoque. The West believed the Father, Son and Holy Ghost to be roughly equal parts of God. The East believed this diminished the power of God the Father. Another tangible conflict centered around an earthly power, Papal primacy. Roman Catholics believed the Pope yielded supreme authority over all Christians and Orthodox Christians rested religious authority in the Patriarchs and didn’t need or want a pope to tell them what to do. Another conflict was the role of mystical versus rational theology. Orthodox Christians tended to place higher value on divine revelation.
East and West tend to tell different stories about the parents of Jesus. The East, in addition to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (known as the Canon Gospels), uses the Gospel of James known as the Protovangelisim of James supposedly written by James, a step brother of Jesus. It relates the story of Joseph (the husband of Mary) having 4 sons from a previous marriage James, Joseph, Jude and Simon. The Virgin Mary's mother is St. Anna and her father was a wealthy man named St. Joachim. We visited the Greek Orthodox Chora church built by Justinian in 527 AD. The walls are covered with beautiful mosaics and frescos. Some of the mosaics prominently depict St. Anna, St. Joachim and the step brothers of Jesus.
The 4th Crusade
The 4th Crusade of 1204 altered Constantinople forever. Among historians, controversy continues over the motivation of the Catholic Venetians however, there is no doubt that they sacked, pillaged and plundered Orthodox Constantinople.
The undisputed history of the 4th Crusade is that Pope Innocent III called for the reconquering of Jerusalem in 1202 which Sultan Saladin had conquered a few years earlier. The 3rd Crusade in 1189 reclaimed much territory however the city of Jerusalem was still under Muslim rule. So Pope Innocent called for the 4th Crusade to take back the holy city. This crusade required money and ships so the church asked for help from Venice. The Doge of Venice was Enrico Dandolo who had a personal grudge against the Byzantines as he was a former prisoner and blinded in Constantinople as a younger man. He agreed to supply the Crusade with ships, supplies, armaments and soldiers. However, Dandelo demanded to lead the crusade and Venice would be full partner in the crusade and earn 50% of the spoils. The church agreed.
Some historians claim the conquest was the single largest theft in human history. The people of Constantinople welcomed the Venetian crusaders into their city as guests. Surprise! The guests turned into thieves and stole everything they could and shipped the booty back to Venice. Gold and jewels embellishing the Hagia Sophia, other churches and palaces disappeared along with many Christian relics. Today, the magnificent bronze horses that dominant the top of St. Mark's cathedral came from the hippodrome of Constantinople. When the Venetian crusaders finally left, the wealth and power of Constantinople was gone. The Byzantine empire became a shadow of its former glory.
The Ottoman Siege
Osman Gazi founded the Ottoman Empire. Osman had a dream. "A moon appearing in his breast. It rose, rose and then descended into my breast. From my navel there sprang a tree. It grew up and turned green. It branched out and got complicated. The shadow of its branches covered the whole world." Osman took this to be a sign from God that he was to create a vast empire. Osman's empire became known as the Ottoman Empire and he was the first Sultan. For the next 200 years the Ottoman Empire expanded by securing Byzantine Empire territory. The Ottomans surrounded Constantinople.
Sultan Mehmet II came to power at the age of 19 and accomplished what previous sultans could not - he seized Constantinople. The encirclement began with the construction of the Rumelihisarı fortress on the straights of the Bosphorus and stretching a chain across the water. The "throat cutter" fortress prevented supplies reaching the city.
Mehmet also breached the impenetrable Theodocian walls built by Thoedocius II which had protected the city for 1000 years. Mehmet relied on Orban, a Hungarian born cannon caster who built the world's largest cannon. In a strange twist of history, Orban first asked if the Byzantines wanted to buy his new cannon technology. But Emperor Constantine XI could not afford his services as the city's wealth disappeared with the Venetians. Orban left Constantinople and sold the newest military technology to Mehmet.
The Ottoman siege of Constantinople lasted for 53 days. Orban's cannon breached the walls and the Ottoman's entered the city on May 1453. The capital city of the Christian empire that Constantine founded 11 centuries before was now the capital of the Ottoman Muslim Empire. The Sultan Mehmet II is known as Mehmet the Conquerer.
The Modern Republic of Turkey
At the end of WWI the Ottoman Empire dissolved and a forward thinking leader named Atatürk emerged. Many view him as the father of present day Turkey and in 1923 he became the first president of the Republic of Turkey. Atatürk launched revolutionary social and political reforms in order to modernize Turkey which included the emancipation of women, the abolition of all Islamic institutions and the introduction of Western legal codes, dress and calendar. The Latin alphabet replaced Arabic script. Modern Turkey owes much to his vision and dedicated effort. Even today, visitors see many photos honoring him displayed throughout the city.
Current Political Situation
The prevailing Western attitude of President Erdogan is unfavorable. However, our guides offered a more nuanced view of the current president. His career began as Istanbul mayor (1994 -1998) and he modernized vital infrastructure systems including water distribution, mass transportation and trash pick up. As mayor he was arrested in the 1998 coup. Upon conviction by a military court, he served a 10 month prison sentence. He reappeared on the political stage with new found respect from the public. Erdogan's political ideology embraces Islam more openly and strongly than previous administrations. Erdogan founded the conservative AKP party in 2001, was elected Prime Minister in 2003 and President in 2014. An immense mosque with 6 minarets is presently under construction high atop an Istanbul hill. A common joke amongst the locals is the new mosque will be named, Erdogan Mosque. Historically, politicians do not receive this honor.
Currently, Erdogan leads the country in a less secular direction and not everyone approves. On July 15, 2016, an attempted coup to replace Erdogan took place. Turkey has a history of regime change evidenced by 4 previous coups since Atatürk's death in 1938. The transition from 7 centuries of rule by sultan to democratic republic occasionally meets with resistance. Sultans murdered their brothers to cement power. Are coups really that different?
The 2016 coup lasted only 48 hours with 241 people killed and over 2,194 injured. The Turkish government blames the attempt on Fethullah Gülen, "a cleric living in reclusive exile in Pennsylvania." Gülen is a former Erdogan ally. Several thousand suspected Gülen loyalists were jailed and Erdogan demanded US extradition of Gülen, however, the US refused. In addition, the former ally manages a worldwide network of private schools with 156 operating in the US. Edorgan's successful squaring of the coup increased his local support.
Freedom of speech is restricted as Turkish internet blocks access to Wikipedia or Imgur apparently due to negative stories regarding the current administration. Here are reports of journalists being jailed in Turkey for writing stories critical of Erdogan.
For thousands of years people have inhabited the enormous area called (depending on the era) Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium. It occupies space on the continents of Asia and Europe and served as the capital of Christian and Muslim empires in addition to being the seat of power for emperors and sultans. Turkey shares it's border with Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia, Georgia, Greece and Bulgaria. It is a secular republic with a population of 95% Muslims. There have been 4 successful military coups since 1960. Perhaps the best single word to describe Istanbul is ... complex.
Minarets embellishing 2000 mosques fill the city skyline and 5 times each day the muezzin recite the adhan or call to prayer over loud speaker. Many women are covered. As you pass the thousand shops in the Grand Bazaar you notice only men working.
Western values like change and innovation and materialism appear to clash with Turkish values such as strict gender roles, respect of tradition, priority to family and group as well as devotion to religious life. In our discussions with Enis and Özlem we contemplated these differences. We all agreed the West places priority on the individual more than the group. They observed the marketing of our corporations and the design goals of social media are intended to keep the West in a continuous state of "want." However, both guides used smartphones and new technology.
In the Hans we glimpsed the past as we watched craftsmen create beautiful lamps by pouring molten brass. We felt enormous respect and appreciation for their skill and hard work. Observing people rather than machines handcraft products is something we in the West observe less and less.
Four days is not long enough to capture the essence of Istanbul!
View the gallery here for more Istanbul images.