Thursday, July 16, 2009

Istanbul, Turkey: A city that demands a return — Essay I

by Richard L. Weaver II

We liked Istanbul better than Rome — better than any of the large cities previously visited on this cruise. There are some similarities between Rome and Istanbul. Both are large cities; both have enormous traffic problems; both have air pollution; both are thriving, active, vital cities. But there is truly something exotic about being where Europe meets Asia. Our Istanbul tour guide led us to Asia, and he gave all 42 people on our bus a chance to put our feet on the ground there.. Because there was a request to use restrooms, he led us to a McDonald’s on the Asian side — a side of Istanbul which is cleaner and more residential (but less interesting historically) than the European. Easy getting across the bridge into Asia, it took us 25 minutes in stop-and-go traffic to get back to the European side over the narrow Bosporos Strait — the body of water separating European Turkey from Asian Turkey.

Although scheduled for 10½ hours, the tour of Istanbul took place over 2 days and took a total of 11½ hours. In general, things took longer than anticipated because of bathroom stops, crowded tourist sites, and traffic congestion. Centuries ago when the narrow streets of these large cities were constructed, car transportation was never anticipated nor the huge, air conditioned tour buses.

To avoid road construction on the morning of our second day, our bus sought some interior roads on the Asian side. As we turned onto one small street a gentleman on the far end flagged the driver away, and our bus driver made an immediate right and headed slowly down a narrow street with cars parked on both sides. Soon after making this decision — the only one available at the time — he realized the street was too narrow for the bus. Our tour guide left the bus to survey the situation, and it was quickly determined there was no way the coach could make it, so, with the tour guide directing the traffic from behind the bus, the driver inched his way back so he could turn onto another street — a feat that gained the admiration, cheers, and applause of everyone on the bus. Another very difficult and sharp turn onto a narrow street gained further applause.

Our tour guide made it clear with an announcement to us all that we had just seen sights on the Asian side of Istanbul seldom, if ever, seen by tourists!

It was the “Istanbul Classical Tour,” and it began 1½ hours late because we were late getting into port. Why? “Heavy traffic through the Dardanelles” we were told. The Dardanelles is the narrow strait in northwestern Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Although 38 miles long, it ranges in width from only three-quarters of a mile to 4 miles. Like the Bosporos, it separates Europe and the mainland of Asia.

The skyline of the old European side of Istanbul forms the skyline silhouette on the port side as one enters the harbor. The minarets of all the mosques — including the famous Blue Mosque — offer an introduction that is both fascinating and enticing. I watched our entrance from the bow of the ship on deck 11.

On the first day of our classical tour, we visited the ancient side of Istanbul where we saw the remnants of the old Hippodrome (meaning horse path), the sporting and social center of Constantinople, capitol of the Byzantine Empire, and the largest city in Europe. Istanbul is its current name. Only a few remnants of the old Hippodrome survive, but for 1,000 years it was the center of Byzantine life and afterwards, for another 400 years, of Ottoman life.

The Hippodrome was the scene of countless political and military dramas, including rival chariot races. All that is left today is an impressive granite obelisk carved in Egypt around 1500 BC and brought to Constantinople in 390 AD. It requires a good guide with lively descriptions and a vivid imagination to realize what occurred on this spot. Venice now has the Triumphal Quadriga or Horses of Saint Mark that once adorned the Hippodrome. They date from classical antiquity, and in 1204 Doge Eurico Dandolo sent them to Venice as part of the loot sacked from Constantinople in the fourth crusade. They were installed on the terrace of the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice in 1254.

In addition to the remnants of the Hippodrome, we saw the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It’s one of several mosques known as the Blue Mosque for the more than 20,000 hand-painted, blue Iznik tiles adorning the walls of the interior. All the decorative wall tiles in the land of the Ottomans were made in the city of Iznik (the ancient Nicaea). This mosque is recognized as “a triumph of harmony, proportion, and elegance,” and it is the only mosque in the world with 6 minarets.

The interior of this Blue Mosque is breathtaking not just because of the Iznik tiles. It is the mighty dome, the series of small domes that support it, as well as the 200 stained-glass windows that create a spectacular colored effect as you walk around the interior. It was built using the construction methods of the day — mounding the earth and sliding the pieces of the dome into place, then removing the earth bit-by-bit. Because it is still used as a house of worship, we took off our shoes to walk on the soft Turkish carpeting throughout — carpets donated by faithful people and regularly replaced when they become worn out.

Directly across from the Blue Mosque is the St. Sophia Museum (Hagia Sophia - or Divine Wisdom), a former patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, now a museum. It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a 1000 years. For almost 500 years it was the principal mosque in Istanbul and served as a model for many Ottoman mosques. It originated in 326 under Constantine the Great, and was rebuilt on a larger scale during the reign of Emperor Justinian whose intention it was that the new building should surpass in splendor all others in antiquity. Marble columns were brought in from temples in Asia minor, Greece, and Italy. 10,000 workers were employed in its construction, and it was, as recently as 1934 under the direction of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, converted into a museum. It is now the most important Byzantine monument in Istanbul — famous for its immense dome, beautiful frescoes, and outstanding mosaics.

Our tour of Istanbul was so far-reaching and extensive that I have only one choice: to conclude this Istanbul tour in a second essay. Obviously, it isn’t just the city that demands a return!
At Lonely Planet, it’s site on “Istanbul” has all the information a tourist needs for visiting the city. The site begins with the comment, “Istanbul is hot. And we’re not talking about the weather. These days, there are more happening restaurants, bars, galleries and clubs around town than there are exquisite Ottoman mosques (and that’s a lot).,” then at the beginning of the very next paragraph says: “The city’s over-abundance of important historic buildings and exciting new art galleries and museums provides visitors with more than enough to see during the day.” The site supports our observation: the city demands a return.

At, there is a great deal of information as well.
Copyright July, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Essays, SMOERs Words-of-Wisdom, Fridays Laugh, book reviews... And Then Some! Thank you for your comment.