The place where east meets west. The destination where two continents join. The end of one civilisation and the start of another. A mix of a myriad of cultures. Clichés abound about Turkey’s largest city: Istanbul. It’s also a place which very few people have a bad word to say about.
|The Bosphorus, which divides Istanbul into three distinctive areas|
Of course, many of the main attractions of Istanbul were here when I last visited; indeed, they've been around for far longer than I have been on this earth. One of the oldest is the world-renowned Hagia Sophia, the current and third version of which was built in the sixth century.
This beautifully rustic building, with its fading red exterior and seemingly crumbling brickwork, was originally constructed as a church by an Emperor called Justinian. The reason I say it was a church is because of what happened here in 1453; an event which shook the Christian world at the time. The sacking of Constantinople.
The Ottoman conqueror, Sultan Mehmed II, converted the church into a mosque. It remained an active mosque until 1935, when it was changed into a museum by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk.
What I found fascinating is how many Christian elements were maintained in the Hagia Sophia, even when it had been a mosque for hundreds of years. Mosaics depicted biblical events and people are still visible on the top floor, as are notes from one of the synods from the 12th century. It shows an acceptance and tolerance of other religions.
Looking out of the southern-facing windows will explain to a visitor one of the main reasons why the Hagia Sophia is no longer active as a mosque. It doesn't need to be when one of the largest and most famous mosques in the world is across the street: the Blue Mosque.
This apparently is only one of two mosques in the world which has six or more minarets. The other one is in Mecca: the holiest of all Islamic sites. The Blue Mosque is therefore a big deal and has been since its construction was completed in 1616. As with all mosques, certain clothing has to be worn or removed prior to entering. Animals are also forbidden from entering, in spite of this dog’s best efforts.
The idea of the mosque and its scale was to emphasise Islam’s superiority over Christianity and its size certainly screams dominance and power. Its central dome is 43 metres in height and almost 24 metres wide. The mosque itself is adorned with over 20,000 blue tiles, which is why the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet has a more common name.
At the last count, in 2013, there are 3113 active mosques in Istanbul. Another of the ‘heavyweight’ temples is the Süleymaniye Mosque in the old city district. This has breath-taking views of the Bosphorus River which dissects the city.
These three attractions lead scores of people to Istanbul, even in October. I was surprised by the plethora of tourists who are visiting the city even when the temperature drops to single figures and the rain starts to fall. Interestingly, Istanbul receives more annual rainfall than London. No stigma attached here, though.
Millions of tourists visit but there are more than enough locals to make this metropolis seem like a swarming beehive. Approximately 15 million, in fact. 3 million pairs of feet each day trample along the streets leading to the modern ‘city centre’ of Istanbul: Taksim Square. We visited one evening in the aftermath of a football match but that event deserves a blog of its own. All I’ll say for now is that it is reminiscent of a major city centre street in the UK. Shops like Mango, McDonald’s and LC Waikiki aren't readily available in other parts of the country. Cosmopolitan would certainly be an accurate description.
One aspect of modernity and globalisation which didn't quite work whilst we were here was the time. In that it was difficult to know what the time was. The clocks in most of Europe reverted to their standard winter time during the weekend of our visit. It was thus to our surprise, and at times dismay, that we would change from a tram which stated 15:38 and embark on one which read 14:42. It transpires that this year, and only this year, Turkish folk are changing their clocks two weeks later than the rest of us. Clearly half of the local population weren't aware of this…
Some aspects of Istanbul are modern, yet the city retains much of its traditional charm. The sight of dozens of people fishing of the relatively new Galata Bridge is heart-warming. I remember vividly from my previous visit being encapsulated by these old men – and now women – who spend their day casting off into the river below, avoiding the mass of boats whilst hoping a fish will take the bait from within the choppy waters.
Traditional shopping has been maintained in some aspects (the Spice Bazaar) though in others it has been usurped by the desire to hunt for the tourist dollar, euro or rouble (the Grand Bazaar). I’ll talk about these in another blog.
This is the thing about Istanbul. There is so much to see, to do, to sample. So much to experience, some of which can be intimidating whilst other occurrences bring sheer joy. We were around for the best part of three days; I feel like we barely scratched the surface. What an incredible city of contrasts. Clichés are often based in truth and I will certainly agree that you can have completely different experiences within two or three miles in the same city.
|A five minute walk from the buzz of the Blue Mosque we found this delightful cafe and dog, which we named Sully. After the founder of the mosque, Sultan Ahmed. Duh.|
I've been asked a few times where my favourite places are in the world and I've always listed Istanbul in my top five based on my experiences here when I was twenty years old. Returning with a shred more maturity and a more worldly perspective, I can safely say that Istanbul would still rank just as highly as I approach the end of my twenties. Words can’t do everything about this city justice: just go. Go be harassed in a bazaar and enjoy it. Go try some bizarre food and savour it. Don’t check for the possibly incorrect time; instead, allow time to disappear around you as you immerse yourself in Istanbul.
Love you all