I felt Istanbul before I saw it. No, not in some strange Jedi sense. I felt it because I had come to a complete stop in the middle of a major highway, still miles from the actual city. It was well after dark, and there was more traffic than a bad Portland commute. Police regularly passed in the emergency lane to my right, lights flashing. I was a worried that something major had happened. This was, after all, near the ne year anniversary of the coup attempt.
Traffic crept slowly. While I saw several stalled vehicles alongside the road, the police just blissfully rolled past, occasionally using their horn or siren to move cars out of the way so they could get around. I never saw anything that could be causing all that traffic. About the time i saw the third person standing between the lanes selling bottles of water it dawned on me: this was just your average Friday night Istanbul traffic…
About ninety minutes later I was in what I assumed to be the heart of the city. My hotel was in the old part of the city, so I figured I must be close. Once again I was navigating blind! Wanting to avoid a repeat of Belgrade, I had a plan! I drove until I found a taxi stand. With LOTS of hand gestures, three attempts at showing an address, two calls to the hotel (where the late night desk attendant did not speak English), I managed to convince one of the taxi drivers to drive to the holes and let me follow him in the Rascal. We sped off into the night, weaving in and out of traffic. I quickly realized that I had to be “assertive” in my driving if I had any hope of keeping up with him. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the hotel. The staff did not now what to make of my little Rascal, so the attendant parked it next to a Mercedes and called it good.
The hotel was much nicer than I remembered booking and I looked out of place among the other guests in my shorts and t-shirt. The fact that I did not have a wife with a burqa also made me stand out. I found my room, availed myself of the hot shower and air conditioning, and collapsed in the soft bed.
The next morning I surveyed the city from my window. The hotel was situated across from a park and one of the major waterways of Istanbul. A crew team was practicing on the water. Across the river, several mosques and their minarets were visible. I was definitely in my first Muslim country.
The ancient walls of the city are still standing. But instead of leaving them (as is often the case) the people of Istanbul have adapted to the walls, creating their homes and businesses in, on, and around the walls. This gives not only a sense of continuity to the city, but also an organic feel, much in the way a coral reef builds and grows upon itself. The city is ancient, but still very much alive. It's history not only on display, but a part of the daily fabric of life in the city.
I found a taxi and headed for the Hagia Sophia, another of my bucket list destinations.
The Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, is actually the third major church structure to be constructed on the site. The first two were destroyed during riots, and the third structure is actually the result of a riot! Emperor Justinian I was kind of a jerk, and did not do much to endear himself to his subjects. So much so, that in 532 there was a major riot that destroyed a huge amount of the city. Justinian violently put down the riot and surveyed the damage. For the remainder of his reign he focused his attention on improving he city instead of his coffers. The Hagia Sophia was constructed in only five years. He also had several other structures constructed (including the Basilica Cistern which provided water for the city), provided bread in exchange for civic service, and clarified the legal code. Not bad for a person who just a few years before was universally hated.
I always liked the story of Justinian. He seems to be one of the few leaders in history who realized the error of his ways and then went about making amends. If only our modern politicians could do so…
When it was constructed, the Hagia Sophia was the largest religious building in the world, and one of the largest buildings period. As awe inspiring as it is today, I can only imagine the impact it had on the faithful 1500 years ago. While the exterior is impressive, the interior is where the Hagia Sophia comes into its own. The central dome is massive, soaring over 182 feet into the air, all coated in gold, mosaics, and calligraphy. It truly does feel like it reaches all the way to heaven.
During its long history it has been both a Christian church (Eastern Orthodox) and a Muslim mosque. Each religion has left its mark on the building. Christianity brought the original structure as well as the mosaic images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints while Islam gave the exterior four massive minarets and equally impressive calligraphy examples inside.
The Hagia Sophia is undergoing major renovations at the moment, so approximately one third of it is under scaffolding. Luckily for me, most of the mosaics were still viewable, plus seeing how many levels of scaffolding was required to reach the top gave a true sense of scale to the building. I cannot wait to go back and see it again when it is finished! (Plus I think that all the renovation kept the cat that lives in the Hagia Sophia in hiding)
I left the Hagia Sophia and found myself in the clutches of a carpet salesman. They start out telling you interesting information about the sites you are seeing, assuring you that they are not charging you for this and are doing it out of the kindness of their heart. Next thing you know you are in a back room, sipping tea, and looking at handmade carpets. They really had a hard time believing I did not need a carpet for the Rascal!
After extracting myself from the carpet seller, I went to the Basilica Cistern, an underground water storage facility. Now, I have been known to get excited about things other people find boring. Just ask my wife, my children, my students, and just about anyone else who knows me. But trust me, this is the COOLEST underwater storage facility in the world! How cool? It was featured in From Russia With Love! The cistern roof is supported by 336 columns, each 9 meters high. They are arranged in 12 rows of 28 arches. It feels otherworldly! The fact that there are two massive Medusa heads supporting two of the columns just adds to the effect! Did I mention that Justinian had this constructed as well?
Across from the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque. It is arguably even more beautiful than the Hagia Sophia with its minarets and domes piled on top of each other. It is an active mosque (unlike the Hagia Sophia which is now a museum) meaning it is closed to the public several times a day for prayers. I wanted to go visit, but found I was not dressed appropriately. No shorts. Next time I’ll come prepared.
I ducked down an alleyway to avoid yet another carpet salesman. His persistence was remarkable, but I faked an emergency on the cell phone and made my escape. I found myself in front of a restaurant my parents had recommended. While the waiter tried to seat me out front, I persisted and got a spot in back. Tucked away, just as my parents had promised, was a breathtaking view of the Blue Mosque. Dinner was served just as the Muezzin called for the evening prayer.
As I enjoyed my kebab and tea, I was visited by a small cat, peering over the ancient wall. I sat in silence, enjoying the moment. I was in Istanbul.