Istanbul - at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East
Istanbul a modern city from the old Constantinople
I stood at the door of the airplane in the cold night air and cautiously looked down the stairway. There at the bottom of the stairs were armed soldiers, machine guns pointing at me. A dark, swarthy, gray haired man in a black trenchcoat and with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, paced back and forth on the tarmac as he looked up at me suspiciously. I gulped. Oh my, I thought, what had I gotten myself into now?
Sound like a scene from the 1978 movie Midnight Espress? Oh no. It was my first look at and experience of Istanbul, Turkey in l981. It was Thanksgiving week holiday from my teaching job in Wurzburg, Germany and I wanted to see the exotic city of Istanbul , Turkey on my break. The three others that had accompanied me on my trip were anxious to get out of the plan and pushed me forward. Istanbul, here I come, I thought, and I never looked back. Actually, with all my trepidation at that first airport scene in Istanbul, I had a wonderful time and learned so much about the city that is divided in two by a waterway and is a city considered part of Europe and part of Asia. I had one of the most interesting and challenging vacation breaks of my life.
Istanbul is a congomeration of Europe on the western side of the Bosphorus, the famous waterway that flows between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and Asia, specifically the Middle East on the eastern side of the Bosphorus. I had an introduction to both cultures in the same wonderful city and learned a little about the Middle East and Islam, which I hadn't realized I would.
The city of Istanbul is a transcontinental city with one third of its population living in Asia but its commercial and historical center in Europe. Today, it has officially become part of NATO and is our ally in the Middle East.
It was founded in 660 BC as Byzantium and today is known as Istanbul. It is today becoming one of the most significant cities in history. By 330AD it had been re-established as Constantinople and it has been the capital of four empires during the ages of history:
- Roman Empire 330-395 AD
- Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire ) 395-1204 and 1261-1453
- Latin Empire 1204-1261
- Ottoman Empire 1453-1922
Istanbul was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during the Roman and Byzantine times, before the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 and changed it into an Islamic stronghold from which the last caliphate ruled. Today, the capital city of Turkey is located in Ankara but the palaces and mosques still line the city hills of Istanbul.
Istanbul had a strategic position along the Silk Road that made it an important trade city for centuries. It also had rail networks to Europe and the Middle East and it was for many centuries the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. All this has given it an eclectic population over the years.
It has been named the European Capital of Culture and the 10th most popular tourist destination in Europe. It has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic center. The cultural and entertainment center has moved across the city's natural harbor, the Golden Horn, to the Beyoglu district.
- Hagia Sophia -- Christian basilica and Islamic mosque -- one of the greatest architectural wonders o
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey today. One of the most modern and beautiful cities in the world is Istanbul, Turkey and the reason this city is so interesting is because it is both a western and an eastern city. It is European and it is Asian. It is.
What to see in Istanbul today
When I visited Istanbul in 1981 it was very different from what it is today. In 1981, it was still a backwards city emeshed in the Islamic culture of its recent history. Women still wore black burkas and were not permitted on the streets of Istanbul after dark unless accompanied by a man. There was not much nightlife - only some restaurants opened and completely filled with men - no women. In fact, Dona and I were just about the ONLY women out that night after dark and fortunately we were accompanied by our two male friends. Small food stalls stood on every corner of the streets and the owners hawked their meat kabobs and gyro sandwiches.
Today, Istanbul is a modern western city. Women are no longer just dressed in burkas and you see all types of western dress. Contemporary Turkish women have many more rights than they did in 1981, and are permitted out at any time of the day or night. They no longer require male escorts if they want to go somewhere. And I hear the night life in Instanbul is fun, entertainting and wonderful.
But, whether visiting Istanbul now or in 1981, there are still some great places to visit and see while there. Although, Istanbul began as a Greek city, there is no longer any Greek architecture left to see. None of it has survived or been preserved over the years. However, the obelisks from the Hippodrome of Constantinope still stand today from the Roman times and can be found in Sultanahmet Square. Also, still standing is a section of the Valens Aqueduct constructed in the late 4th century and still stands on the European side of the city. And the column of Constantine, erected in 330 AD, still stands near the Hippodrome.
One of the most beautiful mosques to visit in Istanbul is the Hagia Sofia. It is emmense and is the pinnacle of Byzantine archetecture and one of Istanbul's most iconic structures. You have probably seen pictures of it in magazines and on the news. It was built as a Catholic cathedral and was turned into a mosque during the times of the Ottoman Empire. When i visited it in 1981 it was still a working mosque and citizens prayed there early in the morning and up to five times during the day when Mecca called. Today, it is closed as a mosque and is now a museum. Don't miss this beautiful work of art both inside and out.
The other mosque you don't want to miss is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque and it was built during the peak of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. It gets its name from the blue domes on the mosque that shimmer in the sunlight and can bee seen almost from anywhere in the city.
For examples of more Ottoman archetecture don't miss the Anadoluhsian and Rumelihism fortresses that defended the city of Istanbul during the Ottoman siege. These were important in Istanbul's history and are not to be missed.
One of the most fun places to experience are the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered market in the world built in 1461 and the Spice Market nearby built in 1660. The Grand Bazaar is where you can find everything and anything to buy. But, never pay their outragous prices - always bargain for whatever it is you want. If you don't get your price, believe me, all you have to do is walk around a corner, and there is another merchant selling whatever you want.
I bought handmade Turkish rugs at the bazaar and what an experience that was. They had every color and design you could think of. I bought the "prayer rugs" that the Turkish people use in their homes to point east toward Mecca when they pray five times a day. I bargained very hard for them and got a good price. However, their custom at the time was this: Turkish merchant, "You will make me the happiest man in the world if you would just have a cup of tea with me." So I had to sit and have a cup of tea with the merchants and discuss the price before I could actually buy the rugs. What a hoot that was. They were terrible flirts and you had to cut through a lot of bull to get down to business with them. As they would get up to show me another rug, I would throw my tea into the plant sitting next to me. Who knows what they were putting in that tea! But, I finally got to walk out ot there with some geniune handmade Turkis rugs.
The Spice Market is another whole experience. Every spice in the world you can think of is there for sale and then some. Again, bargain for your prices as you don't want to pay the outrageous prices they ask for them. I was able to pick up some saffron, terriblly expensive in the U..S., for almost nothing there. But, be careful! Before buying. I tasted a bit of the "spice" and believe me, some of what they were offering to sell me were not spices, if, you know what I mean!
Try out the Turkish restaurants which specialize in kebobs, shaved lamb, and fish dishes. Again, I was there in 1981, but the four of us went out in the evening after dark and went to a small but typical fish restaurant then. It was completely filled with men and Dona and I were the only two women there. But, we had a great time and the men were very kind and respectful towards us, probably because we were accompanied by two guys. They allowed us to join in with them in their drinking songs and we experienced drinking oozo, which they serve in large, tall glasses, and which is strong, strong, strong! It has a licorice taste like Italian anise. It is good, but deadly and I didn't even drink a fourth of the glass before feeling really woozy and dizzy. That was enough for me.
What really was the treat for the night was the main meal we were served. I ate it, and it was delicious, before I asked what fish it was. Here, it was starfish! So delicious, but I don't think I could ever eat it again as I think starfish are just too cute. After a most delicious dinner and great comraderie with the Turkish patrons, we returned to our hotel for the night. Again, Dona and I were the only women out after dark and it was a bit weird. So, we decided to remain in the hotel once we got back from dinner.
Even with as backward as Istanbul was back in 1981, I would still recommend it as a vacation destination. Today, visiting Istanbul would be a completely different experience. When I was there, I could imagine it was just like it was portrayed in the movie, Midnight Express. Today, I would find a very different Istanbul, Turkey.
A brief history of Istanbul, Turkey
- 660BC settlers from Megara, under the command of King Byzas established Byzantium on the European side of the Bosphorus
- 5th century BC - brief Persian rule followed by the Greeks recapture of the city during the Greco - Persian Wars. Byzantium continued to be part of the Athenian League and Second Athenian Empire
- 355BC - Byzantium gained its independence
- 73AD - Byzantium officially became part of the Roman Empire
- Byzantium sides with usuper Pecennius Niger against the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus which cost it dearly. It officially surrendered to Severus in 195AD but two years of siege had devastated the city,
- 200AD Severus began to rebuild Byzantium and the city regained and even surpassed its previous prosperity.
- 324AD Constantine I became emperor of the whole Roman Empire. Byzantium became known as Constantinople
- 330AD Constantinople was proclaimed as the capital of the Roman Empire and became the center for Greek culture and Christianity. For many centuries its walls and seafront protected Europe against invaders from the east and the advance of Islam.
- Middle Ages and the latter part of the Byzantine period, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiesst city on the European continent and the largest in the world.
- After the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople began its decline when it was sacked and pillaged.
- It now became the center of the Latin Empire created by the Catholic Crusaders
- 1216 AD the Byzantine Empire was restored but it was quite weakened.
- Middle of the 14th centruy The Ottoman Turks began cutting off Constantinople's supply routes and slowly strangled the city
- May 1453 Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople and declared it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire
- Mehmed II proclaimed through an Islamic imam the Islamic creed and had the Hagia Sofia Cathedral turned into an imperial mosque. Today it is a museum.
- Mehmen began building the Grand Bazaar and the Topkapiu Palace, the sultan's official residence. Both still stand today in Istanbul.
- The Ottomans transformed the city to a symbol of Islamic culture.
- 1517 - the Ottoman Dynasty claimed the status of caliphate and Istanbul became the capital of the caliphate for the next four centuries.
- 1520-1566 - Suleiman the Magnificenti reigned. This was a period of great artistic and archetectural achievement in the arts of ceramics and calligraphy,
- 19th century - Sultan Mahmud II, who was quite a progressive leader, produced reforms and aligned the city with Western European standards. This was known as the Tangimat Period. He built bridges across the Golden Horn and connected Istanbul to the rest of Europe with a railway network in the 1880's.
- early 20th century was the Young Turk Revolution which disposed Sultan Abdul Hamid I
- WWI the British, French and Italian armies occupied the city
- November 1922 the final Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV was exiled
- 1923 the occupation of Istanbul ended with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne and was recognized as the Republic of Turkey declared by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who became the first president of modern day Turkey.
Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved
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