Andrea here. As you may have noticed, some of the Wenches have recently been gallivanting around the globe, as the world begins to open up to exploration. I’m adding to the exotic travelogue, as I’ve just returned from an amazing journey through the ancient treasures of the Mediterranean, starting in Istanbul and ending in Athens.
Istanbul has always been at the top of of my To-Do List, as its exotic allure of East meets West, and its place as such a special crossroads of history have always fascinated me. So I’m going to talk a little bit about the city, and my whirlwind impressions, though that won’t begin to do justice to the rich tapestry of its past and present.
One of the pleasures about taking a cruise on a Viking ship (the modern-day cruise line, NOT the longboat of one of Pia's fabulous heroes!) are the resident historians, who give evening talks on each destination. One of the basic points our professor made was that the city’s has three distinct “personalities,” reflected in its three different names throughout history. Though the site has been inhabited since Neolithic times, the first great city was said to be founded by by a Greek king named Byzas around 660 BC and became known as Byzantium. (Its acropolis was on the site of today’s Topkapi Palace. (Left: Hagia Sophia; Right: Islamic astrolabe from the Museum of Islamic Arts.)
It was the center of the Byzantine Empire until 330 AD, when the Roman Emperor Constantine conquered it and declared “Constantine’s City”—Constantinople—to be the new capital of the Roman Empire. Constantine, who had converted to Christianity in 312 AD, left his empire to his three sons in 337 AD—and their squabbles resulted in the vast empire being divided into the Roman Empire, ruled from Rome and the Byzantine Empire, ruled from Constantinople. (above: view over Bosphorus from the Sulieman Mosque; Below: book from the Museum of Islamic Arts.)
While the Rome Empire went into decline, the Byzantine empire flourished, and its religion (Greek Orthodox, as Christianity had split into two distinct forms.) In the 1400s, Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city and Muslim culture began to intermingle with the Greek and Roman traditions. The city became a great melting pot as the Ottoman Empire flourished through the centuries, and then, like its predecessors, declined. World War One saw the demise of the empire, and 1923, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic, and city’s name was changed to Istanbul.
Greek, Roman, Muslim—today’s Istanbul is is an amazingly fascinating mix of cultures, and holds some of the most famous and historical sights in world history. One could spend a lifetime exploring its nuances, but I’ll just take you on a quick stroll through some of the extraordinary highlights I saw. . .
Three iconic religious buildings—Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Sulieman’s Mosque, which sits atop a nearby hill—dominate the Sultanahmet, or the historic “Old Town” of the city. Hagia Sophia, which has been both a church, a =mosque and a secular museum throughout its storied history, is once again a center of Muslim worship. Visitors are welcome, except during the five calls to daily prayer. On entering, you remove your shoes (women are asked to cover their heads with a scarf) and may explore all the areas except a certain space which is reserved for the faithful who wish to worship. (Above and below: Hagia Sophia.)
The architecture and decorative embellishment pretty much defy words. Islam forbids the depiction of the human form, so over the centuries, the art of abstract/floral patterns and calligraphy have developed into a richly sophisticated and stunning artform. The sense of space and light created by the soaring domes is breathtaking, and each mosque has its own style. Hagia Sophia has many Byzantine mosaics and decorative motifs remaining, complementing the beautiful Islamic art.
Alas, the Blue Mosque was pretty much closed due to extensive renovations (I got a peek at the main dome through the scaffolding. But a short, winding climb through a market area brought me to Sulieman’s Mosque, which a Turkish friend of mine recommended as his favorite of the city’s famous mosques. I agreed with him—it’s off the tourist path and has an air of tranquil calm and spectacular views over the Bosphorus. Its interior, while not as eye-popping at that of Hagia Sophia, has a magnificent symmetry that was equally impressive. (Above: Sulieman Mosque.)
I’ll race through a few other “must-see” places—Topkapi Palace, with its magnificent gardens, palatial buildings and courtyards was fascinating, (I especially loved the Armory, with its displays of historical weapons!) as was the nearby Basilica Cisterns, a vast ancient underground water storage area that is truly remarkable.
No exploration of the Old City can be complete without a visit to the sprawling Grand Bazaar, a covered market that stretches for acres! Cheap tourist stuff rubs shoulders with traditional carpets, woven silks, antiques—and everything in between. The sights and sounds are fascinating, if a little overwhelming. Also of great interest was the Spice Market, with all manner of exotic botanicals, teas, confections, honey and crafts. And the Museum of Islamic Arts featured wonderful examples of bookmaking, carpets, woodworking and other arts and crafts. (Left: the Basilica Cistern; Below: Islamic calligraphy and the Spice Market.)
This, of course, doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of city’s complex and fascinating history, but I am so happy to have gotten a passing glimpse of its treasures in person. Istanbul was all that I imagined—and more! I definitely would like to go back and keep learning more about its past and present! So, what about you? Have a dream city that you yearn to visit? Or was there one that was on your “Bucket List” that you’ve had a chance to visit? Did it meet your expectations? Please share!