Istanbul is surprising. Every western visitor I met in Istanbul was amazed at what the city has to offer – the architecture, the natural beauty, the food, and – the most surprising part, at least for me – all the conveniences of a modern city. If you know your history, you know Istanbul was the capital of three major empires – Holy Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman; and it shows. It experienced the same building-on-top-of-building that Rome did. The Aya Sofia, for example, is a museum that used to be a mosque that used to be a church, and who knows what was there before that. (The name means “Saint Sofia.”) The point is, it’s really old and really beautiful and really big. That’s pretty much what I look for in a building.
Directly across the street from Aya Sofia is the Blue Mosque (which is not blue, but a pretty shade of gray). Like most of the major mosques here, it was designed by a prolific architect named Sinan, and heavily influenced by it’s neighbor, Aya Sofia . If all the city’s mosques show a similarity of style, that’s why. They all have a central dome surrounded by smaller ones, like mountain peaks building up to a central apex, with towering space-ship-like minarets on the corners. It is interesting that these fine examples of Islamic architecture are so closely modeled on a Christian Church, which itself shows ancient Roman influences. As I’ve mentioned before, when I travel I am constantly surprised by the interconnectedness of cultures.
The Basilica Cistern is another thing of beauty, left over from the Roman age. I never did quite figure out what it’s for, but it’s a massive underground chamber lined with a rows and rows of columns, all submerged in about three feet of water. It is eerie in it’s dim lighting.
With one exception, Istanbul is also a very comfortable city to travel in: clean, safe, relatively cheap, and easy to get around. The one exception is the salesmen. Istanbul, as the connecting point between east and west, has for millennia been a place for trading, for buying and selling, mostly (hard) selling. “Excuse me, where you from? I sell you very beautiful carpet! For you special price!” I never thought I looked like the kind of guy that would buy a carpet, but that didn’t stop them from being doggedly persistent. (But Istanbul is nothing – nothing – compared to Egypt. That’s for another post, though.)
A few steps off the tourist track, however, and the pushy salesmen disappear. One of my favorite experiences in Istanbul was buying a fish sandwich right off the dock for the equivalent of about 70 cents. Freshly caught in the Bosphorus and thrown right on the grill, filling and de-fish-ous! Istanbul is divided by water into three parts – two of them in Europe and one in Asia. I don’t know how many cities span continents, but it can’t be too many. It was fun to go to Asia and back within one hour.
I can’t recommend this beautiful city enough. There is a lot of talk these days about Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, and about whether the country is modern enough and developed enough to be admitted. Well, if Istanbul is any indication, the answer is a solid Yes. This place is ready.