The Turkish flag is a common sight along the winding streets of Istanbul. Featuring a star and a crescent moon overlaying a brilliant shade of red, it is decidedly a much more epic emblem than the American standard. In many ways, it is also emblematic of the struggles beset on the Turks in this tense period of mass migration and regional instability.
After an uncomfortable stay in Varna, Bulgaria, I was quite excited to get to the ancient and vast Turkish Capitol. Visa in hand, leaving my brief spell of despondency on the shores of the Black Sea, I took an easy hour-long flight to visit the artist formerly known as Constantinople.
(Tip for Americans who are considering Istanbul: Buy your Visa online as it is only 20 euros vs. 30 euros at the airport!)
After navigating the bustling, congested tram system and making my way through the equally bustling, congested streets of Istanbul, I find my hotel and am ready for some sightseeing. Unfortunately the Gods had other plans. It poured rain all through the late afternoon into the night. So sightseeing had to wait.
Feeling a fierce urgency to make the most of my two remaining days, I got an early start the next day and set off on a frantic pace. My first stop was two of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks: The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
The two sit directly across from each other, separated by the beautiful Sultanahmet Square. Like two street dancers having a face-off, they seem to be competing with each other for which is the more incredible edifice. The struggle represented by the two buildings is slightly deeper than the contentions of Step Up, however.
Indeed, an ancient and destructive religious conflict is well-represented all over Istanbul, but especially in Sultanahmet Square. The two buildings seem to stare each other down, joined in peaceful accord, but wary of the troubled and bloody past that they once waged on each other.
Blue and Red….East and West….Islam and Christianity.
I pick the Blue Mosque first, for no real reason.
Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is an active place of worship. As such, all are made to take off their shoes and women must wrap their heads before entering. Many are engaged in quiet prayer as I walk through the carpeted hallways into the main chamber.
Called the Blue Mosque for its beautiful blue-tiled patterns on the interior, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is a wonder to behold. There are five main domes and eight secondary domes – creating a series of curved ceilings that reach as high as 24 meters (77 feet). Six minarets sit on top of the domes on the exterior. Inside, colorful carpets line the floors and the aforementioned blue tiles are arranged in vivid patterns all over the walls and ceilings. Brilliant stained glass windows provide natural light and a series of candles suspended from the ceiling help keep the huge room ablaze.
Built during the Ottoman Empire in 1616, young Sultan Ahmed (age 19!) erected the Blue Mosque with the goal of creating a majestic and grand imperial mosque to rival the opposing Hagia Sophia. He certainly succeeded. Today it still serves as a daily place of worship for many and has a capacity of 10,000 people. Luckily I was there early in the morning so it wasn’t terribly crowded. It was easily the most magnificent place of worship I’ve ever had the chance to see.
My neck starts to hurt from staring up at the gorgeous ceilings; I secure my shoes and make for the Hagia Sophia.
Originally built in 360 AD, the Hagia Sophia served as a Christian church for over a thousand years. In 1453, Istanbul (then Constantinople) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Sultan Mehmed proclaimed the Hagia Sophia be converted to a mosque. Four minarets, Islamic windows, and mosaics were added while almost all relics of Christianity were plastered over or removed entirely. It served as a Mosque until 1931 before being converted to its current state, a museum.
Sadly half of this iconic cathedral/mosque/museum is closed for repairs, so I don’t get the full effect of the grand interior. Still, it does make you feel humbled standing in such an ancient shrine that has been touched by the two premier world religions and seen millions pass through its doors over more than 1,600 years.
Aside from the minarets on the outside, the main building still largely resembles a cathedral. Though as mentioned, virtually all remnants of Christianity have been removed from the interior, save for a few tattered mosaics.
Legend has it that many prominent Christian relics were gone even before the Ottoman takeover. Apparently during the 4th crusade in 1204, the Siege of Constantinople saw the removal of such items as the stone from the tomb of Jesus, the Virgin Mary’s milk, the shroud of Jesus and the bones of saints.
The deep-seeded conflict between the world’s two most prominent religions is written in the walls of these two buildings. Istanbul has always been a religious melting pot and, in general, the people have found a way to peacefully coexist. That said, the ideological warfare founded in religious differences still lingers today.
Efforts to diffuse religious tension have been ramped up in the last decade. In 2006, Pope Benedict paid a visit to the Blue Mosque, removed his shoes, and joined the Imam of Istanbul in silent prayer. It was only the second Papal visit to a Muslim place of worship in history.
Indeed, Christianity and Islam seem to have a diplomatic relationship in Istanbul these days, as in much of the world. The problem of our time lies with a very small, sinister, not at all representative of Islam, group of people. “Islamic extremists” (there I said it, happy Fox News??) have caused the displacement of millions, and many have made Turkey their home. More on that later.
I return to Sultanahmet Square outside once I’m done touring the remarkable building. Now the early afternoon, hundreds of people are gathered in the gardens and around the fountain. Sitting, talking, eating, basking in the mutual admiration for two of the world’s most marvelous landmarks. I think to myself: there may not be a single location more equally emblematic of both a unified present and a divisive past in the whole world.
In the afternoon after a tasty kebab, I join in on a cruise of the Bosphorus river for some excellent views of the Golden Horn and Istanbul’s coastline.
The Bosphorus divides two continents. Early in the tour we are in Europe, an hour later we are in Asian waters. Above, Turkey’s European side is joined with Asia by the so-called First Bridge.
The coasts are riddled with restaurants, pricey hotels, and mosques. There are over 3000 mosques in Istanbul!
During the cruise I chat with an Ecuadorean couple in Spanish, always eager to practice. Another young man pops in and asks how and where I learned.
His name is Paidar. He tells me he is from Syria and that he came to Istanbul four years ago. Though he lived in a (relatively) stable area in northern Syria, Istanbul was a more attractive option for him as a young person for obvious reasons. Since arriving he started a business helping people plan their tours. He has partnered with the agency that is handling our cruise and often brings tourists on the cruise and tells them about the sights.
Unfortunately that day he had no clients, so he just brought his wife onboard. Such is the norm, he tells me, in this age of global terror.
“Tourism is down because people are afraid of Istanbul”
He goes on to talk more about the migrant crisis, how it has deterred travel to Istanbul and weakened the economy. While it has hurt his business, he holds sympathy for his Syrian brothers and sisters who are fleeing danger. I ask him what more the world could do to help Syria, in his opinion. Arm the Kurds, he says, and accept more displaced Syrians (I get the feeling he is hinting at America’s fervent denial of refugees).
He doesn’t discuss further, making a clapping hand motion as if he’s wiping the dirt off his palms, ridding himself of the subject.
“I’m done thinking about the politics”
He returns to his wife, who is pregnant with their first child. I am happy he has a safe place raise his son. I can’t begin to imagine the pain he feels for his brothers and sisters back home.
I never got to ask him if he had anyone close to him perish…probably for the best.
The following day I check off two more landmarks on my list. First up was the Basilica Cistern, the largest basilica in Istanbul. It is entirely underground, supported by a forest of 336 marble columns. A few feet of water lines the bottom of the floor, schools of fish are teeming throughout the massive pool.
The basilica was built during the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Most of the 336 columns are of the Corinthian style, but two actually feature medusa heads at the base.
It is a bit of a mystery why there would be two medusa heads in Christian house of worship. No one is certain where they came from, though it is thought they were brought to the basilica after being removed from a building during the fall of the Roman empire.
The Basilica Cistern has been featured in pop culture. James Bond is seen there in 1963’s From Russia with Love, it is a playable location in Assasin’s Creed: Revelations, and was a pivotal location for the climax of Dan Brown’s novel Inferno.
I depart the basilica and look for something to eat. While walking through the main city center I begin to notice the influx of Syrian migrants. Many are holding signs indicating they were displaced by the war. The men approach me and ask for money while the women sit on the pavement, clutching their children. I give them coins when I can.
Turkey has taken in an inconceivable 2.5 million Syrian, Afgani, and Iraqi migrants – almost three times as much as all of the rest of Europe combined. Though they receieve some 3 billion in EU funds to help house and feed their migrants, one wonders how Turkey can sustain such an influx of people.
After lunch I ready myself for what would be a crazy afternoon at the Grand Bazaar.
One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar spans 61 streets and houses over 4,000 (!) shops.
There are a dizzying array of shops selling all the staples of Turkish industry. Carpets, carpentry, jewelry, watches, dress clothes, casual wear, jerseys, knockoff designer bags, lamps, glassware, metalware, artwork, spices, confectionary, baked goods, Arabic trinkets, tiny Hagia Sofia’s, and much more.
Walking around is a sensory overload. The deafening sounds of buying and selling echo through the congested hallways. A thousands smells waft through the air from the spice markets, sweet shops, and coffee bars. Everywhere I look there are a bevy of vibrant colors and lights. Shoppers are constantly moving around, browsing various products, haggling, sometimes shouting, trying to get the best deal on whatever they’re considering. Eager salesmen try to lure in passerbys to their storefront, sometimes even nabbing window shoppers that are looking at an entirely different store. The competition is fierce. And loud. It is a literal labyrinth of commerce.
A salesman by trade, I am aware of all the tricks I can use as a consumer to avoid unwanted advances. I get approached by dozens of enthusiastic promoters.
“You like carpets? You’ll love my carpets!”
“Come with me – I will give you the best deal!”
“My friend! Please see my jewelry, you need a nice gift for your wife, no? Girlfriend? Mother? Sister?”
Most of their pitches start off with “my friend!” and end with them disappointed. The particularly savvy ones engage in a conversation, ask where I’m from, and aren’t too pushy. I finally cave when a spritely young man offers me a sample of chocolate if I come in his shop. He is all smiles, and his store isn’t very busy, so I buy some chocolate covered pistachios and dried strawberries to nibble on while I browse. He thanks me and does a little bow several times.
I spend hours there working my way through the sea of people and shops. The time goes by quickly as I marveled at the endless storefronts featuring products ranging from cheap plastic knick-knacks made in China to beautiful and intricate handcrafted items.
Warding off salespeople eventually grinds me down. As I’m ready to leave, I engage in a haggle match over a little Aladdin-esque lamp made out of bronze that fits in the palm of my hand. I get the begrudged man to cut the price in half and find my way to the exit, having secured my lone souvenir.
In the evening I have dinner overlooking the Sultanahmet Square and downtown Istanbul. The views were pretty breathtaking, especially when the sun went down (see top of this post for the sunset).
After eating I descend to Sultanahmet square and find hundreds of people gathered outside the Blue Mosque. I decide to stick around and see if anything cool happens.
After a few minutes a light show begins on the facade of the Blue Mosque, accompanied by some spoken words in Arabic. Everyone is gathered together, clapping, taking pictures, and enjoying the show on one of their city’s great landmarks.
Clearly Istanbul’s many incredible buildings are forces of unification.
Unfortunately, they are also stark reminders of the religious institutions that are the basis for so much violence in the region. Islam has produced a great many world wonders, brilliant minds, and thriving communities. Islam at its core is about peace, prosperity, and inclusion. Sadly, a bastardized version of this great world religion has wrought destruction in Syria and elsewhere in Turkey’s backyard.
Turkey’s response to the migrant crisis, and the war in Syria for that matter, has been far from perfect. But just looking at the sheer numbers – again, 2.5 million migrants – one has to respect that kind of large scale acceptance of people in immediate danger.
I admire Turkey’s hospitality, especially given the negative economic implications that come from accepting so many migrants, as Paidar has had to deal with. But they can’t sustain this scale of societal integration. Seeing it firsthand was jarring. It made me wish my country would do more to help these people. They are not terrorists. They are men and women and children. Their lives are as precious as yours or mine, and they are in danger.
Despite seeing such amazing landmarks as the Hagia Sophia and experiencing the craziness of the Grand Bazaar, the image of refugees lining the alleyways is the one that will stick with me from my time in Istanbul.