East meets West in Istanbul
June 18, 2012
ISTANBUL -- As the distinct sounds of the muezzins declaring the call to prayer, the realization of being in a place far different from any other city hits you.
Istanbul straddles the Bosporus, a narrow body of water that separates the Black and Marmara seas. The city is also a dividing point of Europe and Asia. The western side is often referred to as the European side and the east the Asian side. The European side is further divided by the Golden Horn, a five-mile long inlet of water separating the Old City and New Town.
Istanbul has undergone a renaissance since the 1990s that includes upgrades in transportation services. The metro allows travelers arriving at the airport willing to partake in the adventure of public transport to save money when going to the city center. The one-way ride is around $1. Once in the city center you can then hop on a tramway to destinations throughout the Old City and New Town.
Other additions produced from the renaissance include the remodeling of park lands along the waterways and an influx of modern shops. The improvements have enticed more people to move here, bringing the total population to around 11 million.
The city's location is at a historical crossroads, making for a rich tapestry within Istanbul. Past empires have left their statements of greatness in the city. Prior to being under the Roman Empire the settlement was called Byzantium. Later, Emperor Constantine the Great began renovating and enlarging the city to become the new capital of the Roman Empire. The city was initially named the "New Rome," but was better known as Constantinople, the city of Constantine.
During the Byzantine empire, Emperor Justinian from 52--565 made remarkable structures, some of which are distinct to Istanbul's skyline. One of these structures is the Hagia Sofia or Church of Holy Wisdom, which was originally built as a church for Constantine.
Located in the Sultanahmet area among other famous sites, the Hagia Sofia was completed in 537 A.D. At the time the building was constructed it was the world's largest and most important religious monument. For almost a thousand years it held this status until St. Peter's in Rome was completed in 17th century. The dome of the building is of massive size, 100 feet across and almost 18 stories tall.
The sheer size can be overwhelming when trying to comprehend all the details of the structure. Several enormous mosaics decorate the structure along with large 19th century medallions with gold Arabic letters spelling out "Allah."
To view the structure from a different angle, venture up to the second level by climbing a ramp that serves as the stairwell at the northern end of the building. Here visitors come face to face with the mosaics. Additional mosaics and frescoes of saints and emperors not visible from the ground floor leave a lasting impression.
The Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror. It remained so until 1935 when Ataturk proclaimed the structure a museum. Ataturk was the country's first president attributed with modernizing Turkey. You'll see his face posted on walls throughout the country.
A short walk across a beautifully landscaped garden and courtyard brings visitors to another impressive structure, the Sultan Ahmet Camii, more popularly referred to as the Blue Mosque. Constructed between 1606 and 1616, the structure was to be competitive in size to the Hagia Sofia.
The Blue Mosque received its popular name because of the 20,000 or so blue-green Iznik tiles adorning the interior. As you enter the mosque and other Muslim holy places keep in mind there is a strict protocol that is expected. You will have to remove your shoes and leave them at the entrance or carry them with you. Immodest clothing is not allowed, but don't worry. Popular places like the Blue Mosque have attendants stationed at the door that can provide women with fabric to cover their heads, shoulders or legs. For your convenience and the worshippers of these places it may be helpful to avoid these places during mid-day prayer or on Fridays.
Take time to stand on the carpet in your bare feet and absorb the details the architect Mehmet Aga implemented into his symmetrical design. The exterior also demonstrates his craftsmanship in the several domes of the mosque and the six exquisitely decorated minarets.
Moving toward the Golden Horn you will run into the fortifying walls of the Topkapi Palace, which was the home of sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1453 until 1839. Visitors could spend an entire day in the immense palace; for a shorter visit, don't miss the harem.
The Topkapi Palace harem is a maze of 400 halls, terraces, rooms, wings and apartments. The harem, meaning private, surrounded the sultan's private quarters and was the imperial family quarters. Touring the restored rooms can give a visitor a better understanding of the culture structure implemented during the Ottoman Empire.
Venturing right outside the palace walls you can visit an almost forgotten site, the Basilica Cistern. Built in the Byzantine Empire in 532, it was named the Basilica Cistern due to being underneath the Stoa Basilica.
The extraordinary structure of the cistern was closed for years and almost forgotten until locals told a scholar, Petrus Gyllius, how they would lower buckets in their basement floors and miraculously obtain fresh water.
The cistern is 65 meters wide and 143 meters long. There are more than 336 columns arranged in 12 rows supporting the roof of the structure. Many of the columns, capitals and plinth were recycled from ruined buildings. Toward the northwestern corner of the cavern you will find two column bases with the head of Medusa.
At the height of its usage it could contain 80,000 cubic meters of water which was fed by nearly 20 km of aqueducts.
To overload your senses meander through the famous Grand Bazaar. For centuries it has been described as a chaotic labyrinth in the heart of Istanbul. The maze of 4,000 tiny shops can be mind-numbing, but it can be broken up by stopping at a café, restaurant or courtyard to enjoy a cup of tea.
If you are looking to shock your nasal senses you can also visit the Spice Bazaar, a short walk from the Grand Bazaar towards the Golden Horn. Here you will be lured into the tiny shops by sellers eager for you to inhale the many varieties of spices.
For a relaxing way to spend an afternoon try going to a Hamam and be bathed in a quintessential Turkish experience. Here you can relax on a hot marble slab, get lathered and bathed, receive a massage, dip into warm pools and unwind with a cup of tea as you dry off.
One of the best ways to explore Istanbul is to walk the tiny streets of the city. Here you will feel engulfed in the unique mix of ancient and modern buildings. Walk along the water front to feel the breeze of the Bosporus blowing its salty air in your face as you gaze at the distinct skyline that is Istanbul.
The origins of the word "Istanbul" are from a Greek Phrase, "is tin Poli" which translated is "to the city." The name even beckons you to explore the riches it has to offer those willing to explore.