My life isn’t really as magical as it seems to be, that’s mostly why I make it a point to write about the beautiful things I have seen and experienced which are much better read with rose-colored glasses and a full cup of wine or, in my case tea, extracted out of all the other actual elements that usually comes with traveling like the hassle of having gone through any international airport, the usual trepidation of having to find your hotel and having to communicate with bus drivers, taxi drivers, shop owners, and information desks, the anticipation of finding museums or all other attractions that have been endlessly researched, and most especially, the decision or indecision of the most important element of traveling, where to eat.
But, with all of that out of my writing, and etched into my memory for myself and I only (for we all know that’s what makes traveling really fun), may I show you how magical Istanbul is!
I never hesitated planning this trip. Istanbul has been on my travel bucket list for as long as I could remember. Despite all the hype in the media, Istanbul is a very safe city. I feel like if you only go to where everybody else is going, you only see what everybody else has seen.
Istanbul is definitely not remote, but it’s also not in people’s minds as a top travel destination. If you have any doubts, I say go for it. This city has become tolerant of its visitors, welcoming even, that you’d be invited for some tea or Turkish coffee every time you set foot inside a shop. For those of us who find beauty in this wonderful city, visiting Istanbul feels like going back to a place way back in a time where civilizations first started.
If I could be lost anywhere, I would find myself in Istanbul. The romance of the Mediterranean engulfs the peninsula that lies between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. 2000 years of history, since the beginning of civilization, to the Ancient Greek, the Byzantine Romans, the Ottoman empires, and currently the cosmopolitan Istanbul, the city is a home of two continents, many religions, and a mixture of diverse European and Asian cultures.
As a first timer in Istanbul, I opted to stay in the old city, or as the locals call it, Eminönü by the Sultanahmet district. Eminönü is bounded by the Bosphorus to the east, the Golden Horn to the north, the Sea of Marmara to the south, and by the old city walls to the west. This city is what used to be Constantinople. Byzantine and Ottoman built monuments can be found in Sultanahmet Square.
The Hagia Sophia was originally a Greek Orthodox Christian basilica constructed in the 6th Century for the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I and became the largest enclosed church in the next thousand years.
It’s tumultuous history includes the looting of the fourth Crusaders in 1204 and the conversion of the church into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Byzantium (or Istanbul) in the 15th century.
Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom. Hagia Sophia in Greek is ‘Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God’. When Sultan Mehmed II ordered the Cathedral to be turned into a mosque, many Christian mosaics were plastered over, which was rediscovered years later. This historical gem was eventually converted into a museum in 1935.
There were eight black disks lined in gold placed high on the columns supporting the basilica’s massive dome, all in scripted with Arabic calligraphy and, after being rediscovered, Christian murals adorned each cove of the ceilings giving the Hagia Sophia an unintentional fusion of both Christianity and Islam.
Next to The Hagia Sophia lies an underground cistern that was built by Justinian in 542 to provide water to the city. The Basilica Cistern was recently rediscovered by Byzantine antiquities scholar Petrus Gyllius in 1545.
The cistern can store up to 80,000 cubic meters of water from the Black Sea reservoirs and delivered waters to the Great Palace and its surrounding buildings through 20 km of aqueducts.
While you walk along the wooden beams and platforms, you’ll feel water dripping down the columns and towards the end of the opened cistern lies two eerie medusa heads used as a column base.
Speculation and theories explains that Byzantine builders saw Roman relics as rubble to be used for building, while other historians point to early Christian practice of putting pagan statues upside-down.
The Sultanahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque sits directly in front of the Hagia Sophia. This awe inspiring place is a Mecca to tourist and Islam practitioners alike. Constructed in 1609, hand painted blue tiles adorn the Mosque walls and gives its popular name.
It’s six minarets and sweeping architectures make the Blue Mosque quite a site in contrast with the subdued tones of the Hagia Sophia which impresses visitors from the inside.
The Grand Bazaar
The historical grand old bazaar is said to be the world’s oldest covered shopping mall, with several blocks of intertwining paths and is a labyrinth that spills out into corners and side streets.
The bazaar holds over 4,000 shops and attract between 250,000 to 400,000 visitors daily.
You can easily get lost if you don’t keep track as the marbled floors, tiled walls and arched walkway seem identical with shops of silver and gold jewelers, carpet makers, lamps, Turkish teas and coffees and other delights, as well as other new touristy crafts that have found its way into this old world market.
In 2014, the grand bazaar became the most visited tourist attraction in the world.
Lamp was a recurring theme during my visit in Istanbul, and I can see the charm of it. Hotels, restaurants, museums, and shops display vibrant lamps in varying shapes but all mostly spherical. Light not only holds a special place in the Ottoman culture, but also the Byzantine culture. Lamps were an important symbol of civilization for both times and easily became a symbol of wealth.
Dried fruits, dried tea leaves, nuts, and olives are just some of the delights sold everywhere in Istanbul and Turkey is a proud exporter of these products.
Artisans are still hammering copper plates and are still performing thousands of years of old copper art passed from generation to generation in Istanbul’s narrow alleys and old styled shops in the Quarter of the Copppersmiths.
Galata Bridge not only connects the Old City with Beyoğlu and the Galata District, it also houses several open air markets, restaurants, and bars besides bridge railings that offer beautiful and expansive views of the Old City’s skyline.
The Galata Bridge became a symbolic link that literally bridged the old traditional Istanbul, to the new districts of Galata, Beyoglu, and other parts of Istanbul where non-Muslim people lived.
The romantic setting of the bridge made it a famous painting and engraving subject.
The Galata Tower is a Romanesque style medieval stone tower built in 1348. It was the tallest building in Istanbul at the time and was later used during the Ottoman era as an observation tower for spotting fire.
The watch tower of Turkey can be seen from the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus which sits on the Asian continent, and from the Eminonu (old City area) which sits on the European continent.
The Galata Tower is also a famous subject for paintings and carvings as it dominates the skyline while offering a panoramic vista of Istanbul’s historic peninsula.
When the ottomans captured Istanbul, the Galata Tower was converted into a prison and was also used as a dormitory for a military band. At one point in history, a man named Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi jumped the tower with wings attached and successfully made it over the Bosphorus to Uskudar.
Eminönü’s Sultanahmet District, the Grand Bazaar, the Galata Bridge, and Beyoğlu’s Galata District and Galata Tower were just some of the highlights of my week long stay in Istanbul. During this short time, I have seen a lot of history, crossed from the older district of Istanbul to the newer side and experienced different cultures, different faiths, and dined multiethnic cuisines.
Istanbul cannot be completely described in a few paragraphs, and the things to do surpassed the amount of time I had to spend in the city. The history alone in this place will give you a look into our past, and probably, the fusion of religions in our future. I truly am planning on returning as there are a thousand other things and a thousand other places I wished to do and see. My experience in Istanbul was truly visceral, palpable, and deeply unforgettable.