22 & 23 aug 2016
Before coming to Istanbul, I thought it would be a pretty city with some beautiful buildings, at a similar level to Budapest. Very shortly after arriving, it turns out I was wrong. Istanbul really is one of the great cities of this world, on a similar level to London, Paris or Rome. If I made one mistake in planning my trip, it was only giving myself one day in Istanbul.
It is located partly in Europe, partly in Asia. My plane landed on the Asian side, but the bus quickly took me across the bridge to the European side again, which is where the oldest part of the city is. After getting off the bus, I chose to walk to my hostel, which is about an hour and a half walking, with my heavy backpack on. I hardly even felt it, and I had a massive grin on my face the entire time. When I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer, my “travel high” was complete.
Istanbul is a city with a history to rival Rome’s, an energy to rival Paris, and people that are friendlier than either of those cities. With all that Istanbul has been through recently – several terrorist attacks, an apparent coup attempt that happened only a month before I got there, and an influx of refugees from Syria that exceeds the EU’s worst nightmares, I still found it to be a very safe and incredibly enjoyable city.
I’d been in Turkey once before, and it was always a patriotic, flag-waving kinda country, but after the coup attempt, the number of flags was just incredible.
Walking through the city, I was struck by the sheer vibrance and energy, the joie de vivre, the way old and new mingle… Arriving in the oldest part of the city, you’re immediately entering the “grand bazaar”. It’s the massive old market of Istanbul, mostly covered, and with entire neighbourhoods dedicated to shoemakers, spice-sellers, jewellers, carpet weavers, and so on, all having little shops and selling their goods. It is truly mind-blowing, and it seems to exist mostly for the locals, not specifically for tourists. Thanks to the locals often wearing somewhat traditional clothing, eating their distinctive food and buying their distinctive shoes and lamps, it really feels Middle Eastern, and alive like no major city I’ve seen in Europe. It has 80% of the medieval character of the Souks in Fez and Marrakech, but thanks to the friendlier salesmen, only 10% of the intimidation factor.
After making my way through the Grand Bazaar, I went to my hostel, which had a great view over the Sea of Marmara.
After the sun went down, I tried to watch some Turkish TV, but that just fried my brain. Even without speaking a single word of Turkish, I could understand that literally every TV channel was discussing either the apparent coup attempt and the politics around it, or religion (meaning, Islam). The party that has ruled Turkey for the past 15 years or so is an Islamic party trying to turn the country away from the secularism promoted by the founder of modern Turkey (Ataturk). Whereas Istanbul is relatively openminded and modern, there are people that really want to turn Turkey into a much less tolerant and pleasant country, which is sad, as Turkey has long been one of the most diverse and tolerant countries in the Middle East.
I spent much of the following morning shopping for some presents for my girlfriend in the Grand Bazaar, but I did make time to pass by the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Istanbul started out as Byzantium and was later renamed Constantinople (you might’ve heard those names before…), and Hagia Sophia in particular is just a mind-blowing example of the level of development that this city had, shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire (Byzantium / Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine / Eastern Roman Empire for over a thousand years). Hagia Sophia was built as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, almost 1500 years ago. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslims in 1453, it was turned into a mosque by the addition of 4 minarets and by painting Quranic quotes over the Christian imagery. As the mosque was so widely admired, the domed design became the basic feature of countless mosques around the world, even though it was originally part of the cathedral’s design. After the secularisation of Turkey, in the 1920’s, the building became a museum, until the ruling AKP party turned it into a mosque again in 2020 – but apart from prayer times, it’s still open to non-Muslim visitors. I didn’t go inside as I didn’t have the time, but even from a distance, the building is utterly awe-inspiring.
Funnily enough, the mosque-inspiring Hagia Sophia remained the largest cathedral in the world until the cathedral of Sevilla was built in the 1400’s… with a design inspired by (completely different looking) Moroccan mosques!
Unfortunately, I had a flight to Georgia booked in the early afternoon, so I could only stay in the city for about 20 hours. There isn’t a single doubt in my mind that I have to revisit Istanbul at some point!