A lot of places claim to be a cultural crossroads of some kind, but Istanbul owns the moniker like no other city can. Geographically, this is the logical point of East-meets-West, and the combination of two pretty different cultural ideologies plays out in Istanbul in fascinating ways.
Many European and Middle Eastern places have been the site of some enormous empire at one point or another, from the ancient Greeks all the way up to Napoleon. But Istanbul has been the cultural and political heart of three of the history’s great empires, starting with the Romans, followed by the Byzantines, and finally the Ottomans. Turkey’s position between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, with control over the connection channel and the Sea of Marmara, have made it a valuable landing holding since forever and thus everyone with a powerful army wanted to control the area that is now Istanbul.
Like most of the Middle East, artifacts found near Istanbul date back as far as the seventh millennium B.C. with the Greeks and the Persians sporadically controlling the area until the arrival of Constantine in 324, who established the city as the capital of the Roman Empire six years later. What was then known as Constantinople fell to the Crusaders in the 13th century and was then taken again by the Ottomans in the 15th century.
It’s hard to pick one era in Istanbul’s history as its high point, but the Ottomans definitely left their mark, controlling the city for nearly 500 years and continuing to build it into one of Europe’s great capitals, though much of Constantinople’s original grandeur is thanks to Byzantine rulers.
Staring in the middle of the 19th century, the once-great Ottoman Empire became known as the “sick man of Europe” because of the sultan’s declining power and reliance on financial assistance from the rising powers in Western and Central Europe. When the empire was officially dissolved in 1922 and the last sultan was kicked out of the country, Turkey as we know it today was born.
Enter Ataturk, the quasi-Machiavellian George Washington of modern-day Turkey. The first president of Turkey distinguished himself as an important military officer in World War I and was instrumental in the formation of the new nation. He’s responsible for practically everything good and bad in Turkey today.
Broadly speaking, Turkey’s biggest internal tension throughout its whole history has been the question of which direction to “face.” Under Byzantine control, Istanbul was for the most part facing west, figuratively speaking, as a Christian/Roman empire. When the Ottomans took over and the empire became Islamic, what is now Turkey effectively faced east and would continue to do so up through the 20th century. Because of its strategic location, Turkey has always had a foot in each continent; there is literally an Asian and a European side in Istanbul, but under the Ottomans, the cultural orientation of the area was more in-line with the Middle East and Asia Minor than Continental Europe.
Coming into power in the 1920s, Ataturk was confronted by which direction to move the country in heading into the middle part of the 20th century, and he decided that in order for Turkey to modernize and become a part of the industrialized world moving forward, the Turks would have to firmly face west. When you look at the state of the world today, it’s hard to argue with his decision based on that criteria.
What his decision inaugurated was a period of enormous cultural upheaval in Turkey, in which traditional dress was outlawed in favor of Continental clothing and men were forced to shave their beards. Women’s rights were introduced in a way that was at the time far more progressive than most of Europe. Turkey was declared a secular state. Up until this point, Turkish had been written in the Arabic alphabet, but Ataturk converted the language to a Latin-based alphabet. Islamic courts and universities were closed. Even today, girls are not allowed to wear a hijab in most schools.
Such a huge shift in such a short period of time was controversial to put it mildly, and I think many Turks today are still very conflicted about Ataturk’s legacy. It’s not an overstatement to say he was the founder of modern Turkey, emphasis on “modern,” but that progress did not come easily or smoothly, and Turkey is today still trying to reconcile its paradoxical nature. The country is 95 percent Muslim and mosques are controlled by the government—which is strictly and almost aggressively secular. At the same time, his role in creating Turkey as an independent nation cannot be ignored and Turkey is as powerful a country it is today largely thanks to Ataturk.
Whatever is happening beneath the surface, practically everything in Istanbul feels very European, even with the smattering of huge mosques. Narrow, cobblestoned streets—built by everyone from Italian merchants to Byzantine emperors over the years—crisscross the hillsides on the European side of the city, where you find the high-end bohemian neighborhoods of Galata and Beyoglu (unfortunately where the suicide bombing was a few days ago). The Pera Palace Hotel is in this neighborhood, where Agatha Christie penned Murder on the Orient Express and where Hemingway spent many an evening at the hotel bar.
Southeast of this hillside district is the waterfront property along the Bosporus. Now a line-up of five-star hotels, the palaces along this stretch of real estate were the various auxiliary palaces for members of the Ottoman royal family until Dolmabahce Palace was built along the river in the 1850.
Previously, the Ottoman sultans lived in Topkapi Palace, built in a Euro-Ottoman style in the 15th century with a series of connecting courtyards, similar to imperial Chinese palaces. Islamic calligraphy, brightly colored tile work, geometric and asymmetric architectural lines, and low-slung furniture all make Topkapi a royal residence in a very Eastern style; it reminded me a lot of royal palaces in India. Today, they have an amazing collection of ridiculously tricked out ceremonial weapons, jewelry, and other bejeweled, gold-encrusted sundries that once belonged to the Ottomans. In the 19th century, the sultan decided that Topkapi wasn’t modern or lavish enough, so he began construction on the ultra-European Dolmabahce Palace.
It’s hard to overstate the grandiosity and sumptuousness of this palace. Small details indicate its Turkish residents—tiles from the Turkish town of Iznik, Islamic calligraphy—but everything about Dolmabahce is as Baroque and Rococo as it gets. The exterior is classically European and tragically, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside and their own website is useless, so you’ll have to defer to Google on this one if you can’t live without seeing the interior of the palace.
The 285 rooms and 46 reception halls are slathered in gold, lit by enormous Baccarat crystal chandeliers that required the entire structure of the building to be reinforced to hold the weight. Alabaster carvings, an impressive collection of oil paintings, French-made furniture, priceless porcelain vases, and hundreds of hand-woven silk rugs all add to the general splendor of place, to say nothing of its sweeping, Phantom-of-the-Opera-style grand flying staircase and the 21,000-square-foot ceremonial hall. The palace also had state-of-the-art lighting and heating systems.
Like all great palaces, Dolmabahce has all the fascinating, hilarious anecdotes that you always encounter in these places. When the palace was first built, rulers from all over Europe sent gifts to decorate it: a pair of bearskin rugs from the Russian czar, a chandelier from Queen Victoria, decorated elephant tusks from a governor in Egypt. The best is an enormous organ from the German Kaiser. Sultan Abdulmecid I, the sultan at the time who, having very few churches that could use an organ in the capital of an Islamic empire, was essentially like, “What in the hell am I supposed to do with this?” The organ is still packed up, literally in the box it came in, in the hallway of the women’s living quarters of the palace.
A microcosm of Turkey’s history can literally be seen at Hagia Sophia, the Christian-church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. The famously large dome was commissioned under Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 532, and it remained the largest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium until the Seville Cathedral in 1520. The dome, which has a 100-foot diameter (though earthquakes have altered it slightly over the years), and the rest of Hagia Sophia feature recycled materials brought in from all over the empire: marble columns taken from ancient Greek temples, a set of doors supposedly made from the wood of Noah’s ark. The complexity of the dome’s construction, unheard of at the time, still makes it an impressive architectural achievement even today.
Christian pilgrims from all over Eurasia came to Hagia Sophia during the Byzantine Era to admire the building and see its various relics. To commemorate their trip, they would often take pieces from the intricate Byzantine wall mosaics, many of which are still partially in tact today, 1,500 years later.
Conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, Constantinople went from being the heart of Eastern Christianity to the seat of an Islamic empire almost overnight. Wisely not wanting to waste such a beautiful building, the Ottomans decided to simply convert Hagia Sohpia into a mosque, constructing four minarets around the exterior, hanging Islamic calligraphy with quotes from the Qur’an, and plastering over human depictions. As the Virgin Mary is an important figure in Islam, the Ottomans simply covered over the mosaics rather than destroy them, which actually helped preserve them for viewing today.
Structurally, Hagia Sophia is a nightmare to maintain. The construction of the dome is very precarious and several large earthquakes over the centuries haven’t helped matters. When Ataturk came to power in the 20th century, he decided to covert the mosque into a purely secular museum, much to the annoyance of many Muslim Turks for whom Hagia Sophia was an important place of worship.
The side of the city where Hagia Sophia is located—the European section south of the Golden Horn—is the old part of Istanbul. The city walls from the Byzantine era are still largely intact and line the highway that now skirts the edge of the water. A lot of the big tourist sites in Istanbul are in this area, and perhaps none more interesting than the Grand Bazaar.
I’ve seen a lot of bazaars and markets at this point in the trip. Some of them are nice, some are a total hellscape, but they all have basically the same vibe. That trend ended with the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
You can’t get a sense of it in pictures, but the scale of this place is practically unmatched anywhere on earth. The entire complex has more than 4,000 shops and covers 506,000 square feet, excluding the hundreds of shops that surround the bazaar but are not actually inside. Apparently it was the most visited tourist attraction in the world in 2014.
The genesis of the Grand Bazaar goes back to the Ottomans, who constructed part of it in the 15th century as a place for textile trading. Between huge expansion projects and damage from fires and earthquakes, the formation of the Grand Bazaar was a two steps forward, one step back process, but it achieved its final form, as it still is today, in the 17th century.
Among 4,000 shops, you’re bound to find some junk and the Grand Bazaar is not without its trash and trinkets shops, but for a place that is so large and so popular among tourists, it’s hardly turned itself over to the proliferation of Made in China t-shirts and Istanbul keychains. Some of the best jewelers, carpet makers, and antique dealers in Istanbul are in the bazaar, though separating the exceptional dealers from the rest can be a struggle. As with anything like this, there is plenty of hustling that goes on in the Grand Bazaar, but it doesn’t feel that way. More a cool 17th-century mall than a seething flea market.
Traditionally, the shops in the bazaar were actually just wooden carts where merchants displayed their wares, and shopkeepers today don’t have a lot more space. You have a spacious storefront in the bazaar if you can stand in the middle of the shop and only touch two of the walls, rather than all four.
Because of the size and overwhelming number of options, the Grand Bazaar is not exactly an easy or quick shopping experience, but this isn’t shopping in the usual sense. Visiting the Grand Bazaar is as important to understanding Istanbul as going to Hagia Sophia, so you’re in no way taking time away from something more culturally valuable by spending an afternoon, or longer, at the bazaar. At first glance, this definitely looks like the kind of place where merchants will hound you aggressively and mercilessly, but that is absolutely not the case. Those maniacs with the hair straightener kiosks at malls in the U.S. are far more aggressive than anyone at the Grand Bazaar.
The only aggressive merchants in the bazaar are the guys selling Turkish Delight, who don’t so much harass you as call after you wistfully when you walk past their brightly lit shops, poetically expressing their devastation that you haven’t stopped in for a sample. The whole thing is a totally civilized affair, down to the roving tea merchants.
As most of the shops in the bazaar are one-man operations, the merchants aren’t in a position to leave for lunch or a cup of coffee, so there is a whole other business in the bazaar of bringing Turkish tea—a ubiquity in Istanbul—to the people working there. In itself, this is not that interesting, but this is not your standard to-go teacup situation. The tea guys serve the tea on silver platters in tiny glass cups with silver holders and come around to collect them from all the shops later in the day. Nothing about this is crazy innovative. There is obviously a market for this kind of service, but the silver tray carried around on a small chain, like the scales held by Lady Justice, makes the whole thing feel Old World in a way that’s both pleasantly nostalgic and totally practical.
Part of what makes Istanbul so great is the combination of its European streetscape with the proliferation of its great mosques. Directly opposite Hagia Sophia is one of the city’s most iconic, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque for its intricate tile work on the walls and ceiling. Some 15,000 handmade ceramic tiles adorn the walls of the mosque, all of which were made in the city of Iznik, the historical city of Nicea. At only 400 years old, the Blue Mosque is still new by Istanbul standards and small by mosque standards, with a capacity of only 10,000.
Facing the Blue Mosque from the opposite hill is Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul’s largest mosque and a rough contemporary of the Blue Mosque. It was commissioned under Sultan Suleyman in 1550 is modeled after the Dome of the Rock in Jersualem, an attempt by Suleyman to create a mosque that would surpass the greatness of Hagia Sophia.
I can’t put my finger on what it is that makes Istanbul so intriguing. It’s really European, but also kind of not. It’s pretty Middle Eastern, but so different in a lot of important ways. I can’t think of many places that have as checkered a history as Istanbul, and while the city and Turkey are absolutely contending with the problems that come from this cultural amalgamation, there is so obviously so much more benefit that has come from this diffusion than downside.
For a city that’s had two suicide bombing attacks since January, life in Istanbul seems amazingly normal, almost disconcertingly so. The police and increased security are both present, but not omnipresent, at least not visibly. People are still out enjoying the city and it doesn’t feel like the kind of place where everyone is always looking over his shoulder. It’s perhaps an unfortunate truth of modern-day Turkey that people seem so jaded by regular terrorist attacks, but the attitude seems more resolute than apathetically unaffected.
Like in Jordan, the tourism industry is in the toilet here now and more than one person in Istanbul expressed genuine surprise to see an American in Turkey on holiday. Which is not an attempt on my part to be a hero. If you want to be super pessimistic about it, there’s almost nowhere right now that’s totally safe, whether you’re in the U.S. or Europe or Africa or Istanbul. I’m not suggesting we all hop on a plane to Damascus, but there’s only so much you can do about planning around this kind of stuff. Istanbul is a beautiful city with so much culture and historical texture and such a vibrancy, and I hope more people can let that trump all the other unfortunate shit going on there.
Anyway, my second Turkey post will feature towns along the Mediterranean and a look at the awesome Roman ruins there, and a quick trip to central Turkey.