Istanbul: A story told in two continents


Istanbul01_photo_from_pichost.me

The majestic Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque sits on a hill in the historic part of Istanbul overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. It has one main dome, eight secondary domes and six minarets. It was built one millennium or 1,079 years after Hagia Sophia and derives architectural influences from it. (Photo from pichost.me)

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The blue tiles on the ceiling and walls inside the Blue Mosque (Photo by Ben Morlok/flickr.com)

(PART ONE)

I didn’t fall in love with Istanbul until I was about to leave it. And by then, I was so completely enamored of the place that I would come back two months later when I was in Paris for the New Year.

Friends told me, “But you’re in France, why are you going to Turkey?”

It was as if leaving Paris was a mortal sin, as if I had just told them I was going into the nunnery.

But I saw a lot of similarities between two of the world’s greatest cities, most significant is that they are both defined by their waters — the Seine for Paris and the Bosphorus for Istanbul.

That’s how I fell in love with Istanbul the first time I went in October last year. I took a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait on my last day and didn’t want the day to end even as it rained as I walked two kilometers from Eminönü back to the old part of Sultan Ahmed. (I didn’t have an umbrella!)

The idea of one city straddling two continents is so romantic, so exotic and exciting to me, and as it turns out even for the Turkish people for whom this is an ordinary, everyday fact. They love this uniqueness and are proud of it.

Though only three percent of Turkey is geographically in Europe and the rest in Asia Minor,  historically and politically Europe is where it seems to belong.

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Hagia Sophia, first built as an East Roman cathedral in Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), which was later converted into an Imperial Mosque during the Ottoman Empire, and is now a museum. (Photo from hdwallpapersos.com)

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The massive interior of Hagia Sophia with its hanging chandeliers and medallions (Photo by Ben Morlok/flickr.com)

The day before, I was on SMS with Sami Bas, who asked me what my plans were before the evening. I said I was going on a “river cruise.”

“And which river is that?”

“The Bosphorus,” I said.

“It’s not river, it’s a strait,” he said. “How can you be a journalist and not know this, Tanya?”

“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’m going to take a cruise on that narrow body of water.”

The truth is, even though friends who know me to be an adventurous traveler had been telling me for years to go to Istanbul, it was never high up on my bucket list…it was just there somewhere on the list.

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The author Tanya Lara at the Rahmi M. Koç Müzesi in December 2015, and with Sami Bas in Levent in February 2016.

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A drive to the Asian of Istanbul in January 2016 with Sami.

 

I had taken a tour to the incredible Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with colleagues before they left for Manila, but it was the Bosphorus that I fell in love with — what it represented and what actually sat on the coastline: the Dolmabahçe Palace, the villas from the Ottoman Empire, some of which have now been converted into hotels or private properties owned by affluent Turks, sheiks from the Middle East, and Europeans.

From my hotel in Sultan Ahmed, I went to Eminönü following the tram tracks. The dock is dotted with fish and bread restaurants — and you can smell them even before seeing them. They catch the fish, cook it on the boats and bring it to your table or just peddle them around.

On the boat before the cruise started, I asked two elderly gentlemen to take a picture of me on my phone. They hardly spoke English, but they bought me tea from a waiter who was deftly balancing a dozen glasses on a small tray.

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Author Tanya Lara on the Bosphorus Strait in October 2014. Is there a cooler cruise than seeing two continents all at once? Probably not.

People always say don’t accept anything from strangers, but in a way that I have grown accustomed to in all my years of traveling solo, I understood their kindness and hospitality.

Their wives arrived from the lower deck and one of them spoke English. The four of them were from the capital city Ankara and were doing the cruise for the first time, they said.

The Turks have an old proverb that says, “Every visitor is a gift from God.” Maybe that was what they were thinking. I was a visitor, all alone in their country, and so the wives bought me another cup of tea despite my protests that it was my turn to pay.

From the Bosphorus, you can see the Blue Mosque with its nine domes and six minarets, and across it Hagia Sophia with its four.  Catholic churches have bell towers, mosques have minarets. In the old times, the imam would climb a minaret to announce that it was time for prayer; there’s no need for the imam to climb now as loud speakers amplify this call.

Dome upon dome, big or small and with seagulls flying about, the mosques all over Istanbul look incredibly beautiful, their gold-tipped minarets puncturing the skies, the silhouette softened and balanced by the sandstone domes.

The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque got its nickname from the blue tiles used on its interior walls and ceiling. It is Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction and remains an active mosque.

Istanbul13_photo from wikipedia.com

The Bosphorus Bridge connects the European and Asian parts of Istanbul. Geographically, only three percent of Turkey is in Europe, but historically and politically this is where it seems to belong. (Photo by Jorge1767/wikipedia.com)

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The waterfront House Hotel, a 19th-century Ottoman mansion in the Ortaköy district. (Photo from designerhotel.com)

It is closed to tourists for half an hour or so on each of the five times that Muslims pray, the first at sunrise and the last at nightfall. Obviously, worshippers don’t have to stand in line but tourists have to wait up to an hour or more to get inside, which is the typical waiting time for most of Istanbul’s attractions like the Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace.

Across the Blue Mosque and a park between them is Hagia Sophia, older by a thousand years and originally constructed between 532 and 537 as a Greek Orthodox Church, a monument to the Byzantine Empire’s capital city Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), then it became a Roman Catholic Church, then an Imperial Mosque when the Ottoman Turks took over, and now it’s a museum.

Hagia Sophia’s fate reminds me of the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia, particularly Angkor Wat. It was originally built as a Hindu temple and was converted to a Buddhist temple when a new king took over and effectively erased all spiritual symbols of the previous religion.

Istanbul19_photo_by_tanya_lara.

Eminönü, where three bodies of water meet: the Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara. In the background is the 450-year-old Yen Cami, which means New Mosque. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Hagia Sophia is no different. Outside, you would never think it was once a Christian church even though during the Renaissance  churches also used domes as their main feature (Florence’s duomo and Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica).

Its bells, altar and paintings and tiles depicting Christ and the saints were removed and replaced with Islamic elements like medallions with Arabic writing and the four minarets outside. All but a few Christian features were plastered over, one of them a painting of Madonna and Child above the southwest entrance.

* * *

Despite the fact that 98 percent of its population follow Islam, Turkey is a secular country — it is mandated in its constitution. That was what the protests in Taksim Square years ago were all about: to remain secular and fight the move to be more religious as a state.

Turkey is Middle Eastern in faith, but also European in its secularism. And there is no better city that exemplifies its being at these crossroads than Istanbul.

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Galata Tower overlooking the Bosphorus (Photo from world-wallpaper.com)

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Sami buys roasted castañas in Sisli. This and simit vendors (like pretzels but dipped in molasses) are all over the streets of Istanbul in December 2014. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Istanbul’s most famous writer, the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, once said, “Istanbul is so unmanageably varied, so anarchic, so very much stranger than western cities: its disorder resists classification.”

Around Taksim Square and in the malls — in fact, in all of Istanbul — most of the local women don’t wear chador or burka but a lot of them wear headscarves.

My friend Sami took me for a walk to the medieval Galata Tower, a nine-story tower with a café on top overlooking the city and the Bosphorus.

The streets around the tower look like any modern city in the world — vibrant, filled with local and branded boutiques, pavement cafes, restaurants and bars.

In the evening, you see young locals enjoying wine and cocktails, and Sami taught me how to drink raki, an anise-flavored spirit that you chase with water.

During the day, people who are not rushing to or from work are leisurely enjoying cups of tea or the yogurt drink aryan. I had seen this in Greece and Italy — that laid-back attitude to life not dictated by the hours, men and women lounging around and enjoying the buzz of the city happening before their eyes.

Istanbul11_photo_by_ezgi_ünlü: theguideistanbul.com

Manuel Deli & Coffee, a typical café in Cihangir (Photo by Ezgi Ünlü/ theguideistanbul.com)

Pamuk, whose novels I love, wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy, a kind of sadness that pervades even  the waters of the Bosphorus.

The Bosphorus, he writes, is a reminder “of  the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”

I didn’t see or feel this melancholy in Sultan Ahmed or Eminönü, or the streets around Galata Tower, Taksim Square or Besiktas.

I did see it in the endlessly confusing Grand Bazaar when I took the wrong exit and got lost yet again. I found myself walking towards the water, the neighborhood blocks beginning to look more and more impoverished.

But that’s another story.

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The Byzantine-period Maiden’s Tower on the Bosphorus Strait. Turkish legend says it was erected by an emperor whose daughter was prophesied to die from a snake bite by her 18th birthday. So her father kept her there, away from land. On her 18th birthday, he brought her a basket of fruits to celebrate. And guess what? There was a poisonous snake in the basket, which bit and killed her. (Photo from world-wallpaper.com)

Categories: ASIA/MIDDLE EAST, EUROPETags: , , , , , , ,

19 comments

  1. Looks like you had an amazing experience. Those pictures are beautiful.

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  2. What lovely photos! The Bosphorus Bridge is absolutely breathtaking. I also seem to fall in love with cities and places as I’m leaving ❤

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  3. These photos are absolutely breathtaking! I used to travel a lot for work and this makes me miss it!!

    xo,
    Sandy
    Sandy a la Mode

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  4. Gorgeous photography! I almost thought the orange bridge you posted, was the Golden Gate!!

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  5. These photos are too gorgeous for words. Seriously. Amazing.

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  6. I didn’t know very much about Turkey other than a lot of hazelnuts are produced there. It sounds like a great place to absorb tons of history and culture.

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  7. It’s funny how there can be such close similarities between two places so different. I have a friend who went with her husband years ago and she loved it. I think the only thing she said she had to adjust to was dogs in restaurants…even if they were eating outside. 😉

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  8. I loved learning about these countries through you. The pictures you took are really amazing. I will probably never get the chance to travel to any of these places in my life, and it’s nice to be able to live through you.

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  9. These are such beautiful photos!! I love finding new favorite places like this when we travel.

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  10. Such an amazing experience, I have been to neither paris nor istanbul but I would definitely love to see them both and enjoy their culture. Lovely pictures

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  11. Wow. These photos are breathtaking. I have never thought of visiting Istanbul, but this looks like there are some beautiful sites that shouldn’t be missed.

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  12. Istanbul has a really rich heritage. This has really developed as a top tourist spot lately.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow! I can’t stop looking at these buildings! Architecture is quite amazing. Someday I want to visit Istanbul. Thanks for sharing such lovely pictures.

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  14. Istanbul has so many beautiful buildings! I would have never known that! Thank you for sharing that!

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  15. Your pictures are amazing! What an adventure. So much beauty!

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  16. What a lovely photos!
    I would love to visit this place.
    Thanks for sharing.

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