travelogue / write here write now



Long before I made it there, I’ve always seen Istanbul through a soft-focus lens. If memory serves me right, my first encounter with this historical and cultural capital of Turkey was between the covers of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In my mind, the imagery wedged itself in a wash of beiges, cast in sepia, as if forever trapped in the half-light of either dusk or dawn.

IN SEPIA The European side of Istanbul houses many of the city's tourist attractions

IN SEPIA The European side of Istanbul houses many of the city’s tourist attractions

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF BRIEF SHOWERS Forgive my ignorance, but maybe it was the season. I was there early this in October, the tailend of one of the two seasons all the travel guides say are the best time of the year to visit Istanbul. Maybe in spring, the other of these seasons, it would have been different: the gardens abloom with buttercups, marigolds, geraniums, and freesias; the markets bright and cheery with purple mulberries, orange loquats, green plums, and ripe strawberries. Let’s not forget the annual tulip festival. I heard that last April Istanbul was adorned with anywhere between 11 million and 20 million tulips coloring it red, blue, yellow, white, pink, lavender or any combination thereof. But it was fall when I was there. The sky was gray, always with a chance of brief, intense rainshowers. I didn’t have enough time in Istanbul, but the city is crowded with more than enough time to immerse me in it. Its history dates back, based on archeological findings, to the Neolithic revolution that spread from the Near East to Europe, as humans transitioned from a culture of hunting and gathering to agriculture. To be in Istanbul is to be back in all the millennia gone, but with traces that leave you awed, not only in its museums or architecture, not only in the deep lines on the faces of the aged who walk its streets with the weight of history in their eyes, but also even in the cold snap of the fall winds, the shroud of clouds overhead, the quaint gestures of the young people who, not content in telling you which direction you should go when you get lost, go out on a limb, English or no English, to show you the way. Is it friendliness or is it in the DNA of the Istanbullular, trained in thousands of years of human migration, to be of help to travelers? No wonder, Istanbul is such a popular tourist destination. In 2012, alone, it captivated some 11.6 million foreign tourists with, according to the city’s master plan, its “17 palaces, 64 mosques, and 49 churches of historical significance.”


CLASH OF CULTURES Hagia Sophia, Sancta Sophia in Latin, Ayasofya in Turkish, is the place to go if you have only enough time to entrench yourself in the clash of cultures that has so far taken our world this far. The remains of such a period of upheaval and development are no more preserved anywhere else than here. You need not be a history buff to appreciate this splendid specimen of Byzantine architecture, dating back to the late Roman empire, as places of worship, thanks to a complex system invented by the architects of the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great (527-565), evolved from a square plan to a circular dome. In a sea of humanity, all those tourists speaking a world of languages, I stood under the dome, as if under a spotlight, the light peering in through the 40 arched windows and bouncing back from the interior of the nave. I had the sense that the dome, richly decorated with mosaics over 180 feet from the ground where I stood, was hovering like heaven above me. In my faith, there is only one God, but I wonder which God gazed down on me: the one they worshipped here when it was an eastern Orthodox basilica (537-1453) or when, briefly (between 1204 and 1261), it was a Roman Catholic cathedral or when it was a mosque (1453-1931) or, finally, when it turned non-religious into the museum it is now? How I wish I could stand here by myself, but with over three million (2012) tourists wishing the same thing at Hagia Sophia, I knew I could only imagine the feeling, particularly when I came up on the gilded mosaic in one of the halls, “The Virgin and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I,” the most significant of the mosaics, according to my Nigerian-born Turkish guide Bullut Alinmiş. Nearby, just across a park, is the Blue Mosque, more formally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It draws its nickname from the blue Iznik ceramic tiles adorning its walls, and maybe even from the blue tulips on the lush red Turkish carpets. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI came to visit, the second papal visit to a Muslim place of worship in history, and with his shoes off, like everybody else, and Mustafa Cagrisi, the Mufti of Istanbul, and the imam of the Blue Mosque beside him, he closed his eyes and kept silent for two minutes. “May all believers identify themselves with the one God and bear witness to true brotherhood,” he said shortly after his silent meditation. In all honesty, with all my ignorance about the religious conflict in the Middle East, it was only on my visit to Istanbul that I witnessed the serenity of Muslim prayer. A few days later, on the plane to Abu Dhabi, the man beside me performed his prayer ritual, his shoes off, his hand clasping and unclasping, his eyes closed, his head bowing in complete surrender, almost kissing the back of the seat ahead of him. It dawned on me that as Christians become more chatty with God, more personal, a part of me hopes for a return of the more reverential rituals and the depth of silence they inspire. The Blue Mosque, as an architectural gem that, like the Ayasofya, also combined Byzantine Christian elements with traditional Islamic architecture to achieve “overwhelming size, majesty, and splendor,” is a monument to this reverence. A functioning mosque, it is closed to tourists at certain times of the day and, especially on Fridays and on holy days, when the imam leads the noonday prayer on a pulpit so designed that even when the mosque is most crowded, the imam could be seen and heard by everyone.

To be in Istanbul is to be back in all the millennia gone, but with traces that leave you awed, not only in its museums or architecture, but also in the cold snap of the fall winds and the shroud of clouds overhead.

THE REIGN OF THE SULTANS I experienced the Dolmabahçe Palace on the Beşiktaş district on the European shore of Istanbul like a child in a toy store. That’s because at the gift shop I bought myself a copy of the children’s book Step by Step Dolmabahçe published in 2013 to “help our kids regain historical awareness, strengthen their ties with the past, and look after our national values,” to borrow from the introduction. The Dolmabahçe is the largest palace in Turkey. Sitting on 45,000 square meters on the bank of the Bosphorus, it was used by the last six sultans and the last caliph, the administrative seat of the Ottoman empire from 1856 to 1922, although from 1887 to 1909, during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II who believed that the Dolmabahçe was vulnerable to seaside attacks, it was abandoned for the Yildiz Palace, an imperial estate the sultans enjoyed as a vacation spot. The first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938), after whom an international airport was named, used the Dolmabahçe as his summer presidential palace and made some of his major decisions anywhere among the palace’s 285 rooms, 46 halls, and six hammams (Turkish baths), or maybe even in one of its 68 toilets. When I return, I would, if I could, spend eternity in the library facing the Bosphorus, a library enriched by Atatürk and his successor Ismet Inönü (1938-1950) with 10,000 books mostly in French and Ottoman (the Ottomans used countless tongues, from Arabic and Armenian to Persian, Georgian, Syriac, and Tatar, to name a few). Alas, the books are off-limits and the only way to explore the palace is through a guided tour. Atatürk spent his last days in Dolmabahçe and the room in which he died, in the morning of Nov. 10, 1938 (I was born on the same day decades later), has been left the way it was on the day he died in his honor, including the bedroom clock, which has since been stuck at five minutes past nine. Of the paintings on the wall in his bedroom, his favorite was Four Seasons by Russian artist Richard Alexandrovich Bergholz, the picture of complete serenity on a slope of hill covered in lush greenery and tall trees. It was believed that Atatürk once said, looking at the painting, “I’m going to build a house in a place like that.” But the broad sweep of the Bosphorus just outside, at least to me, is a place like that, where it straddles East and West, connecting Europe and Asia. I don’t know why this body of water has always had a particular charm for me, though I don’t recall where my first encounter with the Bosphorus was in my readings or in the movies. It plays a huge role in world-famous Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s memoir Istanbul: Memories and City, but this book—a treasure!—is only a recent find.

HOW BAZAAR Two vendors at the Grand Bazaar take a moment's break. A young boy bearing a tea tray soon served them refreshments right there on the pavement

HOW BAZAAR Two vendors at the Grand Bazaar take a moment’s break. A young boy bearing a tea tray soon served them refreshments right there on the pavement

A VIEW OF THE BOSPHORUS In Istanbul, the Bosphorus is omnipresent like the city’s poetic sadness. On a Bosphorus cruise, the visual treats include not only the waterfront mansions and the Dolmabahçe built by the Ottomans on either side of the strait but also the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Ortaköy Mosque, and more. It flows into the Black Sea and because it was, in ancient times, the only passage to and from the Mediterranean, it was of such importance to the great conquerors, including the early Greek settlers from Megara. On account of the Bosphorus, the Roman Emperor Constantine made it the new eastern capital of the Roman Empire and changed its name from Byzantium to Constantinopole. It was also through this narrow strait that the Ottoman Empire made its conquest. After the capture of the city following an eight-week siege by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, the names Constantinopole and Stamboul became interchangeable, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that it became known to both foreigners and the Turkish as Istanbul. Now the remnants of its glorious past lie strewn all over Istanbul like slabs of stone from the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the social and sporting center of the Byzantine Empire. The city has seen the rise and fall of a series of great empires, each of which has left traces of both its conquest and subjugation, its halcyon days and its darkest nights. On its modern streets, in the sweep of its skyline punctuated with domes and minarets, the city is a saga in progress. Istanbul is on the rise again, the 29th on the 2011 list of the world’s urban areas with the highest GDP. New buildings are sprouting like mushrooms, but I’d like to think it was history that built the city. If at all, it should take at least one more century to turn completely modern from an old city, but I wish upon the Turkish flag’s crescent moon that it never does.


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