“I-stan-bul … Con-stan-tin-ople! I-stan-bul … Con-stan-tin-ople!” The city of two names, two continents, two millennia of history and perhaps the best tune ever recorded was my last destination in the Muslim world (although I suppose Pauline Hanson would contend that I will find Australian suburbia to be alarmingly different when I return home). Not that the religious identity of Istanbul is entirely apparent. The culture and fashion of the city is Western to the core and only smatterings of women wear the chorda or other forms of conservative attire. Istanbul’s appearance is distinctly Southern European, except mosques instead of churches dominate the skyline. Despite a population of over fifteen million people and the consequent crowds in its central areas, the busyness in Istanbul is relatively “ordered” (in contrast to Cairo); which surely indicates that the city is developed. “Constantinople” reflects this inherent European character and is thus the more appropriate name for this sprawling metropolis. “Istanbul” conveys falsely that the city is an exotic destination with a Middle Eastern atmosphere, located at the juncture of where the East meets the West. Whoever advertises the city to tourists stubbornly refuses to recognise that the latter point is obsolete, as Jerusalem holds that coveted status (with Istanbul now firmly in the West). Nevertheless, Istanbul boasts remarkable architecture, history and culture, which makes it undoubtedly one of the most fascinating cities… in Europe.
The people of Istanbul reputedly claim that their city is the “greatest in the world”. This egotistical assertion is perhaps justifiable considering it was arguably the most important city in the Europe-Near East region for over a thousand years. Constantinople was founded in 330 AD by Emperor Constantine to serve as the new capital of the Roman Empire (the “New Rome”). As the empire collapsed and classical knowledge disappeared in the West, Constantinople remained the centre of the surviving East Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The Byzantine Empire was the most powerful state in Europe until the rise of the Carolingian dynasty in France the ninth century. Even then, Constantinople continued to be the economic and cultural centre of Europe until the late Middle Ages. The Conquest of 1453 by the Ottoman Turks finally destroyed the last vestiges of the Roman Empire (nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome). However, this outcome did not deplete Constantinople’s significance as it became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the strongest imperial entity in Europe until the seventeenth century. The city’s status deteriorated as the empire fragmented and eventually collapsed. With the establishment of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s, the capital was relocated to Ankara away from the perceived imperial decadence of Istanbul. Nevertheless, Istanbul is still the largest city and economic capital of Turkey.
Istanbul is renowned for its idiosyncratic geographical anomaly of straddling two continents (perhaps the same people that advertise the city to tourists invented the fictitious concept of Europe and Asia being separate continents). However, the constituent areas of interest are situated on the European side, so I did not bother to cross the Bosphorus and visit Asia (especially since I had just spent two weeks in Anatolia anyway). Istanbul’s historic zone in Europe is separated by the Golden Horde, which is a body of water that protrudes perpendicularly from the Bosphorus into the continent for several kilometres. South of the mouth of Golden Horde is the Sultanahmet district, where the imperial palaces and old city walls were situated during both Byzantine and Ottoman eras. On the opposite banks of the Golden Horde is another historical neighbourhood, Galata. Up the slopes behind Galata is the cosmopolitan centre of modern Istanbul and Taksim Square. The inexpensive ferry cruises along the Bosphorus are an outstanding way to appreciate the layout and especially the scale of Istanbul. The scenery away from the central areas was rather similar to Sydney Harbour, with green suburbs full of luxurious mansions.
Vestiges of Rome’s imperial history are found throughout the Italian capital, so I anticipated similar circumstances in Istanbul. I was surprised to discover relatively few remnants of the Byzantine epoch, although two outstanding structures survive that testify to the advancement of Byzantine engineering. The Hagia Sophia was constructed in the sixth century and was considered to be the greatest church in Christendom until the Conquest in 1453, when it was converted into a mosque. Ataturk aptly decided to secularise the complex and transformed it into a museum in the 1930s. Despite its initial purpose as the centrepiece church of Eastern Orthodoxy, the building externally has the appearance of a (aesthetically unrefined) mosque, partly because of the minarets but also because the dome looks vaguely similar to the domes of Ottoman mosques. Within the Hagia Sophia, levels are structurally supported by classical columns and the walls are covered in exquisite golden mosaics. The remarkable dome appears to be ethereally floating above the cavernous space of the interior. It was the last major dome constructed in Europe for nearly 900 years. The Basilica Cistern was another glorious edifice from the Byzantine era. The Cistern is a peaceful oasis located below the busy Sultanahmet streets. The above surface is supported by over three hundred symmetrically arranged columns and some of them consist of decorative motifs including depictions of medusa. When I visited, there was clear water at two feet in depth above paved ground and bizarrely massive carp also.
The Ottoman heritage of Istanbul is more prominent, especially in the Sultanahmet district. I visited the imperial residence of the Ottoman dynasty, Topkapi Palace, which occupies a point overlooking the Golden Horde, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmaris. The complex consists of several grandiose courtyards and terraces with views of the surrounding waters. The palace exhibits the quintessential Ottoman architectural motif, with buildings and arcades featuring a series of shallow (geometrically inaccurate) domes. The harem is the palace’s signature area, where the sultans’ wives and concubines lived, schemed, bitched, murdered and generally conspired to deteriorate the Empire’s strength. The walls of the halls are opulently decorated and completely covered with Iznik tiles that are usually blue and white. The Grand Bazaar was established by the revered sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century as a covered marketplace where commerce could be conducted without weather interferences. The layout is surprisingly easy to navigate and the complex actually feels more like a modern shopping mall than a Middle Eastern bazaar. Throughout the Sultanahmet district are medersas, cemeteries (with attached teahouses) and fortifications that allude to the Ottoman era.
The plethora of beautiful mosques throughout the city is the most appealing aspect of Istanbul. The waterfront along the Golden Horde provides an intoxicating view of the hills of Sultanahmet that are dotted with serene mosques. Since Istanbul was not conquered by Muslim rulers until 1453, the city’s mosques are relatively new. Consequently, the architecture of Ottoman mosques in Istanbul contrasts substantially with the mosques I visited in the Arab world. I visited the Blue Mosque, the Suliyemaniye Mosque, the Yeni Mosque and several others, though since they were quite similar I will clump discussion about them together. Mosques in North Africa generally consist of a strict rectangular layout that is dominated by a courtyard preceding the prayer hall. While the rectangular configuration is maintained in Ottoman designs, the prayer halls are instead located at the centre of the complex; which thus reduces the size and significance of the constituent courtyard. Ottoman mosques feature identical and slender minarets in each corner of the complex, whereas in North Africa the mosques often have one monolithic minaret or a variety of styles. The prayer halls are monumentalised externally (prayer halls in the Arab world are quite austere externally) and usually feature one huge dome and several smaller domes. The colossal dome at the centre of an Ottoman mosque creates a vast space inside. The interior surfaces are covered in blue and white tiles, the floors are carpeted and ornate lanterns light already bright spaces. Inside an Ottoman mosque, the ground is of uniform height and the design is not intended to glorify a particular area, like an altar is in a Christian church. The space thus conveys equality between worshippers and those that lead the prayer. The prayer halls of mosques were relaxing places to rest, contemplate and observe.
The central and cosmopolitan areas of modern Istanbul are located on the northern side of the Golden Horde. The Galata district is immediately opposite Sultanahmet and it has a distinctly Southern European appearance and aura. Colourful and partly dilapidated apartment buildings lead up to the iconic Galata tower; a medieval structure located on the highpoint in the area. The main thoroughfare in Istanbul, Istiklal Avenue, begins near Galata Tower and winds along the ridge of Beyoglu district to Taksim Square. The pedestrianized road is permanently packed with Turks and tourists and trendy restaurant and bar areas sprout from Istiklal Avenue. I stayed in Beyoglu for two nights and thought this was the liveliest and most interesting district in Istanbul (Sultanahmet is a soulless tourist zone).
I completed the Australian pilgrimage to the Gallipoli Peninsula on an expensive day-tour from Istanbul (I decided it was morally unacceptable to worry about the cost), which is approximately five hours away. It was necessary to have a tour guide explaining the stories of each battlefield and area of interest; otherwise it would be very difficult to appreciate the significance of each site. We visited “Brighton Beach”, which was the intended landing destination for the ANZACs and is now an idyllic holiday destination in modern Turkey. The beach is strewn with bunkers that were built during World War Two in case of an attack (Turkey was a neutral nation for most of the war). The landscape further up the coast was exactly as I expected: peeble beaches, turquoise water, rocky hills and relatively arid land except for the pine cover. We stopped at many Australian, Kiwi and Turkish cemeteries and it was harrowing to see long repetitive rows of the same gravestone typology. We visited ANZAC cove and the surprisingly small and unassuming area where the dawn service is conducted (just a lawn paddock beside the coast).
Istanbul was hardly an explosive gastronomic destination. After a brief interlude in the South East of Turkey, I returned to a city of mediocre Turkish restaurants. Fortunately though, Istanbul boasts a vibrant street-food scene which is how I obtained most of my sustenance. I enjoyed the flaky and oily tubular filo pastries known as boreks (different to the boreks available at the Vic Market) which are filled with sheep’s cheese. Underneath Galata Bridge and along the Galata waterfront are dozens of seafood restaurants and small grill eateries. I visited the area on multiple occasions and had a flavoursome mackerel sandwich (ubiquitously popular) and a plate of fried sardines and watercress. I sampled the delicious spicy lentil soup known as Chorba, which is found on menus throughout the country. I ate a fantastic pastry that was similar to churros and soaked in honey with pistachio shavings. One of Istanbul’s highlights is to wander through the chaotic and colourful Spice Market, located near Galata Bridge. The market is brimming with various incarnations of Turkish delight, many of which feature nuts, nougat or fruit within. I indulged in these charming delicacies many times.
Since most of the metropolitan area straddles the European continent, Istanbul is eligible for “Liam’s favourite cities in Europe” ranking system. Istanbul boasts some outstanding architectural wonders and magnificent coastal views courtesy of its unique geography. The beautiful Ottoman mosques are the city’s best attribute and distinguish Istanbul from other European cities. Istanbul is consequently deserving of a high ranking. However, the city does not compare visually to Paris or Florence, the monuments are less abundant than in Rome, the culture is not as electric as Barcelona, its remarkable history is poorly portrayed (unlike Berlin) and it cannot compete overall with London.
Coincidentally, my visit to Istanbul transpired three weeks prior to the 125th IOC session where the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games will be determined. Many of you will be aware that I am manically obsessed with all things Olympic, including the bidding processes to stage the Games. Circumstances this year have obviously precluded me from following the race as intensely as usual, but I am still interested in the outcome especially since I have now visited each of the candidate cities (Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul). Tokyo is my preference to host, but my fundamental hope is simply for Madrid to be unsuccessful. I think Madrid is the least appealing major city in Western Europe and it would be an abhorrent decision by the IOC to return the Games to a relatively insignificant country with only six editions since their first. Istanbul represents an exciting new frontier for the Olympic movement as it would potentially be the first Muslim-majority city to host an Olympics. Istanbul is certainly capable of staging the Games and is a worthy candidate as one of the world’s greatest cities. However, the economic disparity and repression of the Kurdish community in the South-East of Turkey compels me not to support the Istanbul 2020 campaign. Tokyo is the biggest city on the planet with over 35 million residents, yet the insatiable technological advancement of the Japanese capital has established the megalopolis as a highly efficient and ordered urban environment free of chaotic crowds. It’s a phenomenal place to experience, a city of cities, and after a sufficient gap of 56 years since the previous Tokyo Olympics, it is an appropriate destination for the 2020 Games. Tokyo is also compatible with Australian television audiences.
So with September upon us (happy birthday Liam),
And GO HAWKS!!!!!