“I saw Byzantium in a dream, and knew that I would die there. That vast city seemed to me a living thing: a great golden lion, or a crest serpent, coiled upon a rock, beautiful and deadly.” So begins the epic story of Aidan, an Irish monk chosen to travel with a company of fellow monks carrying an illuminated manuscript (The Book of Kells) as a gift for the Emperor of all Christendom who resides in Byzantium. A true story no less, although fictionalized, but a remarkable journey that took far longer and a more circuitous route to complete than was originally envisioned.
Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul – for generations untold, that fabled city has been a destination or a gateway to the east for travelers. Our own trip to that legendary city began with a book also – well, a lot of books actually. We were invited to help deliver school curriculum material to an International School in Istanbul. On the morning of our departure a perfect crescent moon and bright morning star hung together in the inky blackness of the pre-dawn sky – a reminder that next time we saw it we would be standing on Turkish soil. Our arrival at Ataturk airport was a reminder that Istanbul is (as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk said) “the meeting point of two worlds”. Middle Eastern culture, customs and people intermingle with those from the west. We were met by friends at the airport then, after a traffic-jammed ride past blocks of high-rise apartments festooned with air-conditioning units, TV satellite receivers and clean laundry, we found ourselves deposited on the doorstep of a small hotel in the Sultanahmet district. It was actually quite a pleasant little hotel: clean and quiet (except for a nearby loudspeaker calling the faithful to prayer at about 5:00am) with a helpful and accommodating manager. It wasn’t the Pera Palace, but then unlike Eric Newby’s account of his stay in A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush as a prelude to his Asian adventure, our plumbing worked quite well.
“We grew fond of the Pera Palace; the beds had big brass knobs on and were really comfortable. Our room seemed the setting for some ludicrous comedy that was just about to begin. Probably it had already been played many times. It was easy to imagine some bearded minister of Abdul Hamid pursuing a fat girl in black stockings and garters round it and hurting himself on the sharp bits of furniture. In the bathroom the bath had the unusual facility of filling itself by way of the waste pipe without recourse to the taps. We watched this process enthralled.”
As it turned out, this occurrence happened every time the guest next door pulled the plug on his bath causing the water to back up into Newby’s tub.
Our first venture on foot in the narrow, winding roads of the historic section took us past a roadside vendor with his cart squeezing fresh juice from oranges and pomegranates (like this vendor we met in Izmir later in our trip):
We made our way up to the broad promenade of the Hippodrome (an ideal location for people-watching) which was filled with temporary booths for the vendors of food and gifts as it was the season for Ramadan. The streets were mainly given over to tourists since the locals couldn’t eat, drink or smoke until sundown.
One storekeeper, who spoke excellent English (having worked for some time on Alaskan fishing boats), told us the fasting tended to make the populace a bit cranky. Understandably so, if one is used to coffee and nicotine to start the day! The Hippodrome is now a large city square – a park-like structure with some interesting monuments commemorating its past history as a race course and the sight of a major massacre:
“Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city’s social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and initially four teams took part in these races, each one financially sponsored and supported by a different political party (Deme) within the Roman/Byzantine Senate: The Blues (Venetoi), the Greens (Prasinoi), the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi). The Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi) gradually weakened and were absorbed by the other two major factions (the Blues and Greens).
A total of up to eight chariots (two chariots per team), powered by four horses each, competed on the racing track of the Hippodrome. These races were not simple sporting events, but also provided some of the rare occasions in which the Emperor and the common citizens could come together in a single venue. Political discussions were often made at the Hippodrome, which could be directly accessed by the Emperor through a passage that connected the Kathisma (Emperor’s Loge at the eastern tribune) with the Great Palace of Constantinople.
The rivalry between the Blues and Greens often became mingled with political or religious rivalries, and sometimes riots, which amounted to civil wars that broke out in the city between them. The most severe of these was the Nika riots of 532, in which an estimated 30,000 people were killed and many important buildings, such as the second Hagia Sophia Church, were destroyed. The current (third) Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian following the Nika Revolt.” (source: Wikipedia)
The Hippodrome was adorned with monuments by the various emperors. Among the monuments brought was the pink sandstone Obelisk which was erected by Theodosius I in 390 AD. It was originally made for Thutmose III who reigned in Egypt from 1479 to 1425 BC.
From the Hippodrome we made our way to what may reasonably be called the best known landmark in Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) – the epitome of Byzantine architecture known for its huge domed ceiling. It was designed by the Greek scientists Isidore of Miletus, a physicist, and Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician and stood as the largest cathedral for a thousand years. From a church to a mosque, it now stands as a museum.
Entering the cool, dim and cavernous interior of the Hagia Sophia from the heat and bright sunshine of the day was taking a step back in time to a bygone era. The walls, once adorned with gilded Christian iconographic images and subsequently covered with Islamic designs, are slowly being restored and the images are being uncovered once more. From the main level, a cobblestone ramp leads the visitor around the perimeter wall up to the gallery level.
Following in the footsteps of the multitudes who have worn those stones smooth with their feet, keeping ones balance with a steadying hand on the wall, one is swept along by the flow of history. Prelates and princes, worshipers and warriors have all placed their feet on those stones. Perhaps one of the most fascinating images that remains unchanged (and that harks back to Aiden’s story) is the Viking graffiti that gives testimony to the sacking of the city by Viking raiders.
The Vikings have hardly been the only trouble the city has seen. Due to its unique position in the geo-political world it has seen more than its share of turmoil. With the demise of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, and the rise of the modern Turkish nation under the leadership of Ataturk (who died in 1938), Turkey chose the path of strict neutrality with the outbreak of World War Two; but as with many neutral cities such as Lisbon and Geneva, Istanbul became a hot bed of espionage and intrigue that carried on past the end of the war and into the Cold War era – a time so vividly captured in Joseph Kanon’s suspenseful novel Istanbul Passage. It is quite apparent that Joseph Kanon has spent some time in Istanbul – he speaks of the layers of history that exist there and captures the geography, the atmosphere and the personality of the city remarkably well. All the famous landmarks are brought to life in his novel – the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the University, Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Galata Bridge and even Taksim Square (scene of the recent protests in Istanbul). From the water traffic on the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus to the Dolmus mini-buses, the commuter rail system and the taxi cabs that run all over the city, Istanbul is a city on the move. We were advised not to think of renting a car but to rely on taxis for transportation (which we did). Interestingly, the price of a journey is typically negotiated with the driver before the start of the trip. And when you have taken your first taxi ride, you quickly understand why driving yourself is not a good idea!
In addition to the Hippodrome and the Hagia Sophia, we were fortunate enough to visit the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar (sensory overloads for the eyes and the nose!), the Blue Mosque (where we were dogged by a persistent carpet salesman), the Galata Bridge (lined with fishermen standing shoulder to shoulder) and the Galata Tower (which offers a splendid view of the city). We squeezed in a day trip by flying down to Izmir (arranged by our congenial hotel manager) to visit the ruins of the city of Ephesus and we also crossed over to visit friends on the Asian side prior to taking a tour boat up the Bosphorus to the point where it meets the Black Sea. You can stand on a hill there with your arms outstretched and have your picture taken as though you are touching two continents – two worlds, as it were.
Istanbul is indeed a legendary city – full of the sights, sounds and smells of East and West converging at the meeting point of two worlds.