Approaching the city of more than 16 million inhabitants, it looks as one might expect. Container ships abound awaiting their turn to offload or upload or transit the Bosporus canal. These ships were EVERYWHERE. Buildings and the beautiful minarets with the domes of the mosques are the most prominent land feature. But surprisingly upon closer inspection, there is an abundance of green space uncommon for a cosmopolitan city of this size.
Istanbul – Constantinople… just the names conjure images of spices and tea and exotic people and food. And with such a rich tapestry weaving its place in history, I couldn’t possibly convey the experience of this visit without a few words of the history and the geography which makes Istanbul what it is today.
A word about the geography… Few if any, countries in the world can boast a presence on 2 continents. Divided by the Bosporus canal into Europe and Asia, each side, in fact each district feels special. The other notable geographical feature is its position between the Mediterranean (Aegean) Sea and the Sea of Marmara – a totally landlocked sea bordering all sides by Türkiye, and the Black Sea. Approaching from the Sea of Marmara as we did, the most obvious feature on the European side is the former largest mosque in Istanbul, the Süleymaniye Mosque. Built in the mid- 16th century for its namesake, Süleiman the Magnificent, it boasts 4 minarets and contains the remains of both Süleyman and his wife in the mausoleum. Until 2019, it was the largest mosque in Istanbul but was replaced by the most prominent feature on the Asian side, the Grand Çamlica Mosque.
According to Wikipedia, starting with the Greeks who colonized the area and established Byzantium in 660 BC, it fell to the Roman Republic in 196 BC and was known as Byzantium until 330 CE when the city was renamed Constantinople after emperor Constantine and became the new capital of the Roman Empire. During the reign of Justinian the first, Constantinople was the largest city in the Roman Empire until the fall of Constantinople as the head and the cradle of the Orthodox Christian Church. Undefeated and impenetrable for nearly 900 years, Constantinople suffered defeat by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 and remained under its control until after WW1 and the Turkish war for independence 1923. This is truly a simple distillation, rather than a full and complete history which is so storied as to be impossible to cover here. But this snapshot will help in the appreciation of some of the places and photos which follow.
We have been wandering in and out of Christian churches all over Europe for the past 3.5 years. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the number is easily in the hundreds of churches that we have walked into to say a prayer and have a look around. What continues to inspire and astound us is how, in every city we visit, the churches are the finest example of architecture and commitment to aesthetic beauty the city can offer. The finest workmanship, artistry and love is evident in each church we visit. The finest Renaissance art is not necessarily housed in museums but rather, breathtaking examples abound in churches all over Italy. The finest craftsmen weren’t employed to build houses but rather churches. Innovations in design and architecture were first poured out in love to God in Cathedrals. Since churches are such amazing repositories of architectural information, we love to meander in and out as well as stop to say a prayer while there. So, it has troubled me that we haven’t had the same freedom to stroll into Mosques. I was so pleased to experience our first visit to mosques in Istanbul. I may get some details wrong, but it is my understanding that the Imam, or Sheik has the authority to grant admission to non-believers in a mosque. Given that the mosques in Istanbul are such architectural wonders and given that Istanbul is such a contemporary and cosmopolitan city, non-believers are granted access to many of the mosques here. We were even permitted to take photos, though obviously not of individual people while praying. The only requirement is that all visitors dress modestly, men and women both need to cover their bodies, knees, shoulders etc, and women must cover their hair with a scarf. Additionally, no shoes may be worn inside the mosque. Americans may be surprised that the same – or similar requirements exist in monastery’s, convents, and churches in Europe. While slightly more relaxed, or probably more accurately, less enforced, most of the monasteries we visited offer a selection of fabrics to cover oneself while visiting a church. It is expected that skirts/shorts cover the knees and shoulders are covered while visiting a church. Though notoriously casual Americans wander in and out surprised such a requirement exist, I too frequently forget to bring my scarf to cover up if we find a church unexpectedly along the way.
The Hagia Sophia was originally opened in 537 CE as a Greek Orthodox church, but it was redesigned as a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II. We made our debut into our first mosque in grand style! Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985, I loved the integration of the storied history on the walls of the building. Since Islam doesn’t permit any face, statue or person depicted in a mosque, the original biblical frescoes of Mary or Jesus were covered by cloth but not damaged permanently. One can make out some of these images still and just outside the walls of the mosque, in the vestibule area are images of Mary and Jesus as well as crosses. There are several mentions of Mary, Jesus’ mother in the Quran so the Muslim people have a very high regard for Mary, though they do not believe that Jesus is the son of God. (This is based on my understanding, but I do not claim an education in Islam so please, if someone reading this has more knowledge, feel free to comment). Currently a museum but still open and serving as a mosque, it is so unusual to see people praying whilst tourists jostle for photos. Our tour guide did not love that it was still a working mosque and felt that it should be converted permanently into a museum. We had a different tour guide talking about the Suleyman mosque and the new Camlica mosque and it was interesting to hear the perspectives of the younger and more progressive tour guides against the backdrop of the current and more conservative political leaders. Both of our guides felt that the newer largest mosque was not necessary (built by President Erdogan) as there are more than enough mosques for the need. Also mentioned was that during prayer times and on Friday, the equivalent of our Sunday mass, there is little more than 20 percent occupancy. Our guide said, and I quote “We are faithful, not show-ers” We don’t go to mosque, but we are followers and faithful.
Nearly as famous as the Hagia Sophia, we visited the Blue Mosque but were surprised at how small it seemed comparatively speaking. It was currently undergoing renovations so much of it was covered.
The most impressive relic of the Byzantine times was the cisterns. Built by Emperor Justinian I by 7000 slaves in the 6th century AD, this enlarged system of holding water continued to provide water to the Topkapi palace after the Ottoman conquest and into modern times.
Speaking of the Topkapi Palace…
The Topkapi palace was the main residence of the Sultans into the 17th century. Constructed 6 years after the fall of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror, the rooms, the opulence, the history – wow. Our guide was fantastic and enthusiastic as he shared the history of the Ottoman Harems with us. We laughed as we all shared our impressions of what we thought the harem was, and our guide laughed as he shared what the harem was not. To be fair, as he explained, nobody knows for certain what happened in the harems. But for the most part, the Western depictions were not accurate and were wildly exaggerated in Hollywood films. It is true, the Eunuchs guarded the harems meticulously and the mother of the Sultan was the only person who had access to the harems. Essentially the harems housed slaves and young girls who would be brought here to be educated. The girls in the harem (together with their virginity) were closely guarded and from this population, the mother of the Sultan could choose a selection of women from which the Sultan could choose his wives. Or Concubines. Further, those women not married or taken by the Sultan to be the mother of his children (and there could be dozens if not hundreds of children born to a Sultan), these women would marry important people in the government.
Many important treasures are on display here including weapons clothing, manuscripts but perhaps the most amazing treasures housed here are the Spoonmakers Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger. The Diamond has many stories associated with it but essentially it is a stunning 86 carat pear shaped diamond and believed to be the 4th largest in the world. The dagger was to be a gift for the Sheik of Iran but while being transported by horse, the Sheik died so the dagger was returned to the palace. It is stunning and pictured below.
During certain times of the year, many Catholic churches will display the body of Jesus continuously around the clock with faithful witnesses signing up so as not to leave the body of Jesus (in the form of the wine and bread) unattended. The final incredible item worth mentioning is the continuous singing of the Quran in Topkapi palace. It has been continuously read 24 hours a day/7 days a week for 400 years and continues today. What a scheduling nightmare- but what a labor of love!
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a stroll through the Grand Bazaar. The oldest undercover marketplace, the Grand Bazaar houses over 4000 shops accessed through 27 different gates. Because it continues to expand, the entire area is an enormous shopping trip with everything from the most precious and rare gems to knock off underwear available. Also, clearly no copyright laws here – one can find anything from a fake Louis Vuitton (remarkable imitations) to a fake Rolexes, or you name it designer clothes and shoes.
But for my money, the real gems were the tapestries, silks and yep you guessed it, carpets. We did see 1 shop outside of the grand bazaar which housed the most stunning collection of hand-woven silk pillow covers and fabrics I have ever seen. Here are a few samples below.
I was so proud of us for making it through the grand bazaar without buying a Turkish rug!! So much has been said about the stunning art of these incredible designs that I worried that there would be little chance that we would escape without a major purchase. Well, we did escape but our victory would be short lived – stay tuned for our memories of Kusadasi….
And finally, a word about the people. Because for us it is always about the people. I love the Turks. Evidence of their kindness, generosity and hospitality are everywhere:
Exhibit 1 – There is virtually NO homelessness. This is incredible to me during a time with run-away inflation and a city of nearly 16 million people. No homeless at all. I asked a guide about this and talked to the friend of a friend (Hi Birsen). There is such a strong social structure that it is inconceivable that someone would end up homeless. They would first be taken in by family members – no matter what! And next, the mosque would see to the person. But a person would never fall so far as to be homeless. There is a saying in Turkish that one buys 3 loafs of bread – 1 to take with them and 2 for the basket meaning that 2 loaves are given for a person in need. One can also leave money in a restaurant for a person in need to eat. And nearby the mosque – like our soup kitchens at home, is a place where anyone can get a free and hot meal.
Exhibit 2 – There are also no “old folks homes”. The families take in their elders – They aren’t sent to homes to live.
Exhibit 3 – There are no homeless cats! They all belong to the community! There are cats EVERYWHERE in Istanbul. They wander into and out of restaurants, homes, shops, and grocery stores. They jump up on counters, they snuggle up to people standing at the bus stop and they visit tables in restaurants looking for dinner. But they aren’t strays in the meaning that we associate with strays. They appear reasonably well cared for, there is cat housing and shelters in parks, and wherever one finds cats, one finds a community feeding them. There are containers for water and food stations dotting the walkways and parkways throughout Istanbul (and in fact, all over Türkiye. The estimates of the numbers range from a New York Times estimate of 125,000 but Wikipedia has the number at between 100,000 and over a million. But these cats are truly a part of the community in which they live. On our pontoon where we stayed at the Setur Marina, the crew (captain and mates) of the 2 boats adjacent to Gratitude collected fish by using old bread. They would then take fish from the traps 2X a day and feed the local cats on our pontoon. These cats were the sweetest and most loving “strays” and certainly not feral. They seemed shocked when we wouldn’t let them board (Pratt would have a fit)! And 1 cat seemed to be auditioning for the job of “Watch Cat” seeing that Pratt isn’t doing such a good job.
Exhibit 4 – The crew that we spoke of earlier – kinder more caring neighbors one will never meet! They didn’t speak English and we obviously don’t speak Turkish, but it didn’t keep us from communicating. They brought us presents of fresh fruit and eggs from the captain’s farm, and we baked them scones and sent them cookies. But they were always ready with a helping hand and kind gesture. Thank you, Babushka, for your kind hospitality during our stay in Istanbul!
Exhibit 5 – The greenspaces in Istanbul are common and well used. We explored the city by bike and wherever we found a park, we found people lounging on the grass, picnicking, having wine or beer or lunch or dinner. It didn’t matter what time or which day it was, people in Istanbul enjoy their parks. And there are parks everywhere.
1 final note about Istanbul – the transportation system.
We love our new Ebikes and we road them everywhere. To be sure, driving, walking, or riding a bike is a death-defying venture – seriously. But that is owing more to the sheer volume of cars, motorbikes, and buses on the roadways than to the attitudes of the drivers. I think. The buildings are modern and in very good repair, the transportation system was clean, modern, comfortable, and well used. We were able to ride our bikes the 2-3 km to the train station, then ride the train all over the city – for a couple of dollars. The taxis are very complicated, and they have limits on their territory so I would strongly recommend becoming familiar with the buses and trains.
We wish we could have stayed longer and seen more. We were in Istanbul for 2 weeks but unfortunately, we all got the flu – spaced out from one another so that for a week we were pretty much down for the count. But what we did see, and experience was amazing. If you ever have the chance to visit, don’t pass it up!!
Next stop – Kusadasi, TÜrkiye.