Istanbul, Turkey: Where East and West Meet

GUEST ARTICLE: To borrow a phrase from my old Roman Law lecturer, late on Friday during the Autumn of 2007, I arrived in Constantinople, or Istanbul as the Turks insist on calling it. Personally, I prefer Byzantium, simply because “Byzantine” is such a great adjective.

West

What would you expect to see from an Istanbul Hotel window? At the very least it would have to be the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Well, these two buildings greeted me on Saturday morning as the view from the breakfast terrace of my hotel in the old Sultanahmet district.

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Hagia Sophia

The natural starting point to the day was, therefore, the Hagia Sophia, which the Emperor Justinian inaugurated in AD 537. It served as a church until the 15th century when it was converted to a mosque after the fall of Constantinople. Then, in the 1930s, it was given over as a museum.

The interior decoration is still mostly Islamic, with some few mosaics from the Christian era uncovered to give an inkling of the glories of the past in the dimly lit and grimey interior. Remnants of an earlier Hagia Sophia may be seen in the grounds of the current structure.

After the faded glories of the Hagia Sophia, the middle part of the day was spent chasing other Byzantine remains.

Probably, some of the best preserved parts of old Byzantium may be found in two splendid columned cisterns which supplied parts of the old city with water. These are now open to the public. The oldest is the Cistern of 1001 Columns, which dates back to the fourth century and supplied the fountains of the Hippodrome. (The remaining monuments from the centre of the Hippodrome may still be viewed above ground.) The 1001 is an exaggeration, but the 100s of doric columns and vaulting are still most impressive.

The larger one is the Basilica Cistern which Justinian built in 532 to supply the royal palaces. It boasts a mixture of Corinthian and Doric columns that, unlike the other cistern, still sit in a level of water that teems with fish of all sizes. Poor lighting (some might say “atmospheric lighting”) makes traversing the walkways between the pillars of this Byzantine engineering marvel quite memorable.

Blue Mosque

Later in the afternoon, I finally got around to the impressive Blue Mosque which was built by Sultan Ahmet in 1609-1616. It is still functioning as a mosque and is very busy at the moment since we’re in the middle of Ramadan.

This also explains the empty cafes in the middle of the day and the sudden rush of people at the restaurants in the early evening! (Note to self: I may be dealing with a nation of tired and hungry people.) The interior shows remarkably little wear and tear for its 400 years. Particularly impressive was the central dome and the (predominately blue) tile work in the lower galleries.

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Some of the mosaic floors from the imperial palace have been preserved in a special museum at the back of the Blue Mosque. The mosaics depict various hunting and bucolic scenes, from men milking goats to hounds slaughtering various types of game.

There is even a scene from the old pagan religion (a satyr bearing the infant Bacchus on his shoulders), perhaps an indication of the extent to which Justinian wanted the palaces in Constantinople to emulate the palaces of the old western empire in Rome.

Christ Church, Istanbul

On Sunday morning I crossed the Golden Horn by the Galata Bridge to attend the 10am liturgy at Christ Church, Istanbul (a part of the Anglican Diocese of Europe).

Christ Church, Istanbul is a neat Gothic revival church originally built as a Crimean War memorial. It was closed for 50 years until the early 1990s, when it was reopened under its current Vicar, the extremely energetic Fr Ian Sherwood, who also runs a refugee centre and school beneath the church.

The interior has an impressive chancel screen with a kind of iconostasis running along the bottom, depicting various local “saints”, including rather naive portraits of several bishops, a Patriarch of Constantinople and various lay people. Each has his or her own candle burning in front. The raised altar, with riddell posts and curtains, has a wooden reredos with an image of Christ the King enthroned upon a rainbow, which the artist, Earle Backen, restored in the 1990s. (The vicar reports it was covered in pidgeon poo when they retrieved it!)

The Mass was the traditional form from the new Book of Common Worship, although the filoque clause was dropped from the creed. (When in new Rome, do as the new Romans do?) The chants and unaccompanied singing were led very ably by Fr Ian – right down to the pointed psalm taken from the back of the New English Hymnal. There was a full complement of servers, including a thurifer and two of the servers wore albs and stood in the place of the deacon and sub deacon on the altar steps.

What do visitors to Anglo Catholic parishes do at 11am at the conclusion of mass? Partake of champagne in the Vicarage, of course – with a mixture of travellers, temporary residents and locals. The conversations proved that there are only 2 degrees of separation in the Anglican Communion.

Galata Tower, Topkapi Palace & Archaeological Museum

topkapi palace

On the way back from Mass, I discovered the Galata Tower. It is one of the oldest towers in the city and was erected in 528 by the Emperor Justinian originally as a tower to monitor shipping. It now has a lift and doubles as a restaurant and nightclub. It also provides spectacular views across the Golden Horn as well as the dilapidated surrounding district.

In the afternoon, I visited the extensive range of buildings in the Topkapi palace, including the Harem (the private household of the Sultan). It was an overwhelming experience of gold, emeralds, rubies, marble, blue and white tiles, and mother of pearl.

The oddest and, perhaps, the most macabre items in the treasury had to be the skull and arm of John the Baptist, which were both in Constantinople when it fell to the Turks in the 15th century. Both were partially enclosed in suitably encrusted reliquaries.

istanbul archaeological museum

The next morning, I paid a visit to the archaeological museum at Istanbul. What a delight to find so comprehensive a collection of artefacts still, more or less, in the country in which they originated.

Of course, what it took was a very powerful empire, which, like the British and French, was also able to call upon outlying districts to send in all their treasures. That said, there were still some exhibits where the captions ended with something like “the rest may be viewed in the British Museum”.

Pilgrimage to Gallipoli

On Monday, I made the “pilgrimage” to the Gallipoli Peninsula to view a rugged landscape which, though now peaceful, for a short 8 months was a Hell on Earth and gave Turkey its great leader, Ataturk, and Australia an enduring myth of nationhood.

Starting at the tiny, confined Anzac Cove where 1,500 Anzacs landed on 25 April 1915, and moving along the coast and then up the hills through cemetery after cemetery to Lone Pine, was an interesting, moving and sobering experience.

Such tours from “our” side of the lines are almost exclusively undertaken by Australians and New Zealanders (such a relief from having to put up with Americans).

Ataturk quote at Gallipoli

Remarkably few British visit the peninsula, despite having lost more men further down on Hellas Point. It is now compulsory for all Turkish school children to visit the peninsula at least once. Only a bare handful of the predominately Australian tour group I went with had ancestors who fought.

I learned today that my grandfather arrived there only after the War Office had despaired of what to do and eventually evacuated the arena from November 1915 onwards.

“Their name liveth for evermore.”

troy

These words are emblazoned on the monuments in each of the Anzac cemeteries we came upon. Only 90 years out from the events, we cannot tell whether this will be the case. The whole question was put into perspective on Tuesday with a visit to the site of Troy.

There I could stand at the foot of the walls of Priam’s city and look out towards Gallipoli across the plains where Achilles, Patroclus, Ajax and Hector are said to have fought more than 3,000 years ago and from which Aeneas is said to have set out to found Rome.

The guides on the Gallipoli trip are clearly quite used to dealing with Australians. At the end of the tour our guide finished by saying “We have finised early, so we now have time to visit my uncle’s carpet shop. It will be a short stop of 2 hours, or 4 hours if you don’t buy anything. And for dinner, my brother-in-law has a restaurant…” Some Americans would have been left wondering well into the evening why we hadn’t actually visited the carpet shop or gone to the restaurant.

East

In the afternoon, I crossed to the Asian side of the Bosphorus – my first ever transcontinental road trip. There we were taken round the Sultan’s summer palace – an Islamic-influenced italianate structure erected in the 19th century – this time to be overwhelmed by gold, crystal, porcelain, silk, fresco, mother of pearl and inlaid wood.

Whirling Dervishes

To continue Wednesday’s disjointed narrative, I went down to the Sirkeci Railway Station (built in the 19th century to receive the Orient Express) for a Sufi music concert featuring whirling Dervishes.

The Dervishes were five men wearing what appeared to be overly voluminous albs with black cinctures and little white jackets and waste paper baskets on their heads.

As the musicians played and chanted, the Dervishes went through a series of slow-moving liturgical actions in groups of 1, 2 and 3, culminating in their twisting round and around and around on the spot without apparently getting dizzy and falling over between sequences.

As a piece of liturgical performance, it made as much sense as any litugical dancing I have ever witnessed. No doubt they were having a deep religious experience (how else would you explain why they didn’t fall over or get sick? unless the trick is the angle of the head) and some of the audience would have left feeling edified by the experience. Fascinating though it was, I was just grateful it wasn’t like the last piece of (Christian) liturgical dancing I witnessed since there were no bagpipes involved.

On the way back to the hotel after dinner, amidst the Ramadan crowds, I realised that I probably needed a shave. On one occasion I was stopped for directions and, on another occasion, for the time, by people who assumed that I was also Turkish.

Torturous Tour to Bursa

On Thursday, I went on a tour to Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire. To put it bluntly, this is one precious day that I will not ever get back. Every now and again in travelling I am unfortunate enough to undertake a tour that I regret for almost its entire duration. This was one such tour.

turkey bursa

It’s a long drive to Bursa and the Turkish guide did not draw breath once in a narrative that covered everything including Turkey’s relations with each of its seven neighbouring countries, Turkish marriage customs, schooling and military service, how to make Turkish coffee, the pillars of Islam, polygamy, and the life story of Ataturk.

My God, it was awful. It was so awful that, at one point, I tried willing the coach to slam into an oncoming petrol tanker, just so it would finish. We even had an enforced stop at a Turkish delight factory!

There was no sign of a 14th century Ottoman capital on the bit of Bursa we drove through before lunch – the highlight was the Fiat factory. First of all, we ended up in a “traditional” Ottoman village – Cumalikizik.

A “traditional” village would appear to be simply the least-developed town the authorities could find from which they have now banned cement and for which government finance has been provided apparently to keep the place in squalor.

The mud, stone and wooden constructions, whether in good repair or derelict, were not even photogenic, so far as I could see. Although this did not prevent the presence of at least two film crews that I observed on the walk around.


Things improved somewhat with lunch in an Ottoman soup kitchen, part of a mosque complex dating back to the time of the sixth Sultan. The hall itself had no windows so that the poor would not be embarrassed by people looking in on them while they ate.

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Indeed, things were looking up with a promise of visits to two historic mosques, until we were taken up the mountainside (on which old Bursa is perched) to a height of 1,231 metres (half way to a ski resort) in a 40-year-old Swiss cable car.

Getting there was all the fun, as the view of Bursa and the valley was subject to what the Turks quaintly call “uncharacteristic mist” (read: “very characteristic pollution”) and we had to wait 40 minutes to get the cable car back down again.

By the time we got to the two historic mosques it was very late in the day. The Green Mosque was built in the early 1400s but substantially rebuilt after an earthquake in 1855. We arrived there just as prayers had begun so had to spend 25 minutes in a faux bazaar before we could gain entrance.

The next stop, the Great Mosque, had 20 domes because someone or other was not allowed to build 20 mosques. By now, I really was past caring about this story, or the fine examples of 19th century calligraphy on display.
By 6pm, all that was left was the long, long drive back to Istanbul.

That Bursa trip and Friday’s five hour transit in a German airport should get me many years out of Purgatory.

Australians considering travelling to Turkey should check the Australian Government Smart Traveller page for Turkey to make sure they’re aware of the current security situation there. At the time of writing (December 2007) the Australian government advice to was to take a High degree of caution in Turkey overall and Reconsider your need to travel near the Borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Further Reading

This travel diary has been written by my friend Joseph Waugh who likes to travel to places with interesting architecture and history.

If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution

16 comments on “Istanbul, Turkey: Where East and West Meet

  1. My dad is a history major/guru and loves telling me about certain events/major battles and he loves talking about the old Roman Empire and the area around it. I’m really bad at history but the pictures and description of Byzantine look like a wonderful place to experience

  2. wkhaiaun on said:

    It’s a nice place to actually be there. The turks are the most open type (if you know what I mean) and with a great heritage and culture diversity, it’s one of the place that one should consider visiting. Some of my friends who were there commented that the people are also friendly and one of thing he liked the most is the beaches :)

  3. Forrest on said:

    Congratulations to Joseph on what looks like it must have been a superb vacation! I’m a little jealous, although I have to admit the “uncharacteristic mist” makes me a bit sad. This is exactly why I’m glad to be born into the age we live in, and not a hundred years later. We may well be among the last generation to enjoy great views. I liked the last photograph best of all.

  4. TigerTom on said:

    Just to say that was one of the most interesting and well written blog posts I’ve ever read. Give a good sense of the place, and I’ve broadened my vocabulary!

  5. Murali on said:

    I am always interested in visiting a place like Istanbul with long history and still preserved wonders. Having stamp collecting as my hobby in childhood days, I can say countries like Turkey – stamps will be most sought after. It is one of the must visit place in my list.

  6. Turkey and Istanbul more specifically are really beautiful places that most people, at least that I’ve talked to, don’t think of when planning excursions to Europe. There is so much culture and history in Istanbul. It truly is a must see.

  7. Matthijs Hofstede on said:

    Just went to Istanbul a couple off months a go. Had a great time over there. You can’t imagine how big the city actually is. I would suggest to everybody not just to stay in the (very beautiful) old city but also explore the rest off Istanbul. There you get a real sense of the citys culture.

  8. Curt Monash on said:

    What, if I may ask, is involved in getting to the war memorial area?

    I read a book about it once, written by a late relative of mine. I imagine you will be able to guess to whom I am referring. ;)

  9. Hi Curt,
    I went on a pre-arranged package tour from Istanbul through a firm called “Hassle Free Travel”. Even though nothing is ever entirely “hassle free” in Turkey, they were actually quite good the trip I went on so I have little hesitation in passing on their details: http://www.anzachouse.com/package_tours.html
    I did notice that there are also a lot of agencies in Istanbul offering Gallipoli tours, especially in the backpacker areas down below Sultanahmet and Hagia Sophia. However, I cannot vouch that they will all have the Australian focus that “Hassle Free” does.
    Good luck when you make the trip. I’m sure there aren’t many on the tours who can claim that one of the landforms is named after their ancestor!

  10. Curt Monash on said:

    Thank you!

    I don’t think I’ll actually do an overnight excursion for WW1 history, however. Ancient history would be higher priority.

    Even there, I’ll probably wimp out of a many-hour bus trip.

    Best,

    CAM

    PS. Traces of my trip will probably show up on www.kamilpasha.com a blog about Turkey by world-class scholar/award-winning novelist Jenny White. She also happens to be the friend with whom we’ll be staying — in the big old Ottoman house she’s already described there. :)

  11. Turkey truly is rich in history and Istanbul really gives you a true feeling you have entered another world. If you are into your history I can highly recommend it. Turkey is fast catching up with the rest of the world so if you want to get the true feeling of what this country has to offer go now.

  12. ohuz on said:

    I am always interested in visiting a place like Istanbul with long history and still preserved wonders. Having stamp collecting as my hobby in childhood days, I can say countries like Turkey – stamps will be most sought after.

  13. Istanbul is such a vibrant city. There’s a great new boutique hotel there as well – called Macakizi

  14. tecmusti on said:

    It is really good to see that someone writes about your city. I have been living in istanbul for 11 years and still not bored. A huge city with about 17million population, historical places, bosphorus, taksim, ortaköy, kadıköy, besiktas, blue mosque… You won’t be disappointed.

  15. j_hafiz on said:

    i’m impressed with the title.. absolutely right… the place where east meet west.. since i’m in egypt now, i’m looking 4wd to go there… such a nice place…

  16. Hi,

    I’ve been to Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Morocco, but yet to visit Turkey, but always wanted to go. The pictures look absolutely beautiful and I’d like to go there to see how it’s like in person.

    I noticed that you didn’t have any inside pictures of the hagia sophia or the blue mosque, is there any special reasons for that? Are camera’s not allowed or something?

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