Istanbul – City of Past Empires and Present Beauty

Istanbul is a city I never paid much attention to growing up. I had learned about it in high school Advanced Placement European History class — namely that it was once called Constantinople and was the heart of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires — but it never made my short list of places to visit. It was a relic from the past that had no bearing on today as far as I was concerned.

Reading he work of Istanbulu Orhan Pamuk (see earlier blog post) only strengthened this perspective. I almost expected to encounter a decaying, empty, colorless city — magnificent ruins but ruins nonetheless. This is not the reality through my American eyes. I was mesmerized by its captivating beauty: from the Bosphorus to the Blue Mosque to the women walking through Taksim Square. It’s splendor can be fully appreciated only from above, where I went with my Kurdish friend Firat to the top of a fifth century guard tower that is the oldest of its kind still open to tourists. If it weren’t for the over-crowded platforms and staircases, I would have felt like I was in some kind of fairy tale or Disney movie involving a small boy lost in a fantasy land he can neither comprehend nor navigate. The Disney scenario would not be such a stretch given that I knew next to nothing about Istanbul (or Turkey, for that matter) prior to leaving for it on a one-way ticket.

It is enormous in size and includes everything you could ask for in a city except simplicity. I can’t even imagine trying to get around it alone, especially without speaking more than a few words of Turkish. I also can’t imagine having a boring moment there. It was even interesting using the public toilet next to the Hagia Sophia because I had to pay for the privilege of peeing in a hole in the ground.

Two things struck me especially: 1) There is an entire map of Istanbul marking the final resting places of dead rulers and 2) Istanbul is actually two cities separated by the large Bosphorus strait that separates Europe from Asia (a geographical distinction fraught with perils that I hesitate to recognize). I am not implying any connection between these two interesting facts — and they are just two of the many. I have not even scratched the surface of this city.

Eight months may not be enough time to see it all.

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