Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Turkey is a geographically diverse and historically significant country. It is home to Troy, the setting for Homer’s timeless epic “The Iliad”, and the city of Ephesus, whose Christian population received a letter from St. Paul which later became “Ephesians” – the tenth book of the New Testament. Turkey straddles Asia and Europe with the Bosphorus, a narrow strait running through Istanbul, demarcating the official boundary between the two continents. The Bosphorus was extremely important in ancient times as it is the only maritime route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, giving the empire or country that controlled it a huge trade advantage.

The small European part of modern Turkey west of the Bosphorus was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Thrace. Thrace was part of the Roman Empire until its demise in AD 476, making way for the ascendance of the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe. Constantine, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity, had left Rome after his conversion in AD 330 and made Byzantium, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, his new home. He decided to rename the city after himself (I guess he missed all the sermons about humility), and Constantinople was born.

The Byzantine Empire held sway until the 14th Century when a new movement spread westward from Anatolia – the ancient name for the Asian part of Turkey. The Ottomans rose up from the dusty planes and created an empire which would span from the eastern border of Austria to the Persian Gulf, taking in a large swath of North Africa along the way. For 600 years the Ottoman sultans ruled over this huge area until the First World War finally took their empire down. The title of Ottoman Sultan was eliminated in 1922 and the new Republic of Turkey was formed the following year. Turkish leaders wanted to leave every vestige of their imperial past behind and consequently decided to rename Constantinople, their largest city, Istanbul – a new name for a new country.

Istanbul is a sprawling cosmopolitan city with some seventeen million inhabitants. My husband Douglas and I visited there in 1985. We had initially planned on only spending a couple of days in the city before heading east into the interior of the country, but it was so packed with historically significant buildings and sites that we ended up staying a full week. The first place we decided to visit in Istanbul was Topkapi Palace, the opulent home of the Ottoman sultans.

We had been on the road for several months before arriving in Turkey, and getting around had been relatively easy because they either spoke English or a Romance language in all of the countries we’d visited. Turkish, on the other hand, was completely foreign in both its written and spoken forms. The Turks had customs which were totally unfamiliar as well. We went to the Istanbul bus station on the day we determined to visit Topkapi, and were pretty sure that we had joined the correct line for the bus that serviced the palace. When it was finally my turn to board, I asked the driver if this was indeed the Topkapi bus. He responded by lifting his eyebrows and tilting his head up and back in a gesture which I’d always known to mean, “Yes. Come ahead.” I consequently climbed the first step and the bus driver responded by straightening his arm and thrusting the palm of his hand towards my face, exactly like a police officer directing traffic to stop. Confused, I again said, “Topkapi?”, he again jerked his brows and head back, and I began to take the second step when his flattened hand again appeared to halt my progress. I looked back at Douglas in utter confusion when a man further back in the line told us in halting English that a head raised in reply to a question in Turkey meant “No.” Seemed counter-intuitive to me, but there it was. The man then pointed us towards the correct bus and we thanked him for his help.

The facade of Topkapi Palace is comprised of a large door recessed in a massive stone arch, topped with crenelations (zig-zag stonework designed to allow archers defending the castle a clear shot at the enemy), and framed by two tall towers crowned with shingled spires. The sultans clearly took their cue for the exterior of the building from medieval European castles rather than from traditional Muslim ones – it looks more like a small version of the Disney castle than an eastern sultan’s palace. Inside, however, the design is thoroughly Islamic, with arched ceilings, scrolled panels and stunning tile-work throughout. The sultan’s wives and concubines were housed in the seraglio (harem), a sequestered part of the palace overseen by eunuchs – castrated servants whose sole purpose was to care for the sultan’s women. Topkapi also has a glorious courtyard in the centre, overflowing with fragrant flowers and ornate fountains, all surrounded by beautifully apportioned colonnades (exterior hallways featuring a series of paired columns marching down either side).

As impressive as the building itself is, the artifacts it contains are even more breathtaking. There are solid gold tea services, candle sticks, pitchers, bowls, and trays. Actually, picture just about any household item in solid gold and you’ll start to get an idea of the breadth of the gold collection. Then there is the weaponry – innumerable daggers and swords all housed in lavishly decorated sheaths. As beautiful as all these items are, they pale in comparison to the Sultan’s Jewels. This part of the collection is comprised of every type of jewelry ever made covered in various combinations of every precious stone known to man. There are also small chests overflowing with gems of every description as well as individual rubies and emeralds and sapphires so enormous as to strain credulity. This collection put me in mind of the treasure Daffy Duck loses his mind over in the old Looney Tunes cartoon “Ali Baba Bunny” – vast, varied, and of absolutely unimaginable value. It’s gobsmacking that all of this was owned by the sultans, and that each of them in turn probably felt it was the least they were due.

Istanbul is home to Hagia Sophia. Originally built as a Christian Cathedral in the 6th Century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque in 1453 by the Ottomans. It eventually became a museum in 1934 in an effort by the newly minted Republic of Turkey to placate Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike, both of whom rightfully view it as a holy place. I recently read that there is a much disputed plan afoot, instigated by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, to overturn the 1934 decision and reestablish Hagia Sophia as a mosque. The 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, whose leadership resides in Istanbul, will feel snubbed if this happens because it was originally erected as a Christian place of worship. As for the secular world, they largely object to the idea because the deconsecration of Hagia Sophia has helped to keep the peace between two otherwise antagonistic factions for the past 86 years. Also, it has been named a World Heritage Site by the U.N. and they prefer that places so designated have no specific religious affiliation.*

Hagia Sophia was not only a museum when Douglas and I visited, but also a venue for the arts. It so happened that The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner, was holding a series of afternoon concerts in Hagia Sophia the very week we were in town. Naturally we bought tickets. We were overjoyed at the prospect of seeing a world-class orchestra in such an historic building, and doubly pleased because we managed to snag tickets for a performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” – one of my all-time favourite classical compositions.

The sky was dark grey that Wednesday afternoon, but nothing could dampen our high spirits as we took our seats under Hagia Sophia’s multi-domed vaulted ceiling. We settled in and began gazing around the building, marvelling at the glorious architecture and the ancient Christian iconography on the walls. The orchestra was already in place and a hush fell over the audience as the oboe played the tuning note. Then Sir Neville came out to thunderous applause. He motioned the musicians to rise, they all gave a brief bow, and the concert began as soon as they had retaken their seats. The acoustics were bright and perfect, and the orchestra was masterful and emotive. Sharing a live performance often prompts me to experience a sense of kinship with everyone in attendance, artists and audience alike. This feeling of connectivity began mounting in me as the Vivaldi concerti continued, along with one of extreme personal well-being. At one particularly breathtaking moment, the lead violinist was holding an exquisitely pure high note when a single shaft of brilliant sunlight burst through the clouds. It came flooding in one of Hagia Sophia’s upper windows, piercing the gloom of the building’s interior and illuminating in its path a single white dove which had suddenly taken flight from the ceiling rafters. I count that moment among one of the handful of times in my entire life when I have felt truly, transcendently euphoric.

The day after this sublime experience in Hagia Sophia, Douglas and I went to a local dive recommended in our “Daily Planet” guidebook. We always used books in the “Daily Planet” series when we travelled, finding them far superior to their competitors. This particular place only served two things – lamb and bread. We were sceptical that such a meagre menu could prove sufficient, but our trusty guidebook had never led us astray so we assumed the best. At first glance the restaurant seemed to be comprised of a tiny storefront containing two empty tables, but in reality that was just the façade. No sooner had we entered this small space than a Turkish man nodded at us and waved us forward. We followed him to the rear corner of the room and turning to our left saw a circular stone staircase recessed into the wall. He led us up the stairs and on to a spacious rooftop patio. Picnic tables covered in rustic clothes were scattered about, and the man indicated we should sit at a table where several people were already enthusiastically mowing down on their lunches.

No sooner had we sat than two waiters appeared – one with a couple of plastic cups and a pitcher of cool water, and the other with a large platter containing huge hunks of roasted lamb and a generous stack of warm, freshly baked pita. The food and drink was unceremoniously plunked down in front of us and the waiters hustled off, presumably to make their next delivery. No silverware, no napkins, just meat, bread and water. I think Douglas and I must have looked a little perplexed by the whole thing because one of the men opposite us caught our attention and with a smile began ripping pieces of lamb and bread from his platter and shoving them into his mouth. The men around him picked up on his intention, and they all began cramming huge wads of food into their mouths, nodding and silently giving us permission to do the same. We began tentatively tearing apart our food, but the lamb was so succulently delicious and the bread so perfectly warm and yeasty that soon we were gobbling up our meal as unabashedly as our ravenous table mates. Our faces, hands and arms up to the elbows were covered in lamb grease and our bellies were full to bursting when we finally finished our feeding frenzy. The meat and bread had been utterly delicious, the water cold and refreshing, but what made this meal so exceptional was the visceral thrill of feeling our food with our hands and unreservedly satisfying our hunger. Very Neanderthal, and very gratifying.

Douglas and I left Istanbul the day after this meal, looking forward to the adventures that lay ahead in the Asian part of Turkey. I will explore our time there in my next blog.

* My research this morning revealed that just yesterday (July 10, 2020) a Turkish court ruled that the 1934 decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum was illegal, and Erdogan has already held a press conference declaring that it will be re-opened as a mosque on July 24. One just has to hope that people are sufficiently distracted by the pandemic that no bloodshed will result as a consequence – at least in the short term.

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