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A visit to Istanbul offers rare treats to the tourist. The city so dear to Orhan Pamuk (luckily I had read “Istanbul” before the trip) allows to experience two millennia of time traveling simply by walking up and down its steep hills.
Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium… a bit of history
The city’s legendary past began circa 657 BCE, when Bizas –son of the sea god Poseidon- settled in the former Lygos and founded the city.
From its Greek origins the city passed under Roman influence in 79 CE, and in 330 CE it became the capital of the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great.
In 524 CE Justinian began an enlightened rule of Constantinople with his wife Theodora.
A gradual decline followed these ‘high’ times for the Byzantine empire, the city entered a phase of stasis and only its amazing fortifications allowed its survival during several centuries of attacks from Persians, Arabs and Bulgarians until, in 1203, it capitulated to the Venetians who had been pushed out of their settlement in Galata (an area of the city). The Venetians, however, ruled only for a few years and in 1261 the exiled Byzantine rulers regained its control.
The decline of Byzantium paralleled the growth of the Muslim Empire (623-1050), which extended its area of influence from the borders of China and India, across Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Sicily, and the Iberian Peninsula, to the Pyrenees.
With the foundation of the Ottoman state in Bursa in 1288 by Osman Gazi the great Ottoman adventure begins. The Ottoman state was transformed into an empire with the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed II in 1453. During the 16th and 17th centuries, in particular at the height of its power under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world, a multinational, multilingual empire controlling much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
Not all the Sultans were noteworthy or enlightened, and attempts to further expand the empire were later on abruptly curtailed with the defeat of the Ottoman army in 1683 by the Austrian defending Wien. Following that event, for a couple of centuries the Sultans’ efforts remained focussed on the economic and diplomatic modernization of the Empire. In 1854 France and England joined the Turkish army in the war waged by Russia over Crimea.
The alliance of the Turks with Germany in WWI proved an unfortunate choice and it lead to internal pressure for changes; these efforts consolidated in the support for a young general, Mustafa Kemal, who, in 1919, took command of the Turkish army in the war waged by Greece and defeated the occupation forces.
Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” (father of the Turks) declared Turkey a republic in 1923 and initiated a major process of state secularization and modernization.
Almost unaffected by WWII, in the 50’s Turkey plunged into a deep political turmoil that lead, in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 to various military coups. In the last portion of the 20th century the government focussed on controlling the severe economic problems .
The rise of Islamic religiosity in Turkey in the last two decades has been perceived as a shift of the Turkish society towards a more hardline Islamic identity and country.
The fortified roman and mediaeval city encompassed two promontories facing the Sea of Marmara and separated by the water of the Golden Horn. Like Rome it is spread on seven hills, so steep that walking around involves a bit of a physical effort, and they afford at their high points truly spectacular views.
Many of the city’s old residential buildings (from the traditional wooden structures to 19th and 20th century masonry palaces) have survived phases of modernization and they are gradually being restored to their former charm and glory. The old city neighborhoods are alive and charming, even when in a rundown state, because residences, old shops and traditional workshops are socially integrated and functional.
The first thing one notices in the old city is a sense of bygone times; neighborhoods streets are lined with shops that expose goods on their front while often they are being made in the inside (or above….). This amazingly colorful collection of shops ranges from that of the saddle maker, to the tin ware maker, the cheese maker, the baker, the makers of the many types of kebabs, of fried fish, of sweets, etc. .
And then there are the bazaars, the pride of Istanbul and its great tourist attraction. I realized that most of the bazaars are really catering to the tourists (‘unloaded’ by the thousands by huge ocean liners docked at the Galata front) and found that walking the old, shop-lined, residential streets was more interesting.
The city’s modern character is best represented by the considerable network of public transportation (on land and sea), a great service for the many commuters and the visitors.
Although the water (the sea of Marmara and that of the Golden Horn) with boats, ferries and ocean liners is the most ubiquitous element of Istanbul, its most iconic character is the Ottoman mosque, a multi-domed bulky structure with several tall and thin minarets. From anywhere in town one can see mosques, they are elegant and graceful buildings that, when entered, stun the viewer with architectural features unimaginable from the outside. In their interior, light, colors and volumes combine in a harmonious effect that makes them stand out when compared with other religious spaces.
Two additional architectural elements characterize the old city: the Galata tower, a jewel of medieval architecture, and the surviving portions of the city walls. Both deserve to be ‘climbed’ to gain yet another high vantage point.
Old men sipping tea sitting on stools on the streets, young people shopping on Istiklal Caddesi (the local Fifth Avenue), and women in chador (oddly hand in hand with their sweethearts) make Istanbul a city truly alive with people. One additional colorful character of the city is the presence of many “local” tourists, people of various Eurasian ethnicities mingling in the streets and bazaars with ‘real’ tourists.