Visit: 17th-19th January 2014
Istanbul. One of the most important cities in history and of growing importance once again today. Where Europe meets Asia, it is a city that has known three names under three civilisations. First as Byzantium under the Greeks, it became the centre of the Byzantine Empire during the latter stages of Roman antiquity. In AD324, when the emperor Constantine decided, for political reasons, to shift the capital of the Roman Empire to here he renamed it after himself: Constantinople. This event marked the shift in the Romans’ official religion from paganism to Christianity, and saw the building of grand cathedrals and fortifications in the city. After repelling repeated sieges for over 1100 years, the city was taken by an increasingly tenacious tribe from Anatolia, known as the Ottomans. With this, the city we know as Istanbul came into being, and its religion was no longer Christianity, but Islam. The Ottoman Empire lasted into the 20th century, only coming to an end with the First World War, whereafter it was soon replaced by the secular democracy (albeit interrupted by a few coups) that we know today.
I had been to Istanbul once before, when I spent an enjoyable 24 hours there on a stopover, and I wanted to try to recreate some of that with a couple of friends. Ross and Nowell were the ones who volunteered, so we booked a three night trip. Nowell and I flew together from Gatwick (I very nearly missed my flight due to travel chaos on the way to the airport) and Ross travelled by himself from Luxembourg via Vienna. On the approach into Istanbul Ataturk airport we swooped over the city, seeing dozens of mosques out the window and marvelling at the sheer size of this sprawling city of 14m people.
We got a cab to the hotel down in Sultanahmet (the old town) and went upstairs to the restaurant to have a beer and take in the view. There then followed a fairly unedifying night which consisted largely of standing out in the street and getting ripped off. Here’s a picture of a beer we found that is the size of a child’s head (1 litre) and 9% strength. The largest amount of alcohol yet found in one can of beer, and we found it in a Muslim-majority country!
That said, we spent quite a while having a good time on the Galata Bridge, which is full of restaurants underneath the roadway. The waiters were Kurdish, and happy to tell us all about their region’s struggle for independence. They were probably the friendliest locals we met on the trip, and their mates were even good enough to let us cameo in their band:
The next day (morning would be an exaggeration) we headed out for a bit of sightseeing. The first place we visited was the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque. Built in honour of the Ottomans’ most highly-esteemed emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent, this mosque stands atop one of the city’s seven hills (like Rome, right?). It was constructed by 3523 craftsmen over the seven years to 1557.
A prayer had just finished, so we went up to the entrance, took off our shoes and went inside. You don’t have to pay to get into the “working mosques”, and it is well worth doing – don’t just go to the inactive Hagia Sofia! Inside the mosque the floor is covered in a rich carpet, and the walls and ceilings are exquisitely detailed.
It was a nice day outside, so after the Süleymaniye we went for a beer on a rooftop café we had spotted from the gardens. Except we didn’t get a beer. That’s one thing we learned about Istanbul (and probably most Muslim places) – it’s very difficult to buy a beer within sight of a mosque. Which, in a city as richly endowed with them as Istanbul, is a lot of places!
That day we did quite of lot of walking, and picked up some local food and drink – doner kebab, baklava and Turkish coffee (English breakfast tea for Nowell).
After getting ripped off by a shoe shine boy (£30 for a shine!!!) we ended up at the Hagia Sofia. Although less attractive than some of the other mosques, it is significant because it was not always a mosque. Under Roman rule, when the city was Constantinople, the Hagia Sofia was the city’s main cathedral. The Ottomans converted it into a flagship mosque, but did not remove all of the Christian artifacts from the inside, creating the opposite outcome to that in Cordoba (where a mosque was in 1236 reconverted into a cathedral). For instance, there is a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (a specific depiction of Jesus found all over Europe).
The Hagia Sofia is no longer an active mosque, but now a full time museum. Yet it is the Islamic feel that predominates. You can get a really good view of the massive amount of modern scaffolding inside the building, too, though I don’t think it’s the best use of our space here. Located opposite the Sofia is the Blue Mosque – another very attractive one and still in use for prayers five times a day. The weather was pretty perfect at that time of year – not freezing cold as I had sort of expected, but comparable to England in May.
That evening we headed to Beyoğlu (an area with some great nightlife). After Ross managed to pay the taxi driver twice, we confiscated the money from him and stymied the outflow of money a little. We had a good night out, smoked some shisha and listened to some jazz. Nowell hit us with the astounding fact (to me at least) that Moe Syszlak in the Simpsons was inspired by the US comedian Rich Hall! Apparently he was friends with the writers when the show was first being put together. It makes so much sense (thought it’s not exactly complimentary to Rich Hall)!
The next day all we managed to do of note was to get up the Galata Tower. It’s the equivalent of the London Monument, allowing decent views over the city from the north of Sultanahmet. The panorama near the top of this post was taken from there.
We managed a pretty wild night out after that, and went to a rock n roll bar where we met local Turkish rock star Nikki Wild. This was somewhere off Beyoğlu too, and we even managed to get around the ubiquitous “no admittance without a 50:50 gender mix” rule for the only time. That can be a real pain in Istanbul.
The following morning was our last in the city, so we traipsed around to see a few more sights, which ended up being well worth it. We walked around the Archaeological Museums and then tracked down the Basilica Cistern (in the end!). This is a vast underground reservoir built in the 6th century by the Roman emperor Justinian. Its purpose was to store water that flowed in from a source 19km away. Inside the cisterns there is a historical oddity that has defied explanations for centuries – two of the columns in the northwest corner are supported at their bases by statues of the head of the Gorgon Medusa, turned respectively sideways and upside-down. Nobody knows why they were placed like this. It is thought they were brought over from somewhere in Greece, and were perhaps placed like that to avoid the powerful Gorgons’ gaze – that would turn a man to stone.
In From Russia With Love the MI6 station chief in Istanbul – whose secret eavesdropping periscope is located down in the cisterns – drops a real clanger, telling Bond that it was built by Constantine. Speaking of which, as I was watching the film last night I noticed that this scene in which Bond is being chauffeured into Istanbul looked remarkably similar to this photo I coincidentally took of Ross and Nowell. We actually ate lunch in the building on the right!
Well, after zipping past the Topkapı Palace and buying some gifts we raced off to the airport just in time for Ross’s flight. I was impressed with Turkish Airlines after they allowed me and Nowell to change flights to an earlier one for no extra cost.
We got into Heathrow at around 9pm and were ripped off a final time (a £40 coach ride for me, a £21 ride into London for Nowell) before getting home. Despite Nowell telling us he had a terrible time, I don’t believe him. We had an awesome time in Istanbul and I’m sure we’ll be going back when we get a chance.