Ancient History Comes Alive
First Impressions, Accompanied By Online Chorus From America
How Did Istanbul Get Its Name?
If the Walls of Constantinople Were Breached, Would I Be A Christian Today?
A Hopping City, With Wild and Friendly Dogs and Cats
Istanbul from a Kid's Point of View
Brief Recommendations for Istanbul Itineraries
American Tourists Afraid to Come to Islamic Turkey, Cancelling Trip: My Response
Slideshow: 'Must See' In Istanbul
I tweet: "I am in Asia. My wife and son are 10 minutes away in Europe. Where am I?"
A friend of my son in Thailand replies: "You are in Russia?"
An acquaintance in the US asks: "Are you around the Black Sea?"
Close, I tweet back.
"You are in Constantinople!" an American friend replies. Since she works in the international arena, I'm sure she knows that the city has been, officially since 1930, called Istanbul. I wouldn't be so sure about the answers of some of my other geography-impaired American friends, or the answer I myself might have given if I weren't traveling to the region. Probably their knowledge of the city is limited to the popular 1990 song "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" by the group They Might Be Giants.
Since she's of the Orthodox faith, maybe she was trying to make a political or religious point, that it's still the home of the Holy See or Vatican of the Eastern Orthodox Church, though few adherents of the Orthodox faith still live in Turkey.
Ancient History Comes Alive
To come to this city -- one of the oldest in the world -- is so exotic to me as an American, since I'm from a country that is only a few hundred years old, without the deep history.
I vaguely remembered from my elementary school world history class that this was the home of Byzantium, an ancient Greek city, and eventual long-running empire. Legend has it that in 657 B.C., a Greek explorer named Byzus consulted the Oracle of Delphi, who always spoke in vague generalities, rather like your horoscope does today. She told him to travel northeast and found a city "opposite the blind." Byzus did not know what that meant. When he sailed up the Aegean and into the Bosporous Strait, he passed an existing Greek city on the Asian side of the Bosporous River, but noted the conditions there were not adequate. "Those people must be blind," he said to himself.
"Aha!" He immediately understood what the Oracle meant, because he found a much better location on the European side of the river.
Several hundred years later, the Romans invaded the city and made it part of the Roman Empire. In the fourth century they renamed it Constantinople after the Roman emperor Constantine, who adopted Christianity as the empire's state religion. The Western half of the Roman Empire, based in Rome, fell in the sixth century. But the Eastern half survived until 1453. In American schools, I learned a lot about "the glory that was Rome," perhaps because of its connection to Roman Catholicism, and my nation's many Western immigrants, but I did not learn much about the Eastern Roman Empire, which endured much longer, another 900 years in fact.
First Impressions, Accompanied By Online Chorus From Back Home
It seemed strange to fly from the east coast, North Carolina, to Chicago to fly west to Istanbul, but the flights on Turkish Air out of Chicago were about 600 euro cheaper per person, Lucia said. (The university paid to fly us. Not sure we would have come if they weren't willing to do that -- if we had to spring for our own tickets -- too risky if everything is site-unseen.)
Alex and I arrived around 5 pm local time (10 AM EST). Neither of us slept much on the 10-hour flight from Chicago -- seats too uncomfortable. He did doze more than I did. When we arrived in Chicago, Alex, 12, asked "How long is the hangover here?"
Wise guy next to me said, "About 24 hours!"
My smart phone worked immediately when we landed. I was able to Twitter and post impressions in Facebook while we waited in various lines. "Istanbul far more high tech and cosmo than I xpected. Far bigger than nyc's 8 million people. It has 13 million people and counting."
It was great to feel "accompanied" by friends and family back home as I posted my first impressions of Turkey. My high school friend Beacham McDougald posted to FB: "I've never heard Istanbul used to compare with NYC. That is totally disrespectful . . . to Istanbul."
Former neighbor Margaret Cox posted: "Yea!! now some good eating begins!"
Me: "Good eating already began on plane. Dinner and breakfast served along with socks and toothbrush courtesy of Turkish Air. Each passenger had own interactive video screen. Have slept only 7 hours in the last three nights. It is about 5 pm here. Long but quick-moving lines for passport authentication. Visa only 20 dollars."
There was no customs declaration or health inspections (we didn't even have to get shots before we left).
I would have saved myself about 20 minutes if before going to baggage claim I had exchanged dollars to lira because I would need coins to purchase a cart to put the luggage on. I have been told it is cheaper to pay the hotels in dollars. The baggage came quickly. I dipped into the duty-free store to see if they might have a charger for my smart phone which I forgot, but they didn't. Duty-free store was crowded with people about to depart, looking for souvenirs to take home. Not the place for the just arrived to waste time in.
Lucia arranged for a free "transfer" (host) through the hotel system to pick us up at the airport. No money was exchanged. When we emerged from baggage claim, there were hundreds of people behind a rope holding signs with names on them. They were all peering closely at us and we were peering closely at them. I walked up and down the crowd looking for a sign with the name "Buie" on it. On my third perusal of the crowd, I saw a man holding a professionally-looking sign saying "Alex Buie."
"Welcome!" he exclaimed, asking if this is my first time in Istanbul. He efficiently spoke into his cell phone that he had located us and completed his mission, turned us over to another "host" while he accepted another sign to go stand back in line waiting for another tourist to arrive. Apparently holding signs with the names of tourists on it is his occupation. There are worse jobs, I guess.
Soon a van arrived to take us to the Grand Hotel Istanbul in the heart of the city. Seat belts didn't seem to work in the back of the van, so I said, "to hell with it." That was a mistake. A few minutes later, the driver almost slammed into the back of another vehicle. One of my bags when flying off the seat and so did I.
"Welcome to Turkey," the driver said.
By American standards, the Turks seem to be lethal drivers -- they drive too fast, don't obey stop lights or signs. I thought the Turks were bad drivers until I visited other parts of Asia, where the streets are far more chaotic, the drivers far more aggressive and impatient car-honking is constant. Then I realized America's rule-conscious, obedient drivers may be the exception rather than the rule, in the world -- endemic to an affluent society that can afford lots of traffic cops.
How Did Istanbul Get It's Name?
As I sat insecurely in the taxi awaiting arrival at the hotel, an email arrived on my smart phone from my friend Bruce Johnson in Michigan:
"My brother Mark, who's traveled in Turkey a good bit, told us that the Greeks referred to Constantinople simply as "the city," the way New Yorkers and San Franciscans do with their cities today. Signs pointing the way to Constantinople simply said, "To The City," with an arrow - in Greek, apparently, that is roughly Is Tan Polis. The Turks thought the signs indicated the name of the city, so they called it Istanpolis - then I guess the "p" sound got shifted to a "b," & the name was shortened. But I think the alternative name "Constantinople" was still used a lot till the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I."
Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, so we in the West have had a few years to get used to the fact it's no longer dominated by Christians, though some Greeks and Islamophobes have not. I was surprised to go online and find hostile comments lamenting the turn of events in 1453, as if it were worse than the "recent unpleasantness" of the American civil war. And I thought eccentric Southern confederates were slow to forgive!
If the Walls of Constantinople Were Breached, Would I Be A Christian Today?
We in the West think of choosing religions almost completely as a personal choice -- adecision one makes to believe or disbelieve. And yet, history and culture play an enormous, unseen role in the individual choices that we think we are making.
One's religion is often determined by accident of birth. If you're born in Turkey or the Middle East, odds are you're going to be a Muslim, culturally if not devoutly. If you're born in Italy, odds are you're going to be a Catholic, culturally if not devoutly.
If you're born in America, odds are you're going to be a Christian, culturally if not devoutly. Only 15% of Americans say they are non-believers, and 15% say they are religious but non-Christian (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, New Age). Some 50% of Americans identify as Protestant. You may think religion is unimportant and not influential, even culturally, in your life, but when you step out of the fish bowl of America and into the Middle East, you realize how influential Western religion and culture has been on your way of thinking.
When I visited Istanbul, history's influence on today's cultural and religious landscapes is striking. I begin to ponder the "what ifs" of history:
What if the walls of Constantinople hadn't held repeatedly through Byzantine history? Beginning with the attacks of Attila the Hun in 447, Western Europeans (and consequently, America) might be Muslim today.
Terry Richardson wrote in Today's Zaman, an English-language Turkish newspaper:
History is full of “What ifs,” but it's worth pondering on the significance of the effectiveness of the Lands Walls of Constantinople. If Attila had breached them in 447, would the city have survived as a Christian entity or would the eastern half of the Roman Empire (later known as Byzantium) have collapsed? The Byzantine Empire is seen by most scholars as an effective barrier between the Islamic world to the east and Christian Europe to the west.
But had Constantinople, capital and lynch-pin of this great empire, fallen to the besieging Arabs in 717-718, would the tide of Islam indeed have flooded its way across to the Atlantic and left Europe a largely Muslim continent? This is pure speculation of course, but there is no doubt that this incredible defense system played its part in determining the course of world history.
The walls of Constantinople were ultimately breached twice, disastrously for the Byzantines:
- In 1204, the sea walls were breached by the Crusaders from Venice and Western Europe. The siege of Constantinople, part of the Fourth Crusade, decimated one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world, leading to its economic ruin.
- Ironically, this attack by Catholic Italians against Orthodox Greeks essentially eliminated the opportunity for Christians to dominate the Middle East. Catholic popes centuries later regretted and apologized to the Orthodox patriarch, but the deed was done. Because of infighting among Christians, the Middle East became more Muslim than Christian.
- In 1453, the Ottomans, led by Sultan Mehmet, conquered Constantinople, taking it from the Byzantines by breaching the land walls. The Ottomans' success was made possible by technological progress. They fired gunpowder-powered canons into the walls around Topkapi gate, blowing it open. By this time, Byzantium was a "decrepit village whose inhabitants numbered less than 50,000." The Byzantines' ragtag army of 8,000 was no match for the Ottoman force of at least 60,000.
- The Ottomans went on to expand their Muslim empire throughout the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe, and even reached the gates of Vienna in 1529, resulting in a long-standing rivalry with Europe. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who expanded the empire greatly during his 46-year rule, is still revered in Turkey. But even if the Ottomans had won the Battle of Vienna, it's hard to imagine them over-running Western Europe, due to the clash of cultures and religions. Christianity was well-rooted in Europe by then.
- But in the fifth century and the eighth century, things could have turned out very differently. Attila and his huns might well have over-run Europe if they had breached the walls of Constantinople. Three hundred years later, newly converted Muslims were full of conviction and passionate intensity, while Christians were deeply divided among Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, smaller factions and minute theological debates over the nature of Jesus.
Immersed in the fascinating history of Istanbul, one cannot help to wonder how the identity of Europe, the Middle East, and of the West in general, would be different if certain momentous events here had turned out differently.
A Hopping City, With Wild and Friendly Dogs and Cats
Lucia bussed up to Istanbul from Kayseri a couple of days before Alex and I arrived from the states, to ensconce herself in the Grande Hotel de Londres, a faded rose from the late 19th century that once welcomed elegant tourists who disembarked from the Orient Express, and great writers, including Ernest Hemingway.
The hotel was good and bad. First the good.
The parlor was charming -- two bıg parrots ın cages squawked constantly -- saying "May I help you?" in a British accent, and then quickly replying, also in a British brogue, "Yes, of course." They whistled, barked and meowed, and engaged in multi-lingual dialogue. One asked, "Parlez vous Francais?" while the other replied, "Eh bien."
Our son Alex would blow in one parrot's face and it would rapidly turn its head almost 360. An attendant served tea and coffee, and there was both free wireless Internet and a free work station. Downstairs they served a plentiful buffet breakfast from 7 AM to nearly 11 AM, and a rooftop restaurant offers a great view of the city, with reasonably priced meals, though service was a bit slow by American standards.
The hotel is around the corner from the main drag of Istiklal Caddesi, where the most fashionable and elegant citizens of Istanbul have gathered in the late afternoon and early evening since the Gay '90s. Every night, there were more people on the street than I believe I've ever seen, except at a festival or some special event. First thing I noticed were the stray dogs and cats, friendly and apparently well-fed. Some of them comfortably lie on their backs and wiggle or dance in happiness.
Little did I know at the time that the free-roaming dogs were a sign of Turkey's relatively liberal Islamic theology, or the secular nature of the public square compared to that in some other Muslim countries, where dogs are considered dirty, unholy and unworthy of close companionship with humans. If a Muslim gets dog saliva on his hand before praying, I was told he must take a thorough bath before entering mosque. In the United Arab Emirates, where I later resided, when I took my dog to the park for a run off leash, some natives would react as if I just unleashed a wild lion or tiger. They would run scared or flail their hands wildly, screaming, which of course attracted my dog's attention. He thought they wanted to play a game of chase.
Not so in Turkey. Dogs seem to be community property, earning friendly pets, lots of treats from tourists and regular servings from shopkeepers.
Along Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul, I saw live fish hop out of displays and onto the street. I saw freshly dead chickens and some still in their cages, roasted chestnut vendors, fresh mussel vendors, groups of marching and singing boys (not sure what that was about), sidewalk cafes that were so packed you couldn't find a seat, and well-trafficked bookstores, clothing stores and shops. But the prices were not the cheapest. I priced a charger for my Blackberry at $50 there, but found the same charger the next day across town for $5.
So, the hotel's location was great. Given that, the price wasn't bad: about $600 for five nights, including plentiful breakfasts and two cab rides, from Ataturk International Airport. If you were staying around the corner from Times Square in NYC, could you do as well?
On the downside, Lucia's single for the first two nights had a toilet 3/4" inch from a hot water pipe, which ran from the 5th floor to the basement or sous sol. She figured out placing a towel between the pipe and her thigh saved me a scalding experience.
The room Alex, Lucia and I shared for the next three nights -- a double bed with a cot brought in -- was so small we tripped over each other's suitcases -- there wasn't enough room to store them. The shower was so tiny that some portly or well-endowed Americans might not be able to fit into it, or might get stuck trying to squeeze out.
Some rooms are much better than others, and according to the guidebook, the hotel was going through a slow renovation 2009 through 2011. Hopefully the renovation is complete now.
Istanbul from a Kid's Point of ViewMy wife and I told Alex, age 12, that for this school year, "the world is going to be your learning lab." We promised to teach him the basics of seventh grade learning, let him try online school as well as Turkish school if he finds an acceptable one. One of his regular assignments was to be to write about what he was seeing and doing.
"The first thing I noticed when we got to Istanbul is that the Turks don't speak much English. That presented a challenge," he wrote. "Thankfully, we have a Turkish phrase book, and we communicate with our hands and by acting things out like, putting our hand to our mouths as if we're disihng up food, to communicate 'Where can I get something to eat?' "
"For dinner the first night on the Istaklal Cadessi, we found a cafeteria and ordered rice, mash potatoes, beef stew, tomato soup with meatballs, some kind of noodle pie, and a flan or custard. I like the Turkish food," he said.
"Luckily, enough people speak English that we can usually find someone who understands us."
The next day, he wrote up his observations about touring the Basilican Cistern, also known as the "Sunken Palace."
"It reminded me of a scene from the second Harry Potter, the Chamber of Secrets, because the dark ceiling reflected off the water at the bottom of the cistern. It was built in the sixth century by an emperor named Justinian.
"The pillars that support the cistern were taken from ruined/abandoned temples and palaces and were backlit among the dark, and the water below us glinted with orange and grey carp. Two of the pillars had two huge heads of the evil gorgon Medusa, one head upside down and the other one sideways."
"Dad and Mom were James Bond fans when they were my age, and they were interested to learn that Istanbul was the setting for James Bond's From Russia With Love. Here's one scene "From Russia With Love" in the Basilica Sistern."
Brief Recommendations for Istanbul Itineraries
Lonely Planet.com: Uncover the Secrets of the Topkapi Palace
Turkish and Islamic Art, or Carpet Museum.
Turkish Archaeological Museums.
Hagia Sofia or Aya Sofia, first a church then a mosque. It's an architectural marvel. "Hagia Sophia" by the way, means "holy wisdom," so when you refer to a woman as an "old hag," that's actually a compliment. The church was first dedicated in 360 A.D. A restoration was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532, and constructed in just six years by more than half a million workers. When Justinian saw his creation, he exclaimed that he had outdone Solomon in all his glory. (Solomon, king of the ancient Israelites, built the first temple of the Hebrews in Jerusalem in 960 BC.)
When the Byzantine empire collapsed in 1453, and Istanbul was conquered by Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer, Hagia Sophia became a mosque, and continued to function as a mosque for some 450 years. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemel Ataturk, president of the Turkish Republic, made it a museum in 1935.
For informative background material online, see:
- A Monumental Struggle to Preserve Hagia Sophia (Smithsonian magazine)
- Byzantium: The Lost Empire video clips.
- Father Robert Barron offers a brief introduction online to Hagia Sofia on Youtube.
- Images of Hagia Sofia on Flickr, many in the public domain, which you can download or include in your own slideshows or private photo collections.
- The highly skilled photographer Ahmet Ertug on his website has some great photographs of Hagia Sophia and other places around Turkey in slideshows set to music.
Grand Bazaar: I have to admit, I was psychologically unprepared to engage in the intensive bargaining that goes on at one of the largest covered markets in the world, with more than 4,000 vendors. I didn't expect the assault when I ambled in there. One vendor immediately put his arm around me as I walked past and told me how desperately I needed a new shirt, new pair of pants and new shoes. Then he started naming prices. "Only" this or "only" that, hoping that I'd start to engage him in a price competition. I demurred and left as soon as I could. But Lucia read in a great book called Tales from the Expat Harem about an American, Kathy Hamilton, who works as a personal shopper and guide to the Grand Bazaar. Lucia had a great time with her and got some great bargains. Kathy was well aware of what children might like here. Lucia wanted to look at medium-priced textiles, jewelry, antiques, and copper/brass. Alex wanted to add another Ottoman sword or dagger to his collection.
Dolmabahce Palace: Built between 1843 and 1836 by Ottoman Empire Sultan Abdülmecid I. Construction was so expensive, the architecture and furnishings were so elaborate it contributed to the bankruptcy of the empire. But like the castles of the Bavarian King, "Mad Ludwig," it is a great tourist attraction today, so maybe Abdulmecid's folly has been redeemed by history. It has 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths (hamam) and 68 toilets. As we stood under the famous Crystal Staircase, as we were told the chandelier weighed several tons, I quipped to Alex, "Suppose there's an earthquake right now. We'd be smashed to ants."
Christ Church, Anglican: in the Beyoğlu neighborhood not far from Istaklal Caddesi. It was designed by the same architect who designed London's Court of Law and was established in 1583. It struck us as georgeous. The rector, Ian Sherwood, was very friendly, as were parishioners.
Heybeliada (meaning "Saddlebag Island," and nicknamed "Heybeli Island"): This is a 90-minute ferry ride from Istanbul, part of the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara. On a Sunday in February, we spent a delightful afternoon strolling around it. Alex rented a bicycle. The island has great economic potential, but seemed a bit down at the mouth when we visited in 2011. If I had money to invest in a foreign country and knew what I was doing, I'd invest in some of the real estate on this island -- surely it could become an exclusive destination.
American Tourists Afraid to Come to Islamic Istanbul, Cancelling Trip. My Response
Question posed on Rick Steves' Facebook page:
"Are you concerned about the increasing Islamization of Turkey? It seems that they are moving stealthily but steadily toward sharia law. We have canceled plans for a third trip there because of it. What are you sensing?"
My response: I am an American who has been living in central Turkey -- Kayseri, supposedly one of the more conservative cities -- for 2 years and I can assure you that "increasing Islamization" or "moving steadily toward Sharia law" is not a major concern for us. We have found Turks to be amazingly hospitable, quite tolerant of our religious differences and interested in our perspectives. Do not be fooled by hysterical predictions of a "clash of civilizations" between the "Christian, civilized West" and "savage, Islamic radicals taking over the East." Turkey most definitely does not fit into that paradigm, if any country does.
I also do not understand tourists who cancel trips to Turkey based on news coverage of demonstrations or even the occasional riot or bombing in Istanbul or another city in Turkey. Istanbul is a huge city with vast diversity. To over-generalize that the citizens are organizing a revolution, or "the Muslims are revolting like in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East," is just ignorant. It's hard for me to imagine that Turkey could suddenly lose its incredible hospitality or its statistical safety, far freer of crime than many parts of America.
Slideshow: 'Must See' in Istanbul
Our photo essay of "must see" spots in Istanbul. Click to my Facebook page.
What else do you recommend?
Make a comment, ask a question, discuss this ebook on the Turkish Adventure Facebook thread. Or send a private email to the author: jimbuie2 at gmail dot com (spelled out to avoid spambots).
Istanbul Gulumcam, by Murat Isbilen. The violinist is Ahu Saglam.
"Istanbul is the Rose of My Life."