Clouds over the old historic city - tanker on the Bosphorus

Tanker on the Bosphorus

With its mosaic European churches and tiled Ottoman mosques scattered throughout the city, Istanbul deserves the title of “European City of Culture,” as it bridges its rich imperial past with its modern democratic present.

Previously known as Byzantium and later Constantinople, the metropolis occupies a unique geographical position in the Middle East. Squeezed between Europe to the west and Asia to the east, and along the shores of the Bosphorus strait and Marmara Sea, Turkey’s former capital endures as a shining example of the peaceful coexistence between Islam and democracy.

The “two worlds” between which the city has always been required to choose are characterized by the Turkish word “Istiklal,” or independence, also the name of the city’s thriving commercial boulevard. Stretching three kilometers from the city’s main square of Taksim, Istiklal is lined with kebab shops and Venetian cafes, many containing unique displays of antique toys and leather furniture. As if in a Bohemian enclave, its adjacent alleyways are home to pubs and bookstores named after legendary figures, James Joyce and Robinson Crusoe.

Midway down Istikial is Denizler Kitabevi, a 70-year-old bookstore. An emporium dedicated to nautical themes, Kitabevi is a treasure trove of old maps, photographs and navigational charts of Istanbul. To this day, photographs from previous generations are found within the bookstore’s shelves.

Nearing the end of Istiklal, hovering over musical equipment shops is Galata Kulesi tower. Originally built to guard the Bosphorous against Byzantine attacks, the stone structure was transformed into a fire station until ironically, it was destroyed by fire, and later rebuilt. Today it offers sweeping views of the “Golden Horn,” the city’s harbor and historical peninsula once visited by 19th century European travelers seeking Turkish recreation.

In the Kabatas district, ferry terminals shuttle passengers to the Princes Islands. Composed of five small and four larger resort islands, they are a relaxing haven where horse-drawn carriages are used as means of transportation. Passengers can also travel on ships as far as the Ukrainian city of Odessa, across the Black Sea in eight hours, and as close as the Asian paradise of Anatolia in less than ten minutes from the terminal.

The Kabata tramway to Sultan Ahmed Square exposes surviving memorials of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands of tourists leave their cruise ships and visit Sultan Ahmed, the “Blue Mosque.” Light passing through its 260 windows illuminates the interior’s rich tilting and tracery. Close to 25,000 white and blue tiles decorate its interior walls protected by 30 cupolas and six minarets.

After the conquest of Istanbul, Ottoman Conqueror Sultan Ahmed chose the square to construct the Topkapi Palace, his administrative post and abode for concubines of his harem. Tour guides call the complex of pavilions and chambers the “Turkish Disneyland,” in which imperial costumes—large jewel-encrusted coats with small neck lines and belts accented with ivory—are stored. The palace’s most notable treasures include an 86-karat diamond and a ceremonial throne of solid gold.

Nearby, within the walls of Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), the Byzantine Cathedral of St. Sophia, a fresco of Madonna and Child and mosaic of Christ are well preserved. The method of spreading gold leaf over a layer of glass tesserae maintained the mosaics over centuries. A few meters away from the complex, the Leather Pekcan Collection stores ornamental leather-works by a local craftsman.

Storm above the Old Horn

Storm coming down over the Old Horn

The Basilica Cistern is Istanbul’s largest and most atmospheric subterranean palace. The ancient cavern contains hundreds of marble columns, each illuminated with beams of soft crimson light. Two famous Medusa heads serve as the base of two columns – one being tilted and the other upside down. Their origin, as well as the reason for their unorthodox positioning remains a mystery, though legend has it they protect the sacred area from bad omens. The haunting scene is often interrupted by swimming carp, which occasionally break the surface of the reflecting water below.

Along the European shore of the Bosphorus, stands Dolmabahçe Palace, once the royal grounds for six previous sultans. Dolmabahçe houses Europe’s heaviest English crystal chandelier, weighing in at four-and-half tons, and worth five million solid gold bars. Not to be overlooked is an impressive collection of French and Ottoman clocks, each built with intricate Western and Islamic dials signifying not only wind, weather and tide, but indicating time for prayer.

Prayer to Allah

My prayer to Allah

The Bosphorus shoreline from Dolmabahçe to the Ortaköy restaurant district with its French Imperial styled mosques brims with fine monuments and artifacts of the two eras. Springing from the strait, near the Asian shoreline marked with spacious villas, Maiden’s Tower is rife with legends. According to one, a fortuneteller told Constantine that his daughter would die from a snakebite so to protect her, he built a tower for her to live in. One day, she was bitten by a snake hidden in a basket of grapes. Her prophesy came true, giving the tower its name. Istanbul is a modern city wrapped within rich layers of history. It has seen the rise and fall of empires, and now shares the many cultures that have touched its shores. Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “If the earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” For even though the metropolis is mapped on two continents, its identity is secure within the vaults of time.



The full featured article in RagMag July 2011 (PDF)

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