Istanbul – So Good They Named It Twice!
(Whoa! ‘So good they named it twice?’ Isn’t that New
Sure – but it’s Istanbul too. A short history lesson:
When you arrive in the heart of old Istanbul (the area that the
locals call ‘Sultanahmet’) you’ll notice that it’s on a peninsula – the sea
surrounds it on three sides. A millennium-and-a-half ago, another guy
noticed this: the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. As well as being
the emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, he also
moved the capital. He built a new city on the shores of the Bosphoros
strait, the stretch of water that links the Black Sea and the
Mediterranean. He chose the peninsula as the city’s site because it was
easy to defend. Then he named the new town after himself. That’s
the kind of thing you get to do if you’re emperor.
Anyhow, a couple of hundred years after Constantine the Roman
Empire fell apart. It’s eastern half soldiered on, with
Constantinople at its heart, for another thousand years until it was conquered
in 1453 by the Turks. It’s been a Turkish city ever since. They
called it Istanbul.
(Actually, it has three names – you’ll often hear the old city
referred to as Byzantium, and its historic empire as the Byzantine
Empire. For simplicity’s sake let’s stick to Istanbul – that’s what the
modern inhabitants call it.)
All these empires passing through really left their mark on Istanbul.
Today it’s a rich, fun place to explore. The city limits now expand far
beyond the original peninsula. But all the really good stuff lies within
the old city walls.
Istanbul at Night
Check out, for example, Aya Sofia. This huge domed church
was originally built in the 500s AD. When the Muslim Turks arrived they
turned it into a mosque. These days it’s a museum, and well worth looking
around. If it’s hot outside – and Istanbul knows how to do hot, believe
you me – then its cool interior can make for a welcome break. Stand
underneath the huge dome and marvel at the Roman engineers who built it.
Istanbul has the occasional earthquake. When the last severe one hit in
1999 quite a few modern buildings fell down. Aya Sofia – along with
everything else more than a thousand years old – didn’t budge an inch.
One of the best things to do in Istanbul is simply walk around
and soak up the atmosphere. A stroll around the old city at dusk is very
pleasant. If you stand on one of the northern sections of the old sea
walls you can look out over the Golden Horn. This natural inlet has
served as Constantinople/Istanbul’s harbor for fifteen hundred years. At sunset
you can see how it gets its name: yellowy orange light streams from the setting
sun and turns the water a rich golden hue.
When you’ve done that, take in some of the other famous sights,
like the Blue Mosque. Although Turkey is a secular state, most Turkish
nationals are still Muslim. You shouldn’t worry too much about the threat
of terrorism in Istanbul. There have been one or two incidents, mainly
directed at foreign embassies, but in general Istanbul is safe. If you
take the usual precautions you would in any big city you should have few
Shopping is fun in Istanbul. The most famous retail area is the
Grand Bazaar. Catch the tram from Sultanahmet to get to this atmospheric
covered market, and be prepared for a real taste of the orient! You can
buy all kinds of traditional Turkish goods here from ‘magic’ carpets to oil
lamps and all kinds of herbs, spices, teas and coffees. It’s also a great
place to pick up antiques – but be sure to check out any relevant laws before
taking them out of the country.
The Bazaar just smells exotic. It can get a little crowded,
however. Be like the locals in this situation: stay polite, smile, and
keep hold of your wallet – there are as many pickpockets around now as there
were in the days of the Sultans!
Another pleasant area for shopping is the Divan Yolu, between
the Bazaar and Sultanahmet. There are plenty of upmarket boutiques and
small shops – and lots of designer goods on sale at prices cheaper than you’d
find back home.
Istanbul Train Station
Divan Yolu is four times as old as the U.S.A. Before it
got its Turkish name it was the Mese (pron. ‘may-zay’) – the main street of
ancient Constantinople, and the thoroughfare that took traders and imperial
messengers off to Rome. Remember that, as you wander through modern
Istanbul. A lot of people have been here before you.