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Istanbul – So Good They Named It Twice!

Istanbul, Turkey

 (Whoa! ‘So good they named it twice?’ Isn’t that New York?’)

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.)

Istanbul at Night 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.

Blue Mosque

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 problems.

Blue Mosque

Istanbul Tower

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.


Maiden's Tower

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!

Train Station

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.

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