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Last updated : Nov 2009
Istanbul / Constantinople
Pros: lovely city, amazing place, fantastic blue mosque, many sites to see
Cons: none

Istanbul, Turkey

Wednesday, Aug 18, 2004 12:45


Having been in Istanbul just a few hours, Kim and I have fallen deeply in love with the city. I have a fragmentary knowledge of ancient history, and can claim to have read a few of the 'right' books, but nothing has prepared me for Istanbul. It's a truly amazing city - which although not the official capital of Turkey - is the commercial centre of Turkey. It can also lay claim to being the world's capital - or at least in its top three cities - for over 1500 years. It makes Rome, which I love, look like a regional backwater - albeit better preserved.

And Rome was a regional backwater when reconquered by Belisarius - probably the greatest general and military strategist ever - who lived and conquered in the reign of emperor Justinian who was finally blinded by jealous Justian and forced to live as a beggar. Justian was famous for his despotism and his marriage to the empress Theodora - a former prostitute. Justian is also notable for nearly bankrupting the Roman empire with his reconquest of the Western Roman empire and North Africa. However, more importantly although he was deeply corrupt and full of the most spectacular vices, his near bankrupting of the empire was mainly done by his lavish public works. He built one of the oldest surviving churches in the world, the Haghia Sophia, the walls (more on them later) which surrounded the city and held out all invaders for almost 1000 years, until Sultan Meyhmet II came knocking with the huge bronze cannon, which finally saw Constantinople fall to the Turkish (actually Ottoman) invader. He also built a cistern and system of waterworks, which meant that Constantinople could survive for months of sieges, while still watering its gardens and the populace.

Then there is the fantastic blue mosque, built by Suleyman the Magnificent who built the incredibly impressive Blue Mosque, and in the 1550's gave Europe a run for its money. He invaded as far as Austria and came very close to taking the city. It is one of the dates that everyone should know, the siege of Vienna, but unluckily i do not. A useless bit of knowledge is that this was the time that the croissant was invented in celebration of the defeat of the ottoman invaders. Croissant means crescent (the symbol of Islam) and consuming it - breaking it - symbolised the defeat of Suleyman . His failure to take Vienna - and if he had done so the inevitable conquest of Europe, is one of the turning points of European history. His later failure to establish himself as the leading naval power in the Mediterranean, really set up the eventual fall of Ottoman empire in 1909 and the formation of the modern secular Turkish republic in 1922 by Mustafa Kemal (Attaturk).

Anyway that is the small potted history of Istanbul, onto the photos that i wished we had taken:

1) Shops and houses built into one of the many sets of walls that have surrounded the city - for all of you that don't know the Roman empire officially by some judgemental ends in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople - the Cities walls held off all invaders (apart from one particularly treacherous Venetian backed crusade) until then. The city then fell to the Turks, who went on to form the Ottoman empire - one of the most bizarre empires ever, a baffling mixture of amazing public works, social justice, and benevolence to its subjects with corruption, despotism, misrule, and the amazingly powerful and manipulative 'Queen Mothers' who poisoned and strangled in the Harems of the sultans to push their sons (no primogeniture in the Ottoman empire) to the position of new sultan.

2) The pistachio nut vendors who sell you a small bag of shelled pistachio nuts - which seems particularly Ottoman opulent to me, for around 1 million Turkish lira (around 33 pence).

3) The beige jumper shop - in the commercial quarter. On the first day here we took a walk and got seriously lost, before being put on the right track by the friendly waiters. We walked passed hundreds of clothes shops, some of which were selling single types of clothing - white women's knickers for example. Most spectacularly one who sold only beige jumpers. I found that amazing for reasons I can't quite articulate.

This is meant to be a diary of what happened, not my thoughts on Turkish culture. A quick scan through the photos tells the story of the day. This is one of intensive sightseeing and shopping, we're very busy.

AM

Finally stop getting lost when we sort out which landmarks are which and correctly identify Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The morning sees a quick trot round the pair of them. The Blue Mosque is 1000 years more modern than the Haghia Sophia, and this is not really evident when you look at it. I don't understand the architectural majesty or subtlety of it, but it really is very beautiful inside.

The Haghia Sophia is a different matter, exceedingly tatty, this is probably the most important Christian church in the world. The tacky, awful, modern Vatican with its sclerotic, arthritic, corrupt and cancerous bureaucracy of red hatted cardinals puppeting the clueless, half dead, incumbent of St Peter's throne can go whistle. This is the major church in the city re-founded by the first Christian Roman emperor, which later fell to the Sultans - and as a result was turned into a mosque.

The western church, always jealous of its status after the sack of Rome, turned into the hypocritical modern church as a result of its desperate attempts to maintain its status and position, by sucking the laity dry with their tithes, and constantly interfering in the business of Kings, Princes and Emperors. I am glad to have seen the most important Christian church in the world. My hatred of the institution of the Catholic church continues to rage (more on this later).

Then we pop off to the cistern, which is like a giant church underground, and truly magnificent. Built on the orders of Justinian with building rubble from the city. It is magnificent, including the light starved carp that swim in its waters - I can't help wondering if these are the descendants of the Carp that were swimming there 1500 years ago.

PM

We've done the major sights. We have comprehensively missed out the Ottoman sights, we failed to see the Ottoman palace where the queues were far too large to bother waiting. We took a quick trip around the archeology museums, which were lovely. Looked at the artifacts from Troy, took in a few anatolian graves, and then couldn't get into the museum of Islamic art, which was a major disappointment. We've resolved to come back for a proper holiday - probably early next summer - when we go on our scouting trip up the Black Sea into Bulgaria and Rumania.

We've also failed to take the bridge across the water to the new city - the modern Istanbul (which is in Asia), so haven't made it to Asia. Feel that we have done the best of a bad job as far as sightseeing is concerned, and settle down to some serious shopping.

We take a trip into the grand bazaar, which is intoxicating. So much hassle, and haggling. Here I realise that I am my father's son. I just can't stop haggling, even if I don't want to buy the thing, I still want to haggle for it. I come away with far more clothes than Kim, we spend less that £70 a come away with a huge amount of stuff. Very pleasing to have 6 new pairs of socks and 6 pairs of new pants, although later I discover they are rather too tight - wearing them nevertheless - our trip is turning slightly sadomasochistic - as I limp around rather footsore in far too tight pants (I rather ambitiously bought six pairs in medium rather than the more realistic large). The trousers are also rather too tight on the arse, which is bound to cause confusion. So, in short - or shorts perhaps - I now look like a very badly dressed, bow legged, gay man. Oh dear, perhaps this haggling is going to cause problems later.

Kim regrets not heeding the advice of the T-shirt salesman who tells her that particular size will make it look 'sprayed on'. Kim decides not to throw it away, planning a local water based 'crash diet'. Our anti- malarial drug, which we need to start taking in two days, seems to protect against every illness short of Hepatitis, which makes the crash diet a rather reasonable idea. Plus the fact that Kim is not going to stop having ice in her Gin and Tonics anywhere in the world, which makes the local water diet inevitable.

End the day at the top of the same hotel as last night, feeling relaxed, contented, and rather pleased with ourselves. Just a quick note for my nieces, Cordelia and Violet, see if you can spot your present, which should be with you in a couple of months, in the photograph of our shopping.

Kim writes the following into her personal diary (only entry so far):

Definitely the best day so far.

The day the Ottoman Empire opened up its exotic arms to us.

The 2 main Mosques were visited, very different to one another. The Blue Mosque was first on the agenda. A nifty piece of bartering was required by P to purchase some suitable head gear for me to enter the Mosque. I always feel very overawed when I enter an other peoples church, and this was just as moving. I think the ritual of removing of shoes and the covering of heads is such that it demands respect of any visitor, regardless of what creed they are.

It really was a sight inside. The blue mosaics of the domes were uplifting , and it is difficult to comprehend that these are over 600 years old. The knowledge of geometry, architecture the craft of the builders, the flare of the makers of the coloured tiles and the devotion of all to the sultan and moreover to Allah is certainly more perfection than I will ever probably ever know.