By Dora Ohrenstein
[Note: To see the photos at their best, click on the photo at the top right (map) to open it in a larger format, then click”Next” at bottom left to view all photos on this page.]
I first experienced the splendors of Istanbul last summer, when I spent a few hours there while en route to Uzbekistan. This summer, accompanied by my friend Leslie, I planed a full two weeks there exploring its rich history and textile creativity. We’d booked a room in advance at a small hotel in the Sultanahmet, the old city, where historic sights and tourists abound.
Istanbul sits at the center of converging waterways, a spectacular and advantageous postiion that spawned a succession of empires and much warfare. Its earliest colonies date from 1000 BC, and it has been peopled by Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, Spartans and, by the 2nd century A.D, Romans. The Christian Emperer Constantine proclaimed the city Constantinople in 330 A.D. Many Emperors ruled over the following centuries, including Justianian and his strong willed courtesan wife, Theodora. After a prolonged and steady decline, Mehmet the Conqueror claimed the city for Islam in 1453. The city was the center of power of the Ottoman Empire for the next 500 years. The nation was then known as Anatolia, also called Asia Minor.
At its height in the 16th and 17th centuries the Ottomans ruled over territories ranging from the Balkans to southwestern Asia and North Africa. Eventually overtaken by European technological advances, by the end of the 19th century it was occupied by the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire and forced to cede most of its lands outside of Anatolya proper.
A resurgence of Turkish nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century culminated in the establishment of a secular state in 1923, under the leadership of military officer Mustafa Ataturk, who became Turkey’s first President. Ataturk, who believed strongly in separation of religion and state, introduced democratic principles, European dress, and reformed the nation’s writing from Arabic script to the Latin alphabet used in most of the world. He is much revered today, like we do our Founding Father George Washington, and his handsome photo is ubiquitous.
National elections took place right in the middle of our stay in Turkey. The government of Prime Minister Erdogan was re-elected, but having failed to win a majority in parliament for his party, his more radical religious reforms were unlikely to be enacted. He has significantly raised Turkey’s profile in world politics and has fostered a booming economy. On the other hand, Kurdish minorities and critical journalists have been treated harshly under his regime.
Our hotel, Sultan Haus, was in Sultanahmet, the old city. Its central square, called the Hippodrome, is dotted with emblems of various rulers. Anatolia’s long and heavy history seems always present as one walks Istanbul’s streets, with historic buildings and monuments emerging at every turn.
Being a tourist in Istanbul has its thrills and ills. The eye is constantly nourished by striking architecture, shop displays blazing with color, and crowded narrow lanes that weave their way up and down the cities endless hills. The ear is bombarded with the cries of vendors, most of them trying to sell you a rug.
There are millions upon millions of rugs in Istanbul, and their place of origin — Turkey? Pakistan? China? – and age — a hundred years old? made yesterday? are matters of grave importance.
Though we are here early in the season, tourist hordes flock daily to the major sites: the stunning Blue Mosque with its four minarets, the imposing Ayasophia, the splendorous Topkapi palace, the tantalizing Grand Bazaar — creating long elbow-rubbing lines at every entrance.
Ayasophia was built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 537 BC, and it reigned as the greatest church of its time for almost a millenium. In 1453, a date that looms large in the local imagination, Mehmet the Conqueror defeated Roman forces and converted the city to Islam. The building became a mosque, and its somber mosaics of Jesus and Mary were covered over. Its sheer vastness, replete with multiple domes, colonnades, and archways is overwhelming. Many cycles of decay and renovation have yielded a fascinating mix of religious symbols. Ayasophia (sometimes spelled Hagia Sophia) is now a museum, and people wander its heights and depths in awe.
Istanbul’s skyline is dotted with the great domes of its 900 mosques, none so striking as the fantastic Blue Mosque, so named for its tiled interior. With four towering minarets, it’s the perfect object for dramatic photos, and I tried to capture it in many lights.
Topkapi Palace was the home of ruling Ottoman Sultans, with lush gardens, lavishly adorned buildings and vast treasures plundered over many centuries. Now a museum, it attracts thousands of tourists who gasp at jewel encrusted swords, thrones, costumes, table and religious ware. My favorite moment was, as always, a musical one. In an area where relics are kept — including the arm of John the Baptist and the rod Moses used to part the Red Sea! — a muezzin’s voice filled the air. I hadn’t realized it was live until suddenly coming upon the room where he sat singing. The singer’s voice resonated so perfectly in the small space that the sound penetrated right through me. I listened mesmerized for some time, then floated away to see more of the palace displays. Four hours were not enough to see it all.
Last and certainly not least is the Grand Bazaar, an intricate maze of streets under decoratively painted ceilings, teeming with colorful goods and hungry shoppers. We were warned not to buy there, as prices would be too high, but I succumbed on two occasions. The wares range from cheap imports to antique textiles and jewelry, and the bazaar’s streets go on and on, with some pretty object always attracting your eye. You can get quite drunk on it, but get out before this happens!
Once you leave the bazaar, there is no letup in shops and street salesmen hoping – no, insisting — on attracting your attention. When hunger strikes, there is always a quick doner (chopped lamb) or chicken kebab at hand for a few lira. The meat is well spiced, succulent, and served with salad on freshly made bread. Fresh- squeezed orange juice made up my daily intake of non-meat products, and breakfast at the hotel included generous portions of yogurt and fresh cheese.
The weather was great, around 75 during the day, cool and breezy at night, and the occasional shower that never lasted more than a few minutes. As in New York, the moment drops appear, so do thousands of cheap umbrellas for sale.
I ate many tasty pieces of baklava guilt-free, as I burned up calories walking the city’s endless alleys and hills.
– I came back with so many fantastic photos that I decided to put them in a very special format for others to enjoy: in the next few weeks we will release my musical slideshows of Istanbul life and crafts. Look for upcoming announcements!