One of modern Istanbul’s many localities is a place called Chalcedon. But its settlement pre-dates the Turkish capital. Legend has it that colonists from Megara (in present day Greece) established a settlement in Chalcedon some years before the settlement of Byzantion, i.e. the foundations of modern day Istanbul.
Thomas F. Madden’s book, titled Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World, tells us that Persian general Megabazus could not believe that those who saw the rich peninsula across the Bosphorus (i.e. Istanbul) settled at Chalcedon. He joked that those who ignored this un-claimed land and water had to be blind.
In literature, Chalcedon is often referred to as the City of the Blind. It is today swallowed by Istanbul — an awe-inspiring city that constantly fills you with wonder.
If you count the entire metropolitan area as being a part of Europe, Istanbul has become Europe’s most populous city — followed by Moscow. A city that has been the seat of Christian as well as Muslim rule, it continues to exist at the intersection of the East and West, as well as being a home to many faiths, and also those who do not profess any faith.
The apparent ease with which it bridges continents, and cultures, is often hard to fathom in an increasingly divided world. I say ‘apparent’ ease because simmering tensions are inevitable in a polity that long espoused (or imposed) secularism — a particularly strident version of it — and is now experiencing the tensions that accompany a revival of religion infused politics.
If it is your first time to the city, I suggest buying a travel guide book. While walking around you will constantly find yourself wondering about the significance of mosques, churches, synagogues, neighbourhoods etc. When selecting a travel guide book, Insight and Lonely Planet are the obvious choices but you can always explore more. Reading a good guide book before the trip may transform you into that annoying person on the tourists’ bus who whispers, “actually that is not true” every time the guide reveals some grand fact. Would you rather be annoyingly knowledgeable or charmingly un-informed? Both have their moments. Istanbul has a place for both.
Our plan was to stay in one city for 10 days, not take too much pressure of doing all things touristy — it helped that we had been to the city before. When travelling with a young child, a trip is first and foremost about the little human. The first important decision obviously involves where to stay; the old city as well as the newer parts have their charm. We ended up in a hotel close to Taksim Square and, based on a friend’s excellent advice, we chose a room with a view of the Bosphorus. While I remain indebted for that fantastic tip, many people I know lived in the old city and had an equally good experience of the city.
There is virtue in stating the obvious so let me state something that you already know: doing the Bosphorus cruise is a no-brainer. You must hop on a ferry (of varying sizes and varying prices) and do the cruise. You can do it during the day as well as at night — do both if possible. You fall in love with Istanbul a little more each time you do the cruise.
The local population is used to tourists, and the efficient local transport system is easy to negotiate. As one travels more, one realises that questions such as “are the local people friendly?” are really a non-starter in many ways. Maybe we should only ask about personal experiences and not beyond that. Personal experience represents limits and not extent of possibilities — it helps to remain open to the latter. As is the case elsewhere in the world, we met some incredibly warm and some not-so-warm people.
Of course, Istanbul is filled to the brim with tourist attractions. My favourite historical site in that city remains the Basilica Cistern or The Sunken Palace; a water reservoir built by Justinian during his 6th century rule. The facility exists below ground level, and walking around it transports you back in time. The sound of water from all directions, as you stand in the midst of dimly lit imposing columns, is unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere. Two large columns within the facility rest on Medusa heads.
All quite eerie and remarkable.
If you want to experience the jaw-dropping lavishness that Ottomans insisted on, do not miss the Dolmabache Palace and the Topkapi Museum. These are magnificent facilities with many stunningly beautiful pieces showcasing human talent and the ability of humans to waste money.
The Hagia Sophia is another ‘must see’ attraction. It quite literally captures the way Turkey brings together, or has seen being brought together, different religions and cultures.
If you are an Orhan Pamuk lover, do not miss a visit to The Museum of Innocence. The place is beautifully curated and, with objects and sounds, brings to life Kemal’s story described in Pamuk’s book.
Turkey’s economic growth in recent years is physically apparent in Istanbul through shiny, new, grand shopping malls as well as a bustling financial district. Multiple shopping centres (Zorlu Centre, Kanyon etc.) are open malls which is quite fantastic if you are with kids since there is always fresh air and an open sky – for travelling when you are a parent is all about the kids. Do not miss LegoLand or SeaLife Aquarium.
My alternative theory for popularity of open malls in Istanbul is that they exist to accommodate the seemingly limitless number of smokers in the city. Smoking is very prevalent in Istanbul. Men, women, college kids. And it is the only time in my life where I saw a woman with a veil take it off to light up a cigarette. More power to her!
Europe is clearly at the heart of many Turks’ aspirations — economic as well as social. The young urban professionals who have had access to education and meaningful opportunities are clearly a part of the global generation of the same class. They switch easily between languages, are fashion conscious as well as fitness conscious.
I had a few deep conversations with friends (old and new) during my time in Istanbul. There is understandable concern about the rise of populism, inequality and the dangers of terrorism. One does wonder whether Turkey has an identity crisis about to manifest itself in powerful ways. A Muslim majority state, Turkey has ensured it is seen as distinct from the Arab states in the Gulf.
While religion has played an overt and important role in the lives of a significant portion of its population, Islam has not directly shaped the state’s laws for most of its history. Turkey is also not a republic founded, or transformed, in the name of religion, like Pakistan or Iran.
For a long time, Turkey has made a case to be included in the European Union. Will Europe accept Turkey, even as the latter turns, allegedly, more authoritarian? The phone call from the European Union with a final nod has not arrived yet. Will Turkey see itself as secular and European or will it carve a new label? In case Turkey is denied its anticipated place at the table, nationalist fervour, spiced with conservatism, will likely rise further. However, the country has a long and admirable tradition of openness to the outside world, and co-existence within despite differences.
No matter what happens on the political or economic front, Istanbul will have the Bosphorus. That is enough to make it a destination of choice for anyone who has not been there yet. And once you visit, you will realise that you will always have Istanbul to go back to.