Istanbul: New Rome? City of the World’s Desire? India of the West?

Istanbul: New Rome? City of the World’s Desire? India of the West?
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“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
-Alphonse de Lamartine

Streetcar on Istikial Avenue, istanbul, Turkey

Streetcar on Istikial Avenue, istanbul, Turkey

For the grand finale of my ten days in Turkey, Orhan and I headed to Istanbul. How could I visit Turkey without experiencing its largest city and economic, cultural and historic heart? Not only important to Turkey, Istanbul is the third largest city in the world and arguably, one of the most important historically and geographically. I can’t think of any of other city that served as capital of four empires (Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottomon), situated at a key position at the crossroads of the world. It straddles East and West, with rail networks to Europe and the Middle East, served as a stop along the historic Silk Road and oversees one of the world’s busiest waterways, supervising the only sea route between the Black Sea and Mediterranean.

Bosphorous bridge and fishing boats, Istanbul, Turkey

Bosphorous bridge and fishing boats, Istanbul, Turkey

Overall Impressions
With a host of bragging rights and situated to adopt the best practices gained from millennia of existence and navigating cultural influences from countless countries, I expected Istanbul to exhibit a European pretentiousness, Middle Eastern opulence and a spectacular Mediterranean seaside. Instead of an aggressive proclamation of greatness, I found Istanbul to be surprisingly relaxed and down-to-Earth. As a city that weathered countless conflicts, housed so much history, centuries of existence lead to a seasoned wisdom where Istanbul humbly and modestly exists with a dulled and inoffensive personality. Already bustling at the seams, Istanbul doesn’t seem overwhelming welcoming and friendly, instead, accepting visitors and inhabitants with a slightly watchful, slightly guarded vigilance of a place that witnessed so many civilizations rise and fall.

Sultan Ahmed (Blue mosque), Istanbul, Turkey

Sultan Ahmed (Blue mosque), Istanbul, Turkey

Supposedly home to the 4th most billionaires in the world, Istanbul didn’t seem perceptively wealthy. Passing multi-million-dollar homes on the waterfront near the famous Maiden’s Tower, the money seems to be spent on securing prime real estate instead of investing in flashy exteriors. With a population of over 14 million streaming through its streets, why make an effort to stand out when you’re going to get noticed anyway? And who can really compete with the beauty of the Sea? Seagulls poised to pose for pictures with tourists when offered pieces of Turkish, ferries streaming through the strait with faint foghorns and the muted clang of bells. Closer to the city center, men with fishing poles line pedestrian bridges with buckets of wiggling fish ready to be immediately passed along to gold-paint-plated boats bobbing along the docks. Serving as Istanbul’s version of New York City hot dog carts, pedestrians can pick up a quick and cheap bite of the freshest seafood with a “fish and bread” sandwich, wrapped in paper, for 6 turkish lira ($3 USD).

Absorbing the Atmosphere
So how did we explore this enigmatic city? Typically with only 36 hours to see a city saturated with so many sites, I’d bust out of baggage claim with an ambitious itinerary, reading to check off the “must-dos” according to the city guidebook. But Istanbul doesn’t have the same race pace as New York City (Izmir actually felt a lot more East Coast ambitious, with people in a hurry to get places) and I knew an approach like that would be setting myself up for failure. Istanbul’s so populated that you have to move with the sea of people, flowing down the city streets and getting caught behind people stopping to snack on a sesame covered simit or snap a selfie in front of a random store front. Satisfied with absorbing a general feel of the city, Orhan and I went bowling (a completely uncultural activity, highly atypical for me when I’m supposed to be exploring a new place) and spent our second night whipping scarves around, participating in the human wave and jumping and chanting at the Galatasaray football match.
We experienced the more romantic and relaxing side of Istanbul nightlife with Dorsun, Orhan’s friend who hosted us in an amazing apartment overlooking the Bosphorous bridge. We trotted down the hill, by the prime minister’s house (looking surprisingly peaceful considering the recent controversy and riots surrounding this political figure, whose slogan is saglam irade: solid will), passing through the deserted (but smelly!) fish bazaar to wander by the waterfront near the romantic Maiden’s Tower. We snacked on roasted chestnuts as we walked by a Turkish bachelorette party (henna night) with the out-of-place bride-to-be decked out in a ridiculous ball gown on this quiet city street, sipping salep (a hot thickened milky drink I tried with Sumeyra) with her girlfriends, watching candle-lit “wish balloons” float skyward. We passed street vendors selling roses, trinkets and even grilled fish before settling by fire pits to sip on charcoal-heated tea until 2 AM, to the sound of belly-dancing beats broadcasted through teenager’s phone at an adjacent pit.

Hitting the tourist sights
The next day, we ferried our way across the Bosphorous to explore the European part of the city center. We hiked up a steep hill of music stores and cafes to Istikial Avenue, supposedly one of the busiest shopping streets in all of Turkey (not at 11 AM apparently!) where streetcars are typically stalled in clogged streets as people stop to shop in European stores or pick up Starbucks. We explored the opening of Sleep of Reason exhibition at the Arter Art Space, where Marc Quinn explored themes of creation and destruction through meat photography, transsexual sculpture and even carpets with dark images of political uprisings around the world.

Carpets depicting political uprisings at an art gallery, Istanbul, Turkey

Carpets by Marc Quinn depicting political uprisings at Arter Space for Art, Istanbul, Turkey

We met up with another one of Orhan’s friends to trudge up more hills (it is the city of seven hills, after all!) to the Hagia Sofia and they somehow convinced the entrance security that I was a real Muslim to surpass the tourist lines for entry into the Blue Mosque across the street. We went to the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest covered markets (built in 1461!), where you can munch on a Burger King whopper as you peruse the glittery assortment of textiles, pottery, jewelry and hanging mosaic lanterns. We went to the Spice Bazaar which I liked even better- a gastronomic paradise, filled to the rafters with exotic teas, rainbow rows of Turkish delight, piles of dried fruits, and heaps of sunny-colored spices.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

Overall, the herds of people and sensory overload reminded me of India more than anywhere else. Upon reading about the city, I found Nigel McGilchrist (occasional resident of Turkey and author of the Blue Guide to the Greek Islands) agreed with me so I thought I’d close with a quote to contrast with the one I opened with. Both perspectives are needed to capture this city, which hopefully by now you’ve realized is far from straightforward. As with this quote, I’ll close for now… I plan to still add an entry or two about Turkey. Life’s been busy but I definitely have more to say and 1100 pictures to eventually share- please check back!

“Istanbul has always been about raw life, from the murderous driving and yawning potholes in the roads to the physical street brawls and the smoke-filled teahouses. It’s not Belgium or suburban Gloucestershire; it’s the nearest thing to India in the West.” –Nigel McGilchrist

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