Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Istanbul 101

The driver we hired for a day told me he has lived in Istanbul for five years. He was from Ankara, the capital city of Turkey about 280 miles away. He told me he truly enjoys living in Istanbul, with the exception of one thing: the traffic.

I think this is a good a place as any to begin a story about this amazingly complex and contradictory city. It’s been said many times but it all bears repeating: Istanbul is the only city on earth that sits on two continents (Europe and Asia). Culturally, it is the crossroads of the Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Historically, it has been the capital city of the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. It is as beautiful as it is complex, with water playing a major role in its topography and its way of life—bordered by the Black Sea to the north and the Marmara Sea to the south. The Bosphorus strait splits the city in two, with the west being Europe and the east, Asia.

The Istanbul of today is a Muslim city in a Muslim country that embraces western culture and modern life. The city was chosen as joint European Capital of Culture for 2010. The historic areas of Istanbul were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985.

In short, this city of anywhere from 12.8 million to 15 million people (depending on who’s counting) is a wonderful place to visit. I was there to cover a jewelry trade show located on the outskirts of the city, an hour’s drive to Eminönü, the heart of the walled city of Constantine in the southwest area of the city. The trade fair organizers arranged a bus for a group of us—which included journalists from India, South Africa, Lebanon and Hong Kong; about 20 Greek buyers; and a smaller group of Armenian buyers—where we received a tour of the historic area with a tour guide. We visited the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and the Grand Bazaar. The bus took us back to the hotel as the sun was setting and the walled city began a transformation. Cafés were lit and filled with people, couples strolled hand-and-hand along the ancient streets and on the Bosphorus the lights of the boats cast a warm glow as they drifted along the strait. All I wanted was to get off the bus and join the crowds.

The following day an Indian couple and I hired a driver and went to the Istiklal Caddesi shopping area and another mosque in the walled city. However, most of the day was spent in confusion and frustration as the driver who doesn’t like traffic also didn’t know where the monuments and sites we wanted to see were, and spoke almost no English. This was compounded by our lack of knowledge of what we wanted to see and our inability to speak Turkish. For example, the Indian couple were insistent on seeing the “Emperor’s Palace,” which turned out to be the Topkapi Palace. The driver and his boss insisted that it was closed on Sundays. They weren’t buying it. It turned out that it wasn’t closed. But when we finally arrived, it was after visiting hours. We spent most of the day in the car where I was mediating between the Indian couple, the driver and his boss on the phone. Occasionally, the driver would slow down, point and say, “This is very old. Want to shoot picture?”

The following is an overview of the major sites of this great city:

Hagia Sophia. If there is one building that encompasses all of the history and culture that makes Istanbul the place it is, it would have to be Hagia Sophia. The current structure is actually the third church built on the site, which was finished in the 6th Century. It is considered one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture. For 1,000 years it was the largest cathedral ever built.

Blue Mosque. Its official name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but its common originates from the 20,000 handmade blue ceramic tiles inside the building. Completed in 1616, there are more than 200 stained-glass windows that bring light and heighten the blueness of the tile.

A man sells grilled chestnuts and boiled corn at the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

Hippodrome of Constantinople. Today it is known as Sultanahmet Meydani (Sultan Ahmet Square). In the fourth Century it was the sporting and social center of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. It was a U-shaped track for horse and chariot races. Today it is a meeting place in front of the Blue Mosque and near other historical sites.

Grand Bazaar. It has to be the most famous place in Istanbul and maybe the most famous shopping center in the world. Certainly it is the most touristed. Opened in 1461, it has more than 1,200 to 4,000 stores (depending on who’s counting and how they count) attract hundreds of thousands of people who attempt to bargain with shopkeepers, who, let’s face it, are the pros.

Istiklal Caddesi. A modern pedestrian shopping district that attracts waves of locals and tourists. No bargaining here, although the prices are often better than at the Grand Bazaar. A video of the shopping district is below.

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