Istanbul Through Russian Eyes
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
As I rode from Bulgaria to Turkey, the lush green countryside, a lazy relaxed paradise, turned into the Turkish plain that reminded me of nothing so much as the Crimean steppe. Only the sparsely planted minarets suddenly threw my heartbeat out of time – I'm in Turkey. Here one is immediately gripped by this unmistakably Turkish spirit – the taste of strong astringent coffee... and Allah, Allah above all. He somehow greeted me, although he knew I was a Christian. I could see his benevolent face - he was wearing a Turkish tasseled cap and seemed to be saying, "I remember you, I saw you in a Tartar village in the Crimea. Welcome to another country of mine." I sighed with relief – this was a good sign and moreover, I was traveling alone.
In the distance a plane was landing on Istanbul – a huge unhurried dragon fly – and as my bus stopped at a small cafe I saw my first Turks – men slightly reminding me of Soviet Uzbeks, women wearing their broad trousers tied up at the ankles and wrapped up from head to toe, (including their minds?), and children – sweet and unexpectedly blue-eyed. Getting involved in the rigamarole of changing dollars into Turkish – strangely called liras – I wondered whether the Turks cheat. And – oh! – do they not! But during this preliminary acquaintance with the country I swas lucky. I had my first cup of Turkish coffee and a bun, which I thought I deserved after the double torture at 5 in the morning of the passport-customs control on the Bulgarian border, which was thoroughly and diligently repeated by the Turkish officials on their side of the border.
As I sat in the cafe my fresh impressions took the shape of poetry:
Planes land on Istanbul,
Huge dragon flies.
I'm in Turkey: a sleepless night, tortures on the border,
Now I can hardly unglue my eyes.
After the lush green Bulgaria
Turkey looks almost like the Crimean steppe.
And just when you meet
The sparsely set minarets
Your heart is momentarily taken out of beat.
That was the first impression of Turkey.
The first impression of Istanbul was weird – that of a European capital, into which a lot of Moslem architecture had crept and finally took hold of the city. Or was it the way the contemporary European architecture has grown around the old Moslem city center like weeds?
Anyway, that is Istanbul; city of two continents, capital of three empires, Byzantium, the fore-runner of Russian Orthodoxy – the dazzling Istanbul.
Once a city that aroused the curiosity of travelers as the center of the world, Istanbul is now a metropolis where Eastern and Western architecture meet. Here the contemporary Western way of life exists side by side with the traditional. Modern buildings, art forms and artifacts rub shoulders with the classical Turkish, Byzantine and Roman masterpieces. Owing largely to its status as the most active trading, import and export, industrial, entertainment and educational center of the country, Istanbul has always been the largest city in Turkey, with 7 million people (according to the guide book "Gate to the East") or possibly 16 million people (according to the Russian-speaking guides).
If you want to imagine a map of Istanbul, just cut a round apple into 3 parts and there you are: the lower left triangle is the historic city center, the upper one – the new town (both lying on the European continent) while the third piece on the right is the Asian part inhabited by fabulously rich people.
The historic city of Istanbul was originated on seven hills (like Rome or Moscow) of a peninsula surrounded on its 3 sides by the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and its arm called the Golden Horn. The location was ideal for many reasons. It was centrally located on East-West trade routes, and easily defendable with only one landward side, fertile soil and a climate that was mild year round. The city grew gradually and from the 4th century A.D. it has been regarded as the center of the Old World. Indeed, Istanbul was the capital of one empire after another (Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman ) for 1,600 years; a capital where over 120 emperors and sultans reigned.
How it all started
The most famous legend about the foundation of Istanbul goes as follows: about 650 B.C. a tribe of seafarers decided to leave their home – a city called Megara –under the guidance of their leader Byzar, to search for a new homeland. It was customary then to consult soothsayers before doing anything. The soothsaying priests told Byzas they should settle at a place "facing the land of the blind." Byzas and his people set sail and after a long and exhausting search in many seas, came to the peninsula of Istanbul. They immediately admired the beauty and bounty lying before them and noticed the possibilities offered by the gulf now called the Golden Horn.
They also found a colony of people living across the strait and Byzas pronounced, "if people who have come this close to a piece of land so suitable for settlement fail to see its virtues, they must be blind." The seafarers founded a city on the peninsula. Today one calls it Istanbul. On the other hand, traces of settlement, which date back to about the 3rd millennium B.C. have been uncovered in excavations near the apex of the Golden Horn and in the Asian part of the city.
What to see
There is much to see in Istanbul, which is rich in churches, mosques, museums and other attractions. However, if you come for just a couple of days there are several essentials:
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or the Blue Mosque, one of the most revered masterpieces of Islamic architecture not only in Turkey, but in the Islamic World as well. It dominates the city's profile at night with its 6 minarets and is a striking example of the classical mosque. Although built between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmed (and named after him), the mosque is known throughout the world as "the Blue Mosque" owing to the dominant color of the paint and the ceramic tiles used generously to decorate its interior. The architect designed and built the mosque as the core of a complex consisting of such functional buildings as a covered bazaar, a Turkish bath, a public kitchen for the poor, a hospital, schools, a caravansarai (an inn, usually with a large courtyard, for the overnight accommodation of caravans) and later the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I. Unfortunately, most of these structures have not survived to this day.
The Hagia Sophia Museum is nominated as one of the 8 wonders of the world. It’s architectural mastery was far ahead of its time and unmatched for 1,000 years. Originally, the name Hagia Sophia ("Ayasofya" in Turkish) was mis-translated as Sophia. The basilica was not dedicated to a saint named Sophia, but rather to Holy Wisdom. Although it was created during the 6th century as a Byzantine work, Hagia Sophia is actually an experiment in the Roman tradition of architecture. It had no precedent and could not be imitated afterwards. During the basilica's dedication, Emperor Justinian was so excited that he drove his chariot right into the building and praised the Lord for judging him worthy of such an achievement shouting that he had surpassed King Solomon.
The basilica soon developed into a religious center with monasteries surrounding it within a few years. It was soon to be the scene of the perpetual struggle between the Byzantine Emperors and the Eastern Church. After serving for 916 years as a basilica and 477 years as a place of worship to two religions believing in the same God, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum upon 20th century sectarian leader Ataturk's orders.
The Topkapi Palace is the oldest and the largest of the remaining palaces in the world. It is located where the acropolis of Byzantium once stood on the peninsula overlooking the Golden Horn, the Bosporus and the sea of Marmara. It covers 700,000 sqm and is surrounded by 5 km of walls. Its treasures can only be compared to those of the Kremlin. It contains the Holy Relics of Islam, the Treasury, the Imperial Costumes, Islamic Porcelain and Ottoman armor. The architecture of the Palace is unprecedented and the sophisticated interiors are breathtaking.
If you have more than a couple of days you may visit Kariye Museum (the Church of St. Savior in Chora Monastery), famous for its Byzantine frescoes of "the Renaissance."
A boat trip along the Bosporus including a landing on the Asian continent is very exciting.
The Grand Bazaar is also great fun. Or you may go to the Princes' Islands – the archipelago consisting of 9 variously sized islands in the Sea of Marmara, which will take you only an hour by boat from the piers of the Golden Horn.
Istanbul Practical Information: Getting there (from Moscow)
Turkish airlines. Address: 1/8 Kuznetsky most str., Moscow. Office hours 9-18 (Mon-Fri), Tel: +7 495 292-5121, 292-16-67, 578-2728
Aeroflot (Russian airlines). Address:125167, Moscow, Leningradsky pr., 37/9. Office hours 9-18 (Mon-Fri). Tel: (+7 495) 223-5555 (24 hours)
Where to stay:
Poem Hotel, A Resort Bookings Member (NEAR THE OLD SULTANAHMET).
Akbivik Cad Terbiyik Sok No. ISTANBUL tr 34400
Prices: Average Nightly Rate – US $ 55
Best Western Acropol Hotel (SULTANAHMET/NEAR ST. SOPHIA)
Akbiyik Ad Number 25. ISTANBUL tr 34400
Prices: Average Nightly Rate – US $ 200
Dedeman Istanbul Hotel. Yildiz Posta Caddest 50 ISTANBUL tr 80700.
Prices: Average Nightly Rate – US $ 150
Istanbul Hilton. Cumhuriyet Caddesi. ISTANBUL tr 80200
Prices: Average Nightly Rate – US $ 250
Russian General Consulate in Istanbul
Address: Istiklal Caddesi 443, Beyoglu, Istanbul, Turkey.
Tel: +90 212 292-5101, 292-5102, 292-5103.
DHL Istanbul. Yalcin Kores Cad 20. Yenibosna. 34540 Istanbul Tel: 212 478-1000. Fax: 212 478-1400
Istanbul on the web:
On-line hotel booking – www.istanbulhotels.com
Istanbul travel guide – www.istanbulexcursions.com