23-25 Aug 2015. Up at seven in the morning, washing sheets and towels and remaking the beds where we’ve been house sitting in Vancouver. Quick breakfast and final pack. Lock the house and head downtown to return the rental car and meet our friends who will take us to the airport.
I have all my photographs stored on two separate hard-drives. One is in our storage locker. I have a package all wrapped up that contains the second hard-drive of photographs and my Canadian cell phone. I plan to leave it with our friends for safekeeping. They meet us at the curb of a major downtown street. We load our cases into the trunk and I do my usual check – suitcase, camera and backpack. About half a block away I realize I’ve left the package with my hard-drive and phone on the street where I put it down to load my case into the car. By the time we get back it has been squished flat by whatever drove over it. Small sigh. I have a spare phone. Don has the presence of mind to get the SIM card from the smashed phone. As for my photographs I simply have to trust that the copy in the storage locker will be safe.
This is not an auspicious beginning. Are we getting too old to do this? I have such a strong habit of needing to take care of only three items when travelling that the mind simply doesn’t track a fourth.
Twenty-seven hours of traveling: overnight from Vancouver to Paris, hanging around at the airport for four hours, then a four–hour flight to Istanbul – upgraded! Business class is so much nicer! I drink red wine on the flight from Vancouver, and champagne on the flight from Paris! How can one refuse champagne when it is the very first thing offered? For me this is noteworthy. I almost never drink, and not on flights. I don’t know what got into me, except the red wine and the champagne. Hmmmmm. Must do this more often.
We arrive in Istanbul to experience quick and easy passport control and absolutely no customs check at all for anyone. We waltz through with our bags and emerge from the baggage-claim area to chaos.
There are crowds waiting to meet the flights. There are so many people holding up so many names that at first we miss ours. We find a place to buy a (very expensive) SIM card so we can phone the hotel, but I’m sure that we just haven’t looked thoroughly enough. I leave Don and head back to the endless line of people with signs. Some of them have about twenty names on huge draped and taped paper banners hanging over the railing. And yes! Sure enough I find our name. After claiming it we are hustled around the railing and told to wait.
Eventually, along with several other people, we are led outside the building to more chaos. Our fearless leader is in contact with our designated taxi but the taxi can’t get through the milling and frenzied traffic. Eventually the taxi shuffles its way to the curb and we take off for the city leaving the airport area and heading down the highway. But not for long. The highway is backed up for miles. Our driver makes a U-turn and takes us on a convoluted journey through crumbling back streets. A long time later he re-joins the highway.
We pass long banks of grass, green against the blue of the Sea of Marmara, as we travel towards Sultanahmet, the ancient old town of the city. The green grass is decorated with Arabic words picked out in red and white, or pink and white begonias. It is such a contrast to the blue of the sea and the archaic crenelated walls of a castle, which is part of the walls of the ancient city of Constantinople. The city wall still stands in some places, as high as twelve metres, as wide as a road. In other places it has become a part of more modern buildings, and in yet other places it is disintegrating to almost nothing. We travel more or less parallel with it until eventually we turn in, away from the water and into Sultanahmet with it’s maze of narrow cobbled streets.
Our taxi driver cannot find our hotel. Finally he phones. We are close, so close. The hotel owner suddenly appears in front of us and leads us down another narrow side street and we have at last arrived.
It is late afternoon local time. I’m so tired I can barely function, so tired I feel a little sick. We stay awake until eleven to adjust to the new time zone. Forty hours without sleep. Brain dead.
We awake to sunshine and breakfast in the charming courtyard of the relentlessly blue and white Yacht House Hotel.
Breakfast is eggs, olives, tomatoes, white cheese, bread and jam, and what we come to call ‘mystery meat’. We are served mystery meat at every breakfast in Turkey. Sometimes we eat it, sometimes we don’t.
Istanbul, a city of fourteen million people straddling the mighty Bosphorus Strait, is the world’s fifth most popular tourist destination. The ancient Greek city of Byzantium became Constantinopolis in 330AD after Constantine the Great made it the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. The city was known in the west as Constantinople. Throughout its long history, ranging from the original settlement to the thriving cosmopolitan city that it is today, Istanbul has also been known as Lygos, Augusta Antonina, New Rome, Stamboul, and Kostantiniyye. The name Istanbul arises from the common Greek word meaning simply ‘the city’ and was in use in normal Turkish as early as the tenth century. The Turkish Government declared Istanbul the official name in 1923 and urged other countries to use the Turkish name. In 1930 all mail addressed to the city by any other name was returned. The 1953 swing song Istanbul not Constantinople was written for the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.
During our time in Istanbul Don suddenly breaks into the song with alarming frequency.
We have a day to get landed, a day to get our feet on the ground. Sometime after our leisurely breakfast we set out to explore the neighbourhood. Sultanahmet is a peninsula surrounded by the Bosphorus Strait, the Sea of Marmara and a body of water known as the Golden Horn. The western boundary is the ancient city walls. Sultanahmet is essentially the area previously known as Constantinople. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. People have been living here for about 8000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas of the world. What we discover as we simply follow our feet is that a lot of ordinary daily life takes place on the narrow cobbled streets of Sultanahmet.
Children play in the streets as they would in a park or private garden in other cities. Like children everywhere they are playful, welcoming, mischievous, and thrilled to ham it up for the camera.
It is not uncommon to see toddlers sitting watching in the upper-floor barred windows.
We arrive at the mosque known as the Little Hagia Sofia.
Inside it is all breathtaking golden light, soaring domes, graceful arches, and majestic columns. Every architectural feature is accented with intricate designs. We are captivated by its elegant beauty.
The Little Hagia Sofia was completed in 536, having been built by order of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. According to legend Justinian had been condemned to death for plotting an uprising against his uncle Emperor Justin I. The legend has it that Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus materialized before Emperor Justin and spoke on behalf of Justinian, proclaiming his innocence, and so he went unpunished. He eventually succeeded Justin I to become Emperor in 527. One of his first acts was to commission the church in the name of these two saints. It was converted to a mosque in 1497.
This same Emperor Justinian is also responsible for the Basilica Cistern, an enormous underground reservoir built in 532 as a water storage and filtration system. Having been restored in 1985, today the water is clean and clear, and home to many fish. The cistern is huge: seventy metres wide and one hundred and forty metres long. Three hundred and thirty-six marble and granite columns, nine-metres high, support the domed roof. The capitals are a mix of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. The columns were probably recycled from the ruins of older buildings and brought to Constantinople from all over the empire. The water was transported via aqueducts from a forest nineteen kilometres away. Though the cistern is largely empty with only a few feet of water in the bottom, it has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water.
We have no idea what to expect. All we know is the Basilica Cistern is near the top of the list of things to see in Istanbul. We pay our entrance fee and descend into an eerie golden darkness. As our eyes adjust to the light we see before us a cavernous space, multiple soaring columns and a rich orange light, all of which is reflected in the water. The whole effect is startlingly beautiful.
Hidden away in a corner of this spectacular and unusual space is the kind of chance to ‘play tourist’ that we seldom take, but on this day we are inspired! Despite the fact that we are in a Roman construction that came hundreds of years before the Ottoman Empire we are offered the opportunity to play dress-up as an Ottoman Sultan and his wife. How could we possibly resist?!
We find the Arasta Bazaar, bursting with all the bright wonders of Turkish crafts: carpets and kilims, scarves and traditional dresses, ceramics and tiles, metalwork, leatherwork, and glass.
The bazaar runs alongside Sultan Ahmet Camii, famously known as the Blue Mosque. Relaxing in the shade of trees on the lawns in front of the Blue Mosque we meet a group of women. I don’t know anything about them except that they are open and friendly and happy to be photographed. We all smile a lot. I think they are not from Istanbul but have come in to town from a village to visit the sights of the big city.
Some of the streets in Sultanahmet are quite gentrified. It is the main tourist area so there are many shops, hotels and restaurants.
Not so gentrified is this most ingenious, if gross, ashtray created by a vendor on the street in front of his shop.
Evening comes softly. We have found a nearby rooftop restaurant to see the city from above; a ramshackle collection of tiled rooftops and brightly coloured walls, the fading light softening it all with a golden glow.
From this magical perch above the city we watch the sunset,
and celebrate our thirteenth wedding anniversary.
Next post: A ferry ride on the Bosphorus, the Blue Mosque, Galata Bridge, exploring the Beyoglu district, and the extraordinary Topkapi Palace.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.