Merhaba, Çok Guzel.

15 11 2012

Merhaba Çok Guzel: “Hello, Beautiful.”

Fishermen on the Bosphorus Bridge in front of the New Mosque.

Amidst the roasted-walnut street vendors, the hagglers, the tourists, and the fishermen, lies a city rich with history, culture, and modern life. It’s a city of contrast, of loud sellers shouting in Turkish, and quiet mosques full of praying people; of water and straights; greenery, and steep, narrow streets. Istanbul holds a fascinating charm over both its visitors and life-long inhabitants who love it for the life and vibrancy as well as its peace. Tourists come to see the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar, the street vendors, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace, and end up instead acquiring a taste for the culture and diversity of people who live there. If you offer a word of conversation, a moment of hospitality, or a Turkish word or two, you will find that the people have much to offer, and they will give their stories, wisdom, and possessions as freely as a bird’s song.

Map of Istanbul: Galata is on top, the Historical Peninsula is below it with the Bosphorus running between them. Asia is on the right. (Click to enlarge).

You start off your Istanbul journey in Taksim Square, a main street in the Galata area. This is where any demonstrations, political activists, or basically anyone who wants to proclaim something to the world will go. Istanbul has gone through much modernization and updates in the past decades (started by the infamous and well-loved Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey), and walking down Taksim Square, it’s hard not to notice the commercialism that the city has produced in recent years. But the small shops and mobile sellers illustrate that Walmart has not yet taken over the world, and if you step off the beaten, crowded path, you will find a multitude of small coffee/tea shops, pastry places, and fresh milk (suk) sitting outside for purchase.


If you head down to the water and pass the massive cruise ships housing hundreds of tourists, make sure you drop by a simit stand, where you can purchase a Turkish bagel with sesame seeds for 1TL, or about 50 cents. And to complete your breakfast, ask for some orange juice, freshly squeezed in front of your eyes. Crossing the double-leveled bridge from Galata over the Bosphorus will bring you past a surprising amount of people fishing, day or night. And you should cross the bridge, because it will bring you nearer to the Spice Bazaar (market), the Grand Bazaar, and into the Historical Peninsula that is so famous to the world. Most of the “important” attractions to the city reside in this district, and it is nearly always crowded and lively.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace ariel model.

If you head directly East, you will eventually end up climbing toward the Topkapi Palace, which overlooks the water and promises exceptional panoramic views. This palace was the residence to Ottoman Sultans for around 400 years, when Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople (this was the previous name of Istanbul during the Byzantine era). It houses thousands of precious jewelry, weapons, and architecture, including a special section called the Harem, where the Sultan’s family and numerous concubine slaves lived.

Bridge from Europe (Left) to Asia (Right).

Istanbul is actually a city that sits on two continents: Europe and Asia. Though the Historical Peninsula (and therefore, the Topkapi Palace) is on the European side, you can easily see the Asian side, as well as the bridge that connects the two, which is closed off one time per year for the city to walk/run across at its leisure.

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia has an orange tint and a simple structure, which is typical of Byzantine architecture.

From the palace, head south toward the Hagia Sophia (pronounced Hi-yah Sophia). You will probably pass by a young boy who exclaims in English, “Why is the wall orange?” And he is right—the Hagia Sophia has a simple Byzantine structure and an orange hue.  It was built in five years and was originally an Orthodox Church. However, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque when the city was conquered in 1453. As a rule, mosques did not contain pictures or representational figures, so many of the objects were covered up or given away to other churches during this era. Much of the Hagia Sophia is decorated with floral symbols and calligraphy for this reason.

Mosaic inside the Hagia Sophia.

When Ataturk came into power in the 1920s, he made the Hagia Sophia a national museum, and many of the original mosaics were uncovered, leaving a combination of Christian and Islamic object. As a Christian artwork example, a 10thcentury mosaic pictures the virgin Mary holding baby Jesus with the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I on their left. Justinian I is presenting the Hagia Sophia to Jesus and Mary. On their right, the Roman Emperor Constantine I (who gave the city its name, Constantinople) is presenting a model of the city walls to them. As an Islamic artwork example, eight huge plates with Arabic calligraphic names hang at various points around the Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia. Notice the pendentive coming down from the dome, the Islamic calligraphy, and the fascinated man at the bottom.

Inside the building, you will notice multiple archways to enter the main site. The largest door in the center, the Imperial Gate, only allowed the imperial family to pass through it.Once you get inside, look up, for the Hagia Sophia’s dome is part of the reason it is famous. Due to repairs, the dome is slightly oval, measuring 33m by 31 m, and is 55.6m (182ft) above the ground. It is architecturally significant because of the novel way it was designed: the central dome is carried by four pendentives (the triangular-like structures), which distribute and direct the weight of the circular dome down into a rectangular structure. This idea served as a model for many future structures and was extremely advanced and innovative for its time.

Blue Mosque

You cannot walk out of the Hagia Sophia without seeing the Blue Mosque a few hundred meters away. Five times a day, a call-to-prayer is issued out of the microphones from this mosque, but if you go during those times (particularly on Friday, the holy day), your entrance will not be allowed, as it is a mosque that still is in use. All that stands between getting there from the Hagia Sophia are ten cats, a large plaza, and Osmanli Macunn, a honey-based candy twirled around a wooden stick. As long as you take off your shoes, cover your head (only if you are female), and wear appropriate clothing, you can freely enter the Blue Mosque. Similar to the Hagia Sophia, a large dome and suspended lights hang from the high ceiling, giving the appearance of floating candles.

Interior of the Blue Mosque.

The mosque is ornately decorated in a dominating turquoise color as a main theme, and the stained-glass windows are filtering the light onto the backs of people bowed in prayer. You might stop at the back of the mosque to listen to a Spanish tour guide talk about the significance of specific colors (though you only understand half of it).

You know that there’s so much more to see in Istanbul, that the winding streets, the vast markets, tall buildings, and the seemingly-modern subway could take you anywhere in this city (including Asia). But you also know that there is tea to drink and pastry to eat back in Galata, so your tired feet lead you back through the Spice Bazaar, across the Bosphorus, and past the store with fresh milk. Walking up the steepest hill you’ve ever been on (without rock climbing), you glance back, and admire the sunset reflecting its golden light off of the buildings, just like it has done for centuries, day after day.

Istanbul, despite everything, has yet to lose its charm.