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Visiting Istanbul - the capital of four Empires.
Istanbul has served as the capital of four empires over sixteen centuries—the Roman Empire (330–395), the Byzantine Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922).
Today, it is no longer a capital and shows its demotion in a certain shabbiness that contrasts with the splendour of its former glory. Its twisting, cobbled streets weave their way across seven hills and the ruined edifices of the ancient colonies of Greece and Rome are still evident on many corners. Among the magnificence of Ottoman Mosques and Byzantine palaces are heard the cries of street vendors, the hooting of ferryboats and the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer. I lived in the city for a period during the eighties and one of my favourite places of retreat from the pressures of the world was to sit in the gardens of the elegant, six-minaret mosque of Sultan Ahmet I, completed in 1617 by the architect Mehmet. It is known locally as the ‘Blue Mosque’, receiving this synonym because of the magnificent blue ‘haze’ created by the interior decoration of blue Iznik floral motif tiles. The building survived the 1999 earthquake, which damaged many of the surrounding buildings, including the nearby Kucuk Ayasofya Cammii (Little St. Sophia Mosque). These are some recollections on my thoughts crossing the Bosporus into Asia and watching the needle shaped minarets of the Mosque melt into the horizon.
The ferryboat journey from Europe to Asia usually takes about twenty minutes or less. As the bells clang, little glasses of sweet tea are brought to the seated passengers and the boat moves into the middle of the Bosporus, taking you out past the yalis, the stately wooden summer houses that line the busy waterfront. The ferry moves at a leisurely pace, mostly trying to avoid the great Russian oil tankers, which idly pass on their way to the northerly waters of the Black Sea. These are waters where geography and history collide, where the spirits of many ancestors still linger and you can still see the rock formations where Jason is fabled to have negotiated with the Argonauts.
In the evening, the air is still hot and you stand by the deck-rails and watch as the needle-like minarets of Sultan Ahmet Camii melt into the golden waters of the Golden Horn. The other people on the craft are mostly efendi, urban Turks, making their way homeward and they gather around in respectful silence to watch the balconied minarets descend into waters once again as the skyline of the old city recedes back into the far horizon. For a while, I watch the place where the lofty minarets have dissolved, wondering why I am so uneasy about saying goodbye to Europe for the next few months and apprehensive about facing the breeze that blows across from the Asiatic shoreline.
On the other shore, beyond the many masted ‘gulets’ trying to enter the harbour at Kadikoy is the great landmass of Anatolia, gateway to the East and once the approach route to the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and Persia. Here, as you leave behind the eastern half of Istanbul and travel along roads once used by the armies of Alexander the Great, the very essence of the air changes and the people and the landscape both take on a drearier look. For all but the versed traveller, it is a subtle transformation. Maybe it is in the cut of the eye or the slant of a cheekbone that suddenly reminds one that these people originated from nomadic tribesmen who migrated west on little ponies from the mountain ranges of Central Asia. Maybe it is just the cut of their cloth caps or the slant of their collars that reminds one that they only recently adorned a western style of dress, but it is a feature of these people to look depressed when in fact they are probably feeling happy and content.
There is no doubt that European dress, which was part of the westernisation’
The Arabs were powered by the stern monotheistic faith of Mohammed and hastily converted the migratory Seljuk Turks who had by now just reached the southern part of Uzbekistan. It was an interesting fusion of cultures, as the Arabs gave the migratory nomads their faith and the Turks gave the Caliphs of the Assabid dynasty their armies and future rulers. But the Seljuks softened and before long their Empire was sacked by the Mongol hordes of Tamerlane the Great. In 1453, the Byzantine capital of Constantinople fell to the ‘sword of Islam’, whose European expansion was halted at the gates of Vienna over two hundred years later.
I look back again at the darkening skyline of Instanbul and gradually realise that as a Christian from the western edges of Europe, I still carry the instinctive fears and beliefs of my ancestors, rituals and values that have cradled through the passage of time and ones that will protect me in the months of travelling ahead of me.