This is a difficult post to write as the city is enormous, and we got to see quite a lot of it as we stayed in Istanbul chasing Indian visas for two weeks. To put the size in context, London sprawls for 600 square miles, whereas Istanbul goes on for just over 2000; driving round Istanbul is like being a fly in a cathedral.
We arrived exhausted and very dirty having cycled for two weeks without showering. The last four days were into headwind, giving us an impressive high speed of 8km/hr. On motorways this is almost entirely without enjoyment, especially as we were eating petrol station food (i.e. minced beef patties which were raw in the middle). So we were blissfully happy for a few days just to amble and eat, and so pleased to be here at last everything seemed wonderful.
A few days after joining Ayse, our couchsurfing host (a darling girl), I began to get opinions about Istanbul. The cycling is deadly and the traffic is horrific in the city. All forms of public transport are constantly packed with people, on the trams crammed up against the glass. On the face of it Istanbul is a chronically over populated, polluted city interspersed with juxtaposing architecture, the kind that makes your dizzy both from the height of intricate ceilings, and their depth into history.
And that would be exciting enough, until you begin to realise you are now on the border of Asia and people are beginning to answer to different rules. The call to prayer, which was a regular feature of our ride was now amplified as mosques are thick on the ground. As the prayer continues different mosques join the identical song every few seconds, and a cacophony of unsynchronous sound builds. It echoes round the city like the roar of a melodic but busy train station, and people pray on their knees in the street. This happens five times a day.
Like Istanbul itself, the Hagia Sofia, which is one of the two enormous and staggeringly beautiful mosques in the city, has changed more times than Michael Jackson’s nose. Originally a Greek church, it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral and the art changed accordingly, and then in the 1500′s it became a Mosque as Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. Altars and the like were ripped out on order of the Sultan and 8 big black disks with admittedly stunning Islamic calligraphy were put up to block out the Christian Mosaics. Eventually just after World War One, Turkey’s first President Ataturk, who is still regarded as a public hero who founded the republic, put a stop to the squabbling by making it a museum and banning worship there.
You visit the Hagia Sofia and get drawn into the calm architecture, to the solemn eyes of bird like Angels and red-orange glow, and then realise you’re looking at a summary Istanbul’s history. James said it’s like visiting Shangri-La or the Lost City of Atlanta, and it does have an edgy, arresting feel.
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The best way to show you Istanbul is to describe the Basilica Cistern. Me and James spent a happy hour and a half experimenting with long exposure shots in this underground water storage area, which supplied Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire and beyond. It’s amazing; carp the size of dogs are swimming around amongst 336 slender columns stolen from Roman Temples, and 2 cold stone Heads of Medusa. It’s like a sunken Temple.
But the amazing thing is – and this perfectly illustrates how chaotic Istanbul is, and how fast moving the culture – is that the Basilica Cistern was lost between 542 and 1545. For over 1000 years this great underground temple full of clean water and slowly breeding carp were sloshing around under Istanbul. Then in 1545, a historian got interested in why locals could pull up water in buckets from under their cellar floorboards, and even occasionally catch fish. The area was opened up with amazement.
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Today thousands of tourists visit each day, but even so the upside down head of Medusa, presumable put that way to dampen her stony gaze, is as creepy as you could wish…
All that remains for me to say about Istanbul is our host was one of the most generous people i’ve ever met, and will remain a funny and intelligent friend who made our stay in Istanbul and chase for visas easy and fun. I’ll stop there as she will be blushing; Thanks Ayse!