The Many Layers of Istanbul

Istanbul has marked the point where East meets West for thousands of years.
By Rick Steves, For The Oklahoman Published: July 27, 2014
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I first visited Istanbul in the 1970s. Some of my most vivid memories of that trip are of the colorful locals. Scruffy kids sold cherry juice. Old men would grab huge cucumbers from wheeled carts, then peel, quarter, and salt them, and sell them for pennies.

While the 1970s magic in many places has been plowed under by modern affluence, today’s Istanbul is every bit as rich and rewarding as it was then.

For thousands of years, Istanbul has marked the point where East meets West — a crossroads of civilizations. The city, so layered with rich history, was officially named Istanbul in 1923 with the founding of the modern Turkish Republic. Before that it was called Constantinople. Around A.D. 330, as ancient Rome was falling, Emperor Constantine moved the capital to the less chaotic east. It was named Constantinople in his honor. Then, in 476, Rome and the Western Empire fell to invading barbarians.

Traces of the Roman capital remain in Istanbul. The Hippodrome was a racetrack, like Rome’s Circus Maximus. Built in the fourth century, this square was Constantinople’s primary venue for chariot races. Its centerpiece, a 3,500-year-old Egyptian obelisk, was originally carved to honor a pharaoh. What you see today is only the upper third of the original massive stone tower.

Historic views

The best look at ancient Constantinople is the Hagia Sophia, considered one of the greatest houses of worship in both the Christian and Muslim worlds (today it’s a museum). Built in the sixth century, this church marked the pinnacle of the Byzantine glory days, boasting the biggest dome anywhere until Florence’s cathedral was finished 900 years later. After the Byzantine Empire collapsed in the 15th century, the Ottomans turned it into a mosque, adding minarets and plastering over Christian mosaics. The prayer niche was shifted a bit off-center so it would point toward Mecca, rather than Jerusalem.

Facing the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque. The area in between is the historic and touristic center of Istanbul, with blossoming trees, refreshing fountains, and a mix of strolling tourists and locals. On my last visit, I had to just sit on a bench and marvel at the almost Parisian elegance of the scene.

Architecturally, with its six minarets, the Blue Mosque rivaled the great mosque in Mecca — the holiest in all Islam. Countless beautiful tiles fill the interior of this 17th-century mosque with exquisite floral and geometric motifs. As with all mosques, you park your shoes at the door, and women cover their heads. For those who don’t have a scarf, loaners are at the door.

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