The Seat of Empires

“On the meeting point of two worlds, the ornament of Turkish homeland, the treasure of Turkish history, the city cherished by the Turkish nation, İstanbul, has its place in the hearts of all citizens.”–Mustafa Kemal Atatürk


It took me a long time to figure out how to begin my post about Istanbul.  I needed to find the right words to describe my week-long experience in the city that has been central to much of human history dating back to the Roman Emperor Constantine.  It’s quite a task.  Of course this task may be of importance only to me but I believe that Istanbul merits the sort of careful and delicate description that is usually reserved for life-changing experiences.

Now I’m not so misty-eyed as to claim that I have had some sort of spiritual awakening here in Istanbul.  I don’t think that I was or am in need of such a thing.  But I do think there is something about Istanbul that rekindles a curiosity about the World that, while I believe it is always present, requires some rejuvenation every now and then.

I knew Istanbul was going to be a special part of my trip within the first few hours of my arrival.  After all, the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire and Ottoman Empire all made Constantinople and later Istanbul their capital and valued it above all else.  My hostel (Bahaus Guesthouse which I would recommend to anyone) sits only 2 blocks from the Sultanahmet Mosque or perhaps better known as the Blue Mosque and the famous Hagia Sophia.  After introducing myself to my new roommates, Gaston (Slovenia) and Andy (Australia), I threw my bags on my bed and briskly walked up the cobbled streets to see these two famous attractions.  Almost instantly I was awestruck as I first glimpsed at the towering minarets of both buildings.  The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are unquestionably the highlight of Istanbul and are an absolute must-see for anyone visiting the city.  It’s truly extraordinary that a building as impressive as Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya was built 1,475 years ago.

Istanbul might be best described as a city of colors.  Whether it be the blue tiles of the mosques, the red ashtar of Hagia Sophia, the dark oranges and greens of the local food or the stark reds of the Turkish flag, Istanbul offers a constant display of vivid colors and imagery.

For those of you considering a future trip to Istanbul; know this.  Istanbul is big.  VERY big.  Naturally it’s famous for straddling two continents but even just the European side of the city is vastly larger than most European cities with the exceptions of London and Paris.  You cannot see all of Istanbul in a day or two.  I’m not sure you can see only the Sultanahmet and Galata neighborhoods in just one day.  So if you want to come here, and I strongly suggest that you do, then you should allocate at least a week to see all of Istanbul and have some time to venture outside of the city as well.

As much as I love and enjoyed my stay in this city, there are certainly some drawbacks to it.  It wasn’t a huge problem for me but a lot of people that I’ve met over the last 7 days have complained about how many of the local shop owners, particularly in the tourist center of Sultanahmet and in the Grand Bazaar, are prone to hassle you into trying to visit their shops.  This isn’t really a trait unique to Turkey as I’ve experienced this in both Morocco and Malawi (and to a lesser extent South Africa) but it is definitely different than simply going to a store and paying a fixed price without being bothered.  Some people have found it extremely annoying while others have learned how to deal with it and simply ignore it.

I want to briefly mention the Asian side of the city.  Taking the ferry across the Bosphorous Strait (costs only 6 lira for a return journey) and visiting the Asian half of Istanbul does not mean that you can now proclaim to everyone that you have visited Asia.  I don’t care about the technicality of it.  Spending a day in that half of the city does not mean you suddenly understand China, India, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, etc.

I should also offer this advice for future visitors.  Learn to take the tram.  It may be all in Turkish but it will make your stay here so much easier.  For example, I took a taksi from Ataturk Airport to my hostel and it cost me 36 lira ($20).  Not too bad for a taxi but if I had taken the tram, as I plan to do when I leave tomorrow, it would’ve only cost me 6 lira ($3.39).  So I reiterate, take the tram.

The language barrier in Turkey is both formidable and impertinent.  In the less touristy parts of the city, like near the Universitesi and the Asian side, English is less commonly understood, whereas in other parts of the city like Sultanahmet and Taksim it is easier to get around without knowing any Turkish.  Few Turks I’ve come across here have been fluent in English but as is the case in any city there are always exceptions.

I think this concludes my post about Istanbul.  I’ve offered all of the advice that I think is needed.

Be sure to enjoy the little things in Istanbul.  Smoke hookah or Nargile with some friends on one of the rooftop terraces.  Drink down some Rakl.  Placidly observe the sights and sounds of the city that are simultaneously foreign and familiar.  Istanbul, sitting at the crossroads between East and West, is truly unlike any other city in the World.  Treat it as such.


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