Walking along a street overflowing with humanity and greed and desperation, the smell of burning meat and sweat hardened by determination and fear, the sounds of sellers and buyers in every language selling and buying everything from a space each has claimed in soiled gutters, this is what I learned about Istanbul:
Istanbul is a rock concert without the music. If there is any singing, it is the morning or afternoon call for prayer, a swaying and soulful chant ordained by heaven, broadcast across the city from mosques older than God but mostly ignored by the few and the many.
Istanbul is old as fuck. History books taught me all about Constantinople before I got there, but only by crossing the threshold of a home built for kings thousands of years ago do I really understand what it means to be walking not just through history but inside it, to see and feel antiquity not as it is studied but as it is lived.
The palaces where sultans ruled the vast Ottoman Empire are still used for prestigious state functions (although I doubt few presidents or prime ministers are permitted into the Sultan’s private bathroom, a large room of marble and gold highlighted by an ornately-carved hole in the ground), but it was the Ayasofya Mữzesi (Sophia Museum) that impressed me the most. Considered the 8th wonder of the world, this cavernous church-turned-basilica-turned mosque first opened its doors in the year 532. Those actual doors, first opened by Roman Emperor Justinian, might or might not still be there, but I crawled up stone ledges and past ancient barred windows that will probably remain the oldest cultural artifacts I will ever have the privilege of seeing or, better yet, rubbing my hands upon in truly astonished wonder.
An angel lives in one of the ancient pillars of this church, and a king once stuck his thumb inside the pillar and convinced the angel to turn the entire building around. As the legend goes, if you put your thumb into the pillar and make a complete circumference, your dreams will come true.
You can find it, in the eyes of a fisherman sitting alone on the banks of the Bosporus or in the cave-like stare of a woman selling corn nobody wants to buy, but for three days I never saw an empty street or a shop without a line waiting to get in.
In the open-air markets, which crowd every side road not dominated by skyscrapers, people must compete with motorcycles speeding on the sidewalks or young men pulling gigantic and heavy-loaded handcarts as fast as they can, working I now see as human delivery trucks on passageways with no room for delivery trucks.
Istanbul is dangerous as hell. Before leaving for Istanbul I did see warnings issued a few days earlier by the U.S. State Department: U.S. government employees continue to be subject to travel restrictions in southeastern Turkey. They must obtain advance approval prior to official or unofficial travel … the Embassy strongly recommends that U.S. citizens avoid areas in close proximity to the Syrian border…terrorists have conducted attacks on U.S. interests in Turkey, as well as at sites frequented by foreign tourists. We strongly urge U.S. citizens to avoid demonstrations and large gatherings. My visit did mark the first time I was inside a country at war with its neighbors, and while I was in Turkey there was a terrorist attack in the nation’s capital, killing 865 people. Still, I did not avoid sites frequented by tourists, and I could not, no matter how hard I might have tried, avoid any large gathering. But other than the sight of armed soldiers near every major building,
Istanbul is ugly and gloriously beautiful. The French poet, Alphonse de Lamartine, once described it like this: “If you are forced to look at the world once, just look Istanbul. There – god and human, nature and art – are together…” And for a brief piece of time, so was I.