The legends of Anatolia, Byzantium and early Christendom, and images of minarets, whirling dervishes and caravanserai are what first drew me to consider Turkey as an alluring travel destination.
Last September, almost on a whim, I decided to go there. I felt drawn to explore a country that had always lingered in my imagination. For years, I had read about the history of the Ottoman Empire and glories of Asia Minor. In every respect, my trip exceeded my expectations.
My travels took me all over the country from Istanbul to Ankara, Cappadocia, Konya, Mustafapasa, Goreme, Kaymaki, Guzelyurt, Konya, Pamukkale, Antalya, Ephesus, and Kusadasi. Of all the places I visited on my Rick Steves tour, however, it was Istanbul that made the greatest impression on me.
A sprawling city of 16 million, Istanbul is perched on a triangle of land at the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. The Bosphorus strait divides Europe from Asia. At the tip of the peninsula is Sultanahmet, the center of Istanbul’s Unesco-designated World Heritage Site. My hotel, the Sumengen, was situated in the heart of the district and within walking distance to the city’s most famous sites.
Istanbul is a city of soaring minarets and domes with a rich and storied past. Founded in 326 AD, the Roman emperor Justinian the Great built Constantinople into a great city. By the ninth century, its population had reached nearly one million. The city later became the capital, first of the Eastern Roman and later the Byzantine empires until its fall after 1453, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire.
On my first night in Istanbul after the long 14-hour flight from Seattle, still shaky from jet lag, I took a stroll around the Sultanahmet to get my bearings in the city. It was then when I first heard the call to prayer emanating like a dream from the nearby Blue Mosque.
Istanbul is a great city to walk about in. In a matter of hours, one can catch a rare glimpse of daily life in a bustling metropolis and rub shoulders with all manner of humanity. Where else can one see a Grand Bazaar with over 4,000 shops selling everything from antiques to rugs; sit in a crowded outdoor café sipping Turkish coffee and spend endless hours people-watching; or take a leisurely cruise on the Bosphorus gazing at the city’s skyline at sunset?
The following day after my arrival, I set out to visit perhaps the two most iconic architectural monuments in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia, as it was known in Greek). Aya Sofya, the Church of Holy Wisdom, is arguably Turkey’s most famous monument. Now a museum, it was built by Justinian in 537 AD and became the greatest church in Christendom for nearly a millennium.
By any stretch of the imagination, Aya Sofya’s scale is massive. An engineering marvel, its lofty dome stands taller than Notre Dame Cathedral or the Statue of Liberty. It required more than 7,500 artisans to erect the church over a five-year period. Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which it remained until Kemal Ataturk proclaimed it a museum in 1935.
Forty decorated ribs support Aya Sofya’s enormous dome. The church’s cavernous interior is filled with ninth century mosaic portraits of such early Christian figures as St. Ignatius the Younger, St. John Chrysostom and St. Ignatius of Antioch. Large medallions hang on the interior walls inscribed with gilt Arabic letters bearing the names of God [Allah], Mohammed, and the early caliphs of Ali and Abu Bakr.
Across Sultanahmet Square directly facing Aya Sofya, not far from the Hippodrome, is the Blue Mosque, which represents the pinnacle of Ottoman architecture. Unlike Aya Sofya, the Mosque still functions as a place of prayer and worship and draws tens of thousands of visitors a year. When I was in Turkey last fall, close to the end of the peak travel season, throngs of tourists still clogged the courtyard.
Entering the mosque complex, my eyes were drawn to the 260 blue stained-glass windows and more than 20,000 exquisite Iznik tiles that adorn the interior. The original windows, which since have been replaced, were designed by Venetian artists. Sultan Ahmet I built the Blue Mosque between 1606 and 1616. The central prayer space was filled with worshippers.
The mosque has six minarets, and the courtyard is the biggest of all the Ottoman mosques. According to tradition, imams or muezzins climb the minarets five times daily to chant the call to prayer. It was the ubiquitous sound that I would hear in every town and city throughout Turkey and stands as my most vivid memory.
Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk writes that Gustave Flaubert, who visited Istanbul 102 years before Pamuk’s birth, was struck by “the variety of life in its teeming streets.” In one of his letters, Flaubert predicted that the city would become the world’s capital in a century. Instead, Pamuk notes, “The reverse came true: After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the world almost forgot that Istanbul existed.”
After my first visit, I was left with the distinct impression that this fascinating metropolis of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman lore is a city that international travelers will not likely forget. It is certainly a destination worth visiting at least once in a lifetime, if not more.