It isn’t difficult to understand the historical might and power of Istanbul.
I mean, look at all the cats.
Legions of calicos pace the byways of the outlying districts. Clusters of shorthairs and tabbies mob the unwary, and despite the best efforts of even the occasional grumbly old beggar, the cats know the truth of it, creeping back to the comfort of the beggar’s blanket spread there on the unforgiving pavement.
If ever there was a conclave of felines that rule all cat-kind, it would not be found in Bast‘s old stomping grounds of Egypt, but rather in modern Istanbul. Where Romania was the Land of Dogs with packs of strays marking out their territory in the shadows of old Târgoviște‘s statues and monuments, in Istanbul it is feline-kind that clearly hold power.
It’s hard to know what to call Istanbul, too.
I think of it now as “The City of Cats”, but it could as easily be called The City of Mosques. Mosques are, quite literally, everywhere. One or even two to a block, they attach themselves lamprey-like to factories, they loom over modern gas stations, they dominate the city’s horizon. So omnipresent are they that my traveling companions and I concocted a game – playable only in Istanbul, of course – called “Close and Count” that involved closing your eyes for twenty seconds as you rode on the metro, boat, bus, plane or whatever, then opening them and seeing how many mosques you could count in sight.
It was never, ever less than one, and the average was five to seven.
Istanbul might also be called Constantinople, the eastern capitol of the Roman Empire and bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. (Please, no more They might Be Giants-style Istanbul (Not Constantinople) jokes. For the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Hastur and Xipe Totec, no more…)
But even They Might Be Giants got it wrong, or at least incomplete; before Istanbul was Constantinople, it was the Greek city of Byzantium, which is its own fascinating story.
What Istanbul is not, ironically, is any direct part at all of Vlad Țepeș‘ story, kind of an odd thing to say, given that the major reason for being there was the Vlad Țepeș World Tour, my effort to retrace many of the steps of the (in)famous impaler himself.
Vlad Țepeș probably never stepped foot in the city.
For the first part of his life it was still Constantinople, but the Ottoman Empire had surrounded it, even transferring its capitol to the city of Edirne up the coast a bit on the European side of this gateway between East and West. As mentioned in earlier notes about this expedition of mine, as a teenager Vlad Țepeș was held hostage to his father’s good behavior, probably briefly at Edirne, but then later at Eğrigöz, a tiny village in modern Turkey that was an important Ottoman fortress where noble hostages were held.
(We did get to Eğrigöz, but I’ll talk more about that in the next, penultimate article in this series).
For the second part of his life it was Istanbul, after his boyhood companion – though definitely not friend – Mehmed the Conqueror finally achieved the ambition of generations of Ottoman rulers and crushed the Christian rulers of Constantinople. (Mehmed’s tomb is in modern Istanbul, in fact within walking distance of the old Fatih Seawall, a block or two from our hotel while we stayed in the city).
(Then again, perhaps one can argue that Vlad Țepeș did, in fact, make it through the city gates of Istanbul. Or rather, part of him; upon Vlad Țepeș’ death Vlad’s head was separated from his body and taken to Mehmed as proof of his old adversary’s demise).
For those unfamiliar with it, Istanbul sits astride the Bosphorus, the channel of water linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea by means of the Aegean Sea. Which is really just a complicated way of saying it was arguably the single most strategic location in the ancient Greek and Roman world, and a damned important one even today, given that it controls modern Russia‘s primary warm-water seaport access.
This means that Istanbul is divided into “Asian Istanbul” on the east side of the straits, “European Istanbul” on the northwest side of the straits, and “The Old City” on the southwest side of the straits separated from European Istanbul by a waterway known as The Golden Horn.
All three sections of Istanbul have their adherents and attractions, but from the point of view of one with an historical eye, the Old City has the lion’s share of the things to see. From the Fatih Seawall to the Blue Mosque, from the Hagia Sophia (which was originally an Orthodox cathedral before Mehmed converted it to a mosque upon the conquest of Constantinople) to the ancient Roman aquaduct and subterranean Basilica Cistern, from the Grand Bazaar to the Spice Bazaar to the Jeans Bazaar (yes, that last is exactly what it sounds like), the Old City is ridiculously dense with things of historical import and interest.
It’s also, of course, a tourist trap that can invite comparison to a cosmopolitan Disneyland where at times one can hear a dozen languages spoken in the space of a minute, and not one of them Turkish.
The Grand Bazaar itself has its own police force, its own mosque, dozens of gates, and is one of the oldest shopping centers still active in the world today.
Not only is it a gigantic, sprawling edifice on its own, but it spills out even beyond the confines of its own gates to specialized bazaars for old books (mostly just modern books, to be honest), the Spice Bazaar, even a “jeans” bazaar.
Important things I learned while in Istanbul:
- Whenever anyone is watching, most Istanbulites I saw pretended indifference or annoyance with their feline co-inhabitants, but the moment nobody was looking I would see half of them sneak them food.
- The Istanbul city council has no sense of fun. What were you guys thinking putting all that barbed wire blocking off the interesting parts of the Fatih Seawall fortifications? Or was it more like a challenge to see how badly one really wants to see the inside of it?
- The Basilica Cistern is big and impressive, but really, it looked way bigger and more impressive in every documentary I’ve seen of it. Also, the documentaries conveniently don’t pan by “The Cistern Cafe” located right there on the water conveniently serving drinks.
- Despite the best efforts of my traveling companions and I, our search for the best donor (Turkish form of the Greek gyro or Arabic shawarma) ultimately wound up being found in Budapest. Really. I know of a fantastic shop in Pest with literally the best donor/gyro/shawarma you will ever eat. Seriously. You will eat and then mourn the rest of your life the bland, tasteless, dust that passes for food ever after.
- The shopkeepers of the Grand Bazaar universally appear to speak a minimum of twelve to fifteen languages. We would walk by and they’d start trying to guess your language, in the process peppering out half a dozen or so before the end.
- As a secondary statement on the Grand Bazaar, I apparently don’t really get this whole “haggling” thing, but in the end both parties seemed to be happy as I got what I was buying for less than I would have expected to pay, and they more than they were prepared to settle for.
- It’s true what they say about the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia; the Blue Mosque is stunning on the outside, but kind of disappointing on the inside (particularly with the forest of wires depending from the ceiling to hold up the various lights), whereas the Hagia Sophia shows its age on the outside, but it is jaw-droppingly beautiful on the inside. It also has seraphim angel depictions and, bizarrely, the burial site of the Christian commander who looted Constantinople on the crusaders’ way to the Holy Land. Like, uh, you apparently do.
- Don’t say “um” or use the “ok” handsign in Turkey. Trust me.
- The trolley announcer on the main T1 line isn’t really making a comment about “probable incidence of blasphemy”.
- The Turkish police appear to focus their recruiting efforts on sixteen year olds. The sight of kids – and I mean it when I say “kids” – carrying military rifles is a little creepy. I mean, come on, at least have a scimitar as your primary weapon.
- Did I mention all the stray cats already? Oh, right. Sorry.
- The Istanbul metro system makes the Budapest, Romanian and San Francisco mass-transit systems seem like a sick joke. I think I’m in love. With a train system. How the hell did that happen?
- It’s true what they say about ninjas in large numbers being relatively harmless.
- The Grand Bazaar really does resemble nothing so much as Robert Aspin’s Bazaar on Deva.
- Turkish coffee is definitely a thing, but I swear, the Turks take their tea more seriously than the English.
All in all, well worth the trip from a historical perspective and even if, as one Turkish woman told me, “The Old City isn’t really Istanbul”, since I was looking more for Constantinople I think it all more or less worked out for me.
Until the lamb intestines started appearing in the gutters, but that’s a story for the next and final article of this little series. Don’t worry. I am almost done with this and will be ready to go back to more game design material and werewolf sonnets.
Next Article: Lamb Intestines and Western Anatolia