I take a bus from Göreme, Cappadocia to Istanbul, the capital of everything in the region since time immemorial. I am excited to see whether Istanbul lives up to its exotic reputation.
I depart Göreme by bus in the morning, leaving my father and sister temporarily (they are flying). The 11-hour bus ride takes me past an incredibly varied landscape. Many of the Turkish passengers fiddle with prayer beads as the ride drags on. The world becomes steadily lusher as I get further from the Middle East. I even pass a body of water big enough to float a boat on.
Old meets older in Istanbul
Istanbul has been around for a very long time. Legend has it that the city, at first named Byzantine, was founded in the 7th century BCE by Greek colonists. The city gained immensely in importance in 330 CE, when Emperor Constantine chose it as the capital of the Empire. The city was renamed Constantinople, and many of the city’s most impressive archeological sites date from that era.
The Hagia Sophia is undoubtedly the most impressive ancient site in the city. The first church on the site was inaugurated in 360 CE. It was rebuilt in 415 CE after a fire, and for a third time in 537 AD after a second fire. It has remained largely unchanged since. Stone circles on the floor mark important places in the church, such as where Roman emperors were crowned, or where the empress stood on the balcony to watch services. Many of the beautiful mosaics and frescos date from this period. After the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Remarkably, the Ottomans left the Christian motifs intact, choosing to plaster over the mosaics and add Islamic symbols as auxiliary decoration rather than destroy the original works. Ataturk converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935, and ongoing restoration work continues to this day.
Near the Hagia Sophia, but hidden underground, is an equally remarkable site. The Basilica Cistern was built around the same time as the third church, and was used to supply water to part of Istanbul for over a thousand years. A stone forest of hundreds of marble columns holds up the roof, and a network of stone and wood pathways allows visitors to wanted through the gloom. Instead of being set on traditional pedestals, two of the columns are supported by overturned carvings of the head of Medusa, themselves reclaimed in Byzantine times from some other more ancient site.
The curse of tourism
Istanbul used to embody the exotic, a place where snake charmers and carpet salesmen and whirling dervishes converged to bewilder and delight adventurous travelers. My parents visited here thirty years ago, and my childhood was filled with stories of smoky bazaars, the aroma of spices, and foul toilets. In fact, I was in the womb at the time, and to this day the scent of roasting lamb makes my mother’s stomach flutter with memories of morning sickness.
Alas, no longer. Istanbul has lunged into the modern era, and all of the trappings of a modern city are at hand. Mass tourism has transformed the landscape; signs are in English, touts shout from restaurant doorways, and the sites have been beautifully restored and roped off. The walkways are immaculately clean, and modern public transit whizzes along tracks in the cobbled streets. And everywhere I turn, legions of socks-with-sandals tourists mill about, clogging up the narrow sidewalks and ticket booths.
We visit Topkapi Palace, the center of Ottoman power and largesse for centuries. Thirty years ago, guests were permitted to wander around at will, and my parents recall ogling at the tennis ball-sized gemstones that studded the sultan’s throne. Now there are audio guides and dim museum lighting and endless queues. The place is nevertheless incredible, particularly the Harem, which does a great job of transporting me into the world of the imperial court.
On our last day in Turkey we take a cruise (operated by the city ferry company) up the Bosphorus. The shore plays like a historical movie reel as we glide by, with palaces and mosques and churches spanning millennia. The cruise terminates at a tacky village filled with tourist shops and mediocre fish restaurants.
So if you have a dream of taking the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul in search of the exotic and intriguing, look elsewhere. The train stopped running years ago. But the Para Palace, the luxurious hotel that was the symbolic endpoint of the journey, is still here, but now it’s surrounded by the modern sensation of Taxsim, the heart of the new Istanbul.
Istanbul, not Constantinople
Istanbul has waxed and waned many times over the millennia, each time reinventing itself according to the needs and aspirations of its rulers. Most recently, when General Ataturk moved the capital of the newly formed Turkish Republic to Ankara, the Istanbul supposedly fell into a funk. That trend has reversed, however, and over the past 25 years the city has reinvented itself as a vibrant, modern metropolis.
The nerve center of modern Istanbul is Taksim, a hilltop district on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The main thoroughfare, which has been converted into a pedestrian mall, is teeming with people at all hours of the day, in a way not unlike Time Square in New York. Western and Turkish brands compete for our attention; I see a Starbucks for the first time since Shanghai.
My sister and I meet up with Ali and Tom, two friends of mine from Vancouver who are on vacation in Istanbul. We dine at a trendy restaurant on one of the narrow alleys in Taksim, and then grab coffee and dessert at a chic café. The vibe is very current, very real; the Turks here look forward to a bright future, and aren’t afraid to show off their confidence. I never would have imagined Istanbul as a place I would want to relocate, but I catch myself glancing enviously at the rental advertisements posted in a window.