Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

In The City

Flying from Cairo to Istanbul, there is certainly a cultural shock. I didn't expect such a dramatic contrast, after all what's the difference between Egypt and Turkey?

We spent three weeks in Egypt, we've been everywhere and it would have only been fair to spend at least the same amount of time in Turkey. Surprisingly - it is the sixth most popular international touristic destination, ahead of Great Britain or Germany. Turkey receives more tourists every year than all South America, three times more than Australia and New Zealand combined, five times more than Japan or Egypt! People come here from all over the world to see various ruins, Cappadocia, seaside resorts and, of course, Istanbul. I guess all I can learn from the statistics is that we have a pretty good chance of a vacation in Turkey sometime in our future. At this point we look at it differently. With time and energy running out and the winter coming, we had to settle for just a quick stop. To get from Cairo to Romania it is cheaper to stop in Istanbul.

After the Romanian revolution of 1989 everyone got a passport and went to Istanbul. We never did. People came back with stories about a magnificent city and an incredible bazaar that had to be seen. I was left with the wrong impression of just a shopping Mecca. It didn't help that as children we learned a simple history of the world: "the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, one thousand years of darkness and then the Renaissance." But now, at the end of our world tour we know much more and we can better understand the historical importance of this place. It could have been the most exciting destination on our trip if it wouldn't be such a familiar name.

The Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul, right? Wrong. The name was used even before that, but it only became official in 1930! The Turkish name, İstanbul, derives from the Greek phrase "eis ten/tin polin" (εις την πόλιν), meaning "into the City" or "to the City" or "in the City." The City. Capital C. The most important place in the civilized world. The only place that kept the ancient occidental culture going on while Rome crumbled to ruins and the western civilization passed through the dark ages. The place were they still had glorious emperors. The Christian holy place when Jerusalem became Muslim and the Pope was just a marionette of the tribesmen settled in what is now Western Europe.

Serpent column and Egyptian Obelisc

It started as a small greek colony in the 7th century BC. Byzas was the son of Poseidon and grandson to Io (and Zeus!). Pregnant Io chased by jealous Hera changed into a heifer and gave birth to Byzas' mother somewhere around here. In memory of his grandmother, Byzas named the small inlet of Golden Horn and the strait of Bosphorus. For unclear reasons he gave his own name to the colony, Byzantium. The next thousand years it was just one of the many ancient cities, but in 330 Emperor Constantine chose it to relocate the Roman capital. He wanted to be closer to the most important colonies, get away from the roman politicians, and he wanted a place that could be much easier defended against barbarians. He rebuilt the city and named it "New Rome". They referred to it as "Constantine's Rome" and later just as Constantinople. For the next thousand years it was the capital of the civilized world. Besides the natural defenses the city was massively fortified, protecting magnificent palaces, towers and domes. It was famed for its architectural masterpieces, some still standing. It was the biggest city in the world in the year 500, with 500,000 inhabitants. Today it has 11 million. You never hear its name mentioned among the biggest. Some don't even count it in Europe. But, surprisingly enough, it is by far the largest European city and it is the second biggest "proper city" in the world after Shanghai. It was an European cultural capital in 2010 and now it dreams of organizing the Olympics in 2020.

The whole center of the old city is designated as a World Heritage site. We met a nice young Ethiopian lady from Washington DC, in the line at the Blue Mosque. She dreamed of and saved for a European vacation. This was it for her "two weeks in Istanbul". It seemed surprising at first, but she was right, there is a lot to do and see here. We did everything that we had to do in three days. Ileana described it in her post here. I tried to go through all our stations myself, without success. It was hard for me to find words to talk about Hagia Sophia or about the Blue Mosque. These are incredible buildings. We probably liked even more the water reservoir. We liked the back streets of the old city and I liked shopping for food in the little kebab places. I loved the experience of a traditional hamam bath.
Making friends in 5 minutes, an Ethiopian lady from Washington DC

Hagya Sophia

The mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent 

Underground cistern, a water reservoir from the 6th century

Sarcophagus at the museum

We visited the "royal palace" Topkapi, which housed the sultan's court for four hundred years. Now one of the most important and impressive former royal palaces (turned museum) in the world - it has some astonishing exhibits. Several hundreds of years of history collected by the sultans. Turkey has an aggressive cultural policy arguing for the return of several of its historical treasures, especially ancient artifacts displayed in some western museums. The most interesting aspect of this argument is that Istanbul archeological museum and the museum inside Topkapi palace display invaluable items collected from all over the Ottoman Empire, from places that now are in some foreign countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia or Israel. They are not approaching anybody to try to give them back. The Ottoman Empire included and guarded for several centuries the tomb of the prophet. Among the most cherished relics are the cloak and the sword of Muhammed. We stayed in a long line to see those, but I was most impressed with an encased footprint of the prophet!

Topkapi palace, view toward the Galata Bridge

We crossed the Galata Bridge (in a cab), the bridge over Bosporus (in a bus) and we passed through the Asian part of Istanbul on our way to the "little" airport. Named after a Turkish lady, Sabiha Gökçen, the first woman fighter pilot in the world, one of the adopted children of Atatürk. Like I said, we did it all in three days. It was raining and it was cold for most of the time. There was a certain feeling of impatience as we were getting ready for the last leg of our trip, Romania. There was some lack of enthusiasm on our part, it is hard to describe it. We enjoyed the moments, but were a little bored with the whole process. We liked Istanbul and we liked Turkish people, but we might have had too much by this point. We need some rest.

Maybe at some point shopping in Istanbul could be fun

Bridge over the Bosphorus

Modern city in Asia...

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