“I have never been attached to just one place. I don’t feel like that my home is the city where I was born.”
As the sixth largest city in the world – with over 15 million inhabitants and over 150km of straight city – it’s sort of impossible to comprehend how big Istanbul really is. Founded as Byzantium (an Ancient Greek city) in the seventh century B.C., this famous stronghold then became Constantinople in 330 AD when it was rebuilt by Constantine the Great, and served as the capital for four different empires (Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman) during which time it played a role in the advancement of Christianity, before transforming into an Islamic state and the center of the last caliphate. Now, under the name of Istanbul, it’s the worlds fifth most popular tourist destination which explains the thousands upon thousands of hotels, resorts, restaurants, and bars which make up the perpetually crowded downtown.
The day after we arrived I received an email from two cycle tourists (their blog here) who wanted to meet up with us, so after a few hours on buses and ferries (I don’t know how anyone can stand to live in a place where you can’t bike/walk to work), we met them downtown in order to visit the two most famous mosques. It was a wonderful encounter, especially since this Latvian/Spanish couple travels as slowly as we do, and on the same kind of budget, something which is sort of rare and precious to find even amongst cyclists. We then met up with our host in order to visit some of his friends who were having a dinner. There were Germans, Turkish, French, and us (Americans) which just goes to show what an international place Istanbul has become. Our host, a young art student from Istanbul who lived in Italy for a year before cycling back home is also one of the best guys we have met this trip. He is kind, fun, intelligent, and well-spoken, and has spent the last few years hosting travelers almost constantly, helping people who are away from their homes in any way he can. Kevin and I hope to someday open our doors to the world as he has so graciously done here.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) was completed in 1619 and is still used as a popular mosque today (along with a tourist section in the back for those who want to enter and visit but not pray). The mosque was built right across from Hagia Sophia, a former Orthodox Church which was completed in 537, as a symbol of power and Islam when it took over this area. Since there are thousands of people all around it during all hours of the day, it’s sort of impossible to get a good photo which really captures the majestic beauty of the building.
Inside the mosque:
Hagia Sophia was the largest church for centuries, and has an interesting history because it was an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral from 537-1453 (except between 1204-1261 when it was converted to a roman Catholic Cathedral) before transforming into a mosque from 1453-1931. And now, it’s a museum. The Blue Mosque gained much of its architectural ideas from its design (the dome, for instance) as have most mosques since.
Those these are the two most famous mosques, there are of course huge mosques scattered throughout the city.
Istanbul is a city which never sleeps. As we made our way back at 2 a.m one night we were surprised to realize that Istanbul was still as lively as it is during the day. There were hundreds of people on every street, the buses were still nearly full, and the never ending traffic was just that, never ending. As you already know, Kevin and I are not city people, and we cannot for the life of us comprehend why anyone would want to live here because, having grown up in a tree filled smaller town where we could bike/walk anywhere, we can’t imagine spending our lives in traffic surrounded by concrete and manmade structures on every side. That being said, it was interesting to visit since it’s so different than what we are use to, even here in Turkey (night clubs everywhere downtown, everyone speaks English… very different than the rural areas) and because it is such a historical place.
Istanbul also marks a turning point in our trip, since for the next month we will be exchanging out bikes for backpacks as we spend the holidays with my best friend and brother who recently arrived!!