Istanbul moves a mile a minute – I’m fairly certain it always has – and there’s a reason this historically-rich metropolis finds itself situated damn near the center of your standard Mercatur map. No other city in the world can contest the Turkish titan’s claim as the preeminent site of cultural conglomeration. While most major international cities today might harbor a more diverse array of people (New York especially), Istanbul distinguishes itself as a meeting point of many of the planet’s largest ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups. Affixed strategically amongst Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Istanbul has for thousands of years been a place of political and mercantile convergence. Don’t forget that for several hundred years up until the Renaissance, Constantinople (as Istanbul was once known) was one of the most prosperous cities in the world. One need look no further than the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar to grasp this legacy.
First erected in 360AD as one of the earliest, most extravagant Orthodox Christian cathedrals, the edifice withstood a half century or so Roman Catholic occupation during the 1200s before succumbing to Muslim mandate and suffering reconfiguration into a mosque in the 1450s. Hagia Sophia retained Islamic allegiance thereafter until the end of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of a secular Turkish state in the 1920s. Along the way, the building came to symbolize the grandiose power of the Ottoman Empire and the cultural epicenter that was Istanbul. The building itself, first cathedral then mosque, illustrates the clash of civilizations that once occurred here. I told you this city had history.
Next we have the Grand Bazaar, which according to Wikipedia is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with over 4,000 shops and 250-500,000 visitors daily. Damn. Istanbullers love to shop; at least, they have for the past half millennium. I think if I were to go back to school, I would want to study cultural anthropology. While I perused the Bazaar, I couldn’t help but think of the way cultures change (and, perhaps more poignantly, don’t change) over time. People are still haggling for silk scarves and leather jackets, but they’ve added Nike shoes and bootleg Gucci sunglasses into the mix at the expense of spices and other raw materials that would have been traded in centuries past.
And of course, besides these two landmarks, you have the Bosphorus strait that effectively connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea and served as an important waterway between Europe and Asia. As my dad says, if you take a boat cruise on it you can get a better sense of how water – or more specifically, control of the waterways – was critical to the geopolitical history of the region. All in all, Istanbul is a charming modern city. I think I enjoyed spending time with these two hooligans more than I enjoyed the city itself, though.