We didn‘t go with an organised tour, we went to a travel agency and booked a flight with Turkish Airlines (Turk Hava Yollari) and a hotel from a brochure.
Let‘s look at what is left from the Romans who founded a city on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium under the Roman Emperor Constantine and called it Constantinople. What did the Romans do wherever they were? They built city walls, aqueducts, water reservoirs, stadiums and erected columns, not surprisingly they did it here, too.
Nowadays the Hippodrome is more or less only a wide open place with a column from Roman times and an Egyptian obelisk, you have to imagine it as the centre of civic life and the 30 000 spectators watching horse races, executions and other spectacles (no TV then!). The remains of the two-storey high aqueduct which served the city with water for more than 15 centuries are more imposing, they span one of the busiest streets of Istanbul and can be seen from far away. The remaining 7 km of the Roman city wall are part of the universal cultural heritage of the UNESCO.
But the most impressive heritage is the Yerebatan Sarayi (which translates as "Sunken Palace"), Istanbul‘s largest underground cistern, it had a capacity of 80 000 m². One enters this massive 140m long and 70m wide room via 52 steps. 336 Corinthian and Doric columns 90m high and 4.8m apart hold it up, the brick walls are 4.8m thick.
Today Yerebatan Sarayi is a major tourist attraction and offers cool respite from Istanbul‘s searing summer heat. Tourists walk on an elevated boardwalk (Attention, it‘s a bit slippery!) through the cistern, pulsing lights, water dripping from the ceiling and eerie music played over strategically placed loudspeakers add an air of mystery to the place. It became famous when James Bond started his operation against the Russian Embassy here in the film From Russia with Love.
And then there is the Hagia Sophia, for almost a thousand years it was the largest church in the world and served as the Cathedral of Constantinople of the Byzantine Empire when the city was Nova Roma, the Rome of the East. The name means ‘Sacred Wisdom‘.
After the Turkish Conquest in 1453 it served as the imperial mosque of Istanbul for almost five hundred years, in 1934 it was converted into a museum. Unfortunately there was a scaffold inside when we were visiting, the inside of the dome was being restored, nevertheless we could feel the impact of the enormous building. When the Muslims converted the church into a mosque, they painted and plastered the mosaics over, but didn‘t destroy them, nowadays they‘re restored and Christian mosaics and writings from the Koran exist side by side.
Here I was in the old Byzantium, at the cradle of Byzantine art, and deeply disappointed! The mosaics are sparse and very small, I‘ve seen many more, bigger and better preserved ones in Italian churches. Later we went to the small church-turned-mosque-turned-museum Chora which has the best conserved Byzantine mosaics and frescoes of Istanbul. The impression there is better because the building is very small and intimate and one can have a close look at the works of art, but I wasn‘t satisfied, I had expected more.
At the highpoint of the Ottoman Empire the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul was the centre of the world for the people from the Nile to what is Hungary today. Here the Sultan lived with his extended family (harem), servants and the people necessary to conduct the business of ruling the Empire, 5000 altogether. He chose the most exposed point of the city at the tip of the peninsula between the Golden Horn and the Bosporus. Unlike the European palaces, Topkapi is not a single monumental structure but a more organic structure made of various gardens, kiosks and buildings. In 1924 the complex was turned into a museum. Tourists can visit the various buildings and the treasury, for a tour of the Harem an extra ticket must be obtained.
I already knew that Turkey doesn‘t have mosques like they stand in Isfahan in Iran or Samarkand and Buchara in Uzbekistan with their wonderful gold covered domes and walls with coloured tiles, but I expected at least some nicely decorated interiors in the Topkapi palace; I was disappointed again. Most rooms were only sparsely decorated or unadorned, not like the marvellous Alhambra in Spain, which we visited some years before.
We saw the famous Blue Mosque on a cold and rainy day, it had no chance to impress us with its glory, the windows didn‘t sparkle in sunshine and with no shoes on we got cold feet on the cold carpet. Our favourite mosque was the Sulemaniye built by Koca Mimar Sinan in the 16th century, the Michelangelo of Istanbul, but we also liked the very small and intimate one beside the first bridge across the Bosporus in Ortakoy, not only because it has a heating system under the floor!
How did we get from sight to sight? By taxi. We are in the happy and enviable position of knowing someone in Istanbul, a young Turkish woman who had lived in our town in Germany and moved back to Istanbul. She accompanied us for the first two days and the last evening out, through her we got to know Istanbul from the inside, we‘ll be eternally grateful for that.
When we were on our own, did we follow the advice of the guide books and discuss the destination with the taxi driver and haggle over the price before getting in? Were we cheated? No, we didn‘t, and yes, we were.
You might have got the impression that my trip to Istanbul was a flop. No, not at all, the trip was certainly different from what I had expected, but interesting all the same and worth while the time and money.
Istanbul does not only mean 2000 years of history, it‘s also a present day city, one of the largest and most populous cities on the planet, a megalopolis with estimated 15 million inhabitants, nearly a quarter of the Turkish people live there.
How do they live, what do they do? We didn‘t only move around by taxi, we also walked, we walked for hours, we lost two kilos each although we ate regularly. The Turkish cuisine is tasty. The traffic is rather civilised, not to be compared with the one in Southern Italy. The drivers obey traffic lights, stop at zebra crossings, hardly honk or shout at each other, the only irregularity we could notice was that they overtake from the left and the right.
The city is not very dirty, road sweepers are busy everywhere. We heard that for ten years the aspect of the city has constantly been improved, tanneries have been moved away from he Golden Horn which is a dead end stretch of water by which the quality of the water has been improved considerably.
Our hotel was in the quarter Laleli (Lah - la -lee), why it‘s not called Little Russia I don‘t know. There are Russian speaking people everywhere, the shopkeepers, the touts, the taxi drivers, the staff in the restaurant, they all speak Russian to a certain extent, all the shops and hotels in the area have Russian speaking staff, the writing is in Russian. Why‘s that? People from the former Soviet Union come and buy clothes, especially made of leather, shoes, also underwear, take the things home and sell them there. We saw people doing business everywhere, the famous Great Bazaar is also in this quarter. We saw people doing jobs we didn‘t even know existed.
When we came from the Chora museum we walked through the poor quarter of Balat, but even there each house had a shop on the ground floor. On the other end of the scale of what we saw is the Shopping Mall Akmerkez in Etiler, an American style shopping mall with 140 top designer shops and restaurants which got the ‘Best Shopping Center Europe Award‘. Name an expensive brand name, they‘ve got it! Bigger contrasts are hardly imaginable.
Istanbul is a grey city, there are hardly any parks or trees lining the street. The best places for recreation are near the water, the cafe beside the Dolmabahce Palace for example, or the cafes and restaurants in Ortakoy, a former village outside the city, but now part of the centre. It‘s there where people sit and play backgammon or smoke a water-pipe, men and women alike, and where young people while away hot summer nights if they aren‘t in the clubs near the Galata Tower or round the Taksim Place.
My favourite spot was beside the second bridge across the Bosporus, one ship after the other came from or went to the Black Sea. I love ships! Should I ever return to Istanbul, I‘d only go there, sit on the bank and look at the water.