Istanbul is one of the world’s great geographical crossroads. “A place where East meets West,” as the cliché goes, only scratches the cultural surface of this eclectic city situated on the Bosporus Strait.
Originally named Constantinople after the Roman Emperor Constantine, Istanbul has outlasted two great empires: the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, founded by Constantine in the early 330s, and the Ottoman Empire, run by the Turks from the city after besieging it and capturing it from the Byzantines in 1453. In 1923 the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the present-day Republic of Turkey emerged. Though Ankara is the nation’s capital, Istanbul is still its heart and soul.
As a world’s crossroads, Istanbul enjoys a steady flow of merchants and travelers. The inhabitants of the city understand that an accommodating attitude and heaps of hospitality keep the money flowing, and the tourists coming back for more.
It’s easy to get around in Istanbul. Most Turks speak English well and are eager to help you find what you need. Reciprocate their hospitality by learning a few words of Turkish, such as lütfen (“please”) and teşekkür (“thank you”), and you should have no problem enjoying this fascinating city.
But beware: Like any metropolis, Istanbul has its share of pickpockets and ne’er-do-wells. Keep your valuables close to your body and use common sense when traveling.
It may cost a little more, but try to book a hotel in the “old town,” the historic Istanbul south of the Golden Horn inlet. This area has been the city’s epicenter for centuries, and staying here puts you within walking distance of the city’s greatest sites.
Your first stop must be Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish), the Church of Holy Wisdom. Rebuilt in 537 (the original structure burnt down in a city-wide riot) under the direction of the Roman Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the architectural and liturgical center of Eastern Christendom until 1054. In that year, the papal legate Cardinal Humbert of Mourmoutiers laid a decree of excommunication against the patriarch of Constantinople on Hagia Sophia’s high altar (during Mass no less), creating the Great Schism between East and West, a regrettable condition that persists to this day.
In 1453, when the city fell to the invading Muslim Turks, Hagia Sophia was brutally violated: Its doors were smashed, and those seeking refuge in the great church were slaughtered or sold as slaves. The Muslim invaders later tore out the church’s relics and altars, plastered over its gleaming mosaics, and converted the church into a mosque. In 1935 the Republic of Turkey reclassified Hagia Sophia as a museum, forbidding worship of any kind in the church.
Even in its dilapidated state, Hagia Sophia immediately impresses you with a sense of power and grace. Its great dome towers 180 feet above your head, and its many windows let in a flood of light. If you were to compile a list of “101 places every Christian should see,” Hagia Sophia would rank in the top 10.
In the afternoon, Turks love to slow down, have tea and a small bite to eat. After visiting Hagia Sophia, recharge at the Derviş Café, just across the street from the church. Try Turkish tea in a glass (bardak çay), relax and watch the crowds go by.
The Blue Mosque
Directly facing Hagia Sophia is the Sultan Ahmed (Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) Mosque. Nicknamed the Blue Mosque for its blue-tiled interior, the Sultan Ahmed was Islam’s response to Christendom’s great cathedral. Built in the early 1600s during the rule of Sultan Ahmed I, the mosque is intentionally larger than Hagia Sophia and stands on the site of the ancient Roman racetrack. Lavish gardens and successive courtyards surround the mosque, whose interior is lit by hundreds of lights reflecting off its brilliant, multicolored marble and tiled surfaces.
Grand Bazaar and Holy Relics
Next, pop over to the Kapali Carsisi, the Grand (covered) Bazaar. This bazaar, which has been a main shopping center in Istanbul for centuries, is a labyrinth of shops, boutiques and cafés. If you venture in, expect crowds and aggressive merchants who are not shy about telling you what you need. Only barter with a merchant if you are serious about buying something.
In the evening, go down to the Galata Bridge for something to eat and a breath of fresh sea air. The Turks love to cook, and much of what we think of as “Greek food” is actually Turkish. Roast meats, vegetables, kebabs, breads, fish and lots of thick, tart yogurt can be had for very little. If you are in a hurry, try a balik ekmek (fish sandwich) caught, cooked and served from boats docked near the bridge. With sea salt and lemon juice, it’s delicious.
To escape Istanbul’s crowds, rise early and go to the Topkapi Palace and museum. This palace, laid out in its current form in the late 1400s, was the seat of power for the Turkish Sultans for five centuries. Successive courtyards and groomed lawns with shade trees give you a glimpse of how the royal family lived during the Ottoman Empire.
The royal quarters where the sultan, his family and, yes, many concubines lived are there, but be sure not to miss the Chamber of Holy Relics, which has King David’s sword, a fragment of Moses’ staff, and John the Baptist’s arm and a section of his skull. Relics of Mohammed are also on display.
Cathedral on a Modern Street
To see how the city has evolved since the fall of the Ottomans, cross the Galata Bridge to Istiklal Avenue (Caddesi in Turkish), the modern street in the city. Running for over a mile and a half, Istiklal Avenue is Istanbul’s answer to Paris’ Champs-Élysées and contains more shops, cafés and restaurants than could be visited in a month. The street is for pedestrian traffic only and offers a glimpse at the architecture of the various European powers that have had a heavy hand in shaping modern-day Turkey.
About midway on the avenue stands St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral, a beautiful structure dating from the early 1900s. From 1935 to 1944, Pope John XXIII, then Angelo Roncalli, celebrated Mass here as the apostolic delegate to Turkey. The liturgy is still celebrated at the cathedral in English every Sunday morning.
Lastly, take a boat tour around the Bosporus Strait to get “the big picture” of the reach and history of this beautiful city. Spanning both Asia and Europe, past and present, small wonder that Istanbul was named Europe’s “Cultural Capital for 2010.”
Jeff Gardner is the CEO of Catholic Media International.