Monday, 21 March 2016

Istanbul – not just a terrorist target

I’ve been away for a week. Friends keep telling me that there’s a lively tango scene in Istanbul and Tammy complained that we never go anywhere different these days, so we packed our dancing shoes and booked a flight.

Obviously our trip has been rather overshadowed by the bomb that went off in Istiklal Street on Saturday morning. We’d been there on Wednesday and Thursday night, but by Saturday we were on a plane home. Our trip was untroubled by terrorist outrages, though the number of armed police, water cannon and riot squads we saw all suggested trouble ahead. For a tourist, though, Istanbul remains a fantastic place to visit.

Our (inexpensive) hotel was in the historic area of Sultanahmet. From the roof terrace you could see the Blue Mosque, just a few minutes’ walk away. Our room faced directly onto the Roman brickwork that supported the end of the hippodrome. The hippodrome itself (with some of the columns that once made a line down the centre) is now a public open space that features in all the guide books. The massive retaining wall is hardly mentioned – just one of the unremarked wonders of a city so filled with historic sites that many are simply overlooked.

The hippodrome
I’m tempted to write a travel blog here (if people ask me to, I probably will) but once I start, I’ll be going for rather a long time. There were so many buildings there where I walked in and my jaw literally dropped. The vast space of the Haghia Sophia, for almost a thousand years the largest enclosed space in the world with a dome that still amazes. It’s impossible for a photograph to give any impression of its size, so I won’t bother. Instead, here’s just one of the gorgeous mosaics that decorate the place. (This one is from the 13th century.)

The Blue Mosque seemed much less impressive inside (don’t take my word for it – read what architectural experts say) but the grace and beauty of its exterior are truly lovely.

There are great defensive walls, palaces from the 15th century to the 19th, the world’s first shopping mall (the Grand Bazaar), a 14th century tower with spectacular views, wonderful early Christian mosaics, hundreds of mosques with beautiful tiling, world-class museums, fantastic restaurants and, I know, much, much more that we did not have time to see.

With a history that takes in the height of the Eastern Roman Empire and Ottoman rule at its peak, Istanbul’s architecture shows two cultures at their best. The Muslims who conquered the place in the 15th century did not destroy the Christian buildings that they found there but adapted them to their own religion, or just left them alone. (Inside the Topkapi palace is one of the world’s finest examples of Byzantine architecture that was abandoned as a church but left alone as a building. It’s another example of a huge open space that defies photography, especially with a sheet that protects visitors from pigeon droppings but obscures the dome. The view across the atrium, though, gives some idea of how impressive it is.)

It’s a sobering thought that the worst incident of cultural vandalism across the centuries was the damage done to the Haghia Sophia by Catholic Crusaders who took exception to it being dedicated to the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity.

Even without its architectural and cultural importance Istanbul would be a beautiful city. Built on seven hills (only seven? Our legs would disagree after a day of walking round and up them) it is a city of incredible views all set against the blue of the Bosphorus. And, yes, we did go dancing and, yes, it was very good.

Even as casual visitors, and even before the bombing, it was clear from what people said to us – and the evidence of a tight security presence – that Turkey is not a country at peace with itself. Istanbul is not, at present, a dangerous place to visit and, as a tourist, you will find people friendly and helpful. How long this city, which has survived so much in two thousand years, will remain an open and welcoming place is an impossible question to answer. But for now, it's easy to get to and, as many tourists change their plans, it's cheap and uncrowded. If you want to see it, this is probably the time to go.


  1. Thank you for sharing the photos and your experiences. The city is glorious, and I do envy you the food. (What is it with cities and seven hills ... ? My own hometown makes the claim as well:

  2. People like sevens: seven colours in a rainbow (actually, there are six but we split purple into indigo and violet to make seven), seven continents (although that takes some fiddling), seven seas (really?) and so on. Ask people to give you a number between one and ten and an overwhelming majority will say seven. (The usually wonderful Derren Brown bases one of his weaker tricks around the fact that if you ask a hall full of people you can guarantee that seven will be the collective choice.) Why? No idea - but it just might have something to do with natural processing limits in the brain. (The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information by George A. Miller, Psychological Review, 1956:

    I'm glad you enjoyed the post.