ISTANBUL, TURKEY — This won’t be a history lesson. First, I don’t have the knowledge to even begin to slice into the 3000 years that Istanbul has stood as a world capital. Secondly, I simply can’t wrap my head around the influence this city has had over that time frame.
Istanbul is not the Great Pyramids, Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu — this is a city that has never missed a beat, never shriveled up waiting to be placed in a museum.
In Istanbul, history and modern life play out side by side. It makes history more real, more tangible than any tour or museum you could ever walk into.
Case in point: after a long day of exploring ancient wonders, we managed to make our way back to Sultanahmet in the drizzling rain to seek out our favorite cafe for a much-deserved tea and rest. Yet, not even here could we escape history: below this little family-run cafe stretched the labyrinth of the Great Byzantine Palace, covered over nearly 1000 years ago to make room for the city’s growing population and only recently uncovered by amateur “hotel” archaeologists.
That is the essence of Istanbul: turn a corner looking for the restroom and instead find yourself in a 2500 year old harem.
To be honest, photos won’t do the history of this city justice. Words even less so.
You can only experience the grandeur of the soaring dome of the Aya Sofia, the glowing calm of the Blue Mosque at night or the eerie chill and soft patter of dripping water of the Basilica Cistern in the flesh. Walking here is not exactly like being in the time and place where Constantinople was the center of the world — but it’s certainly close. Damn close.
Of all the historic remnants of this ancient city, the Aya Sofia is by far the most visceral. Built over 1600 years ago, it celebrated its first millennium as a Christian mother church before the Ottomans claimed it for Islam. It then spent a mere 600 years as one of the holiest Mosques in the world before being converted to a museum as Turkey modernized.
To walk into its soaring space is not breathtaking — it’s breath-giving. So much space, so much light, so many hushed whispers and gasps, it’s almost too much to take in. Despite the thousands of people exploring its vast space, you feel like the only one present, lost in your own private reverie.
A popular starlet on many ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ lists, Aya Sofia is amazing, startling and inspiring all by itself — even before you realize it was built without any form of modern mechanization.
The Blue Mosque stands literally across a wide, dumpy square from its older cousin.
Built 1000 years after Aya Sofia, the interior’s dazzling blue panels and somewhat less lofty space make you truly question how its predecessor could have done so much more with less.
But then night falls and then you understand why the Blue Mosque is the belle of this ancient ball. From nearly anywhere around Istanbul’s seven hills, you can spot the Blue Mosque, glowing coolly and calmly like a nightlight — a beacon that will haunt every visitor’s dreams as they think back on times in this city.
From great heights to great depths. One of the truly most haunting experiences in Istanbul is climbing down a low, dark staircase into the Basilica Cistern — an ancient water reservoir literally dug out of the city proper.
For thousands of years, this cistern supplied the bustling city with fresh water, until one day it was simply closed up. As nothing goes lost in Istanbul, it was rediscovered again in 1546 when early archaeologists heard tales of residents catching fish by lowering buckets into holes in their basements.
This dark, vast space is eerie enough without the constant sound of dripping water and dim red lights that shimmer along the pools. Residents call this the ‘sunken palace’ because the 300-some columns that hold the space seem to disappear into the murky water below. A grand example of recycling at its finest, all the stone work was gathered from ancient dilapidated sites to conserve on granite supplies.
I admit, it’s almost ludicrous to write a blog post about the history of Istanbul. Authors have burned through countless tomes to tackle only a fraction of the events, occurrences and empires that were sparked here.
The museums are wonderful, the epic sites, mesmerizing — but it’s the fact that history is written out on every inch of this city that is so amazing. From the grandest wonders of the world, to a rickety staircase below a neighborhood cafe — this city lives, breathes and oozes the past.
And unlike any museum in the world, this history lesson is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, 3000 years and counting.