Istanbul, Turkey, traverses two continents, Asia and Europe, separated by the Bosphorus Strait. I will elaborate on the stark differences later. A love of history will instantly unite you with Istanbul. The area was inhabited for thousands of years but became the Greek city of Byzantium around 660BC.
Constantine the Great conquered the land in 300AD and became the Emperor of the Roman Empire, changing the name to Constantinople. The city stood as the capitals of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire for over 16 centuries. The primary religion was Christianity until 1453 when the Ottomans converted it into a Muslim sanctuary. Istanbul became part of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. While Ankara is the capital of Turkey, Istanbul is the largest and most prevalent city in the country.
I felt my heart stop, waiting for a city train, my whole body started to wobble from the ground shifting. A newfound travel event, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake! My guide told me, “Not to worry, it happens frequently.” The population is over 15 million, and it appeared all of them were standing outside on the sidewalks as our train pushed along the tracks. Unquestionably, a unique shocker for a southern boy.
My ideal approach to travel is with a private guide, preferably a photographer. I was fortunate to uncover Kemal, a National Geographic photographer through WithLocals.com. The Grand Bazaar is a maze of shops and back areas where craftsmen work. Kemal introduced me to his artisan friends. At a gold melting facility, jewelers melt their unsold products and leave daily with gold bullion, only to start over with new creations. In less than an hour, I witnessed over a hundred ounces of 24-carat exquisite gold jewelry melted.
The jewelry stores in the Grand Bazaar are tremendous, servicing international appeals. Regrettably, the silver meltdown operates only two days a week. The reason is the lack of interest in the younger population. They don’t want sterling silver housewares such as utensils, etc. Turkish coffee is served everywhere in the city and especially in the Bazaar. It reminds me of the coffee I drank growing up in New Orleans, coffee and chicory, but considerably stronger in Turkey.
The Asian atmosphere verses the European side of Istanbul was striking. I took the ferry across the Bosphorus Strait to Kadikoy. My guide, Ceren, met me in the late afternoon for a walking tour (over 12,000 steps) of the city, waterfront, evening hot spots, and dinner. It was picture-perfect to experience the area through the eyes of a young adult. The town was full of youthful people mingling and having a good time. There were blocks and blocks of restaurants and bars. Streets were adorned with hanging lights and charming embellishments such as umbrellas. Ceren’s favorite café offered street seating, great for people watching. The environment appeared less populated, more laid back, and casual. I didn’t see women wearing head veils or scarves. The cab ride back to my hotel was less than thirty minutes via the bridge.
Istanbul has over three thousand mosques. The most famous Blue Mosque was closed for renovation, and the Hagia Sophia is vast and beautiful. Exploring the ruins underground of previous empires was a treat. Located only 55 steps below the streets is the Basilica Cistern. The Cistern is adorned with 330 marble columns illuminated with amber lighting and had a capacity of 20 million gallons of water. To convey all the marvels seen would take a book to do it justice. Following an adventure into Istanbul, you will ponder the fact that life is short, but history is forever.