It is said that a prophetic dream of Emperor Constantine made him choose what is now Istanbul as the new capital of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. That choice impacted a large swath of the world for more than 1,000 years.
Long called Constantinople, Istanbul was the largest city in the world in late antiquity and was rivalled in size only by Beijing until the 18th century. It represented a baptism of the Western world; Constantine was the first Christian emperor, and his reign from Constantinople marked the end of a harrowing persecution of the Christian faith.
Here, at the eastern edge of Europe, the Roman Empire continued to thrive for centuries even as it toppled in the West. It became known as the Byzantine Empire. At the confluence of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, it spread its influence far and wide, while also absorbing influences from the peoples of its vast domain.
In the 15th century, the Muslim sultan Mehmed II conquered the city. It became the seat of power for the Ottoman Empire, which controlled large swaths of Europe, Asia, and North Africa until its fall in 1922.
World War I, and a concurrent revolt in its Arab territories, greatly weakened the Ottoman Empire. A period of turmoil ensued that led to loss of territory, civil war, and the overthrow of the sultanship by a republic, which has ruled the nation from Ankara, Turkey, ever since.
Many Turks still mourn the loss of imperial grandeur, but many also embrace its republic. Colourful mosques, palatial splendour, and the vestiges of an ancient cosmopolitan city still fill Istanbul today.
I sailed along the Bosphorus Strait, a site of battles for conquest throughout the city’s long history. I walked through Istanbul’s cobblestoned streets, sipped tea with vendors in its immense Grand Bazaar, and marvelled at its vast and ancient underground cistern that was built like the city itself — using a mix of reclaimed stones from the monuments of pagans, Christians, and Muslims alike.
Last stop on the Orient Express
I started my explorations of Istanbul from the Sirkeci railway station on a foggy morning. Sirkeci harks back to the 1920s’ heyday of the Orient Express. Istanbul was the last stop on that famed luxury passenger train — passengers all the way from Paris could set foot here in this exotic land. I arrived by plane, but I came to this railway station to experience a similar moment.
Designed by a German architect, the station is a famous example of European Orientalism. It features the minarets, domes, and turrets of the local style, but with an ultimately European structure.
My first glimpse of Istanbul’s palaces and mosques was from the Bosphorus Strait, aboard a small yacht operated by the Zoe Yacht company. Because it’s small — 17 metres long, with up to 12 passengers — the yacht could hug the shore and get close to the monuments.
On the Bosphorus Strait
It was a chilly day, but we were comfortable in the heated outdoor lounge onboard. I saw the opulent Çırağan Palace — a classically structured white building resplendent with columns and many windows, built in the 19th century by Sultan Abdülâziz. It was customary for sultans of the Ottoman Empire to each build their own palace instead of occupying that of their predecessors. This was the last of that tradition.
We passed under the Bosphorus Bridge, a modern urban construction especially impressive at dusk when its coloured illumination mingles with the colours of the sunset.
This waterway has been of great military and economic importance for millennia as the main channel connecting the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Sultan Mehmet II used it when he conquered the city in the 15th century, and I imagined the tumult as we drifted by the fortifications he built for the siege, which remain today.
While enjoying the architecture and history, we ate a mezze lunch onboard, including fresh white fish. Similar to Spanish tapas, in mezze-style dining, a series of small plates is served, adding up to a whole meal.
Here I also had my first traditional rakī experience, in which a shot of cold, clear anise-flavoured liqueur (similar to Greek ouzo) is mixed with water. The first sip has a potent licorice spice, but calms down quickly and serves as a palette cleanser between bites of different dishes.
Stepping through ancient streets
The cathedral Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) is, to me, the most outstanding relic of Istanbul’s history. It was the largest building in the world for more than 1,000 years, built as a Christian cathedral in the 6th century. Its grand dome spans 33 metres and stands 55 metres above the cobblestones below.
When the city fell to the Ottomans in the 15th century, Hagia Sophia was repurposed as a mosque, with yellow paint and plaster covering its Christian mosaics.
The only part of Istanbul’s history that feels more massive to me than the Hagia Sophia is the Grand Bazaar. It’s smart to hire a guide through the Bazaar, as it’s nearly impossible to find your way alone through the colourful maze of over 4,000 shops.
Thanks to my dark hair and vaguely Mediterranean look, my guide, Borgia, and I were mistaken at several shops for sisters. She taught me how to bargain for good prices on gold and silk, and we enjoyed tea with friendly shopkeepers.
I bought an ornately painted ceramic ostrich egg, like the ones I saw hanging in Süleymaniye Mosque to ward off spiders. I still believe it’s protected me against creepy arachnids, hanging in the corner of my bedroom.
The eerie magic of the cistern
I needed a respite from the grandeur of the great monuments and the lavish sensory stimulation of the Grand Bazaar, so I took myself below the city to the relaxing Basilica Cistern (also known as Yerebatan Sarnici, “The Sunken Palace”). Built in 532 by Emperor Justinian I to store fresh water for the Great Palace of Constantinople, which was the residence and centre of administration for Byzantine emperors, the Cistern could hold 80,000 cubic metres of water.
It has been drained in modern times to expose its 336 columns, which stand 9 metres high. They are beautifully illuminated from their base up to the vaulted ceilings. Their varied capitals suggest they were repurposed from various temples and other ancient buildings. I walked along the wooden platforms, watching the grey carp swim below, past the columns, to two large, curious statues, both depicting Medusa’s head.
The aura of this cavern of stone and water seemed a fitting place to find Medusa, a mythical figure of ancient Greece who could turn men to stone. Their orientation — one upside down, and one on its side — piqued my curiosity. Did the 6th-century builders do that purposely to signify the Christian toppling of pagan beliefs? Or maybe they simply needed stones of this size and turned them this way while repurposing them to fit their construction needs.
The reclaimed materials of the Cistern fit the style of Istanbul. The city is built upon an illustrious and varied history, the different eras interwoven into the beautiful whole we see today.