Istanbul

When we arrived in Istanbul, we were expected to meet up with our driver, the brother of a friend of a friend. My wife and son were arriving from Budapest, and I was flying from Philadelphia, through London and Zurich. With good planning and fortune, our flights arrived within an hour of each other. We greeted each other as close families do, with hugs and cheer. My wife’s Turkish acquaintance had relatives in Istanbul who sent their brother to drive us from the airport to our rental apartment. He did not speak English, and our Turkish was limited to merhaba and nasılsınız. Nevertheless, we managed to provide him the address we were seeking. Our apartment was in the old part of Istanbul, Sultanahmet. After a difficult tour of the narrow streets blocked by pushcarts and pedestrians, we found our street, and apartment, on a section accessible only by foot, as the street had stairs. The apartment manager met us, and offered a larger apartment on the first floor, or a smaller but still spacious apartment on the top floor. We chose the top floor.

The street to our apartment

The area was an amalgam of busy cobblers, mostly immigrants from Romania, who’s hammers tapped out a constant rhythm of shoemaking clearly audible from our apartment. There were men pushing carts through the narrow streets laden with leather hides. Busy shops and restaurants were on street level, while the cobbling took place on upper floors. Our apartment was very nicely furnished, with elegant sofas, a complete kitchen, including an electric tea maker in the Turkish style, and comfortable beds in the two bedrooms. But the best features were the two rooftop balconies. From these, we had an amazing view of Istanbul’s old city, including multiple minarets, the narrow maze of streets, a glimpse of the Blue Mosque, but most intriguing, was the Sea of Marmara.

View from the balcony

From ancient times and immortalization in Greek mythology, to the current day, the Bosporus Strait and Sea of Marmara have been ever important arteries, carrying cargo from ports around the Black Sea through the Bosphorus Strait to the Sea of Marmara, then through the Strait of Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea and into the Mediterranean Sea. Bosporus was named after the Greek mythological story of Io. Io, a mortal priestess to Hera, wife of Zeus, became a mistress of Zeus. She was turned into a beautiful white cow, perhaps by Zeus as a way to protect her from jealous Hera. Hera discovered the deception, and sent a plague of gadflies to follow Io and constantly sting her. This set her wandering along the strait of Bosporus to the black sea, where she met Prometheus. The name, Bosporus, is derived from ancient Greek, meaning “bovine passage” (or ox-ford in English). Io met Prometheus, also a victim of Zeus, along the shores of the Black Sea, who told her not to fear as she would be changed back to human form.

From WorldAtlas.com, map of the Black Sea

In 2016, the number of vessels traversing the Bosporus straits and through the sea of Marmara was 42,553, and they transported oil, grain, manufactured goods and many other items. Fishing is also very important to the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara and along the Straits of the Bosporus. Istanbul is strategically located at the entrance to the sea of Marmara, and thus in control of passage through this very busy waterway. The history of Istanbul goes back thousands of years and it’s origins are mythical. It was said to be founded by the Greek King Byzas from Megara, a city-state near Athens, in 667 BCE, and therefore it acquired the name Byzantium. Because of its strategic location, it was the subject of many attacks, some successful. The Achaemenid King Darius I conquered the city in513 BCE. His Samian engineer, Mandrokles, constructed a bridge across the Bosporus which allowed the troops to enter the city. Sparta controlled the city briefly from 411 BCE, then the Byzantians allowed the Athenian rulers to take control. Byzantium was besieged by the Romans in 193 CE, and in 330 CE Emperor Constantine became its ruler. After he died, it became known as Constantinople. It was controlled by the Romans, Crusaders, and back to Byzantine control until the Ottoman’s conquered the city in 1453. It has remained under Ottoman or Turkish control since then, and the official name was changed to Istanbul in 1923. This is a bit ironic given that the name Istanbul is derived from Greek.

Another balcony view, with ships in the Sea of Marmara, and a minaret in the foreground.
Dolmabahçe Palace, the new palace of the sultans, built 1843-1856, has a gate directly to the Bosporus.
Locals fish the waters of the Bosporus
While commercial fisherman and tour boats make a living from the water.
Fish for sale along the Bosporus, caught that day.

Being a center of trade and commerce, Istanbul was naturally a place to buy goods from around the middle east and other parts of Asia. The Grand Bazaar, which was initially built in 1455, survives today as a very busy marketplace, selling all sorts of items including jewelry, carpets, clothes, household manufactured goods and leather goods. It has been reborn many times after earthquakes and fires have destroyed parts of it, and in recent years more than 250,000 visitors may shop there in a day.

A shop in the Grand Bazaar

Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, the spice trade has played a large role in creating trade routes, from the far east, particularly India, from various regions in Africa, and from China and other parts of Asia. The Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, built around 1660 (during which the Great Fire of 1660 destroyed about two thirds of Istanbul, a story in itself), was initially built as another marketplace but became focussed on selling spices.

A typical shop in the Spice Bazaar. Walking around the bazaar is a heady experience of aromas of so many spices blending together.

I found it impossible to walk through the Spice Bazaar without stopping to buy spices. The salesmen are very good, but the spices really sell themselves. The aromas perhaps trigger our most basic instincts.

Dining in a restaurant along the Bosporus, on the Asian side of Istanbul, and getting introduced to Rakı, slightly anise-flavored liquor diluted with water and drunk with seafood.
In 513 BCE, Emperor Darius the Great built a pontoon-type bridge with boats to cross the Bosporus. This is the current bridge, the Bosporus Bridge built in 1973.

The Bosporus Bridge was the first modern bridge to cross the Bosporus and connect Europe with Asia. Since July 15, 2016, it has been renamed the 15th July Martyrs Bridge, honoring the soldiers who died fighting against an attempted coup. Barely visible in this photo, but hanging from the center of the span, is a soccer team pendant. Soccer, needless to say, is very big in Turkey.

Politics in the middle east and near east, where Istanbul is centered, have become very volatile in recent years. Yet Istanbul, or Constantinople, has lasted two millennia so is likely to continue on, especially with today’s 14 million population. It has survived fires, earthquakes, numerous invasions and changes in regimes. Its location, along busy trade routes and most significant, the Bosporus Strait and the Sea of Marmara, gives it a unique role in the world.

The text in the upper left of the photo says “Since 1475”
Our delightful “friends of friends” and guides.
A last look from the balcony.
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