Either You Conquer Istanbul or Istanbul Conquers You – Part 1

If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.

Alphonse de Lamartine

Those who read this blog often or those know me, are aware of my love for Istanbul. It’s by far my favourite city in the world and as I told one of my friends once, I love the place not only because of its complex beauty, but because Istanbul gave me a purpose, it gave me a heart. Just in case Istanbul thought it didn’t do enough for me, it then went on to be the place where I would make a friend who would eventually lead me to Libya.

The skyline of Sultanahmet from Kadikoy

This urge to write about Istanbul was sparked by a conversation I had with a friend who will be making her visit to the city. However since I’ve been to Istanbul four times and have a lot to write about, so I will share these impressions in segments under the same name.

My Masters in Building and Urban Design in Development (otherwise and henceforth known as BUDD) included a three week field included in the course. In previous years, BUDDies (A fortunate soul who studied this masters), went to places like Jamaica, Malta, Cyprus, Ghana etc.

When our course director announced that Istanbul would the destination of our field trip, the BUDDies were a bit underwhelmed as some of our other possible destinations were the Maldives and the Philippines, however this all changed when we were told what our focus would be: The Gypsy neighbourhood of Sulukule. We were all intrigued by the chance to work with and in a Gypsy community, so Istanbul merely became the stage where our Gypsy story would be set. Little did I know at that point, that my future would be intrinsically bound to Istanbul.

This post will focus on the my first impressions of Istanbul. I will write subsequent posts on Sulukule and the Gypsy community who stole my heart.

The flight to Istanbul was filled with a hesitant expectation. I had no idea what to expect. My knowledge on Turkey was vague and to be honest I can’t remember any mention of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire from history class (but that could be due to my lack of attention rather than the failings of the South African education system). The closest contact I had to Turkey was a friend from my engineering degree, but he was Kurdish, so it doesn’t really count.

We stumbled into Istanbul late at night so it was difficult to see anything from the plane. It was only on the shuttle towards our hotel that the first glimpses of Istanbul’s ancient heritage winked at us, with winking being done by the walls and fortifications of Byzantine Istanbul. That is my first memory of Istanbul.

We would be based in the Galata district of Istanbul on the European side of the city. Istanbul is called the city of seven hills and we found out quite quickly that steep inclines were part and parcel of the city as we manoeuvred our luggage up a steep stairway to get to our hotel. (I successfully conquered the suitcase-up-stairs dilemma with an African approach: Put the suitcase on your head and go.)

What happened over the following twenty days are now a blur to me with only certain images clear and sharp. It was a cultural, visual, auditory and taste overload. The city seemed determined to impress with all the weapons it could find in its armoury.

The first morning I remember being woken by about seven simultaneous Azaans (Muslim prayers call). I found the call entrancing and somehow conveying a stillness which I couldn’t (and can’t) describe. From that moment on, I would always stop whatever I was doing when the prayer call started. I loved the sound of it. I found it beautiful.

Istaklal Cadessi

The rest of the day Istanbul deployed a ‘shock and awe’ approach. It was bombarding my senses. From taking the Tunel (the second oldest subterranean urban rail line in the world); to accompanying (by foot) the tram along the Istaklal Caddessi (the Oxford street of Istanbul); to visiting the majestic Taskisla campus of Istanbul Technical University; to visiting Sulukule, the oldest continuously inhabited gypsy settlement in the world. That day despite the exhaustion, I fell in love with Istanbul. It was an extravaganza for the senses.

Istaklal Cadessi is something of an experience, constantly bustling with people, local and tourist alike. The lokum (turkish delight) shops flirt with you and vie for your attention, though they aren’t the only ones, as the traditional ice cream sellers lull you towards their stands with their mischievous ice cream trickery; the chain coffee shops beg you to indulge them in their quest for  world domination; the restaurant deploy their olfactory militia to ensnare you to their tables; the simit vendor nonchalantly waits for hungry snackers as he calls for custom; the side streets intrigue you with their hidden little secrets like Pandora’s box. Istaklal Cadessi like the rest of Istanbul can be a wonderland to the senses.

In Istanbul the ancient, the old and the new sit side by side and although they don’t always like it, they get along perfectly fine. The ancientness of the city seemed to prove that once upon a time, Istanbul was the centre of world. I get this feeling every time I’m there.

Our first week in Istanbul was spent mostly in the Galata and Beyoglu area and this we considered this home. It was only on our sixth day that we got to do some site seeing. Across the Golden horn is Old Istanbul. Its skyline dominated by minarets of the mosques.

The Hagia Sofia

The most vivid memory of our day to the historic centre of Istanbul was the Hagia Sofia. Former Cathedral, turned mosque, turned cathedral, turned mosque and so forth. It’s now a museum. As we walked in my curiosity turned into awe. I was speechless. I was in a ‘zone’ where all I wanted to do was walk around and take in the marvel of this spectacular structure. I did exactly that, completely forgetting about my coursemates. I wandered around this ancient structure open-mouthed trying to take in this marvel of architecture. The Hagia Sofia remained one of the highlights of Istanbul for me. Old Istanbul is one of those odd otherworldly experiences where you stand next to a structures that’s a thousand years old and then the next moment you’re almost hit by a snazzy new car.

I wish I could go on about the architecture of the city, or the touristy parts of the city, but unfortunately my knowledge on architecture is limited to me thinking something looks cool. All I can say that Istanbul is unlike any city I’ve visited. The architecture seems to carry a touch of all its conquerors, which makes the city so unique.

There is one thing that I always equate Istanbul with and that’s music. Istanbul is a city of music. Everywhere in this city my ears were treated to music. Music has such a strong presence in this city that a documentary was made about the intrinsic link between music and the city. The movie is called Crossing the Bridge and I only watched two years after my visit. The documentary was kind of reassuring as it proved I wasn’t making up the mystical connections between music and the city.

Then there is the water. The Bosphorus. One of the things I loved doing was taking the ferries connecting the two sides of Istanbul. Another one of the vivid memories I have is sitting on ferry on the Bosphorus hearing a chorus of Azaan’s. If ever there was something that symbolized tranquillity to me, it was that moment.

Calling this city home for more than twenty days was something extraordinary with which I look back at with great fondness.

The next instalment on Istanbul will feature our work and my experience with the Gypsies of Sulukule.

Istanbul is a magical seal which unites Europe and Asia since the ancient times. Without a doubt, Istanbul is certainly the most beautiful place of the world.

Gerard De Nerval

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