By Feraz Ahmed.
This article, "Istanbul: A Melting Point of History and Culture Between East and West," was first published in our Fashion Issue. Editing by Jose Morales.
Once the capital of the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman empires and formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, the majestic grandeur of Istanbul needs no introduction. Its multifaceted cultural influences are what make this city so enthralling. It had been almost ten years since my last visit to Istanbul. However, as soon as I heard the call to prayer while overlooking the Istanbul skyline during this trip, I felt as if I had never left, and my heart could barely hold the excitement I felt. Due to its history and the amalgamation of different cultures, Istanbul holds a mystical, chaotic charm that I could not help but remain in love with.
- A Little bit of history ~
The history of Istanbul dates back to Ancient Greece when it was known as Byzantium. In AD 330, under the rule of Emperor Constantine, it became the capital of the Roman Empire, and its name was changed to Constantinople. The establishment of Constantinople led to the spread of Christianity. The rise of the Ottoman empire in 1453 brought Islam to the land and renovated the city by building bridges, waterways, and adorning it with Islamic architecture and grand mosques. In 1923, the capital was moved to Ankara, and the city was renamed Istanbul after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
For many, Istanbul has been known as the central point of the world. It is on a strategic location on the Çatalca Peninsula and the Bosphorus Strait (which separates the European and Asian continents) between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, leading to the Argean and Mediterranean seas. As a result, Istanbul is one of the few cities in the world that affords such a combination of cultures, truly bringing east and west together. Its unique location also helped Istanbul to become an important trade point on the historical silk road.
- Haga Sophia ~
Exploring Istanbul enables you to move between civilizations in just a few steps. There is a constant buzz due to the masses of people navigating through its bustling streets and markets – 15.03 million, to be exact. With that being said, the central area of Sultanahmet exudes a relaxed and intimate charm, where you can stroll its streets while taking in the city’s marvel. While here, you cannot help but notice one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia will amaze you with its immense architecture, which has played a part in its ability to survive many turbulent times. Its juxtaposition of Islamic and Christian religions truly defines what Istanbul represents to modern-day Turkey and is a must-see when visiting Istanbul.
The Hagia Sophia was built in AD 360 as a Byzantine Christian church and has undergone many transformations during its time. It was converted to a Greek Orthodox Church in 1054, and a Roman Catholic Cathedral in 1204. It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times due to fires and earthquakes.
In 1453, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. The cathedral used to be adorned with mosaics of Jesus Christ and other religious figures. As these figures were forbidden in Islamic mosques, these mosaics were hidden under tiles during the conversion. Luckily, this preserved the mosaics, which can now be seen in all their glory.
In 1935 the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum, becoming one of the most significant monuments not only in Turkey but the entire world. It is no surprise that it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
- Topkapi Palace ~
Around the corner from the Hagia Sophia, you will be drawn to the grand entrance of Topkapi Palace. As you wander through its imperial gates, you are treated to the grandeur of what life was like for the Ottoman Sultans.
Topkapi Palace was built in 1466 by Mehmed the Conqueror and consists of four main courtyards. This magnificent palace is adorned with the finest marble, gold, stain-glass windows, Iznik tiles, and is gilded with the most beautiful Arabic calligraphy. Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Topkapi was transformed into a museum.
With its sheer opulence and splendor, Topkapi Palace is truly breath-taking. My personal highlight was viewing the religious artifacts housed in The Privy Chambers. Artifacts and relics belonging to the likes of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophet Muhammed are on display there. Viewing such important religious relics is awe-inspiring, and I could not help but be emotionally moved.
- Grand Bazaar ~
The beauty of Istanbul is the result of multiculturalism, and this is extremely prevalent in the Grand Bazaar. With its chaotic charm, the Grand Bazaar is a must-see when visiting Istanbul. This is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, located in the walled city and comprising of over 4000 shops. I was hypnotized with the sounds, smells, and sights on show. From traditional Turkish rugs, lights, and tiles to aromatic spices and delicious Turkish delight, the Grand Bazaar has it all.
- Blue Mosque ~
My trip to Istanbul would not have been complete without visiting the majestic Blue Mosque. Formally known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the magnificent structure is mind-blowing. With its defiant minarets pointing towards the sky and majestic domes and semi-domes, you cannot help but be captivated.
Built in 1616, this architectural marvel was uniquely designed with six minarets due to a misunderstanding between the architect and the Sultan (traditional mosques only had four minarets). However, Sultan Ahmet liked it so much that he decided to keep its design. At night the mosque is bathed with lights, enhancing the mosque’s five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes.
I was mesmerized by the grandeur of the hand-painted blue tiles adorning the mosque’s interior walls and felt incredibly blessed at being able to offer a solitary prayer here. Its vast prayer hall provides a tranquil place for contemplation and a restful site from the hustle and bustle of the streets outside.
A visit to Istanbul can only be concluded by sailing on the mighty Bosphorus River. This famous waterway runs through Istanbul, splitting it between Asia and Europe. Even though in this article we have mainly focussed on the European side of Istanbul, the Asian side offers a fascinating insight into traditional Turkish culture. Sailing on this river provided a liberating breeze as I looked ahead at the number of fishermen catching fish to sell to the vast restaurants onshore or for their own meal. As I glimpsed at the overwhelming city skyline of mosques, hills, monuments, and buildings, it was here that Istanbul’s true essence truly enthralled me in being a melting point of history and culture. – GM
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