September is a lovely time to visit Istanbul. The Mediterranean sun is still bright but now it is warm and not sizzling. However the traffic on Kennedy Boulevard is just as bad year round. JFK would probably have mixed emotions about this city of 15 million today. On one hand he would appreciate the success it has had in growing and engaging in a free enterprise economy. On the other hand he would surely roll his eyes at the congestion. That said, tourists continue to pour into the city both as a destination and a jumping off point for adventures around the eastern Mediterranean. Both modern and exotic it is a blending of worlds with a result unknown in most of Europe: it’s fairly cheap.
We tend to hang around the Old City, the Sultanhamet. It is convenient to both the airport and midway to the cruise port. It’s also scenic, historic and, if you have double pane windows at your hotel, very pleasant. The double panes of your windows are necessary to hold down the nearby street noise but, more importantly, to muffle the Imam’s wakeup call every morning around 4:30 am. The first call to prayer is well before dawn and made by a most determined cleric who will not be satisfied until all are awake and ready to start their day with prayer. So, if you are not Muslim, the half dozen mosques around the Old City, all broadcasting their calls to prayer over their loud speaker systems, can lead to an uncomfortable half hour of wailing. It would seem that they could at least synchronize their clocks and all broadcast at the same time. So closed windows with double pane glass are a nice luxury in the Old City.
We tend to enjoy at least one evening dining at the rooftop restaurant Seven Hills. Perched upon the top of the hotel by the same name its al fresco view is hard to beat. The old is perfectly visible to the west, the Sofia Hagia and Blue Mosque, the frenzy of the Bosporus and the commerce of the Sea of Marmara visible to the east. It is a photographer’s delight. Locals tend to turn their noses up at the area as ‘touristy’ but, hey, we’re tourists.
Tonight the restaurant is busy and our Turkish waiter is flying by, flinging out table settings and taking wine orders. Lights begin mysteriously appearing on buildings all around us as the sun settles. The setting is sublime so the talk turns to fish. Our waiter informs us that they have an excellent selection of fresh fish available, would we like to inspect it? We stroll over to the fresh fish case to examine the toothy victims lying in a bed of ice. They all do, indeed, appear fresh and delicious. We select a nice red grouper which will look very good on the grill. The waiter rubs his hands, makes a note and then pauses. He looks around, smiles and then asks if I’m aware that this grouper is 500 lira, Turkish. Still fogged a bit by jet lag I do the math. Holy catfish, buckwheat! That’s a $250 grouper! Indeed I’m not aware, nor that hungry. We settle on a couple of nice, fresh sea bass, much more pedestrian a choice but not as devastating to the wallet.
Settling back into my chair the Sofia Hagia appears splendid and regal in the light of sunset, belying its troubled past. Built as the first Christian cathedral in the ancient city of Byzantium the troubles it has passed through only serve to celebrate it more. When the Emperor Constantine moved, in the fifth century, to Byzantium as the new seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, the city was renamed in his honor: Constantinople. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity opened the door for the growth of Christianity. To honor his new religion he ordered a new cathedral to be built on the site of a pagan temple. Unfortunately the cathedral was built of wood and burned down the next century. Rebuilt as a larger cathedral it, in turn, was destroyed during the Nika revolt a century later. Justinian the Great was the emperor at time and brooked little nonsense. He brutally suppressed the Nika revolt, and then ordered a new, bigger, grander cathedral built at the same location. He demanded a work that would be marveled. The emperor got his wish. Over 10,000 people worked on the construction at one time. Materials, such as marble, were brought in from throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. Completed around 537 AD it was the marvel Justinian had sought. Unfortunately it only lasted about 30 years when an earthquake caused the dome of the church to completely collapse.
Rebuilt even larger it became the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the site of many imperial events. It reigned in regal splendor until 1204 and the arrival of the Fourth Crusade. The Christian crusaders of Western Europe attacked and conquered Constantinople in one of the most bizarre events of the Crusading Era. Everything of value was stripped out of Constantinople and hauled back to Western Europe. Sofia Hagia did not escape this treatment. The Crusaders stripped the altar of its adornments, the walls of their art, even the vestments from the backs of the priests. Herds of mules were led into the cathedral to be loaded with booty.
During the brief rule of the Latins, the cathedral was used as a church for the Roman Catholic Church. When the Greeks recovered control of the Byzantine Empire the cathedral was, once again, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. And so it remained until 1453 with the coming of the Turks.
Constantinople, and its predecessor Byzantium, had enjoyed a thousand year run as a walled city which no one, except the Latins, could conquer. The old city walls, however, could not stand up to the modern cannon of the Turks and Mehmed the Conqueror would triumph in his attack. The Byzantine emperor was killed in the fighting and the Turks were the master of Constantinople. They immediately changed the city’s name to Istanbul. And they marveled at the Sofa Hagia. Instantly it was turned from a Christian cathedral to a Muslim mosque. Minarets would be built and Christian images plastered over. It would be the principle mosque in Istanbul for almost 200 years.
By the 17th century, however, the Turks decided they needed a newer and grander edifice as their mosque. The Blue Mosque was then constructed over a period of 10 years. Opposing the Sofia Hagia, and built on the site of the former Byzantine palace, the Blue Mosque eclipsed the Sofia Hagia, which entered into a decline. Several renovation projects over the next several centuries tried to preserve the old building. It was not until 1935, when Ataturk would secularize the building and convert it into a museum, that the building’s future was assured. Considerable sums were spent in renovations and dome repairs. Fortunately, it has proven to be a popular tourist attraction – three million people a year pass through it to admire its grandeur and history. Their admission fees go far to help maintain the building.
Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium. All one. Thousands of years of history and millions of people, coming and going, all stacked up in one place. And visible from a rooftop in early evening. The sea bass was good, too. And cheap.