Few places have ever effected me in such a way as Istanbul. It's been more than a year since I went, yet I still can't quite put my finger on what it was about that city that pulled me in. I'm not sure if it was noisy, cobblestone streets, maze like bazaars, or spices stacked so high that if they toppled, you would die smelling heaven. It could have been the stray cats that napped in the shade, or the big old dog that sat watching everyone in the park. Maybe it was the conjuncture of new and ancient, towering minarets and a mysterious underground Medusa head. It might have been all the families crowded into the park, breaking their Ramadan fasts, or street vendors selling roasted corn or the children eating cotton candy and shooting light up toys into the sky. Whatever it may have been, something about Istanbul drew me close, and made me feel as if I could live there my whole life.
Perhaps the reason Istanbul had such an effect on me was the same reason I was so enthralled with India: I didn't know much about it. My knowledge of Istanbul before I went was this: it used to be called Constantinople, and before that it was Byzantium. And it had some pretty buildings. And that was it. I didn't know, for instance, that the streets were so winding and narrow in the part of town that we were staying in, that our cab driver wouldn't even know where we were going, even though we were staying next to the biggest landmark in the city. I didn't know that the fountain in Sultanahmet park lit up with different colors (at least during Ramadan) or that you could get almost any flavor of Turkish delight that you could think of. I certainly didn't know how much I would love ayasofya (Hagia Sofia). Being inside that building was the closest thing that I have ever had to a truly religious experience. The scale of it was beyond anything I could have dreamed of; it's sheer size left me in speechless wonder for more than a few
minutes. Originally it served as the Greek Patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople, except for a short period when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral. It was then converted into a mosque. Now, it's a museum. The walls of the building have beautiful mosaics depicting religious scenes. When it was converted into a mosque, they were painted over which ironically preserved them. Standing in the middle of the massive building, I was humbled. Its size and its beauty were enough to nearly bring me to tears. The upstairs balcony held a special surprise for me, other than the beautiful mosaics being restored there. On one wall, there were holes where it was obvious that ornate crosses were once there. There was something about ayasofya that could have kept me there forever. I was fascinated and enthralled by its massiveness and its history, overwhelmed by the myriad of emotions that standing in the middle of it all brought down on me. Being there brought to me the realization of the inevitability of change and the idea that we are surrounded constantly by layers and layers of history. This was something that I kept coming back to throughout my trip, and throughout Istanbul.
Basilica Cistern was another place that, like ayasofya, had a great effect on me. It wasn't to the extent that I had felt from ayasofya, and maybe in a slightly different way, but Basilica Cistern was one of the weirdest and most interesting places that I've been. I can't really remember the history of it, or why it was built, but I can tell you this: it is one strange place. Underground, it is an enormous cavern with hundreds pillars and platforms that suspend you above the water it is filled with. It's dark and cool and damp and a little creepy. The platforms are slippery and it smells a bit (not too bad though). The pillars have dim lights on them and the entire time I was there, I was writing the climactic chase scene of a movie in my head. Maybe the strangest things of all in the Basilica Cistern were the Medusa column bases. No one is sure of their origin, or what they might have been used for previously. They stare at you menacingly, striking into you a fear that perhaps they will turn you to stone and you will be trapped underground forever. Fresh air was a relief when we resurfaced.
While the grandeur of places like Blue Mosque, ayasofya, or Topkapi Palace were surely a reason that I loved the city, what I think may have caused me to fall in love with it was not the architecture (amazing), but the atmosphere. As began to set, families spilled onto the streets and into the parks, toting picnic baskets and coolers. As they spread their things out and set up their meal, lights strung between the minarets of Blue Mosque flickered on, and the official band of the night set up on stage in Sultanahmet park. Leaning against a fence and eating a big, juicy slice of watermelon that I had bought from a street vendor, I was reminded vaguely of the 4th of July. Children were running around laughing and screaming, the aroma of wonderful, wonderful food filled the air and music played on. Wandering away from the park and on down the main roads, hosts beckoned you into their restaurants while cars and the occasional streetcar (tram/train/trolley?) whizzed by. Looping back around and walking up a quieter street, the shops were closed for the evening, and through the windows you could see people eating at higher end restaurants. There was almost no one on this quieter street, and at first I thought my ears were playing tricks on me. But the noise grew louder as we approached an outdoor restaurant down the block from our hotel. Floating gently through the Istanbul night was the theme for the Godfather, being played mournfully by the live entertainment for the night. As the song played on and I returned to my hotel, I thought to myself that perhaps one day I would return to Istanbul, but the tune was carrying me to Italy, and as sad as I was to leave, you can't complain if your next destination is Venice.