“No city has eaten the fruits of the garden of art so richly as the city of Istanbul, birthplace and school of famous men, the nursery of many nations.”—Nabî
I approach Istanbul today as I did when I first saw the city more than half a lifetime ago, taking a ferry from a suburban village on the Bosporus, the incomparably beautiful strait that divides Europe from Asia. On the way, I pass beneath two bridges that link the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, the only city in the world that spans two continents.
Between the scimitar-shaped inlet of the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara is the old city of Stamboul, known first as Byzantium and later as Constantinople—after its celebrated emperor. The chronicler Procopius more than 13 centuries ago described the city, its seven hills today crowned with the monuments of two world empires, as being “surrounded by a garland of waters.” As the ferry approaches its berth I can see the former Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sofia on the First Hill and the Süleymaniye Mosque dominating the Fourth Hill—imposing edifices erected a thousand years apart.
Stepping ashore, I find myself at the epicenter of all the city’s tumultuous life, the quay thronged with shoppers from the Spice Bazaar and the street markets around Yeni Cami (called the New Mosque because it was founded only four centuries ago). Fish sandwiches are sold from boats. Loudspeakers blare the latest songs. Peddlers sell sunglasses on bright summer days and umbrellas when it pours—when stovepipes are hawked we know winter is near.
Midway through the 27th century of its turbulent existence, the city has survived sieges, sacks, conquests, civil wars, riots, plagues, fires, earthquakes, and the modern construction necessitated by a population that’s mushroomed from less than a million to more than ten million in 83 years. It has retained its identity through successive changes of name, population, language, religion, and political status, its character and spirit enduring through the centuries as if it had an ageless soul. As the French traveler Petrus Gyllius remarked in the mid-16th century: “It seems to me that while other cities are mortal, this one will endure as long as there are men on Earth.”
This is my Istanbul.
JOHN FREELY has written more than 40 books, including Istanbul, The Imperial City.
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