After a long day of sightseeing, we rest our aching feet at a little cafe in the shadow of the Yeni Camii, the not so new ‘new mosque‘. This 16th century edifice underscores the fact that ‘new’ is relative here!
We watch resident Stamboulis go about their daily lives as we sip Çay from little glass tumblers set over saucers rimmed with gold and contemplate the tangled skein of cultures that is Istanbul. Its journey spanning over two millennia: from Byzantium (founded in 657 AD by Greek immigrants), to Constantinople, to Istanbul.
Constantinople, in the middle ages, was one of the world’s most powerful cities. Dictating Christian religious doctrine and presiding over the vast Eastern Roman empire that stretched across three continents. At its peak, it is said, all roads led here and not to Rome. That’s hard to visualize however as we negotiate the tourist crammed remnant of Divan Yolu, the thoroughfare that once connected the two cities.
The layers of history are still evident everywhere. Above and below ground. And in its architectural masterpieces conceived by the genius of brilliant artistic minds.
The old blends with the new. East effortlessly with the West. One instant we are savouring the beauty of the multitude of minarets and the music of the muezzins call, and the next we are walking through cobbled streets between neoclassical mansions reminiscent of Paris!
The Hijab and cutting edge fashion rub shoulders with ease, thanks in great part to a secular constitution (set up by Mustafa Kemal Attaturk and guaranteed by the army) and the younger skewing demographics.
Where else can you hop from one continent to another for dinner, in under 20 minutes (by ferry boat) and for under 2 dollars? And on a waterway that is such an intrinsic part of the city, and also an international shipping lane?
The contrasts are striking and the layers manifold. And therein lies its charm, its mystique, despite decades of massive economic upheavals and an explosion of urban growth.