There are so many things that can be said about Turkey’s most iconic metropolis, the beautiful shore-lined city of Istanbul. But let me reveal 5 things that you DIDN’T know about Istanbul.
A cultural hub built upon a myriad of people from every walk of life imaginable, the city has a history that has gone unmatched for centuries. From simit vendors to briefcases, to colourful scarves… or colourful hair, the city is a jungle.
Birds eye view of Istanbul and the HAGIA SOPHIA
But behind Istanbul’s vibrant facade there lies so many untold stories waiting to be heard. Yes, it is the only city to sit between two continents. Yes, it has been the capital of some of the most powerful Empires the world has ever know… But what has been forgotten that only Istanbul’s rock and stone still remember?
1. The legendary tale of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ was set along Istanbul’s Bosphorus strait.
To the ancient Greeks, the Bosphorus strait that cuts through Istanbul, was formidably described as the edge of the known world. A narrow passage between the Sea of Marama and the Black sea, its dangerous rapids and undercurrents made for the perfect test of a sailor’s skill on treacherous journeys. It was one such Greek hero, Jason and his band of warrior Argonauts, who treaded these open waters in the Argo, defeating the currents and victoriously, bringing home the prized Golden Fleece.
‘THE ARGO’ – by Konstantinos Volanakis
The region around the Marmara was once a highway of Greek ships, their ruined forts and artefacts still scattered along Turkey’s shores. Troy, the ancient Trojan city, also lies ruined along its banks, overlooking the famous Hellespont now known as the Dardanelles. Today, it is only weathered stone and ancient legends that remember how Turkey was once a land of the Greeks.
2. Istanbul was founded based on a prophecy made by ancient oracles.
In the 8th century BC, a community of Megarians migrated in hopes of establishing a new settlement in Greece. But only a century later, they were facing rejection and exile. Desperate for a solution, their ruler, a man named Byzas, consulted with the oracles at the Temple of Delphi who gave him hope, prophesying that the new homeland of his people would be ‘across from the land of the blind.’
Armed with new determination, he set off on a journey down the Marmara. He eventually hit land and after roaming across its hills for a while, came upon the view of the Seraglio point, Istanbul’s shoreline where the Bosphorus and Golden Horn meet. Baffled at how no one had yet claimed such a beautiful piece of land, he recalled the prophecy of the oracles and realised; any man foolish enough to have ignored such a place must indeed have been blind.
The city of Byzantium was established on that very shore, a city that ruled for a thousand years and would one day be known as Istanbul.
3. Constantinople’s conquest was foretold when Mehmet al-Fatih was a baby.
Father of Mehmet al-Fatih, Sultan Murad II, whose mind was often preoccupied with an ambition for Constantinople, found himself one day, worried about rumours of a Sufi master in Ankara who was said to have attained a great number of followers. Fearful this man’s intention was to plan a revolt, Sultan Murad requested that he be brought before the throne so his true intent could be determined.
In response to the invitation, Haji Bayram wali, a humble man of simplicity and spirituality travelled with his student, Aksemseddin, to meet the Sultan in Edirne. After a brief conversation, Sultan Murad was full of apology. Realising immediately that Haji Bayram was a true mumin, he appointed him his spiritual master and would from then on requested his presence in Edirne for months at a time.
It was during one of Haji Bayram’s visits to Edirne, not long after the birth of Prince Mehmet, he found the Sultan deeply concerned about the state of Constantinople. Frustrated Sultan Murad asked, “Do you think we can conquer Constantinople?” Haji Bayram paused and reflected. He then replied calmly, “My Sultan. I think neither you nor I will see the conquest of Constantinople. But InshaAllah, this little one in the cradle,” he said, pointing to Prince Mehmet, “and this beardless disciple,” he said, pointing to his student Aksemseddin, “they will get the honour.”
SULTAN MEHMET AND SHAYKH AKSEMSEDDIN
Less than two centuries later, in the spring of 1453, Sultan Mehmet and Shaykh Aksemseddin stood side by side on a field of victory overlooking the walls of the new Istanbul.
4. Istanbul’s layout follows a thousand year old Ottoman structure.
Istanbul has often been described as chaotic and unorganised. But looking past the crowds of people, the new 20th century architecture and the endless buzzing of noise in the air, you will find a city built upon the structure of a thousand year old tradition. The Ottoman Kulliye.
The Ottoman kulliye can be loosely compared to modern society’s concept of ‘districts’. But Ottoman districts were different in that they comprised of five essential institutions that each played a role in keeping the community of that district together. These are the first four:
- The Madrassa
- The Hamam
- The Imaret (Soup Kitchen)
- A medical center
These centres provided everything necessary for the people of the community. While the larger part of society worked as merchants or traders in the market place during the day, after hours, food, hygiene, education and healthcare was provided in the Kulliye. So which is the last and most important institution?
The Mosque! Not only did the mosque serve as the place where the community gathered 5 times a day in worship, but the mosque was also where the district Kadi was stationed ready to iron out any legal or administrative issues that pertained to the kulliye. The mosque was the center of the kulliye with everything else expanding-out around it.
If you look at the location of any mosque in Istanbul, you are guaranteed to find a madrassa, imaret or hammam built within the vicinity. Many of them no longer serve their original function, but a city with over 3,000 mosques, at least now its a little easier for us to understand how Istanbul was once known for having 1400 wash-rooms(hamams).
5. Napoleon’s quote about Istanbul
Rarely do we hear about the relationship between the Ottomans and the French. And rarely do we find that the little that is said is in fact legitimate and not dangerously suspicious of having been corrupted somewhere along the ages.
But during the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte, one of Frances most iconic military and political leaders described the city in a quote that has resonated all over history… and all over the internet, making appearances on countless blog posts and news feeds.
“If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
But he wasn’t the only French man to have spoken so graciously about Istanbul. The French poet Alphonse de Lamartine also said, “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
And the French writer Pierre Loti was also recorded to have said, “Holy Istanbul! Your name is the most enchanting one of all names which enchants me.”
And after reading those 3 quotes, all that can really be said here is, the French have excellent taste!
On that note, let me leave you with one point which I feel is a slight misconception travellers have about Istanbul and Turkey.
Istanbul doesn’t reflect all of Turkey
While Istanbul may be Turkey’s nucleus, it is often mistaken for being the end and beginning of all Turkey has to offer. After travelling to over 10 different cities around the country, I can firmly say, the world outside Istanbul is a journey of its own with a vibrancy of its own.
With 13.5 million people, Istanbul is a whirlwind of movement. Busy. Noisy. Cars everywhere. Tourists everywhere. Life in the fast lane. And like every big city, you can sometimes get lost in the crowd and emotions. So just keep in mind, what you see in the big city, is often only a characteristic of the city itself. But take a step outside the city limits. A scenic drive to Bursa, Edirne or Konya, and the energetic charge of Istanbul’s streets is suddenly subdued into a calm, serene environment where the locals smile a whole lot more.
That’s not to say Istanbul isn’t a treasure of its own. It is a city that you could spend a lifetime wandering and still be awestruck by its hidden gems. But don’t fool yourself into thinking you will ever know the true Turkey from Istanbul alone.