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June 24, 2011 > Travel: From Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul

Travel: From Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul

By Denny Stein
Photos By Dr. Park

They don't make magic carpets anymore, and if they did you'd probably have to pay a fee for each suitcase and extra legroom. It's a long flight from San Francisco to Istanbul, but it worth every minute of stale air and leg cramps. We left SFO on Monday afternoon, changed planes in Munich, and landed at Istanbul Airport on Tuesday night; our driver from the Sultanhan Hotel met us outside baggage pick-up. We had arrived on time and with all our bags, quite proud of ourselves and grateful to our travel agent, Anji Grainger of Panorama Travel.

The Sultanhan Hotel sits at the corner of Pierre Loti Square, in the Old Town section of Istanbul, within walking distance to the main drag. Shown to our room, we thought it was a bit small and asked if there was a larger room available. "I will ask my friend," said the bellman, "please wait here." Off he went and came back with a new room key. "Let us see if you like this room better, then if you do, I will bring your bags." Room 206 at the Sultanhan was perfect: spacious, airy, with French doors and a balcony overlooking a new plaza. We were in bed and asleep by midnight, Turkish time. The leafy trees just outside our balcony danced with the sun in the morning and guaranteed our privacy.

The Old Town section is called Sultanhamet. Its streets are cobblestoned and narrow, the stone or wood buildings lean in toward you, or rest comfortably against each other. Small cafes and bufes materialize when you are hungry, or a man with a cart full of warm sesame sprinkled simet approaches. For one Turkish Lira you get a crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside cross between a bagel and a soft pretzel, and a smile from the vendor. Every experience we had in Sultanhamet was enchanting, near magical. But then of course, we had on our "visitors' goggles."

The hotel breakfast buffet was not only a delicious adventure but a painterly display: ripe fresh fruit, yellow cheeses, tawny pastries and breads, palm-sized buttery croissants, golden honey, creamy humus and yogurt, and green olives. The eggs were brightened by tomatoes and peppers, the coffee was dark, and the top floor's glass walls let us look out over the city. The restaurant manager remembered that I drink coffee and that Dr. Park drinks tea. He seemed genuinely glad to see us each day and came over to say goodbye when we were checking out. Whenever we called the front desk to make a request, someone replied, "I will send my friend, right away." We were sorry to leave after three days, as we felt so at home.

Sultanhamet is an easy part of Istanbul to tackle, even with jet lag and no Turkish skills. The major sights are almost all within walking distance, signage is good and the city feels safe. If you want to go further afield from the center, to the fresh fish restaurants on the Galata Bridge, or the Egyptian Spice Market in Eminonu, there are trams and buses. Most streets are clean, the people friendly and helpful. There was the tram ticket guard who retrieved our jammed 5 Lira note from the token machine with a spoon handle, the Hagia Sophia sweeper who volunteered in passing that there are 60 tons of gold in the ceiling. There was the WC attendant, at the Topkapi Palace, who hurried the line of ladies along calling "PottyPottyPotty!" (Or so I thought.) I also "heard" a guide, in front of a gold-leafed mosaic explain that it was Mary and St. John asking Christ to forgive the people who had been digging at Half Moon Bay. Made me feel right at home!

Before you go to Istanbul, no longer Constantinople or Byzantium, do some reading. Rick Steve's, and the National Geographic's, guides were just right: not too much information but plenty to give you a feel for the people, the food, the history, monuments, transportation and getting around (plus, of course, the rest room options). Though I try to eschew being an obvious tourist, by the second day I was happy to be carrying the guidebook with me. Steve's tour of the huge and magnificent Hagia Sophia takes you on a back route, so that you dodge around the tourist groups and can read and look at your own speed. Occasional eavesdropping will fill in here and there, but you are not beholden to anyone else's pace.

The "must see" sights in Istanbul justly qualify for that category. I recommend Rick Steve's Istanbul because it not only gives you manageable walking tours of the city, but enough history to feel the ancient lives under your feet. The Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) is a first class example. Built over 1500 years ago, by the Emperor Justinian, the great church was the center of eastern Christianity. Justinian, wanting the grandest church ever built, hired two geometricians to design it. It took five years, thousands of "architects, stonemasons, bricklayers, plasterers, sculptors, painters, and mosaic artists," and almost the entire empire's treasury, to complete this Great Church of Constantinople.

Adorned with paintings, gold-leafed frescos and mosaics, carvings, balconies, and hidden passages, it attracted an audience just to watch the giant dome take shape and become the landmark it remains today. Stepping inside the nave of the Hagia Sophia can take away your breath - have someone keep you steady while your eyes take in the interior of the dome, high and wide enough to challenge the heavens. Then find a quiet seat to look around the immense room at the elevated sultan's loge, the mammoth green marble columns and the second century B.C. alabaster urns brought from Pergamum.

In 1453, the Ottomans captured Constantinople, and converted Justinian's church into a mosque. God must have looked down and thought, "Mosque, church... it's all the same to me." Only, on the ground, different religions espouse different veneration themes. Because the Islamic discipline forbids the depiction of actual people, the biblical artwork was whitewashed and plastered over, and the mosque was decorated with graceful Islamic calligraphy. To the artist's eye, the heavens now seem full of winged words, reminding the faithful of the Muslim ancients.

Many of the frescoes and mosaics can now be seen again, even if only partially. And this makes for a strange (to my mind) and fascinating story. In the 1800s, the sultan asked two Swiss brothers to undertake a restoration of Hagia Sophia. The brothers uncovered, cleaned, and cataloged the original artwork, and then whitewashed over it again! But their catalog has made it possible for the restoration work to continue today. Since 1934, and the time of Ataturk, the Hagia Sophia has operated as a museum. For over a thousand years this legendary structure has held the imagination of the world, and when you go to Istanbul, it will capture your soul.

More to come on Istanbul, the Greek Islands, Athens and Madrid.

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