Back in March I was able to travel to Greece and Turkey with my brother. This is the last leg of the journey. I have enjoyed sharing thoughts and images from a wonderful trip! For a preview of the trip, read the A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey entry and read my thoughts on Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and Cappadocia.
The drive back to Kayseri was much more revealing in the daylight. The snow-capped Mount Erciyes was in clear view and served as a nice backdrop to our departure to Istanbul. It was during the flight that we realized we were flying into the airport on the Asian side of the city, which is farther out than the airport on the European side. For a couple liras we took an hour bus ride to Taksim Square, and then a taxi to our hotel. Our hotel was located close to the historic Sultanahmet district and many of the main sites in Istanbul. So after settling in our room we set off orienting ourselves to the city. Hiking through the desolate landscape of Cappadocia was quite the contrast to hiking the urban streets of one of the largest cities in the world, yet there are many similarities as well.
We had arrived in Istanbul early enough to have most of our afternoon and evening to explore the city. We strolled through the Spice Market and the surrounding Egyptian Market. We soon learned that Istanbul is like one giant Target store: If you found the right aisle, or in this case several city blocks, you could find anything you were in need of. We wandered through the clothing district, the spice market, electronics, hardware supplies on several city blocks, food courts, the jewelry district, and even art and music supplies. If you found one music store, you would surely find several others down the same block. It was fascinating to just wander.
By evening, we found some of the primary sites of Istanbul. The Blue Mosque was built in 1609, meaning it was relatively new as far as the architecture of the city goes. It is an impressive structure. It is located at the site of the great Hippodrome that hosted most of the sporting events in Constantinople for over a thousand years. The area is now a park, but is still home to two or three of the monuments that would have been part of the stadium. Facing the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia, the primary church of the Byzantine Empire. We located the Basilica Cistern nearby and managed to get in just before closing. The cistern served as one of Constantinople’s main water supplies and has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water.
The next day we returned to the Hagia Sophia, as it was closed the previous evening. It is an incredible space filled with Christian mosaics and Islamic calligraphy. It is odd to see both side by side, but because it served as a church for the Byzantines and then was converted to a mosque when the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453, it is now a museum where both histories reside together. Unfortunately, Turkish courts have just ruled that it could be converted back into a mosque, bringing into question the fate of much of the Christian artwork. After a boat ride on the Bosphorus, we made our way up to the Galata Tower, which is a great place to take in the entire panorama of the city and watch the sunset. We ended up back near the fish market on the shore of the Bosphorus, where we enjoyed a wonderful grilled fish sandwich while taking in the evening boat traffic and listening to the evening call to prayer. It was one of those perfect simple moments that cannot be scripted.
On Thursday, we took the train out to the old city walls, sometimes known as the Theodosian Walls. Built in the 5th Century, they protected Constantinople for a thousand years. Large sections of the wall still remain. We took it easy the rest of the day as we had been going non-stop for most of the trip. So the remainder of the day was spend walking the city, enjoying coffee, and perusing the markets. The last day turned cold and rainy, so we stuck to indoor activities. We went to the Grand Bazaar, which wasn’t quite as grand, having walked through many markets already. Then we took in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, home to numerous artifacts from Turkey’s long history. Still raining, we spent the evening in a coffee shop processing all we had taken in over the course of the trip. The next day we would be heading home.
Like Cappadocia, Istanbul isn’t filled with New Testament history but it does play a key role in Christian history. Here are some thoughts on Istanbul/Constantinople:
Insight #1 – Constantinople preserved a wealth of Christian history, while elsewhere it was crumbling. When the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to what would become Constantinople, one could argue that he extended the Roman Empire by an additional thousand years. While one can also argue whether it was a good thing for Christianity to be subsequently aligned with the new Roman Empire in Constantinople, much of its history was shaped and preserved as Constantinople flourished. Meanwhile, the city of Rome fell into decline and the Western Empire would come to an end in 476. Over the next several hundred years, Constantinople became an immovable object against the surging tide of Islam. Historians have pointed out that were it not for the strength of Constantinople strategically located between Europe and Asia, Islam could have become the dominant force throughout Europe.
Insight #2 – Faith is not housed in buildings. As impressive as the Hagia Sophia was, it was not the dwelling place of God and faith. Seeing the Hagia Sophia (and many churches throughout the Middle East as well) converted into a mosque, then a museum, and now potentially a mosque again, it is a reminder that God does not live in structures we build. As I mentioned in my Athens post, Paul would point out that, “God does not live in your magnificent temples.” Buildings can be impressive and communicate much about God, but God resides among people. The modern church can learn from this as well.
Insight #3 – Disagree with ideas and beliefs, but don’t destroy history. While structures do not contain faith, something is lost when structures are destroyed over faith. It was a common theme to hear throughout the trip: An impressive piece of history was lost when one group destroyed it during a conflict. Christians tore down temples, pagans destroyed churches, churches were converted to mosques and then back again, libraries were burned – there are so many stories like these. From a historical perspective it hardly seems worth destroying so much history. Argue, disagree, fight if you must, but leave art, books, structures, and monuments alone! There is so much to be learned from these things.
Thanks for following along. Even if very few read it all in its entirety, I enjoyed reliving it!