One thing you have opportunity to see when you cross the ocean from Canada is old stuff. I don’t mean retro, or vintage even. I mean old. Ancient. We spent the first few days here looking at some of the famous ancient things. It is fascinating to me because of the history. I love history, but was never any good at geography, and so putting things that I know inside buildings I have now seen has definitely been a high-point of the trip. We have been very blessed to have some great personal tour guides who know the locations, but also the history, and have been sharing it with us in a way that is fused with their passion for the people who live here. Our tour guides not only love Istanbul, they love the people who live here and share the history of this land as though it were their own.
For example, we started off in the Hagia Sophia. Originally built in 537, still standing and actually undergoing restorations to keep it that way. The Hagia Sophia is interesting to me because it emphasizes just how easy it is for a country to lose it’s identity. Just how easily the world can move in and shift who you are.
Hagia Sofia was built originally as a cathedral, a place for Christianity. Because the ruler believed in Christianity he had influence over the entire people to bring it to them, to create places for them to worship, to take a stand and say this is who we are and what we believe. But then someone bigger and stronger came and took over, as so often happens in life, and all of a sudden the people had a different identity.
The structure was beautiful and so of course he did not want to destroy it, just claim it as his own. And so some redecorating was done. These mosaics which are of Christ and other Christian figures (and other things), have been scratched from the stone. Trying to remove any evidence of Christianity as now the building would become a mosque. The home of a new religion, making a country of a new faith, changing the identity of an entire group of people.
It’s not so easy to see in this picture, but this is the throne room and when Mehmed II ordered the cathedral turned into a mosque, he didn’t destroy what was there, removed some things of course, and to keep this building looking like an original mosque they just shifted it, literally, to suit his purposes. The throne here would have been placed in the middle of the wall originally, but has been shifted, ever so slightly so that it now points to mecca. A small detail, but it is the details that make the most impact.
Just yesterday we went to the Grand Bazaar, and if you know the history of that it will also highlight how easy it is to lose one’s position. In it’s glory the Grand Bazaar was the hub of mediterranean trade, one of the first shopping malls ever built, frequented by almost anyone who had things to sell.
I admit I don’t really know the economic history of Istanbul yet, but I do know that as fewer and fewer people relied on the Bosphorus as a trade route Turkey lost it’s importance as a port to buy and sell merchandise and now this historically important place is a tourist attraction. Just like a mall in America, where you might go to shop or you might just go to hang out.
Seeing all of these places makes real to me the truth that just because a country is one thing today does not mean it will still be that thing in the future. Istanbul was once a hub, a very important place in all arenas, but it did not keep that hold. Now most people lump it in with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. We tend to think it is a city with an army presence, where Islam is the religion and women are treated a certain way.
As I’ve looked around though I see it as a place caught in the middle of so many identities. Like a teenager and his grandfather siting across the table trying to keep their generational uniqueness but longing to be similar. Where tradition and popular are clashing, really hitting heads, because they both want it their way- and yet they both want their country to stand out, to once again be as important as it had been in the past.
Istanbul is a mystery I think, and like all mysteries we can discover something new each time we look at it. We can find clues in the old and the new, and perhaps Istanbul will once again rise to influence the world.