A Tale of Two Cities

February 2014 Silmarien Szilagyi

Istanbul is one city, but it feels more like two. Straddling the Bosphorus, it is split between the old and new, the Muslim and the Christian. It's a global city, as well as a former European Capital of Culture, yet it was like no European city I've ever been to.

Istanbul has an illustrious and contentious past. It was once known as the great Byzantium and Constantinople, famous for its rich culture and impressive defenses. Constantinople was instrumental in the spread of Christianity during Byzantine and Roman times. It was the heart of the Ottoman Empire, which eventually stretched all the way into East-Central Europe (a fact Hungarians are still bitter about). And Istanbul was once the capital of Turkey, before Ankara took over (no idea why, honestly).

No matter in which time period you examine Istanbul (or Constantinople), it is a beautiful city. Evidence of its dual religions is plentiful, with mosques mostly clustered on one side of the Bosphorus and churches on the other. The Muslim half is more Arabic, while the Christian half is more European, and this distinction became more important than I thought it'd be.

I visited Istanbul the summer of 2012, which, in hindsight, was a poor decision. I'm accustomed to humidity (though I hate it), but I was completely unprepared for that level of heat and humidity. Sweat practically poured from me, but that unpleasant fact aside, I have never felt more like a traveler than while in Istanbul. Nearly everything about the city was foreign, almost to the point of being alien--the language, the people, the culture, the architecture. Until then, the countries I'd been to in Europe had languages that were familiar to me. Even if I didn't necessarily understand them, I still knew them. The only word I could say in Turkish was şapka ('hat'), and only because it's the same in Hungarian (albeit spelled a bit differently). The people wore very different clothes, and on the Muslim side, I saw women in full burqas as often as in jeans and skirts. Men tried to sell me things where ever I went, but they were also more than willing to haggle until a satisfactory price was reached for both of us. The mosques were unlike anything I've ever experienced, because yes, entering a mosque is an experience.

I have loved many different cities and towns, but next to Budapest, Istanbul might just be favorite.

Sultan Ahmed Camii

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is hands-down the most breathtaking building I have ever seen. Built from 1609 to 1616, it is also known as the Blue Mosque, for the blue tiles decorating its interior. It is also interesting for another reason, at least to me. Most grand buildings are built to commemorate successes, but this one was erected after the Ottoman Turks were pushed out of East-Central Europe and had lost battles against Persia. The sultan at the time, Ahmet Ier, thought Allah was angry and commissioned the Blue Mosque to appease Him.

As Istanbul's main mosque, the daily calls for prayer are issued from it. The first time I heard one of the calls, I got chills. It was then I realized that "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore." That feeling of being culturally so far from home should have been unnerving. But it wasn't. It was exciting and new and refreshing. I felt like a true traveler, an explorer of sorts, as absurd as that sounds. And when I wrapped my newly-bought, silk Turkish shawl around my head and shoulders to enter the Blue Mosque, I felt a tiny bit less like an outsider.


The best word I can use to describe the Hagia Sophia is eclectic. It began as a Greek Orthodox church in 360 AD and ran the religious gamut, alternating between church and mosque throughout its long history. Evidence of each stage is still present, from the ancient, original ruins outside and the decidedly Islamic elements (minarets, dome's interior), to the fading, golden frescoes of Christ and Mary. It is now a museum, no longer used for worship, but that does not make it any less spectacular.

When you enter the Ayasofya, you are literally experiencing over a thousand years of history. It is the most magnificent example of Istanbul's past and current status as a global city, of the melding of two different cultures, two different religions. But sadly, its days are numbered. Most of the Islamic writings and artwork are still in good condition, but the early Christian frescoes and paintings, dating back to Byzantium and Constantinople, are now partly gone. Unless something is done to preserve them, they will soon disappear.


Built between 1455 and 1730, the Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, sprawling 61 streets and containing over 3,000 shops. Vendors sell everything from fine leather goods and jewelry to colorful glass lamps and culinary oddities. I even bought a green lamp, which sits on my bedside table in Budapest. You can purchase typical Turkish wares here for reasonable prices, and the sellers are always willing to go lower (in fact, haggling is expected). To give you an idea of the prices, I bought a genuine cabochon emerald, ruby, and sapphire necklace for a little over $100. And if you don't speak English, don't worry, because they'll bargain in your language. No, I'm serious. That necklace I bought, I bought in Hungarian. Some of the other languages I heard the vendors speak were French, Italian, and Spanish. Global city, indeed.

Bodrum Çökertme

The name sounds complicated, but Bodrum çökertme is actually a fairly simple food from the Bodrum region of Turkey. Strips of beef or lamb are cooked with onions, lots of garlic, cumin, coriander, and tomatoes, then plated over fried potatoes. I ate this three times in Istanbul, and I love it so much that I regularly make it at home...with a twist. You see, the first time I had Bodrum çökertme, the chef had mistakenly added tarragon instead of parsley, but I actually like it better that way!

Besides the funny-named meat dish, I consumed a lot of red lentils, the most delicious salads (with only lemon juice and olive oil as dressing), falafel, and Turkish tea, which is twice as strong as the British or Chinese variety. So if the tannins in tea tend to unsettle your stomach, take care with Turkish tea.

The People

I'm generally not overly keen on people, which is curious, since I'm an anthropologist and specialize in studying (skeletonized) people. Or maybe it's not that odd. The point is, I don't usually find people that memorable in my travels; I'm always more interested in the food, history, and architecture. But in Istanbul, it was difficult not to notice the people.

The first thing that struck me was how friendly they were, particularly on the Muslim side, where I stayed. It wasn't that forced politeness you often encounter, but a genuine, I'm-really-happy-to-meet-you type of friendliness. The men enthusiastically shook my hand, which initially confused me, as I'd heard and read that Islam is strict about physical contact between non-familial members of the opposite sex. Then one of my hand-shakers explained I was there during Ramadan, when men are freer to interact with females outside their families, even of the "infidel" variety. Such forward behavior (for them and for me) had the potential to be awkward or uncomfortable, but it wasn't.

The Muslims also fasted during the day, then settled down at sundown in the park beside the Blue Mosque to eat. That was a remarkable sight. Families met there after work and school, bringing large baskets of food and waiting patiently for the Muslim crier in the mosque to recite the evening prayer, allowing them to finally eat. After an entire day of fasting, I was amazed by how slowly and sedately they ate. One could even call it graceful, whereas I surely would have inhaled my food.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istanbul
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sultan_Ahmed_Mosque
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayasofya
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Bazaar,_Istanbul