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Istanbul: The Gateway to Europe and Asia

As we disembarked from the ferry, our tour guide said “and just like that, we are in Asia! Some people actually work in Asia and live in Europe!” Istanbul is a bridge between the European and Asian continents and has occupied a significant place in history for millennia.

The landscape of Istanbul is stunning. Minarets of mosques march along the skyline like soldiers. I keep asking “what mosque is that?” thinking it must be a famous one. But there are so many impressive mosques dotting the city. Water is often a backdrop, since the peninsula is surrounded on three sides by the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus Strait, and the Black Sea. And the Turkish flag is EVERYWHERE.

Umut, our tour guide, took us to Gecekondu bölgesi, where we could see shacks scattered along the streets. “Gecekondu” means “put up over night”–and these homes were literally built overnight by poor families who couldn’t afford to rent or buy housing. “These squatters are exploiting a legal loophole which states that if one starts building after dusk and moves into a completed house before dawn the next day without having been noticed by the authorities, then the next day the authorities are not permitted to tear the building down.” (Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities)

What was striking for me is that these shanties are situated in the shadow of the impenetrable walls of Constantinople. The first wall was built by Constantine when it became the new capital of the Roman Empire. Walls were added by subsequent emperors and successfully defended the city from some 23 attacks spanning 1,000 years!

And now, beneath the crumbling walls that refuse to disappear after centuries, sit shanties that look like they may fall down overnight. The same way they appeared!

When the Ottomans finally captured Constantinople in the 15th century, Mehmed II renamed the city Istanbul and began construction of Topkapi Palace. He was thereafter called Mehmed the Conqueror because at long last the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople! It houses an array of magnificent buildings spread out over three courtyards.

The kitchens were enormous–some sultans served meals for thousands! There’s a splendid library, only used by the sultan and his advisors. A building housing sacred relics, including a saucepan of the prophet Abraham, the staff of the Prophet Moses, Prophet David’s sword, and a footprint of the prophet Muhammad housed in an elaborate golden box (quite a contrast to the mud). Call me a cynic but it’s always hard for me to believe these artifacts are real.

But the piece de resistance is the Harem! (Click on “Harem” to link to video) The name means “forbidden” and is swathed in romantic history. How to separate truth from fable? Who knows. It wasn’t just a pleasure den, however. Because Islam forbade slavery, the girls were mostly Christians who were gifts to the sultan. They received a proper education: reading, writing, and the fine arts of playing an instrument and singing. The competition was tough, however, to be selected to bed with the sultan. ANY son, not just the eldest son, could succeed the sultan. You can imagine the rivalry and often times murderous intent that brewed.

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