Istanbul 2

It was the last few days of Ramadan. The public call to prayer that we heard 5 times daily was truly beautiful and unforgettable. Broadcast from loud speakers on tall minarets around Istanbul, there was often an echo you would hear from farther away, adding to the overall mystery. The Koran when chanted like this is very beautiful. But let’s back up a bit.

I bet you knew that Istanbul used to be called Constantinople, but did you know it was called Byzantium before that? Byzas, a figure in Greek mythology, is said to have founded the city named after him, on the Golden Horn in 667 BC. Byzantium became a trading city located strategically between Europe to the west, Asia to the east, the Sea of Marmora and Mediterranean to the south and the Black Sea to the north. The city was taken by the Persians in 513 BC and then by the Greeks in 411 BC.

In 196 AD the Romans overran Byzantium and desecrated it. In 330 AD Roman Emperor Constantine built a palace there after having legitimized Christianity. The city was renamed Constantinople after his death and became the capital of the culturally rich Byzantine Empire which flourished from the 4th to the 15th century AD.

Despite its Roman beginnings, Constantinople remained oriented to the Greek culture and the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the 12th century it was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe, well known for its artwork and culture. Sadly, Constantinople was delivered a mortal blow in 1204 AD when it was sacked in the Fourth Crusade.

Left: Christ Pantocrator mosaic from the Hagia Sofia, circa 1261, courtesy Wikipedia

Since the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks had been making steady progress in conquering Anatolia, just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. Later, the Byzantine-Ottoman Wars would bring about the end of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, Constaninople fell to the 21 year old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Sunni Islam was now the state religion and the city was renamed Istanbul.

Right: Mehmed II the Conqueror’s entry into Constantinople, by Fausto Zanaro, courtesy Wikipedia.

Fast forward to the 20th century. Field Marshal Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the defeated Ottoman Empire after the First World War. He implemented a series of cultural, economic and political reforms that transformed Turkey into a modern secular nation state. He died in Istanbul in 1938 hailed as a great leader against colonialism and imperialism. The current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has denied that he wishes to reimpose Islam in favour of the secular state. However, his authoritarian style has been criticized both within and outside of the country. This short tour of Istanbul’s history sets the context for the mashup of architecture, art, history, religious, culinary and cultural experiences and activities we were about to enjoy there on our 3 day sojourn. The city of 16 million awaits us.

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