The Hagia Sophia (located near the Blue Mosque), the sheer apex of Byzantine architecture built in 537, is one of the most remarkable landmarks in Istanbul.
Destination: The Old Empire
My flight from Heathrow to Istanbul on Turkish Air was quite enjoyable. The DC-10 was very roomy, and the flight attendant was extremely hospitable especially when the Turkish beer exploded on my lap after opening it. The food, also was quite tasty and warm.
There was only one thing, I wished the flight attendant had done once we arrived in Istanbul -- announce the local time. Perhaps they did, but not in English (If you stay with me, you will see why this was critical, later).
Ancient Greek, Roman (the former capital of the Roman Empire), Byzantine, Ottoman -- the spectacular city of Istanbul spans several diverse eras, with virtually all of the original architecture, still intact.
It has been an important and unique city and the capital of three empires: the Byzantine, the Eastern Roman and the Ottoman. The influence of each of these civilizations is very apparent everywhere you turn in this romantic and charming city.
Istanbul is the epitome of Islamic Capitalism. Everyone seems to be working hard, in a whirlwind of fast-pace activity -- they are extremely welcoming and cordial to foreigners and tourists, and I welcomed the attention and good conversation.
Contrary to what I had expected before, Istanbul is eminently cultural. Located on both sides of the Bosphorus, the city of style bridges Asia and Europe both physically and culturally.
There are over 13 million people in Istanbul.
"The Million" -- this is all that remains from this monument from the Ottoman Empire. It has been known for centuries as the "Crossroads of the World."
Delicious Turkish deserts
I had to stop to satiate my appetite.
Istanbul is a wonderful town of over 13 million people. I didn't make it to my hotel in the old city of Sultanahmet until close to midnight. But I decided to go for a late night run anyway.
This run lasted well over three hours, not to mention, that I managed to get lost on the way home. Also running from Sirkeci to Sultanahmet was all uphill for nearly a mile.
Normally, I would have settled in by now. But here is a bustling, vibrant city with the likes of Tokyo, New York, London - it is a city that believes in the never-ending progress of capitalism while embracing strongly to its fundamental Islamic roots.
I met a lot of interesting people, mostly vendors and there was a lot of good conversation.
This talented carpet shopkeeper was trying to sell me his favorite silk rug by first trying to make it fly. He showed me how the rug would change colors once it was up in the air.
It was a common site all over Istanbul to see men playing backgammon.
Late night vendors selling grilled swordfish kebabs. I was surprised how many vendors were out working past midnight on the Golden Horn waterfront by the Yeni Galata Bridge.
Everyone, from vendors, to restauranteurs to fishermen were very friendly and happy to see foreigners and to give me directions. Some wanted money for providing helpful tips for tourists -- I didn't mind since they were working hard and working for a living.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque -- I heard this at 5:00 AM while I was still typing this blog.
Hotel Historia, is small stylish hotel in the old city located near the Cosmopolitan Park. My bedroom on the 6th floor had a nice balcony with a wonderful view of the Marmara Sea.
Enjoying a relaxing nargile (water pipe) after a long and challenging run. The one I tried tasted like strawberry which hit a sweet spot for me. Many people refer to the nargile as a Hookah
The Hookah operates by direct filtration and indirect heat -- it is used for smoking herbal fruits and tobacco. A very friendly Turkish waiter named Naeem was gracious to share his nargile with me and I was happy to oblige.
For a country that is poor by all standards, you do not see panhandlers and families on street corners begging for money. Everyone works and does something productive no matter how menial it may seem to outsiders. Whether grilling swordfish at 3:00 in the morning, hawking bottle water during the hot summer day, polishing shoes by the train station, giving a quick tour of the palaces and mosques -- everyone is contributing to capitalism and the economy, albeit in their small, special way.
And in this bustling city, children are everywhere and constantly valued. They are in the playgrounds, they are by the water's edge taking a dive off the pier. They are in the family business, in shops selling candy, postcards, anything that can get a tourist to pry away with a Lira or two.
I'm sure that the fundamental Moslems are suspicious of capitalism. But Turkey retains a flexibility that is marked by openness and forward progress. Here you will see hawkers selling Ipods alongside the mosques -- you are impressed with the common man who works hard day and night making progress for his family and his nation.
Why Istanbul is Like No Other:
So Istanbul is a stunningly beautiful and unique city with Ottoman sultans filled with history of the Roman Empire, beautiful galleries and museums, friendly people, lively streets, modern amenities, and a bustling tourism industry that continues to surprise.