Bye Byzantium

I had such ambitious plans. After we left Cappadocia and flew back to Istanbul on June 1, we checked into a hotel in the heart of the old city. I’d prepared a jam-packed itinerary, figuring into those last two and a half days we could squeeze several walking tours from the eighth edition of Rick Steves’ Istanbul guidebook – rambles that would take us to dozens of sights we’d missed at the start of the trip when we were staying on the Asian side.

I was deluded. The city is so old, so stuffed with wonders large and small, ancient and contemporary, we could only gobble up a fraction of what I’d hoped to take in, let alone digest it all.

A bit like the classic Turkish breakfast — too many delicious morsels to eat it all up.
Or the choices on one of the innumerable streets full of restaurants — you wish you could try them all.

We did make it to our foremost sightseeing targets.

We devoted a big chunk of our second to last morning to visiting the Hagia Sophia, that gigantic 1500-year-old Christian cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum. Now it’s a mosque again (thanks, President Erdogan!)

We taxied out to where sections of the fabulous walls built by the Roman emperor Theodosius II still stand…

They protected the citizens from invaders for a thousand years.
They stretched for almost 12 miles.

We spent several hours walking around the so-called “new district” – starting with Taksim Square then meandering along Istiklal Street, today a crowded, buzzy pedestrian shopping street.

From high-end clothing and jewelry to cheap snacks, you find it all. Istanbul’s ice cream vendors are part-servers, part-entertainers, performing tricks with their long metal scoops I’ve never seen anywhere else.

We descended into a renovated ancient cistern, one of hundreds that once allowed Constantinople’s residents to enjoy more watery pleasures per capita than Americans consume today.

As we did these things, over and over I was reminded of what I’ve learned before in my travels: no amount of reading or looking at pictures or films can prepare you for being in certain places. All I’ll say about entering the Hagia Sophia is that I felt a bit like a dolphin. In that golden ocean of space and encapsulated history, a sort of psychic sonar made my puniness palpable. But only actually being there can trigger that magical pinging.

It’s allegedly so big Notre Dame Cathedral could fit inside it.
The Imperial Gate, once opened only for the emperor, and made of oak that supposedly came from Noah’s Ark.

Seeing Istanbul’s street dogs and cats was a similar experience. Before our trip, Steve and I watched two feature films (Kedi, about the cats, and a canine counterpart called Stray) documenting what a fixture of the city both species are. Why then did the sight of them still grab my attention; feel surprising? There they are, more of them! They’re obviously cats. And dogs. But not at all like cats and dogs where I come from. The Turkish cats and dogs saunter along…

or snooze or just hang out wherever they feel like it. They’re clearly free spirits. Nobody owns them but people everywhere feed them – communal pets in the megalopolis.

This kitten was unusually bold about requesting some of my fish scraps.
But folks seems to share enough that many of the strays need not beg for food.
Is it dog chow? Cat chow? You see little piles of both.

I had to tell myself not to romanticize them, that their lives must have rough edges. They probably die younger than do dogs and cats in my neighborhood. But they don’t look like it. They’re plump and fluffy and even the dogs act like they don’t need people.

Sometimes they allow people to pet them, but even the dogs didn’t often solicit it.

More than anything, they act like they own the place. I was jealous.

4 thoughts on “Bye Byzantium

  1. Ann Patch June 11, 2022 / 5:52 pm

    Sensational trip, as always. I can almost “taste it”, thanks to your descriptive reporting. Thanks so much, Steve and Jeannette.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. pwk4871 June 12, 2022 / 7:09 pm

    Thx so much for sharing your photos and commentary. Really interesting…

  3. czatkin June 12, 2022 / 9:24 pm

    You capture Istanbul so well and bring back wonderful memories. Thanks!

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