The second week of break was a fascinating and adventurous one. I learned and saw a great many things over those seven days: the categories into which they fall are three.
1. Byzantium – The Ancient City
My desire to go to Istanbul harks back to a conversation I had with my friend Michael over Christmas break. We discussed the then-distant city of Istanbul, and how it was historically the Rome of the East. After 326, it became the center of the Roman empire, and for centuries it amounted to a co-capital along with Rome, politically, religiously, and culturally. In fact, when Constantine made it the political capital of his empire, he originally called it New Rome. Since we were both looking forward to a semester in Rome it made sense, in a certain way, to visit this historically complementary city. At the time, it seemed like a long shot. After all, half of the city wasn’t even in Europe, and we hadn’t a clue as to the state or safety of the modern city. I wanted badly to visit, but I just wasn’t quite sure…
Mosques pepper the horizon of the foggy/smoggy city.
So I went to Istanbul. My pals Chris, John and I hopped on a jet of the aptly named airline “Pegasus Air” and landed in the sister city to Rome three hours later. Badda bing, badda boom.
During our week-long stay, we saw a whole pile of historical sights and artifacts from the world of the ancient empire that made the city great. Not least among these were the National Archaeological Museums, which had collections from ancient Byzantium and from other ancient sites in the Middle East and North Africa. Two of the coolest things here were the “Alexander Sarcophagus,” which probably didn’t actually hold Alexander the Great, but was found in the ancient necropolis of Sidon, Lebanon; and the Treaty of Kadesh, the oldest known peace treaty in the world. Then there were the exhibits on ancient Troy and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, but you can ask me about those some other time. For now, we’ll move on.
The National Archaeological Museums
2. Constantinople – The First Conversion
When the ancient Roman Empire was converted to Christianity, Byzantium was not left behind. In fact, it was made the new capital by Constantine, who gave the city his own name. There are more pieces of this more recent era throughout the city. We climbed the Galata Tower, built by the Christian emperor Anastasius in 507. We saw the obelisk that had stood in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. But one thing stood above all others as a mark left by the Byzantine empire: The Hagia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom.
Now a museum, many of the Christian frescoes in the Hagia Sophia have been uncovered and can be seen today.
Although the Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest basilica for almost one thousand years, it is a basilica no longer. As one of we three noted, “Being in Istanbul is the first time we are part of a conquered people.” In 1453, Muslims took the city by siege and turned the great churches into mosques. Today the Hagia Sophia is a museum, but mosques throughout the city broadcast the call to prayer, a 5-times-daily reminder that 600 years later, Istanbul is still a thoroughly Islamic city. Turkey does not have a state religion, and perhaps more than any other nation in the Middle Eastern nation, it has over the last decade made decisive efforts to distance itself from radical Islam. But with its forcible conscription laws and deep economic and ethnic divides (Turks and Kurds), one thing is certain: Constantinople is no more.
The Blue Mosque
3. Istanbul – The Modern World: Islam Meets the West
So that’s what we saw in terms of history, but what about the city today? As the bridge between Asia and Europe, it is evident that Istanbul is the meeting place of East and West, of Old and New. A man selling bikinis next to burkas in a covered market. A five story Burger King next door to a small mosque.
Note the small loudspeaker above Chris's head to the left, used for the call to prayer.
At the outset, this encounter of very distinct ideologies appears to be a seamless combination. But this meeting of two cultures is also a bit of a collision. We met many young people during our stay who had grown up practicing Islam with their traditional parents, but now had left the faith that they saw as incompatible with Western popular culture. One young man had changed his Turkish name in favor of the Western “Alex,” and his father refused to speak to him. Alex had served in a NATO military unit for two years. He described how he had returned from a trip to Europe late one night, and without even the chance to return to his home, he was driven from the airport to bootcamp. Several others we met during the week were dodging the draft, which often involved an unknown duration of service.
Earlier in the semester, in one of our courses, we discussed an address of Pope Benedict’s that explained the conflict between the inheritance of Hellenistic reason in the West, and the disconnect from reason inherent to Islam in the East. This conflict is Istanbul’s great modern challenge: it subtly hangs over the people and the streets of Istanbul. As an example, take these movie posters, found side-by-side in a movie theatre, which depict a society living in two worlds:
At the Theatre: American Pie in Turkish.
At the Theatre: Fetih 1453, a 3-hour glorification of Sultan Mehmet's capture of Constantinople in 1453.
It is hard to predict what the future of this great city will bring. It presents an odd cultural mix, having been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires; it will be interesting to watch it change and grow in the years to come. Will Istanbul forget its proud and varied roots? Will it slide into a secular and culturally bereft city like many European capitals are in danger of doing? Will it turn to radical Islam under pressure from its neighbors, or as a reaction to increasing European influence? Or will it be, as Pope Benedict said on his 2006 visit to Turkey, “a bridge of friendship and collaboration between East and West”? Will it remain Islamic, seek Christianity once more, or revert to its past with a brand of materialistic “paganism”?
It isn’t unlikely that Istanbul will experience a cultural upheaval of one kind or another in the years ahead. I think it is safe to remain hopeful that it could bear much fruit; and that the people, who are kind and honest, proud but tolerant, stalwart but searching, could handle such drastic change quite well. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time.
A fresco uncovered in the Hagia Sophia: Justinian I and Constantine I present the Hagia Sophia and Constantinople to the Virgin and Child
The Grand Bazaar
The American Embassy
A sight for sore eyes.