(I wrote this back in 2010, but happily share it again – though President Erdogan has moved the city backwards by a lot since I wrote this – it’s a shame, he’s sold the collective property of the Turkish people to his capitalist buddies, re-Islamicized society, and gone to great lengths to undo the amazing work of Kamal Ataturk)
Istanbul, Turkey is a city of neighborhoods and timelessness. It is a place that is utterly modern and yet so steeped in historical places and persons that it defies any attempts at placing it as a city of a specific time or civilization.
The first city was founded by a guy named Byzas about 700 years before Christ. The Delphic Oracle in Greece told him to start a city in a place that was ‘opposite and blind’. They called it Byzantium and figured everyone else must have been blind not to see this spot, since on the opposite side of the Bosporus there was a city in a less perfect spot.
And so it went until 196 AD when the city was destroyed and rebuilt and named Augusta Antonia. Personally, I think Byzantium sounds better. It stayed a Roman City and in 330 AD it was renamed again, the more familiar sounding Constantinople after Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made it his capital. Later in 537, Emperor Justinian had the Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia) built and it remained the largest Christian church for 1000 years.
In 1451, the chariot races at the Hippodrome came to stop when Sultan Mehmet II of the Ottoman’s conquered the city and turned the Ayasophia into the world’s largest mosque. He also had the Topkapi Palace built. Sutan Ahmet later built the famous Blue Mosque.
After picking the wrong side in World War II, the Turks struggled to get their independence and Mustapha Kamal (Attaturk) moved the capital to Ankara so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable by sea. This left Constantinople as Istanbul. (That’s Istanbul not Constantinople) The city was a bit of an aging and decrepit place but in the past four decades she has undergone some massive beauty treatments and is now once again the Paris of the East.
Frankly, I like Istanbul better than Paris. Like Paris, Istanbul has been the home of writers, painters, great intellects, and radicals. She’s a city I’ll gladly pay for again and again.
Estimates say that there are approximately 20-million people living in Istanbul. No one really knows for sure. I was one of them for about six-months in early 2011. I loved living in Istanbul.
As mentioned previously, my wife had left Manisa and returned to Morocco and the comfort of being around her mother and sisters when we discovered she was pregnant. I went to Izmir to look for a better teaching job but found mostly empty promises. My friend Gaye owned a hotel in Istanbul and when she heard that I was looking for work offered me a position. It was a sort of strange role as IT manager and hotel manager combined. In any event, the pay was good and the position worked for me. I rented a tiny little apartment with a view of the Bosphorus and set about trying to build a life for my wife and our coming baby.
Here’s a funny note – when I was a stock broker in Portland, Oregon – I was chatting with one of my clients about life and travel – we got philosophical and this wealthy and intelligent guy stopped me and said “You know what you need to be doing? You need to be running one of those amazing old guest houses on the shores of the Bosphorus in Istanbul” Nearly a decade later, it was exactly what I was doing.
Things went pretty well. My website businesses were taking off and I made a lot of friends quickly. It’s easy to make friends with Turkish people. I drank a lot of black tea, enjoyed a lot of performances and gallery shows, and sometimes drank a bit too much rakia – the anise flavored Turkish liquor that goes hand in hand with delicious fish. I fell completely in love with Turkish cuisine and I took cooking classes, explored ancient parts of the city, and became an active member of the local couch surfing groups. Life was beautiful – the only problem was that my pregnant wife was on another continent. I wasn’t happy about that – Turkey had a far better health care system than Morocco and our plan had been that when I found a new place to live and a job, she would return to Turkey. It was her first pregnancy however (and mine) and I understood that being around her family, her mother, her sisters and people who spoke her own language were important for her sense of safety and well-being. As we got closer to the time of birth – with summer in glorious bloom and Istanbul bustling with activity – my friend offered me a better and more permanent position – I was ready to accept – but I needed to have my wife as a part of the decision.
At this point, she informed me that she wanted to stay in Morocco after the baby was born. I could understand wanting to stay for a little while – but that wasn’t what she was talking about. I had to choose between being a father in a country that I loved but didn’t particularly want to live in any longer – or having a great job in a city that I was completely in love with – but not really playing a role in my baby’s early development and life. It wasn’t really a choice at all. I packed up my life, stored what wouldn’t fit into two suitcases in the basement of the hotel, and went back to Morocco.
I rented an apartment in Sefrou and dove into the process of getting my wife a green card. I knew one thing for sure, I didn’t want my baby girl to grow up in a world where women were relegated to far less than equal. If we couldn’t live in Turkey – I would take them both back to the USA – even though I never really had any desire to return once I had left. Our daughter was born. I wanted to name her Aya Sophia but my wife asked the Moroccan authorities and they said she couldn’t be named Aya because it meant ‘Saint’ – it turns out it was some clerk who didn’t actually know but simply expressed his opinion as a law – which my wife took it as. So instead we named our beautiful little girl Sophia, meaning ‘wisdom’ in Greek. The Aya Sofia Hotel was where I had been working and the Aya Sofia Mosque was the largest Christian cathedral for 1000 years and the largest Muslim Mosque for almost as long. It had become a secular monument under Ataturk. I felt like it was a beautiful and symbolic name which held where she was born, who her parents were, and our hopes for her future. As to a middle name – I never liked my own – so I decided that we would leave that space blank and let her fill it in on her own someday. I hadn’t really expected to win the naming battle, but it turned out that because Morocco still functions as a patriarchy – it was my decision. For that, I am grateful.
Back in Morocco, I focused on my web and blogging businesses with some success while jumping through the many hoops involved in getting a green card and making sure my daughter got American citizenship from the beginning. When she was 18 months old – we finally had approval for my wife’s green card. It was time for us to emigrate to the USA.
Istanbul has been variously known in history as Byzantium and Constantinople. It sits squarely on the intersection of Asia and Europe with the city having an Asian side and a European side. The Bosphorus Strait runs between. Official estimates put the population at somewhere around 15 million but unofficial estimates are much higher. Officially it is the world’s 4th largest city and the largest in Europe. It was the Roman imperial capital for nine centuries and then the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate for another five centuries. All told it served as an imperial capital for sixteen centuries! There are few cities with as much history as Istanbul. Istanbul is one of the great cities of all of human history, the art, the architecture, the bridges, the sport, the food, the culture. There is nowhere else like Istanbul.