As Istanbul, Turkey seems to be in the forefront of the world news, I thought back to a trip my wife and I took to this historic city that spans the continents of Asia and Europe.
I was serving on the World Council of the United Cities and Local Governments and we joined a group of city officials from throughout the world to attend a meeting of UCLG in Istanbul in 2008. We were excited to visit Istanbul, and although there has been turmoil in this region for many years, the threat of terrorism was not at the level of today with bombings, assassinations and attacks on nightclubs occurring on a regular basis.
Istanbul is home to over 14.7 million citizens and is the most populous city in Europe as well as the 7th largest city in the world. It has historically been known as Constantinople and Byzantium and has played a large role in the world for centuries. It was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during the Roman and Byzantine times, before the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 and transformed it into an Islamic stronghold and the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate. The strategic location that straddles Asia and Europe has brought a mix of art, music, film and cultural festivals that attracts over 12.5 million visitors a year.
As my wife and I arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, we were excited but had no idea of what we would be seeing on our visit. As we drove to our hotel, we saw a modern city with skyscrapers like many cities throughout the world. We also saw the unique architecture of old buildings with narrow streets crowded with motorcycles, horse driven carts and tour buses. The city is quite hilly and virtually every square foot is covered with houses and buildings seemingly stacked against the hills in a haphazard manner.
While I was busy attending meetings, my wife got to experience some of the attractions in the city. One that stood out was a visit to a Turkish bath and my wife still counts this as one of the most unique things that she had ever done in her life. As she described it to me, the visitors to the baths are given a towel and enter a large room with dozens of other women who are instructed to lay naked on a huge marble stone where they are massaged by uniformed women using sponges and buckets of water. They then go through a series of rooms with steam and cold water baths before enjoying hot tea. The baths date back centuries and are available for both men and women.
The food in Istanbul was fabulous and our evenings were filled with long dinners, usually starting late in the evening and finishing well after midnight.
Seafood was a popular choice and Middle Eastern cuisine such as kebab was featured in many of the restaurants. One restaurant was up on the side of a hill and getting there was quite an adventure. Our cab was a four-door Mercedes and as we drove through the narrow streets, we could literally reach out the window and touch the sides of the buildings. I felt like Matt Damon in a Jason Bourne movie as we made our way through the city.
A highlight of the trip was seeing a performance of the “Whirling Dervishes”. This unique ceremony is part of the Sufi order founded by the followers of Rumi, a 13th century poet. The practice of whirling is done as a remembrance of God and features men dressed in white gowns with black cloaks and a tall brown hat woven out of horsehair. Seeing this in person capped our visit to Istanbul and gave us a memory we will never forget.
The recent terrorism in Istanbul has been quite sad for my wife and I as we have such fond memories of this Amazing city.