The megacity of Istanbul borders on Europe, Asia, and the inexplicable.

There’s no way to explain the scale of Istanbul, Turkey without making the city feel bad about its weight.
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Fifteen million people live in Istanbul, Turkey's largest metropolis, and for good reason—the shish kebabs are amaaaazing. But also because Istanbul is the last exit in Europe before you cross the Bosporus Strait into Asia. Three bridges, countless ferries, and a tunnel, all seamlessly connect the two sides of this transcontinental terrain to form the world's 15th largest city—it's kinda like how the Transformers® work.

Istanbul, Turkey
Looking West, towards the Blue Mosque (at left) and Eastern Europe.

Istanbul is the largest city in Europe, and almost half of it is in Asia.

Graffiti, just like in Europe!

This huge, multicultural city has long been a between Europe and Asia. A place where two very different cultures have peaceably coexisted for centuries without gangland turf wars constantly breaking out. Though, there is a fair amount of graffiti on many of its buildings.

Photo of Istanbul, Turkey
Asia to the left, Europe to the right.

Thanks to its prime location at a choke-point between the Black, Marmara, and Mediterranean Seas, Istanbul has been a major player in trade and commerce ever since the days of the Silk Road. Istanbul is still the richest city in the modern-day Republic of Turkey, but that's not really saying as much as Erdoğan would like.

One of the three bridges leading over the Bosporus Strait. And a mosque.

To get to Asia, you have to go through the Middle East, first.

Once you get away from the Mediterranean , Turkey's landscape gets more like this.

Crossing the Bosporus Strait doesn't suddenly surround you with pagodas and sushi restaurants. In truth, that stuff doesn't start appearing until you get well past the Himalayas. Traveling straight east from the city only puts you in Armenia, first. Sure, Armenia is technically Asia, but not generally what most people think of when ordering take-out food.

Making silk
Making silk from local silkworms.

Once you travel east and get away from the Bosporus Strait, the Marmara Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea, the Republic of Turkey gets very arid and beige—a full three-quarters of Turkey's total territory is desert. Still, the locals have made all that scrubby land work for them. Despite the challenges of growing crops in sand, the country is one of the world's top-ten agricultural producers.

In fact, Turkey handles a surprising amount of its citizens' needs and wants “in-house.” They produce textiles, manufacture clothes, build and export cars (albeit other country's brands), and they even mine their own dirty brown coal.

Lamb pops
Lamb pops, mmm.

They're the world's 15th largest economy, and mostly self-sufficient in the way the used to be, before greedy CEOs outsourced our manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labor. You know, countries like Turkey.

View from Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey
I think that's the Asian side waaaay in the background.

Istanbul is straight across from the Land of the Boneheads.

View from Galata Tower
View of Istanbul from Galata Tower.

The Chalcedon (or Khalkedon) people lived on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait long before anyone laid claim to the European side. Since prehistoric times, they had occupied the area, a remarkable achievement considering their people's widespread vision disorder.

The country of the blind” is a messed up work of fiction. Photo: @Ivan Babydov

Around 667 BCE, a guy named Byzas arrived from Megara, Greece. Commanded by the Oracle of Apollo, he endeavored to build a new city “opposite to the blind.” So he traveled east from his homeland, searching tirelessly for a society of vision impaired people. Eventually, Byzas tired of searching, and finally took a breather on the European side of the Bosporus Strait.

Having failed to find the Oracle's colony of blind people—I mean, how would that even work?—Byzas began searching, instead, for a rationalization to stay right where he was. Fortuitously, a guy named Megabazus (a Persian general, not a Transformer®) graciously provided it.

(Pretend he's a Persian general.)

Megabazus had noted that the European side's elevation and surrounding water on three sides gave it obvious military advantages, making it far more defensible than the Asian side.

Upon learning that the Chalcedon people had chosen to settle on the Asiatic side instead, Megabazus was overheard remarking that their founders “must have been blind.” And bam, just like that, the city of Byzantium was born.

Byzantium easily conquered Chalcedon because blind people aren't generally great at fighting.

After 1,000 years, Byzantium got an unnecessary rebranding.

Constantine's bust
Bust of Constantine

Upon becoming emperor in 312 CE, Constantine I (aka, the Great) thought that ruling both the Western and Eastern Empire from Rome was stupid. So he looked for a younger, more centrally located city and found Byzantium quietly humming along.

The Column of Constantine.
The Column of Constantine.

Constantine then rented a U-Haul®, and moved all of his stuff to that city. His “stuff” included his family, concubines, slaves, all the authority of the Roman Empire, and probably a black-light painting of Marcus Aurelius in a loincloth.

In 330 CE, Constantine renamed the city, “New Rome.” But, upon reflection, he felt the name didn't really reflect the time and effort he'd put into usurping and mutilating his political rivals. So Constantine named the city after the one person who'd single-handedly unified the Eastern and Western Roman Empire and brought prestige to this backwater metropolis: himself.

Constantine in hospital bed
“Doc, I'm going to recover from this, right?”—Constantine, c. 337 CE.

The city's new moniker, “Constantinople,” stuck for well over a millennium. Not a bad run, considering that they could've changed it back to Byzantium a decade later and no one would've complained. That's because the guy the city was named after fell ill and died in 337 CE. On the plus side, Constantine wasn't around to witness an unexpected influx of Ottoman immigrants in the 15th Century.

The Ottoman Empire strikes Byzantium.

A footstool
Ottoman from the Eames Empire, c. 1956 | CC-BY 3.0

The conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 CE marked the fall of both the Byzantine and Western Roman Empires. After nearly 1200 years, the former Roman capital became the Ottoman's capital known as “Islambol” for a brief 500 years. A lot of citizens didn't even bother filling out change of address forms. 

Aerial view of Istanbul
Istanbul from the air.

In 1930 CE, after the Turkish War of Independence, the metropolis was renamed “Istanbul.” Finally freed from the progressive, yet tyrannical rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II, Turkey's burgeoning democratic government quickly set about promulgating a new constitution, replacing signage, and printing up new business cards. In 2021, they had to start all over when Erdoğan changed the spelling of the country's name to Türkiye.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul
Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque, I think. Photo: @Amy Crosby

Visiting the obligatory tourist attractions in Istanbul.

Exterior of The Blue Mosque
I mean, it is a little blue. I guess.

Our first stop in Istanbul was the Blue Mosque, so-called because it's kind of blueish. But it's called that more because tourists have a lot of problems pronouncing Turkish names. And, for good reason—they are crazy looking.

Inside the Blue Mosque
Is that the Blue Mosque? I can't tell anymore. Photo: @Amy Crosby

Sure, Turkish nomenclature generally uses Latin characters—Thanks for throwing us a bone, Zeynep!—but Turkish words often look like letter combinations you'd get from spilling a bowl of Alpha-Bits® cereal, or trying to generate a strong password

Ceiling of The Blue Mosque in Istanbul
Photo: @Amy Crosby

For instance, the word archeology in Turkish is spelled “Arkeoloji.” To make matters worse, the people of Turkey can't seem to agree on a single spelling. Almost every place has two accepted ways to write its name (see Kapadokya, aka Cappadocia).

Add in the little curly-q thingie at the bottom of some of their letters, and the locals are lucky we foreigners don't butcher their language any worse than we do. All things considered, calling “Sultan Ahmet Camii simply “The Blue Mosque” is probably a win for both sides.

Ceiling of The Blue Mosque in Istanbul
The intricate ceiling designs of Istanbul's Blue Mosque.

Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque is blue, but mostly on the inside.

Ceiling of The Blue Mosque looking brown
Interior of Blue Mosque, but it looks more beige in this photo.

From the outside, the Blue Mosque paint job is kinduva pale and muted—it's not super “showy.” Of course, boring on the outside, fancy on the inside is a traditional Muslim philosophy, I believe. Something about not showing off your wealth, a concept alien to most Westerners. 

Red carpet inside The Blue Mosque
Sexy red carpet in Istanbul's Blue Mosque.

I mean, sure, the exterior screams “great whopping mosque,” but if Westerns had designed the place, there would've been pyrotechnics, spotlights, and neon “kids pray free” signs everywhere. As it is, the mosque blends aesthetically with the surrounding buildings—I mean, except for its ginormous dome and spires.

Constructed around 1610, Istanbul's most famous grand mosque is filled with hand-painted blue tiles—hence the name. Its exterior is lit with blue light to reinforce the branding theme, and ward off any low-flying airplanes.

The Blue Mosque's last remnants of Christianity.
The Blue Mosque's last remnants of Christianity.

In all other aspects, the mighty Blue Mosque was disappointingly mundane and ordinary. I guess I was hoping the Imams would dress like extras from the Blue Man Group, or reenact the Smurf® Movie, or something. But, in case you were wondering, pointing out missed cross-promotional opportunities is extremely unwelcome around here.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
Okay, THAT is the Hagia Sophia. I'm pretty sure.

Hagia Sophia looked a lot like the city's Blue Mosque.

Inside Hagia Sophia.
Inside Hagia Sophia.

You could argue that all churches look the same, but the mosques around here bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. So much so that I have trouble keeping the photos I took of each place straight. Once the local Imams approved the dome-supported-by-four-columns design, the local developers kinda ran with it.

Ceiling of Hagia Sophia.
Ceiling of Hagia Sophia. Photo: @Amy Crosby

That innovative design approach made its architect famous, but it made his mosques pretty ubiquitous and unremarkable. We expected to be wowed by Hagia Sophia, but instead, it felt like we had just teleported back to the Blue Mosque, but wearing sunglasses with brown lenses.

The foyer of Hagia Sophia.
The foyer of Hagia Sophia.

Not that it's an unimpressive building—the Hagia Sophia is humungous. Its vast interior nave has a 180-foot high central dome that rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows. The dome's diameter is over 100-feet wide, and a hierarchy of domed elements were built up to create an oblong interior spanning 250 feet long. Clearly, somebody was trying to impress Allah.

Christian scraps.

Originally, this spot housed a humble pagan temple. The newly converted Christian fanboy, Constantine I, then leveled it to build a church. In 404 CE, his church burned in a fire. It was rebuilt and restored in 415. In 532, the rebuilt church once again burned. In 537, a new church was built on the spot.

Fifteen years after its completion, an earthquake collapsed part of its dome. After two further collapses in 558 CE, the new church was rebuilt yet again. Man, the pagan gods really held a grudge. In 1453, the pagan gods finally took Anger Management classes and let the Ottomans build Hagia Sophia there.

Over its lifespan, that site has been a temple, four churches, a cathedral, a mosque, a museum, and then back to a mosque again. For a brief period in the '70s, it was even a SUBWAY® sandwich shop until people tasted the food.

SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY! Live! At the Hippodrome!

Hippodrome in Istanbul
Istanbul's Roman Hippodrome is now a boring plaza.

For millennia, Roman Emperors had known that a distracted populace is an unlikely-to-revolt populace. So, long before the invention of NASCAR, the emperors slaked their citizens' need for speed by staging horse-drawn chariot races. If you've ever seen the movie, “Ben Hur,” then you know how exciting that sport can be for everyone except the horses.

Chariot race results, I think.

The Romans held these competitions at U-shaped racetracks called Hippodromes (so named after the Greek phrase, “horse course.”) Istanbul had the largest hippodrome in the ancient world which was capable of seating more than 60,000 spectators. These days, however, Istanbul's hippodrome is less of a racetrack and more of an agora, or “public gathering place.”

Locals and tourists mostly just hang out on the wide plaza, smoking, or staring at their phones. If the city held chariot races there today, a lot of tourists would be very surprised and probably get run over.

Basillica Cistern in Istanbul
The Basillica Cistern is effing huge.

For millennia, the water system in Istanbul was positively Byzantine.

I wanna say, Medusa's head?

As long as Homo sapiens have been carbon-based—about 750 millennia, FWIW—ingesting water has been critical to our species' not dying. Especially in places like Istanbul, where the seas are salty and the precipitation, unpredictable. Managing this precious liquid, therefore, has been an important part of every civilization with any long-term plans.

aqueduct in Turkey
Stock shot of an aqueduct in Turkey somewhere.

First conceived by the Greeks and others, the concept of “carved channels transporting water to an impermeable receptacle” was perfected by the Ancient Romans. Their aqueduct and cistern designs eventually spread throughout the Mediterranean—not through the gradual process of natural propagation, but rather, through the much speedier process of brutal subjugation.

Aqueduct outside Istanbul
A surviving section of Istanbul's insane 125-mile long aqueduct system in Antalya.

Still, Byzantium's water management systems were so well-built and effective that, long after the Romans were ousted from the country, its new rulers kept the Byzantine aqueducts and cisterns up and running.

The Ottomans, for example, preserved and maintained one of the Roman's longest aqueducts, traversing some 125 miles. The system carried water—and probably a lot of dead bugs, I imagine—from way up in the mountains down to each of Istanbul's seventy known cisterns. 

Seeing Istanbul's must-see cisterns, which you should totally see.

Basillica Cistern in Istanbul
The ceiling is supported by over three hundred 30' marble columns “repurposed” from other places.

The Basillica Cistern (aka, “Yerebatan Cistern”) is the largest ancient reservoir beneath the city of Istanbul, Turkey. Construction started in the 6th century CE, during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, yet this cavernous, underground chamber took another 38 years and some 7,000 slaves to build—and it shows.

Basillica Cistern in Istanbul
Authorities outlawed fig trees near cisterns because their roots could penetrate the walls and cause leaking.

Basilica Cistern spans an area approximately 400 feet long, 200 feet wide, and 30 feet high. That's over 80,000 square feet in area, which was capable of holding almost 18 million gallons of water. To put that size into context, consider that a much smaller cistern in the Karagümrük district is currently being used as a football field.

Basillica Cistern is an art gallery
Basillica Cistern is now an gallery.

This colossal cistern initially provided water for Constantine's Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings in the area. It continued to provide water to the city even after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. During the following decades, however, the cistern's existence was—somehow—entirely forgotten by almost everyone.

The cistern wasn't rediscovered until 1565, when Petrus Gyllius—a 15th Century French narc—snitched about rowing a in between the columns, seeing swimming around, and finally being chased out by angry locals who didn't want to start getting a municipal water bill from the city.

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
Topkapi Palace did not skimp on the swank.

A brief history of Istanbul's fancier buildings.

Topkapi Palace mirror
Mirror, mirror, on the wall…

Two hundred years after Constantine had his Great Palace built, angry rioters burned it down along with half the city. Subsequent renovations by Justinian I and other rulers kept it going until the 1460s, when the Ottomans started over with their own Topkapi Palace.

Topkapi Palace served as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire, and was the main residence of its sultans until 1856 when they got #metoo'd by their harem concubines.

Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe Palace eventually superseded Topkaki Palace.

The much more attractive, but less optimally located, Dolmabahçe Palace eventually superseded the aging Topkapi Palace. Today, Topkaki Palace is just a museum and tourist attraction showcasing Turkey's architecture, indigenous , and historic income inequality.

That's the sultan's massive bathroom.

Walking around the picturesque grounds really drives home how unfair the world is and what lucky rat bastards the sultans were. The palace is opulent beyond words, with gold leaf on everything but the trees. Of course, the sultans didn't have central A/C or Netflix® and they frequently died from stuff like gout, strangulation, and assassination. So maybe life wasn't always a picnic for them, either.

Smoking is cool. @Arthur Swiffen

Everywhere you go on the streets of Istanbul, locals are smoking like the Surgeon General never existed. RJ Reynold's must love the Turkish people. Because they don't just smoke outdoors, they smoke anywhere and everywhere. It's like they're addicted or something. Turkey has the sixth-highest incidents of lung cancer in the world, and that tracks.

We were the second-to-last table at a very fancy restaurant when the waiter asked if it was okay for people at another table to smoke after their meal. We agreed for two reasons: 1) We were already leaving, and 2) We had no way to respond to a question we thought got asked as often as, “Did you valet your horseless carriage?”

Fishing at the Golden Horn
Folks fishing on the Atatürk Bridge.

Istanbul's “Golden Horn” is neither gold, nor a horn.

Fishing at the Golden Horn
The Atatürk Bridge crosses the Golden Horn.

The Golden Horn is an inlet on the eastern side of the Bosporus Strait that becomes an inland river. The bridge over this inlet is an excellent spot for fishing, and a lot of the locals do it…a lot. According to a local guy, fish migrate south from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

Fishing at the Golden Horn in Istanbul
Fish pusher dealing fresh fish out of his bucket.

But many of them turn too early, head up the Golden Horn, and eventually notice the river getting narrower. The fish think, “hey, this ain't the Mediterranean Sea,” and turn back towards the strait, where the baited hooks of fishermen block their path.

Fish

Thanks to so many directionally challenged fish, the Atatürk Bridge doubles as the world's freshest market. I mean, why go to a store, when you can buy fish that some guy pulled from the water seven minutes ago? Not surprisingly, people were buying fish from these guys like they were buying drugs. (“Hey, got any Barbunya? I'm jonesing, bro!”) Luckily, seafood wasn't the only thing on the menu in Istanbul.

The intersection of Europe, Asia, and damn good eats.

World's best shish kebobs? Yes.

The food in Istanbul—and all of Turkey, for that matter—was better than that of a lot of Middle Eastern-ish countries I've visited. The cuisine's flavor profile was far better than Greek and Moroccan, which I had assumed would be pretty similar. And by similar, I mean subtle to the point of being bland.

Turkish cuisine, however, pleasantly surprised me. The restaurant, Salon Galata, was particularly good. Everything was delicious, and the atmosphere was relaxing. It didn't hurt that the restaurant was right next to The Bank Hotel Istanbul where we were staying.

Lamb pops. Mmmm.

I don't remember having a single bad meal while in Turkey. The quality of the produce reminded me of Californian tomatoes, fruit, and greens. The hummus was great, too. Even shish kebabs, which I've had many times at home and in other countries, were exceptional at Sehzade Cag Kebap. One could almost say “life-changingly delicious,” but don't. That's stupid. No one talks like that.

Watch this excellent video of Turkey.

Watchtower of Turkey from Leonardo Dalessandri.

Istanbul isn't one of those cities you hate to leave.

Wait, which mosque is this again?

There's so much going on in this megacity that, as a tourist, you'll only catch a glimpse of it. So when it comes time to leave, you'll almost be grateful to escape the noise and energy of the city. Sure, you might miss its friendly people. Of course, you're probably not going to be there long enough to fully appreciate everything there is to miss.

But, believe me, you will miss those shish kebabs. , they were good.

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