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 is the largest city in Europe, and almost half of it is in Asia.
This huge, multicultural city has long been a bridge 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.
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.
To get to Asia, you have to go through the Middle East, first.
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.
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.
They're the world's 15th largest economy, and mostly self-sufficient in the way the United States used to be, before greedy CEOs outsourced our manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labor. You know, countries like Turkey.
Istanbul is straight across from the Land of the Boneheads.
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.
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.
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.
After 1,000 years, Byzantium got an unnecessary rebranding.
Upon becoming emperor in 312 CE, Constantine I (aka, the Great) thought that ruling both the Western and Eastern Roman Empire from Rome was stupid. So he looked for a younger, more centrally located city and found Byzantium quietly humming along.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Visiting the obligatory tourist attractions in Istanbul.
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.
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.
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.
Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque is blue, but mostly on the inside.
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.
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.
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 looked a lot like the city's Blue Mosque.
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.
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.
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.
This site has always been popular with religious types.
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!
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.
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.
For millennia, the water system in Istanbul was positively Byzantine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 boat in between the columns, seeing fish swimming around, and finally being chased out by angry locals who didn't want to start getting a municipal water bill from the city.
A brief history of Istanbul's fancier buildings.
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.
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 flora, and historic income inequality.
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 a very popular pastime in Istanbul.
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?”
Istanbul's “Golden Horn” is neither gold, nor a 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.
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.
Thanks to so many directionally challenged fish, the Atatürk Bridge doubles as the world's freshest seafood 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.
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.
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.
Istanbul isn't one of those cities you hate to leave.
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.