I have tried, for months, to put into words my experience of Istanbul. I traveled there in December for a conference and spent a week crossing the Bosphorus, balancing tea on my knee as the ferry rocked back and forth, watching the city, and the seagulls, move past the boat's windows.
It has been a dream of mine to visit the city for as long as I can remember. A voracious reader as a child, I read stories of the Byzantines and the Ottomans and longed to see the city that spanned two continents. I devoured TV documentaries that told the story of the Hagia Sophia and the film Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul only made my hunger to see the city for myself stronger.
Istanbul is, in a word, overwhelming. How could it not be as it spans past and present; Europe and Asia; land and water?
There's an Orhan Pamuk quote I keep going back to as I think of the city: 'I came across humanity in Istanbul.'
People are everywhere. On the ferries. In the markets. On the sidewalks. They chat with friends over coffee or rush to catch a tram across town. There are women in headscarves and tight skirts; men in leather jackets and long black coats. There are children and old men and old women. Some nibble warm chestnuts as they slowly maneuver the city's streets while others stare straight ahead, walking with purpose. They rush to get home and they take time to feed gangs of the city's stray cats.
The city throbs and hums with people. I would find myself not knowing where to look or worried I wouldn't be able to see everything. The faces, the voices, the laughter; it was all so wonderful.
I did not have enough time there, but I wonder if you would ever have enough time in Istanbul? I ate simits and olive spread; tiny fish and baklava. I shopped in the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, and an open air market way out of the city center where Turks go to buy every day items. I heard the call to prayer in a shopping district, in Sultanahmet, and in the cafeteria of a university. I walked along the water and saw green parrots in a tree.
I was tired when I left, but sad, too. Sad I hadn't been able to see and experience more.
I don't know when I'll be able to go back, but go back I will. I just wonder how much Istanbul will change between then and now? Turkey is in the midst of political turmoil and things seem fraught and on the edge of change.
But change of what kind?
Istanbul has withstood onslaughts of Crusaders and colonizers. It is a city that survives and evolves in large part due to the love the people who live there have for the city. It is a city that begs you to return.
'If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.' -- Alphonse de Lamartine