Monday, May 30, 2011

Where East Meets West

During the extra days we had off of school in the last week or so I traveled to Istanbul with a friend to visit more friends and to finally see the city I'd been dreaming about for so long. Having studied the Middle East in college, I became very interested in visiting Istanbul because of the complex and diverse stories that make up its character. Spending a whole week there was wonderful because I got to feel out more of the districts outside the tourist center, although there are enough monuments and important sights to fill up at least a month.

I did and saw a lot on my trip so I won't write about all of it now. On my first full day we met up with friends and saw both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sophia (Great Sophia) is iconic for Istanbul and represents the intersection of two cultures. Before it was converted into a mosque in 1453 it was the center of Byzantine religious life in Constantinople. Under the Ottoman Empire the massive red brick building served as a mosque and was also the inspiration for many other mosques built during that time. Its architecture was considered by many to be perfect for a religious space. The conversion of the Christian basilica into an Islamic house of worship was viewed by the Western world as an offense and indeed it did signify the dominance of an Islamic empire over the lands formerly ruled by the Byzantines. But the important thing to remember is that religious pluralism was a fundamental part of the Ottoman governing structure, with each religion able to maintain a separate identity and observe its own laws and customs. Because the Hagia Sophia was such an important landmark and represented the seat of power in the city, its conversion was a symbol of the new empire's control. The same is true of the building which stands across from it: the Blue Mosque. 

Unlike the Hagia Sophia, which is a museum today, the Blue Mosque is a functioning religious center. Its intricate tiles and beautiful dome attract the gaze of hundreds of visitors simultaneously while others silently pray. Its name comes from the vivid blue tiles that adorn its interior, which were something that impressed me in nearly every mosque I visited in the city. Many of the tiles were made in Iznik and have a distinctive flowery pattern. Even some of the smaller mosques, like the Rustem Pasha Mosque near the Egyptian Bazaar, have thousands of these tiles decorating their walls. These stunning embellishments were unlike anything I have seen before, so I found them mesmerizing.

There were many moments in Istanbul where I felt completely familiar with my surroundings, either because of the close proximity to Europe or simply modernization. But there were others when I felt very foreign, especially when walking around some of the more conservative neighborhoods. But in each case I always felt at ease and welcome in Turkey. The hospitality and openness of Turks are a legacy of their past, at least in this observer's opinion. The various cultures that have intermingled and coexisted for hundreds of years across  the Bosporus Strait have definitely left their mark, however slight. And this is certainly the only city in the world where you can say you've gone from Europe to Asia and back in a day! 

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