The Journey Begins

That damn clock. The happy chiming cut the silence of the night at three past midnight. I have no love for the thing, but for this day to work it was a necessity. I quickly got ready and I met the driver outside, on my way to SAW airport, the “second” airport of Dubai… less convenient and in the more conservative Emirate of Sharjah, meaning no booze in the duty free which was a sight to see. The next stop in this adventure, and one which depended on an on-time flight: Istanbul. With only a short layover, and an hour drive into the city each way, everything would need to fall into place perfectly if this were to work. 

By 8:00 AM, the plane touched down in Istanbul and I was in a cab for the long drive to the old city center. Living in Amsterdam, I’ve grown accustomed to being spoiled by the presence of English when traveling, so when I tried to make small talk I was confused when it was met with an empty stare and a shrug: this would be a quiet cab ride, aside from the Turkish pop music playing on the radio, and the driver offering me cigarettes multiple times as he chain smoked throughout the whole ride.

A Quick Drive to Europe

As I typically do when in a new place, even though exhausted, my eyes darted everywhere taking in the countryside. The drive was mostly downhill into the area where Istanbul occupied the low lying area dividing Asia and Europe, and after spending the last few days on the Arabian Peninsula, the cool tang of ocean air and Mediterranean Cypress trees growing high and slender on the hillsides felt like a whole different world. 

And it was. As we emerged from a long tunnel which I hadn’t realized had taken us underwater, the driver looked over and uttered the only words of the trip: “Europa.” We were on the west bank of the Bosphorous Straight: where Asia ended and Europe began. And as we wound up the steep narrow streets on the other side, the other-wordlyness was amplified by that fact that both my adoptive home of The Netherlands and the UAE have not even a hint of elevation change.

I exited the cab and made my way to what is what one would do if given only a few hours in the city: The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. With a strong and bitter cup of Turkish coffee to help me wake up, I wound my way upward through the narrow streets and markets to the most ancient part of the city occupied throughout the years by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans. 

The Sultanahmet District and Blue Mosque

A friendly Turkish man with clearly no ulterior motives at all volunteered to lead me up to the Blue Mosque and explain its rich history. Waiting for him to spring his trap, I smiled and took it all in as his talking faded into the background, lost in the sounds of the market. Finally we got there and parted ways. Taking off my shoes, I entered the mosque and reveled with the hundreds of other visitors in the beauty and expansiveness of the place, which notably had barely a hint of blue. 

Exiting, I coincidentally brushed past my “guide”, a sly grin plastered on his face. He gestured towards a nearby shop which turned out to be his family’s. Hospitality, Turkish style, came at a price – a bag of curious-looking tea powder and a few minutes of strained small talk as he tried to sell me more than I could take on a plane (I made the mistake of telling him I was thinking of buying a rug). I promised him “I’d definitely be back if I came by this way again” (read: never) and was on my way.

The Hagia Sophia

My second and final stop in Istanbul, and the one that I came for, was just across the tree shaded plaza from the Blue Mosque and towered over the area as it has for nearly fifteen hundred years. I looked down at my watch and my heart sank as I saw a long queue of hopeful tourists snaking their way to the ticket office, realizing that I’d likely just be enjoying the place from the outside after all this way.

Enter: Sinan. Who in contrast to my last “guide”, was not asking to be paid in Pomegranite tea. This cool guy who turned out to be some sort of Instagram influencer (check out his profile here) walked me through the front of the lines, and knew the Hagia Sophia like the back of his hand, describing every piece of it with excitement and passion. 

As we walked through the cavernous interior, I came to the realization that this was likely the oldest building in which I’d ever stepped that has been in continuous use since its construction around the year 500. Somehow, through earthquakes, barbarian hordes and the clash of empires, it has survived the ages. Perhaps because it was probably the most impressive and tallest building in the world for nearly a thousand years after it was constructed, it somehow commanded a respect that has transcended conquest. 

Inside is a crucible of history that is matched no where else I’d ever seen: vestiges of paganism are etched above doors paying tribute to the sea god Poseidon; the very bones of the structure examples of Roman and Byzantine ingenuity; the oldest known surviving mosaic of the Virgin Mary in the world, hidden behind a curtain in the apse of the mosque so as not to offend worshippers of a different god below it.  And in a validation of the fact that people never really change, there is Old Norse graffiti from Viking conquerors carved into a marble parapet reading: “Halfdan carved these runes.”

Just picture that for a moment… the fierce Viking warrior you know from the movies, giggling while carving “Halfdan was here” with a steel dagger into the vanquished city’s most holy place after a long day of raping and pillaging.  There is a tomb of a fallen crusader, which not surprisingly has been defaced by subsequent Ottoman conquerors, but shockingly still remains there at all now standing as a memory of a time in which the West was on an divine mission to drive Muslims back into the deserts of Arabia and away from any once holy Christian place. 

Standing the Test of Time

For a history nerd like myself, the Hagia Sophia is like Disney World. Around every corner lies some different story that one of its fifteen hundred years of history is telling. Yes, you can experience this in many other places: the ruins of ancient Rome, the medieval castles which dot the Western European countryside, the old state house in Boston; but few places boast all this variety in one place. Its very existence defies logic in many ways, and is an encouraging example of a shared cultural respect that humanity is capable of, often spoken about but rarely seen in practice. 

With just enough time to spare, I hailed a cab and made my way back to the airport with a final lingering glance at the Hagia Sophia. Striking was the contrast this ancient place had with the city of Dubai, no less impressive with its chrome and glass rising from the desert in the blink of an eye. 

Finally on the airplane, I was back off to Amsterdam, a city I’ve come to love, a relic of the Middle Ages, its golden age now a fading memory five hundred years ago. But even Amsterdam, with its cobbled streets and aged canals, seemed youthful compared to the ancient heart of Istanbul. And so I returned to the flat plains of Holland, the plane emerging from the clouds back into the typical grey rainy day in The Netherlands, highlighting yet another contrast between the hot desert sun and Mediterranean breezes of the last few days. 

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