"Don't tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled."
- The Prophet Muhammad
Roughly about 18- 20 million people live in Istanbul today. The skyline, which is scattered laterally across Europe and Asia is expansive, spreading out rather than building upwards due to the geographic location that neighbors an unstable, earthquake-prone fault line. Istanbul straddles the line between two continents, Europe and Asia, and its people inhabit both shores. The main body of water that separates them is known as the Bosporus strait. The Bosporus strait, meaning “crossing cow” derives its name from the Argine princess “Io” who was later punished and turned into a cow (borus) as punishment from the gods. The city itself was founded by Byzas, which is where the region “Byzantium” gets its name. The city of Istanbul is sandwiched between two larger bodies of water known as the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.
The city itself is massive and many people rely on tram systems and cars to traverse across town. Many locals choose to navigate this city on foot. Waiting at the traffic signal I have learned, can prove to be something that many locals are not used here. I was warned early on from a Turkish friend that the Turks think of themselves as the “chosen people,” and thus it is not appropriate to expect that a car will actually stop to let you cross. A word of caution: if you choose to visit Istanbul, always look both ways (several times) and never expect traffic to stop and let you pass. I was reminded of this when I took my first cab ride at 2 in the morning to my hotel room. I saw pedestrian boldly crossing the highway to get the Bosporus, and it seemed more like my driver accelerated rather than slowed down. For a moment, I had a surreal vision of video gaming scenarios that one might see in Grand Theft Auto.
One of my favorite travel writers, Paul Theroux writes often about the thrills of travel, and my favorite travelogue is his Tao of Travel. A recurrent travel tip in his book is that he urges any traveler, anywhere, to take advantage of walking as means to discover a new place. This, he explains, gives the reader time to reflect and think about their new environment. This quiet solitude and reflection that comes from walking, is an important part of life that is perhaps more difficult to achieve with the “contectiveness” of Iphones, Ipads, etc. Theroux argues that experience of traveling is important to mental health and clarity; it recreates a renewed sense of living life. Theroux writes, “travel is like going through life, the average difficult trip is like living a life and overcoming obstacles." For me these obstacles have varied from learning how to buy tokens, to learning how to bargain with local vendors, who are intent on using my foreignness (i.e. bright blonde hair) to their advantage.
The streets of Istanbul are a mix of rugged cobblestone, pushy peddlers and winding pathways that bring together themes of ‘old’ and ‘new.’ The regularity and symmetry in some of the art and architecture of the city is quite amazing. For example, mosques like the Fatih camii are perfectly balanced in terms of the layout and composition. However, this idea of symmetry and balance is toyed with in the city of Istanbul. For example, the winding streets and pathways, up hills and around blind corners, seem to move infinitely in all directions. At times, the curving streets give an impression that you are spinning in multiple directions; at least that’s how I have felt! This sense of “lostness” I think is best felt after visiting the Grand Bazaar or marketplace.
The Bazaar is a diverting place. Your attention is pulled in multiple directions, and vendors often shout across alley ways vying for your acknowledgement. Each vendor has their own unique approach. One vendor seemed to think he’d catch my attention by calling me J-Lo, which I still don’t understand. The bustle and amusements of the market combined with the sprawling and winding pathways is disorienting, but if you are willing to partake in the traditions and bargain for a good deal, you’ll find some hidden gems for sure.
So I again, I think back to that idea that “not all that wander are lost,” and even more so I have learned that it’s a good exercise to linger with that feeling of “lostness” in a new place. A few weeks ago, my interested was piqued after listening to engaging lecture from Professor Anthony Kaldellis, who currently teaches classics at the University of Ohio. His perspective on the achievements of Byzantine women was particularly pointed and interesting. Eager to learn more, I wrote to the author of one of the texts that I am reading here as an NEH scholar; I found her writing, perspective and message was profound. I was so moved in fact, that I decided to send her an email and inquire about the current study of Byzantine women and what the challenges are as a historian. I was encouraged after writing to this literary genius, (Ms. Juddith Herrin) to continue to learn and enjoy the remarkable city, but one piece of advice resonated very clearly in my mind she wrote:
“… enjoy Istanbul, take a trip along the Bosporus, and walk along the old city walls, eating a semit*.”
Needless to say, I took her advice, and I’m glad that I did.
(*a “semit” is a kind of Turkish fast food bread. Venders sell on the streets, often by carrying a platform stacked with them over head. A semit is a snack, but often a dish served at breakfast with jam or yogurt.)