Awe of What’s New (and also very, very old)

Warning: this post is going to be a bit mooshy and philosophical. Rather than recounting the events of our first three days in Turkey (which Dustin has already done a nice job of on Facebook, if your’e interested), I am going to ramble about my impressions of what it’s like to be here. I promise to add some photos too, if you hang in there (or just scroll to the bottom), but I’m feeling so many things right now, I can’t help but toss this out there.

The feeling I have right now, being in Turkey for the very first time, is the same feeling I remember having as a 17-year-old, setting foot in France for the very first time. Everything is new. Everything is familiar, but just a little bit different than the way it is at home. Street signs are different shapes. Houses are built in different styles. Roads are different widths. The sounds, the smells, the hum of life around you – it all feels different and therefore somehow magical.

In the almost 20 years since my first visit to France, I gained a lot of experience with Europe. That magical shine wore away, changing instead to a kind of familiar otherness, comfort that can be quickly relearned with each new visit, like riding a bicycle. I can travel to France or Belgium or almost any other European country with the confidence that I will be able to handle myself well.

But Turkey… I might technically still be in Europe (for now!) but it’s all so new. I’m back to being the giddy teenager who shot 13 rolls of film in 20 days. The shapes of buildings and fountains and people are bright and foreign and fascinating and I can’t even soak them all in because there’s so much, another amazing sight around every corner.

And it’s old. I mean old. We’re practically in the Fertile Crescent here, guys. Civilization as we know it bloomed here. If the signs in the archaeological museum are to be believed, humans (or some of our nearest ancestors) have been living on the land now known as Turkey for 65,000 years. Sixty-five thousand. I mean, at that point they were still banging rocks together to make fire, but you can throw a stone from here and almost hit the place where written language was invented. Neolithic (late stone age) settlements existed in Istanbul as long ago as 9,000 years.

Istanbul’s existence as a city was established around 66o BCE when settlers from a Greek city-state arrived and founded Byzantium. A couple hundred years later, some Persians came along and took control. Then it was the Greeks again. Then the Romans. Then the Christian Romans (Constantine, to be specific, and now Byzantium becomes Constantinople). Then the Ottomans (and now the city becomes Islamic and started to be known by the name Istanbul).

Architectural and artistic remains from all these civilizations litter the streets, or in some cases are the streets. Ruins of city walls, palaces, churches, mosques,  monuments, markets. Houses and shops are built around or on top of foundations that are 2500 years old. The Hagia Sophia was built as a church in 573 and is still a functioning museum today. The only other buildings I’ve visited that can compare in age (the acropolis in Athens, the Colosseum in Rome, etc.) are all in ruins. The ancientness of this place, the impressiveness of it, absolutely blows my mind.

My masters degree studies focused on the Eastern Mediterranean, which means I have significant background in the pre- and proto-history of this area (the parts when they were just developing writing techniques). To finally be able to set my eyes (and in some cases, my hands) on this history is so damned thrilling that sometimes I catch myself just standing there, gaping.

What’s become of this place, in the modern day, is no less fascinating. The piles of people (and cats!), the transformation of what is old and defunct into what is new and useful. Architectural styles from all over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, swirled and blended together. Muslim women wearing their hijabs (head scarves) along with shoes that might have come out of a boutique in Paris, looking as stylish and self-possessed as any New Yorker – other women wearing niqab (scarves that cover everything except the eyes) and keeping their eyes firmly pressed to the ground – other women with bare heads, looking like they’d be at home in Los Angeles or Deadwood. (Haha.)

It’s beautiful. It’s eclectic, eccentric, electric. I’m bobbing about in the middle of it, trying to soak it all in.

And now, before I move on to the pictures you really came for, a word of reassurance: we know there have been political tensions in the area and we have done/are doing everything we should to stay safe. In fact, the parts of Turkey we are in and will later visit are statistically safer than many large US cities. That being said, it doesn’t matter where you are, you can never know what might happen. We are being and will continue to be smart and cautious about our travels.

Now, pictures!

Tiled lions from Babylon! Yes, that Babylon. So beautiful. So old. So happy they found my phone after it tried to run away.

Turkey Ayasofia Selfie
The Hagia Sophia – 1400 years old and still functioning – sits in the background. It was built as a church, turned into a mosque, and is now a museum.
Turkey Ayasofia
It is a chunk of a building. When you put up a structure this magnificent with a dome this big in the year 537, it doesn’t get to be elegant on the outside if it’s going to stay standing for more than a millennium.
Turkey Ayasofia Selfie 3
There’s no way to convey in a photo the immensity of the inside of this building, or the awesomeness of its antiquity and beauty. You’ll just have to come visit for yourselves.
Turkey Ayasofia Selfie 2
That’s the central dome, about 55 meters above us. That’s 15 stories, give or take. Built in the year 537, let me remind you. (Okay, the dome was reconstructed in 562, but still. 562!)
Turkey Dustin Assyrian
Walk like an Assyrian.

Turkish food. You guys, it’s so good.

Turkey Kitty - Copy
Kitty. With some Byzantine sarcophagi someone just left laying by the side of the street.
Turkey Kitty 2 - Copy
Kitties in a tree.

Now things get random and uncaptioned, because I’m late for a date with a Turkish breakfast. Enjoy!

Turkey StatuesTurkey Lion GateTurkey SumerianTurkey Mosaic AyasofiaTurkey Mosaic Dervishes

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