I have just returned from a week’s holiday in Istanbul. I had been looking forward to this trip for some time, having wanted to visit this ancient city that straddles Europe and Asia for many years. The history of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, renowned for its architecture, philosophy and art has fascinated me for years, and I can now say that having visited, it more than satisfied my curiosity and expectations.
Whilst Istanbul is now a busy cosmopolitan city like many others in Europe, it succeeds in presenting in a most accessible manner the history of the past millennium and longer. From the Egyptian obelisk of 1500 BCE and the Theodosian Walls of the fifth century, through to the conquest of Mehmet II in 1453 and the architectural wonders created by Mimar Sinan during the mid 16th century, there is so much here to learn and to try to understand. In addition to the artefacts which are excellently presented in the several museums and the Topkapi Palace, the very streets of Istanbul present a historical face to the interested visitor. Views across the Bosphorous, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara are dominated by a skyline of the domes and minarets of countless mosques and the crumbling relics of ancient fortifications. I have to confess that despite my earlier reading about the city, whilst walking the hilly streets, I found myself often contemplating the significant ignorance that I still have in respect of much that I was seeing.
From this short visit to Istanbul I will retain many happy memories and will long remember many of the fascinating sights and sites of the city. However, my visit was also tinged with an element of sadness which came from talking to kindly people who currently fear for their livelihoods and face an uncertain future. Without exception the people who we met during this brief visit were friendly and welcoming, and it was evident that they wanted to make us feel comfortable within their great historic city. Yet it was particularly disturbing to hear them talking of the falling numbers of visitors and the financial difficulties caused as a result of groups and individuals who are choosing to no longer visit the region.
The cause of this calamity is obvious. The close proximity of Turkey to a war ravaged Syria and the crisis of refugees on the country’s border has brought little by the way of positive publicity to the country. Furthermore, a number of terrorist attacks in both the capital city Ankara, and recently in Istanbul have dominated news reports and leave many would be tourists contemplating whether it is safe to travel. Indeed, during the time of our visit two terrorist incidents in and near Ankara claimed a number of lives.
The fear of terrorism is likely to impact upon many parts of the world in this way. This weekend on my return to England I read in the Guardian newspaper of the efforts being made by the people of Paris, to attract visitors back to that beautiful city following the recent terrorist incidents that devastated the French nation. It is however, important to remember that the vast majority of days in Paris, as in Istanbul pass quietly and without incident. It is even more important to recognise that the people who inhabit these cities, as elsewhere in the world are good, honest and hospitable. There is nothing that the narrow minded terrorists would like more than to stifle the economies of our major cities by driving people away; a situation which we must never allow to happen.
In Istanbul, probably more than anywhere I have previously visited, the close relationship between two of the world’s major religions is in evidence. Mosques created from churches following the 1453 conquest have in many instances retained and respected earlier Christian features. Nowhere is this more in evidence than at the Hagia Sophia where magnificent tesserae depict features from the life of Christ in the form of mosaics. The population of Istanbul is almost exclusively Muslim, and within the traditions of that faith are making every effort to ensure that all visitors to the city feel comfortable and safe. If as tourists we choose now to turn away from this city and many others like it around the world, we will be deserting kind and decent people and handing a tacit victory to those who would deny opportunities to all who wish to learn from other cultures and beliefs. Istanbul, just like Paris, Berlin, London and many other of the world’s great cities has faced threats and violence on many occasions throughout history, but the spirit and determination of good people has always prevailed. An all too brief series of encounters with friendly people in Istanbul over the past week has reassured me that this city and its population will undoubtedly defeat those who would wish them harm.
If the chance arises for you to visit the magnificent city of Istanbul do grasp the opportunity. You will be rewarded by a wonderful encounter with history and culture and through the warmth of the friendly people who inhabit the city.