The name of Istanbul comes from the Greek for “in or to the city.” Throughout most of its history, Turkey’s largest city and the former capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires has been The One and Only City (how ya like them apples, Noo Yawk?). And with over 12 million people within city limits that straddle two continents, it’s impossible to even get a passing understanding of a culture nearly three millennia in the making.
Despite being in Istanbul (née Byzantium, followed by Nova Roma, Constantinople, then its current nom de guerre et plume) for a week, I chilled mostly at coffee shops in the European side’s 19th century districts sipping Turkish tea and trying to write and stay dry in intermittently rainy weather. I barely scratched the surface of the Old City, but when I did, crossing the Golden Horn at sunset amidst thousands of Turks in the streets celebrating the end of Ramadan, swarms of ferries steaming up and down the channel, and stately minarets lording over lands as far as the eye could see, I felt, for a brief second, the constant bustle and flow of what was, barely even a century ago, still the world’s most important crossroads.
I know some Catholic churches in Latin America with a lock on reminding sleeping sinners that they should have their butts in the pews on Sunday morning, but the five daily prayers at the hundreds of mosques in the city ain’t no joke:
Indeed, not knowing the language proved to be a hindrance, because even though many people know some English, it’s pretty hard to connect with folk when grunts and pantomimes are the sole method of communication. At least Turkish, a non-Indo-European language (meaning it’s very hard for English speakers), uses a phonetic spelling and a recognizable Roman alphabet. I don’t know how the hell I’m going to get by in Egypt (here’s hoping a few decades of British colonial control have worked their linguistic hoodoo in my favor). I didn’t get a general concensus on Turkey’s accession to the European Union or public opinion about the relatively conservative current government or Kurdish nationalism. Hell, I could barely order a meatball dinner (köfte menü, I finally mastered). But I did get the sense that Istanbul reveals her true self at her own leisure, and that she must be courted before she lifts the veil.
Guess which moment I get thrown against the seat back in front of me: