I’m writing this from my hotel room in Prague, the first time I’ve left Turkey since arriving in January. It was a funny thought that hit me while the plane was taking off, to be visiting a “foreign country” when in fact I had spent two months in a foreign country already. It was even funnier when I automatically tried to talk to the Czech immigration police in Turkish. “Merhaba!” *Blank stare*.
Having spent 30 minutes in the center of Prague with no sense of direction has given me a chance to reflect on something that seems entirely normal to me after two months of pretending to be a Turk: the architecture. I’ll dive into the really grand, historical periods in a moment but I want to start off with what Istanbul looks like today. Usually these really old, grand cities have some grace to them. Prague does- the buildings line the streets, blending into one another with stone faces like what you see in the movies. Together, they create a distinct skyline and a sense of a single, put-together city.
Istanbul, on the other hand, is controlled chaos. Buildings are built almost on top of one another, with no pattern or unifying feature. There’s a skyscraper here, 6-story building there. Store fronts can jut out several feet into the sidewalks and have huge variations in styles. It pretty much screams “I want to build a building and here’s what I want it to look like,” over and over again on each street.
Mixed in with the fruit stalls, kebab stores, and who knows what are the historical sites: typically large, distinctive structures that help tell the story of Istanbul, from the pagans all the way through the late Ottoman era (1900’s or so). Each period had a distinctive style of architecture that can be immediately picked out from the others- and from the horde of cement bricks surrounding it.
There’s not much left from pre-Roman times (though there were inhabitants in the area), so the first example of architecture you’ll see comes in the Byzantine monuments lining Sultanahmet (Old Town). I consider the Hagia Sophia to be an exception, because everything was modelled after it when the Ottomans took over. However, you see the three layers of city walls and the aqueduct that are all common features of a Roman city, with stone arches and careful construction, designed to last thousands of years. There’s also the blueprint of the Hippodrome and a couple of old cisterns from the era. Think Rome, just transplanted.
The more common period was after the Ottomans took over, for they ruled the city until the 20th century. Mosques were designed with cascading domes and large, graceful arches (and lots of minarets). The master of the era was a man named Sinan, whose works can be found everywhere. He lived during the height of the empire and was responsible for the Suleyman Mosque that dominates Istanbul’s skyline, as well as 93 more in other parts of the empire. His wish was to eliminate anything unnecessary, leaving the domes, the foundation, and the support structure. His mosques proudly display how they’re able to stand, with massive stone columns and load-bearing arches at the forefront of every face.
The Ottoman era was divided into two parts, because in the late stages the Sultan attempted to “modernize” the look. Out with Topkapi Palace and its traditional Ottoman style, in with Dolmabahçe and its “European” look. Ottomans sat on chairs, ate with forks, and lived in palaces that looked like mini-Versailles (although no paintings on the walls). Most of them still stand along the Bosphorus, and if you have 500+ euro, you can stay in Çiragan (Cheer-AHN) Palace, which is now the Four Seasons Hotel. Annoyingly enough, this “modernization” didn’t expand to the streets outside, which is why we’re still stuck in 24-hour traffic on two-lane main roads.