Sailing to Byzantium

It is the city that has endured. Empires have risen and fallen. Armies have surged at its gates. The ebb and flow of the world has threatened to overwhelm, but Istanbul has endured.

Descending through the ubiquitous haze into Istanbul is like being swallowed into the belly of the beast. After two weeks in the orderly land of Germany, it was a real culture shock. The streets were chaotic – traffic weaving everywhere, hawkers pushing their products onto us, the trumpeting of car horns competing with the quavering calls to prayer. There was a vitalism here that I’d never encountered before. For the first time, I truly understood why Istanbul is considered one of the great cities of the world. 

The Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), Istanbul

It is a city of many names. It began as Byzantium, a thriving trading hub on the shores of the Bosphorus. Becoming part of the Roman Empire in 73CE, it would later be renamed Constantinople as it transformed into the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Even as the Western Roman Empire fragmented and collapsed in the fifth century, Constantinople cemented itself as the heart of the Orthodox Church. In 1453, the Ottoman Empire captured the city and declared it their capital. Finally, after the collapse of the Ottomans in 1922, it became known as Istanbul.

This long and violent history is visible throughout the cityscape. Modern Istanbul is built on the ruins of previous cities. Ancient structures and fortifications rise out of the pavement, creating a confusing melange of old and new. Decay and modernity exist side by side.  

The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul – ruins beneath the surface

The most impressive monument is the Aya Sophia. Built in 573CE, it was the largest church in the world for over a thousand years. I’ve been inside some of the worlds biggest cathedrals – St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London, the Sagrada Família in Barcelona – but there’s something awe-inspiring about Aya Sophia. The dome seems to hover in the air, defying the laws of physics. The galleries on the second floor bear graffiti that is centuries old. Golden mosaics decorate the walls, painstakingly constructed in an age when Christianity was still in its infancy. Aya Sophia breathes – I could feel the organism inhaling and exhaling around me. When the Ottomans captured Istanbul in 1453, it was converted into a mosque. Islamic symbols exist alongside Christian markings. Now that the building is a museum, this strange fusion of religions is being preserved, a reminder of the potential for cooperation and peace between religions that is sorely needed. 

Mary and Christ flanked by Muhammad and Allah, a potent reminder of shared beliefs

Our time in Istanbul included a cruise on the Bosphorus, that narrow channel of water which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara – one of the busiest waterways in the world. It was utterly congested with ships. Small yachts dodged around Russian tankers and stately cruise ships. Upriver from the old town, impressively straddling the shores, was the Bosphorus Bridge, connecting Europe and Asia.

The cruise lasted until the late afternoon. The tepid sunlight reached us through the greasy haze, turning the sky a brilliant yellow. As the day faded, we could see the silhouettes of minarets and mosques clustered on the skyline. 

Sunset over the Bosphorus

Looking over the city, I couldn’t help but imagine what the skyline would look like if the British fleet had managed to force the Dardanelles and reach Istanbul. I often indulge in these exercises of alternate history. The far shore of the Sea of Marmara was visible through the haze; the Gallipoli peninsula was not far. If the fleet had broken though the Turkish defences, the whole of Istanbul would have been under the guns of the British cruisers. Which of these buildings would have been razed to the ground? Would the Aya Sophia still be standing after 1,500 years? What would have been lost in the attack? 

Given such high stakes, it doesn’t surprise me that the Turkish celebrate their equivalent of Anzac Day on 18 March – the day in 1915 when an enormous Allied fleet charged into the Dardanelles, only to be soundly defeated by a combination of shore defences and sea mines. The mighty British fleet was devastated, losing three battlecruisers in a matter of minutes. It was this defeat that prompted the British War Council to begin planning a landing on the peninsula. Istanbul was spared, and millennia of history was preserved. 

Inside the Aya Sophia

In reaching Istanbul, we’ve begun our tour of Turkey which will culminate at the Dawn Service at Gallipoli on April 25th. The tour bus is full of Australians; each one of us has a personal connection to the Anzac legend. There’s a sense of excitement as we embark on the journey, and a sort of somber anticipation of what lies ahead. All around us are constant reminders of the Anzacs: memorials, monuments, exhibits in the museums. Most importantly is the sense of camaraderie we share with the Turkish people. They are our brothers now, our nations forged in that same crucible on that blood-soaked shore. We are bonded not in a celebration of war, but in commemoration of our fallen sons. 

Dawn over Istanbul