Well, the rolling edelweiss-covered hills of Austria are kind of similar to the black, imposing mountains of Eastern Anatolia, in that they’re both big and mountainous… but I guess the similarities stop there.
BUT it is a good title, as I’m going to tell you about the start of my trip to Turkey, which begun in Istanbul: Constantinople, the home of Christianity until ‘The Great Schism’ (a great name) in the 11th century, when Roman Catholicism split from Eastern Orthodoxy (the Greeks, the Balkans, etc.)
In fact, an awful lot of early Christian and Islamic history occured in Turkey. People forget that Christianity was even larger before the Great Schism. After its ‘ratification’ by Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 AD, and then being made the official religion in 380 AD by Emperor Theodosius, Christianity grew at an immense pace, dwarfing and absorbing any of the existing polytheistic religions in Europe, and later North and South America.
After the Schism, Christianity left much of Asia Minor, allowing the new (relatively) Islamic religion to flourish, resulting in the almost polarised West/East Christianity/Islamic geographical split that we see today.
Enough basic history of the region. Nowadays, Turkey is a secular/Islamic nation — Islam is certainly the national religion, but it’s not forced like in many other Middle-Eastern countries, and it’s also not run with ‘Islamic law’ — it has been a democracy since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, shortly after the First World War. Atatürk (Mustafa Kemal), with his revolutionary party formed a new, democratic government. It was a single-party system for about 30 years though, which made Atatürk a bit of a tyrant… but who cares, democracy is over-rated anyway. Maybe I’ll rant about benevolent monarchy one day…
So… fast-forward to June 2007, and I’m at Heathrow airport. For some reason I booked a 7am flight to Istanbul — something about making the most of my time there — and as I simply couldn’t get to Heathrow at 5am in the morning, my dad had taken me there at midnight, to wait for 5 hours. It’s amazing just how hard it is to sleep on a steel chair, with solid metal arm-rests between each. No way to lay down, no way to sprawl, and a camera and laptop worth worth over £5000. There was no way Iwas going to be able to sleep, surrounded by other crazy travelers that also thought a 5-hour nap on a metal bench was a good idea.
After a 3 hour flight (about 90% of the cute girls I saw in Turkey were on the planes), I was in Istanbul, tired, but ready to go! The first thing I noticed were the cobbles. Ancient, well-worn and gappy cobbles. If you’ve been to Rome, you have some idea of what it’s like to walk on cobbles that have irregular few-inch gaps between them. Luckily I had hiking boots, or I’d probably still be nursing a complex ankle fracture. These cobbles surrounded the Sultanahmet region — the core of old Istanbul — the region that features both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for over a 1000 years. It’s been standing since 500AD, and for a long time was the center of the Eastern Orthodox religion, until the Ottoman Turks came marching in, in 1453AD, and converted it into a mosque.
Not many people know this, but most mosques and old Christian churches look almost identical, because almost all early mosques were converted sites of Christian worship — and the design of the basilica (dome) goes back even further, to the Roman and Greek pantheon of Gods. Religion is awfully incestuous and plagiarised…
After an awe-inspiring trudge around both of the mosques (in the Sophia I had to pretend I was a Muslim so that I could get inside the area of worship to take some photos — I’m such a rebel), I stepped outside into a beautiful day now wide-awake, and ready to absorb as much of Istanbul as I could in 4 days. Little did I know, I was about to be accosted.
While I was trying to find my bearings, I asked a pleasant-looking man if he knew the way to the Grand Bazaar. ‘Just head in that direction, it’s about 15 minutes away.’ Giving him my thanks, I headed off, big camera around my neck, and looking every part the affluent tourist. It was after the second road-crossing that I noticed the guy that gave me directions was following me. He was keeping his distance, but he was certainly following me… and gaining.
As my pulse picked up its pace, so did my stride. It seemed I was about to have my very first chase around the dirty back streets of Istanbul only hours after arriving. I was about to be Aladdin, fleeing from the guards, with just an apple for protection. Sure, I didn’t have a pet monkey called Aboo, or anywhere near the same amount of dexterity, but damn, I was excited!
Find out what happened next, in part two!