The immense historical footprint left by Turkey and cradled within its borders cannot be overstated. Spanning ripples in humanity from the earliest known megalithic structures built by Homo sapiens to the city of Troy itself. Threading the needle all the way through the Babylonian, Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, Turkey is incomparable to many of its geographic counterparts in the region. Making the short list of transcontinental countries, it rests in both Southeastern Europe and Southwestern Asia. In a mere half hour, one can take a ferry from Europe, crossing the Bosphorus Strait, directly into Asia. All within the borders of Istanbul. In this episode, I'll cover the first of many chapters in Turkey. Let's get into it.
It was September 2020. I left behind the golden pagodas of Myanmar and landed in Istanbul. By now you have more than likely heard about the recent military coup that took place in Burma. Either way, here is some brief but important context as to why I left.
Yangon (the old capital of Burma) had taken me in as one of its own. While it was not my first visit to the country, it was my longest stint at seven months. Sadly, I found myself at a crossroads with the upcoming Myanmar elections in November 2020. Despite the will of the Burmese people on the whole, the fascist establishment that ruled Myanmar with an iron fist prior to 2016 restricted Aung San Suu Kyi from ever becoming president of her own country. According to a constitutional amendment drafted in 2013, if a Burmese individual has a family member or loved one of foreign descent, they are ineligible to hold office. A law enacted specifically for Daw Aung San as her late husband was British. Even further disqualifying, as her two sons are of course...Brit "ish."
Instead, she managed to secure a position as State Councilor (basically Prime Minister) of Myanmar. For all intents and purposes, she has been the beloved leader and, above all, the face of the NLD (National League for Democracy) party since the beginning of 2016. This is not to gloss over the fact that she herself is a flawed individual, particularly regarding the Rohingya people of northern Burma. A long-persecuted ethnic minority within Myanmar's borders. Born of a revolutionary lineage, her father, General Aung San, is revered as the architect of modern Myanmar, though he was assassinated in 1947. Just six months before Burma's independence was fully realized. Aung San Suu Kyi would run as an incumbent against the USDP (Union Solidarity & Development Party) in the 2020 elections. The Burmese military has its own political arm (the USDP). An ultra-nationalist, pro-military party that has essentially created its own caste and refuses to even date or marry anyone without affiliation to the Tatmadaw. The majority of my Burmese friends in Yangon warned me that the elections could easily go tits up. That I should probably leave the country before things officially kicked off. So I did. Side note, they were horrifically correct in their predictions.
It had been six months and some change since the World Health Organization officially announced the pandemic. Still in the Covid thick of it, my options were limited as to which countries would accept tourists, let alone without an expensive and lengthy quarantine. Keep in mind at this point, a vaccine had not yet been developed. After searching multiple government sites online and taking careful note of travel restrictions, Turkey made it to the top of my list. There was no quarantine whatsoever, and the mandatory PCR test that I had read about online was never administered to me after touching down at the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. To be clear, I wasn’t opposed to getting a PCR test. I’m purely pointing out just how lax entry was into Turkey during that time.
Leaving the airport, I took a taxi into the city. I had booked a couple month's stay at an apartment in Taksim Square. Imagine the Turkish equivalent of Times Square in New York, minus the crackheads in superhero garb. It wasn’t long before I fell for the city. The food alone blew me away. It’s impossible to overstate the high level that Turkish food operates at. Even the drunk food is something that, to this day, I find myself craving out of the blue. At the front of Taksim Square, they have a handful of shawarma food stalls that sit side by side. In addition to shawarma wraps, they also serve Turkish sliders that are particular to the area, called Islak burgers. Basically White Castle with a higher quality beef, dipped in a savory tomato sauce. Simple, but perfect in its execution. As I finished eating, I noticed a newspaper clipping on the wall at eye level. It was a write-up on that very street vendor, with a hero of mine standing in the center of the photo. Anthony Bourdain held a shawarma wrap, flanked by two men who more than likely prepared his food that day. His humble nature carried over into the camera lens, giving a half-smile mid-chew. Clear validation that I’d chosen the correct shawarma spot.
Ultimately one of the cleanest cities I’ve lived in, Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis with a population of nearly 16 million. The street trams and Metro transit were so efficient that there was hardly any learning curve involved. To my surprise, Istanbul is very much a cat city. The feline overseers had been well-looked after, provided with food, water, and sleeping areas. They even seemed to approach humans with the same affectionate demeanor as a flock of birds at Disney World. Apparently, this is such a phenomenon that a documentary has even been filmed about the cats of Istanbul. Though I haven’t seen it. With a majority Sunni Muslim population, the call to prayer pops off five times a day from minarets throughout the city. Some with a genuine muezzin reciting the prayer into a mic, while others would press play on a recording that sounded through a large megaphone. Depending on where you were situated, the outcome was a cacophony of dissonant layers reverberating between structures. At times, it felt like something Autechre might weave into a live set. Eventually it all became white noise and my brain would no longer register the sacred spectacle.
Roughly thirty minutes by tram from my new home, sat Hagia Sophia. As a red-blooded American, it’s hard to fathom a structure riddled with such rich history, stretching back nearly two millennia and still functioning to this day. Originally a pagan temple, Hagia Sophia was first commissioned during the time of Emperor Constantine in 360 AD as a Christian cathedral. At that time, it went by the name Megale Ekklesia (or Great Church). Centuries would follow, and time would have its way with the iconic structure. In 1453, an archetypical minaret would appear on the exterior of the once cathedral as it transformed into a mosque. One deity quietly conceding to the other, along with the attire and text of its followers, carrying on as if playing a game of ethereal musical chairs. Sprawled across various sections of its domed ceilings was a unique display of frescoes. Some were plastered over and repainted, some decidedly left untouched. In 1935, the Turkish government decided to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum. This held all the way up until 2020, when it was reopened as a mosque once again, shortly before I touched down in Istanbul.
Strolling through the insides of Hagia Sophia, the energy felt instantly palpable. Locals gathered sporadically around the mosque, sitting in prayer. Draped in a dark slate gray and illuminated by more than a hundred stained glass windows, the interior strikes a rare balance between Islamic and Byzantine architecture. Ornate chandeliers hung so low in some instances that if I were any taller, it would be difficult not to make contact walking underneath. The cartoonishly massive chandeliers were affixed with bulbs that from a distance, appeared as sharp glowing teeth. Personally, I say go big or go home. A friend of mine had told me to keep an eye out for frescoes of angels that hadn’t been fully plastered over from the older cathedral periods of Sophia. These are not the winged cherubs with trumpets, adorned in white garb and flowing golden locks. These were angels as depicted in the Old Testament. From my angle, these ghouls are both oddly engaging and utterly horrifying. The Imam stood and began to cast a hypnotic prayer into the room, while I quietly played "Old Testament Where’s Waldo?" on the upper interior of Sophia.
Out of the roughly nine types mentioned in the OG Testes, I was after one set of angels in particular. Ophanim. Also referred to as "the many-eyed ones" or simply "Wheels", described more so as what extraterrestrial crafts might have been interpreted as during biblical times. These were beings made up of four interlocking topaz-like rings, the rims of which were each bespoke by large blinking eye balls. Imagine being visited by this fella back in the day. Interlocking sentient rings descend onto you, embellished with an ungodly amount of living eyeballs. Constantly rotating, the surface of each ring pressing against the other, creating a sonorous and uncomfortable tone. Then softly, in your own native tongue, it whispers, "Fear not." This is the stuff of nightmares, and I’m here for it. Sadly, I didn’t come across any Ophanim that day; however, I did stumble upon a mosaic that encircled the outer region of a dome, crudely depicting Seraphim. Jarring in their own right, Seraphim were described as mammoth, fifteen-foot beings. The center of which featured a vacant human-like face, from which six crimson wings stretched out in every direction. Allow me to reiterate. A face with three sets of seemingly blood-soaked feathery appendages. You know…an angel? If for nothing else but pure marketing, I can see why the church decided to lean more towards saintly cherubs in white garb with a knack for the harp.
Beneath Istanbul rest several hundred ancient subterranean cisterns. One of the most important and largest known underground complexes in the history of the city (roughly two football fields in length) happens to be right across from Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet. The Basilica, constructed during the 6th century while the city thrived under its namesake, Constantinople, is a prime example of an extraordinary architectural feat from that era. While the locals continued drawing water (and even fish) via wells from within their own homes, long after the Byzantine era and into Ottoman rule, the Basilica cisterns were completely unknown to the rest of the waking world. Even those drawing water from the reservoir at that time were unaware of the historical behemoth resting just below the surface.
In the mid-16th century, a French natural scientist and archaeologist by the name of Petrus Gyllius traveled to the city with the intent of studying Byzantine-era ruins. By happenstance, Gyllius overheard some locals discussing a vast subterranean complex nearby Hagia Sophia. After finding the location of the nearby complex, he procured a canoe to traverse the now defunct cisterns. With only a notebook and a lantern, Gyllius recorded his painstaking measurements, mapping out the interior of the complex as he went along. After his accidental rediscovery of the Basilica, he penned what would become an important book to the archaeological community, entitled "Istanbul Bogazi.” Although Gyllius died of malaria in 1555, his works (including Istanbul Bogazi) were published posthumously by his nephew. Sparking international interest and more study into the history of the ancient cisterns. The local government in Istanbul carried out a massive cleanup of the site. This included not only a build up of garbage, but also dead bodies that had been building up for a millennium.
Exiting Hagia Sophia, I came upon the famed cisterns nearby. It felt surreal walking down the stairwell. There was a mustiness in the air that I wouldn’t even attempt to try and place. Reaching the damp underground corridors, I found myself surrounded by the ancient marble columns. Shallow water quietly surrendered around the pillars. I imagined a time when the reservoir boasted up to 100,000 tons of water. The space urged me to look up and around at my surroundings. Because of this, it was easy to miss two stunning relics peering silently from the water’s surface. In the northwestern corner of the sunken palace, two Roman-era statues sit. Each bust impaled by its own marble column. These are the severed heads of Medusa. One head of the mythological Gorgon sits upside down, while the other lay sideways, partially submerged in the water. Trademark flowing snakes extend from each of their scalps.
Note: This image is AI generated, because I am an irresponsible man.
One theory behind the placement of the two mythological figures ponders the possibility that Byzantine architects of that time felt as though Roman-era relics were nothing more than recyclable material. Thus, they were used as such. Another is that Gorgona statues were used during that time as a form of protection for various town structures. Similar to the Chinese Foo Dog guardian statues that acted as protective architectural ornaments during the rise of Chinese Buddhism. Probably the most accurate theory lends itself to an early known Christian practice of placing Pagan-like symbols or statues upside down in a show of religious dominance. The next time you see an upside-down crucifix, just smile at karma properly inserting itself.
The Grand Bazaar
Climbing back to the surface, I jumped a tram and headed towards my last stop. The Grand Bazaar. Built in the fifteenth century, it originally began as two stone structures. Today, the Grand Bazaar spans over sixty covered street blocks and is considered to be one of the world’s first marketplaces of its kind. Its placement within the heart of the Ottoman Empire meant that it was perfectly situated for trade between three continents. Imagine starting with two humble buildings and expanding into an international trading hub, the likes of which had never been seen. No big deal. Items such as silk, spices, hand-woven textiles, furs, and jewels were main staples, and business was booming. As humans do from time to time, the Ottomans got a bit greedy. They started to impose heavy taxes on goods as well as the enforcement of strict religious rule over traders coming from outside territories. The Ottoman Empire’s tight grip within the western region at that time played a major role in essentially ending the network of Eurasian trade routes, widely known as the Silk Road. R.I.P. you silky road. European merchants didn’t miss a beat, however. They got creative and took to the high seas in order to find new trade routes. To hell with the Ottoman Empire, they said. I would imagine. Ultimately, this was dubbed the Age of Discovery.
Maneuvering my way through the covered enclaves of the Grand Bazaar was an experience unto itself. That it remains largely unchanged to this day is a testament to the advanced architecture of its time. While I wasn’t there to shop, that didn’t stop some shop owners from doing all but physically puling me in to see their wares as I walked past. Some of which I humored. I wanted to get a better sense of the living breathing history still drifting throughout the massive corridors. The shop stalls ranged from intricately woven Turkish rugs and nargiles (or hookahs) to bağlamas (a Turkish lute instrument) and Rolex watches. Food-wise, I was able to find much of what I’d read about, just as it was displayed during the Ottoman period. Troves of Turkish delights, baklava, dried fruits, and nuts made up an entire section of the bazaar. An impressive selection of exotic spices were scooped from large bins and sold by the kilogram. Suffice to say, the line between the old world and modern day began to blur.
In the following weeks, I settled more into the city, obeying the mild rules put in place to curb the spread. Fully masked, I dug through crates of vinyl at a local record shop, thinking about the times when I could justify buying something so frivolous. Rather than considering the weight and practicality of every purchase. Knowing full well that every ounce in my luggage was something that needed serious deliberation over, as it meant being hauled around for the indefinite future. Or at least for however long the slow drip apocalypse chose to rattle on for. I wondered how long until a vaccine would be developed and green-lit. What were the odds that I would even be in a country with access to it? The road ahead was paved with invisible ink for all of us during those days. At least for humans. Plants and wild animals, not so much. They were out having an absolute fucking field day, which they deserved every minute of. I’ll be honest. The confusion and fallout of it all was on a certain level, intriguing. Working remotely, I was given the privilege and freedom to explore whatever strange new world lay ahead. I felt I might as well embrace it. Keeping my apartment in Taksim as a landing base, I packed my backpack and headed southeast to the ancient city of Şanlıurfa.
Both Myanmar and Turkey have a special place in my heart. While they're far from one another geographically, these sweet people have been dealing with tragedy on an unspeakable level. Below are links to two amazing charities if you are in a position to help support.