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From Barnes & Noble
Travelers who use the Rough Guides gradually get addicted to the format -- extensive, beautifully written essays covering every aspect of culture, history, recreation, and food. I used this as my major guidebook and never left my hotel without it. Whenever I had a spare moment or two, I opened the book to a random page and lost myself in the essays.
Mystics and Madmen
And I thought New York drivers were crazy.
Anyone who has ever been to Istanbul knows what daredevil driving is really like. Drivers use the sidewalk, shoulder, and lanes of oncoming traffic as often as they use their own lane. I spent my first day in Istanbul dreading the inevitable moment that I'd have to get into a car. My aversion to the driving style was to my advantage, however, because in a beautiful, mysterious, and endlessly fascinating place like Istanbul, walking is the best way to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city.
As the taxi sped me from the airport, I caught my first glimpse of this extraordinary city. Istanbul's skyline, studded with slender minarets and tranquil domes, slopes down toward the Bosphorus, the straits that divide Europe and Asia. Considered the historical center of Istanbul, the European half is where the city of Constantinople was founded in the fourth century A.D., atop the even more ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which dates back to the seventh century B.C. The greatest concentration of landmarks is found here on the European side, where a jumble of cultures, religions, and languages has simmered over the years to produce a dizzying, electrifying atmosphere.
Everywhere I turned, I found examples of Istanbul's layered history. The most striking example is the gorgeous decay of Aya Sofya, "The Church of the Divine Wisdom," commissioned by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. For the first thousand years of its existence, Aya Sofya was the largest enclosed structure in the world, with a miraculous dome floating high above the city. The imposing church, which resembles an enormous crab, has gone through as many identity crises as Istanbul itself. As I approached the entrance to Aya Sofya, I noticed an area of excavated ground that revealed the foundations of a Greek temple that had existed on the spot decades before Aya Sofya was built. When Mehmet the Conquerer captured Constantinople in 1453, he removed all of the holy relics, demanded that the mosaics of saints and the Virgin Mary be covered, and converted the church into a mosque.
Temple to church to mosque. Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul. The layered identity of the city turns the simplest stroll into a walk through time -- especially in neighborhoods like Galata, also on the European side of Istanbul. Home to a colony of Italians during the 12th and 13th centuries, when the famous Galata Tower was built, Galata's population swelled due to an influx of Greek and Muslim settlers, and later became a refuge for Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Eastern Europe and Russia in the 19th century. Today you can hear a diverse mix of languages in the area -- it's likely you'll find a shopkeeper who speaks Hebrew instead of Turkish. I took a deep breath, hopped in a cab outside Aya Sofya, and headed for the Galata Tower. Along with the tower, which offers a breathtaking view of the city, I also explored a street called Yüksekkaldirim, which is renowned for its music shops. One after another, the shops beckon with windows full of Turkish instruments -- the long-necked szaz, with delicate inlaid wood, and the zurna, a lyrical wooden flute.
My real purpose in visiting Galata, however, was to see the whirling dervishes. Surrounded by the music shops is the arched doorway to the Mevlevihane, the dervish lodge, which is now a museum of Sufi literature. Sufism is the mystical, esoteric dimension of Islam, and its Mevlevi sect was founded by the 13th-century scholar and poet Jalal Al-Din Rumi, commonly known as Mevlâna or "Our Master." Rumi's controversial ideas were in dramatic contrast to Islamic orthodoxy, encouraging worship through joyful song and dance and condemning polygamy. Atatürk, the political reformer credited with the creation of modern Turkey, banned all of the Sufi orders in 1925, but today Sufism is freely practiced throughout the country, and its rituals offer a glimpse into a much-romanticized moment in Islamic history. In the restored building known as the semahane, which dates back to the 18th century, I attended the ancient Sufi whirling ceremony, the sema. The dervishes, accompanied by a handful of musicians, extend their arms and whirl in religious ecstasy, symbolizing the motion of the planets in space and the dervishes' complete abandonment to God's love. For me, attending the sema was witnessing the living embodiment of Rumi's passionate devotional poetry.
A day in Istanbul reveals the city's stratified past, like the delectable layers of börek, a popular Turkish pastry filled with cheese or meat. Each culture that settled in the city left its mark on the city's language, architecture, and food, and you could easily spend two months there without getting past the major landmarks.