Why is (Istanbul) the Greatest City in the World?

In the Broadway musical Hamilton, the Schuyler Sisters sing about New York as the “greatest city in the world.” Lately, as a bit of escape I have been reminiscing about cities I have been to and wondering what I think is the “greatest city” in the world. One city always comes to mind for me—Istanbul,Turkey.

I have visited there twice, and stayed there for just under two weeks total. My first visit was in 1973, at the beginning of an overseas trip I took to Iran with 24 other students from Lewis and Clark College and Professor Dr. John Anderson and his wife Sally Anderson. My other visit was a week long Rick Steves’ tour to Istanbul with Lena in 2010.

There are many reasons Istanbul is to me “the greatest city.” Importantly, outside of brief forays into Mexico border towns and a Canadian city or two, it was my first extended visit to another country, certainly to any place outside North America. There is a certain magic in this being my first time in another land. I was 18 years old and ready to take on/take in the world. There is nothing like the sight and sound and smell of The Grand Bazaar. There is no structure in the world quite like the church/mosque/museum (now mosque again) called Hagia Sophia. There is no skyline sunset quite like that of this city along the Bosphorus.

I can easily bring to mind the street carts overflowing with pomegranates—Istanbul is possibly the first place I ever saw one of these fruits and drank its juice. I can still smell the aroma of the Egyptian Spice Market. On my first visit it seemed magical to eat in one of the rooftop restaurants looking out over the ancient waters that surrounded the city. Istanbul was the first city in which I heard the Muslim muezzin call people to prayer. The melody of Allahu akbar rang from the minarets of the many mosques of the city over and over in our ears. 

It was in this city that I had my first taste of Imam Bayildi (“the imam fainted”), eggplant stuffed with onions, garlic and tomatoes and simmered with olive oil. It is said that the name of the dish comes from the tale of “a Turkish imam who swooned with pleasure” at the amazing flavor of the dish. I’m not sure if I swooned – but I did love the taste! And then there is a visit to a Turkish Bath, which I wrote about a few years ago in a sermon:

Now I am a shy, introverted person, not all that at home with my body and a Turkish bath was not exactly something I was “itching” to do. Yet Lena and I figured we had to fully immerse ourselves (pun intended) in the culture and history of Turkey. So we set out for the historic Cemberlitas Hamami. Constructed in 1584, it reflects the history of Istanbul and is still an active and popular bath house for both tourists and locals.

Entering the hamam really felt like entering a different world, with its ancient arches and its humid atmosphere. Once I found the dressing room, stripped myself of my clothing, and put on the pestemal (towel) and slippers, I had to figure out how to remove my key (which did not want to come out the dressing room door). The next challenge was finding where to go from there, and I thought if I stood around and looked confused enough in my nakedness I would be directed to the main bath. Sure enough, someone ultimately pointed me in the right direction.

Once I got to the main bath, I looked at what everyone else was doing, and laid myself on the center warming stone under the arches of the beautiful ancient structure and waited for the man who would come and bathe me. Sure enough, someone came over to me and after a combination of pointing and broken English and Turkish I got fully cleaned and rinsed. (Or should I say sudsed and scrubbed?)

Though I was refreshed, there was still one more confusion. How do give a tip to a man with only a towel wrapped around himself, and where do you keep a tip when you are half naked yourself?

One can’t talk about Istanbul (ancient Constantinople) without mentioning Hagia Sophia, this massive church completed in the Sixth Century. Hagia Sophia was so amazing to me when I first saw it that its architecture and art have inspired me ever since. The decaying, but brilliant Byzantine mosaics. The immensity of the dome and the huge central space. The way that it dominates the skyline of the city. How it inspired the design and construction of nearby mosques.

Istanbul stands as a kind of gateway or crossroads. Between Europe and Asia. Between Christianity, Islam and Judaism (yes there are many remnants of Jewish culture). Between eras—Byzantine Rome, Ottoman, modern, and more. It is a collection of cultures and classes. Is is a cacophony of sounds. It is a table plentiful with food and delicacies. It is full of incredibly gracious and interested people. Modern Istanbul is a hub of shipping, commerce, and culture. It is a city like no other. 

I’m certain I will try to return to Istanbul at some point before I die. There is so much to experience. In a well worn quote, Napoleon Bonaparte is to have said, “If the earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” Not bad. I don’t disagree.

Spiritual Practice: What City Would You Like to Visit?

If you could travel to one city, where would you go? Would it be a place you have already been to? Would it be some place you have only heard about? Would you like to live in that place permanently or just visit? Would you go there for excitement or for relaxation? Would you be interested in its history or present day culture? Would you interact with people or try to remain solo?

Here is the practice. If you could visit one city before you die for (at least) a week, what would it be? Now, when you think of that city, what about that place in particular draws your interest and energy? Then, when you have thought about that which captured your attention, what do you reckon that says about you? Take a moment and sit with that. Maybe write a sentence or two. Go for a walk and be with those thoughts.

If you like, feel free to leave a comment about your favorite city. I have a few more that I want to feature and am curious what comes to mind for you…

7 thoughts on “Why is (Istanbul) the Greatest City in the World?

  1. Jim, great photos of Istanbul. The photos and your description of the city is quite compelling as a future destination. I hope to return to Stavanger, Norway where I lived for two years in the late 70’s. It is where I had my first job, so everything was new and exciting for a young adult. Besides the history and stunning beauty, I made a number of lifelong personal connections at work and spent time with my extended family members. While growing up, my Norwegian grandmother often shared her love of Norway and she didn’t disappoint.

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      1. Hi Jim. Very much enjoyed your description of Istanbul. The city still seems very much alive, but with a history that is remarkable. Very deserving of a “must go” recommendation. Other recommendations? Try Tokyo. Wow! It’s amazing, in a much different way.

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  2. Hi Jim…thank you for the beautiful description of Istanbul. I will never be able to travel there..so I love doing it through your eyes. It is hard for me to decide where to go…so many choices…but because I am reading extensively about Augustine right now, I think it would be Milan. So many Augustine related places there beyond the ancient church under the Duomo where Augustine was baptized. But tomorrow, it could be Paris because of Louise Penny!

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