Crushed By People and History in Istanbul

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There are times when I think I could live almost anywhere in the world. Just pick up and go. Anywhere. But then there is Istanbul and it tosses my confidence to the curb.

In Istanbul, the mosques sit on the historic hill like upside down teacups – each one seemingly fragile and delicate, each one gray, all of them surrounded by towering minarets. It’s a vision that evokes a fairytale – of a faraway kingdom in a faraway land, all surrounded by water.

Istanbul has thousands of years of history, of one empire reigning, falling and another rising, of millions of people arriving and forming the population as the conquered, the conquering, the curious – so much so that tolerance and acceptance is a cherished cultural trait.

I think, as an American, I wouldn’t know how to handle so much history all stacked up in one place.

In New York, the city sparkles like everything was made in the last ten years. Shiny. Polished. Retro-fitted. Anything small or from the 19th century has been torn down to make way for the new and larger. In Rome, it’s like walking around a marble museum, replete with hidden, buried boats. Step into Istanbul and it’s like a cross between the two, perched as it is between two continents – Asia and Europe. The old and the new world very much coexisting – one growing on top of the other but also alongside.

Walk the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn and toward the historic side of the city that was once ruled by Roman emperors and then by sultans. In the calm of the morning, the muezzin crackles over the speakers filling the air with a call to prayer. At times, over three muezzins can be heard depending on how close the next mosque is. Walk back to the European side and scramble up to the top of the hill and arrive at İstiklal Avenue, a pedestrian-only street where millions of people leisurely stroll past Burger King, Starbucks, McDonalds, doner, baklava, Turkish delight, telecom stores, clothing stores, a church, and a bookstore.

I felt swallowed up in Istanbul. Stunned at times by the beauty. Overwhelmed by the crush of people. Struck dumb by the thousands of years of history. A country mouse at the hub of the start of the civilized world. I can no more imagine living there as an ant can imagine living on Mars.

And yet I have been there, and imagined for a brief moment that I might live there. Then tossed the thought aside as preposterous – and yet the idea has stayed with me. The possibility, I hope, forever.

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