My trip to Turkey began with an invitation from my friend Marian. “Come with me to Istanbul,” she said. And honestly, how could a travel writer specializing in holy sites refuse such an offer?
Especially because I had been to Istanbul before. Back then it was called Constantinople, and I traveled there in the company of John L. Stoddard, the Victorian adventurer who had written a set of books detailing his travels around the world. Those books sat on a shelf in my grandparents’ house, and I disappeared into them nearly every Sunday afternoon when I was young.
Up until then the most exotic place I had been was Minneapolis, but with John I traveled the world. We went to places ranging from Moscow and China to Sweden, but of all the foreign ports of call it was Constantinople that most captured my imagination.
John made it all sound so incredibly alluring and mysterious—he wrote of being pummeled and scalded in a Turkish bath, of cruising the Bosphorus and attending a prayer service at Hagia Sophia, of visiting the harem of a Turkish house and exploring the underground cisterns of the city. And the pictures! Whirling dervishes. The Sultan’s palace at Seraglio Point. An imam leading the call to prayer from a minaret. Merchants hawking their wares in the Grand Bazaar.
It was all far more exotic than Minneapolis, believe me.
As Istanbul/Constantinople has done with countless others, the city prompted John to pen some of his most excited prose: “Though built upon the ashes of dead empires, she nevertheless survives them all, and, centuries hence, will no doubt smile as magically as she does today in her eternal youth,” he wrote. “No, while the world shall last, the Sovereign of the Black Sea and the Marmora can never be dethroned, for God Himself has set upon her brow the seal of immortality.”
John’s description of Istanbul captures for me the essence of this great city: “Immortal Queen of the East, throned on the Eden of the world, and holding as a scepter in her hand the Golden Horn.”