Caravans Of Camels
Istanbul: Queen of Cities
By Peter Sommer
Straddling the continents of Europe and Asia, Istanbul's strategic location has made it a cultural crossroads beyond compare. Its geographical position alone seems to have made it destined to be the capital of a mighty empire. In fact it was the epicentre of two great but very different empires, the Byzantine and Ottoman, for some 1,700 years. Yet even before it ascended the imperial throne it shone as a dynamic vibrant city for almost a thousand years, from the moment it was first founded as the Greek town of Byzantium.
It?™s hard not to speak in superlatives when describing this epic cradle of civilisation. No other city in the world has been besieged so many times, so greatly was it coveted by peoples outside its walls. No other city on earth sits astride two continents. Not just age old, for centuries it was the most multicultural city in Europe, on whose streets more than a dozen languages were spoken, from Italian to Persian, Greek to Arabic. Above all it was a city made for trade, built for business.
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Yet, all one GOD acknowledge, that is, GOLD??BR>Letters Historical and Critical from a Gentleman in Constantinople to his Friend in London, 1730
Established on a triangular spit of land (the area today dominated by the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya), the original town was surrounded by water on three sides. This was no shy retiring little colony, but a confident centre of commerce designed to govern one of the most significant waterways in the world, the Bosphorus. Control of this narrow channel connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, ensured political clout, a constant stream of innovative ideas, and of course money, in the shape of traffic and taxes.
Sailing on the Bosphorus today affords a perfect opportunity to look at the city as sailors would have seen it centuries ago, its seven hills bejewelled with the most splendid mosques. Daily boat trips stop at a number of points along its length, like Anadolu Kavagi almost at the entrance to the Black Sea. Here you can leave the ferry, eat at one of the fish restaurants by the shore, and wander up to the ruined castle for breathtaking views and a leap of imagination back to the time when Jason was sailing below in search of the Golden Fleece.
Nowadays oil tankers jostle with passenger ferries on the waters of the Bosphorus, but their numbers are but a tiny fraction of the ships that used to flock to Constantinople. In Ottoman days fifteen thousand small boats worked in the harbour, obscuring its very waters. Frenetic it may have been but disorganised it certainly wasn?™t. When it came to money, the city was a strict and disciplined governess. In the Golden Horn, the capital?™s sheltered and superb deep water harbour, boats moored directly by the shore to unload, and their cargoes were carefully inspected by a waiting army of customs officials that calculated their payable duty.