November 26, 2012

Sailing to Byzantium

On our first full day in Istanbul a tout sold us a ticket to a Bosphorus cruise, guiding us to the vessel and telling us that it would leave within a few minutes. Over an hour and a half later we were on our way, sailing through the straight that divides one city and unites two continents. On one end of the Bosphorus is the Black Sea, and on the other is the Sea of Marmara. On one side is Europe, and on the other is Asia.

As the only waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, the straight has always played a strategic role in the region. The Byzantine and Ottoman Empires came and went, temporarily centring themselves here while ruling over significant portions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Byzantium gave way to Constantinople and then to Istanbul. Through it all the Bosphorus retained its importance, its blue waters beautifying the city materially and spiritually.

As we sailed along the Bosphorus, loud Turkish pop music blared from the ship's speakers. It was momentarily turned off as the muezzins call for prayers echoed through the straight from the many mosques dotting both sides of the Bosphorus. We sailed under a bridge connecting Asia to Europe and vice versa, constructed fifty years after the founding of the Republic of Turkey yet dreamed of since antiquity. Along the banks, groups of fat old men enjoyed a dip in the waters.

Layer upon layer of history and happenstance was visible in the high density neighbourhoods we sailed past. As we drifted further from the centre of Istanbul, we saw many palatial residences adorning the water way. Some residences were restored and opened to tourists. Others had been converted into elaborate wedding halls or luxurious hideaways for the rich and famous.


And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
~ William Butler Yeats