"If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital." - Napoleon Bonaparte
After the incredible trip around Europe, on our way back to India, we flew in to Istanbul earlier today. The trip into Turkey was quite simple. Our Schengen visa helped us apply for a Turkish visa online. After payment of the fees, we got the e-visa, online in our mailbox, all within 5 minutes.
As if that wasn't welcoming enough, the immigration officer was quite cool and friendly, as though the country was geared up to welcoming guest without any bureaucratic hangups. This is indeed quite a positive, for a first impression.
The airport is named after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, who is regarded as the "Father of the Turks". The airport itself was quite crowded. As we gathered, the Turks were quite smart to have developed Istanbul as a hub, given its geographical location. And with growth of traffic, Istanbul now operates two airports - Atatürk Airport and Sabiha Gökçen Airport, which is on the eastern side of the city, the Asian side.
And with Atatürk Airport reaching a point of saturation (the 9th busiest in the world and 4th busiest in Europe), the Turks are now developing a new airport in the Arnavutköy district on the European side, the İstanbul Yeni Havalimanı, which will boast of 3 runways, 8 taxiways and upon completion in 2018, it is expected to be largest airport in the world.
That is what is called vision in developing infrastructure - it should be developed in scale and much ahead of its time. And in India, we are struggling with developing the second airport in Mumbai for years now, with the simple objective of shutting the existing one...
The drive into Istanbul was smooth but riddled with patches of traffic and construction on the way. And we realised how similar our languages were. For danger the Turks say "dikkat", as was apparent on signboards. Now this word means problem in Hindi and isn't very different from Turkish.
It was very sunny and listless with a considerable humidity that brought to a point of discomfort even with the taxi air conditioning on. And we got into a conversation with our taxi driver, an affable and smart young Turk, pun unintended. We asked him how the weather usually is this time of the year and specifically if it gets windy. He didn't understand. But I persisted trying my luck "How is the hava in the evenings?"
"Ahhh hava, too much hava!" he shrieked out laughing. In a second, the ice was broken.
Istanbul is a unique city that has for millenniums been on the crossroads of civilizations. The city straddles both Europe and Asia, perhaps the only city in the world that lies in two continents, with the Bosphorus Straits dividing the two parts.
While recently discovered artefacts reveal the city had been inhabited since 7000 BC, the first known reference to the city dates back to 660 BC, when it was founded by Megarean colonists and called Byzantium.
Over time, the city became a part of the Roman Empire and in 330 AD, the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great made the city the new eastern capital of the empire. The city was renamed as "Constantinopolis" (Constantinople), or the "City of Constantine".
Constantine also attempted to promote a new name for the city - "Nova Roma" but it was Constantinople that remained the most common name for the city.
The establishment of Constantinople marked the shifting Roman power eastward as the city became a center of Greek culture and Christianity. Numerous churches were built across the city, including the Hagia Sophia which remained the world's largest cathedral for a thousand years. Constantinople's location and its massive walls and seafront protected Europe against Islamic invaders from the Middle East. During the Middle Ages, due to its unique location on trade routes, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city on the European continent.
With the weakening of the Roman Empire, the decline of Constantinople began in the 11th century. During the fourth Crusade, the city was repeatedly ransacked and pillaged. The city subsequently became the center of the Latin Empire, created by Catholic crusaders to replace the Orthodox Byzantine Empire.
In the mid-14th century, the Ottoman Turks began advancing on Constantinople, nibbling on thin swathes of territory, bit by (in warfare, they call it salami slicing), gradually cutting off Constantinople's supply and trade routes and strangling it slowly, as commerce went into a decline.
On May 29, 1453, after an eight-week siege, Sultan Mehmed II "the Conqueror" captured Constantinople and declared it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. The same day, the Sultan rode to the Hagia Sophia and converted the grand cathedral into an imperial mosque due to the city's refusal to surrender peacefully.
The Ottomans did not purposely change the city's name, but they modified "Constantinople" into sounding a lot more Turkish "Konstantiniye". And gradually trade and commerce was revitalised, and Konstantiniye became an Islamic centre.
By the 19th century, the city got various names - Stamboul, Beyoğlu, Islambol and finally Istanbul, in the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk overthrew the Ottoman Caliphate and proclaimed Turkey as republic. Then began a widespread modernisation and Westernisation - the Arabic script was replaced by western script, traditional dresses were frowned upon and gradually, Istanbul and much of Turkey started resembling Europe.
It's amazing how this city has changed and evolved over centuries, and yet its importance stubbornly refuses to die. It is this uniqueness that drew us here, to the Crossroads Of Civilization...