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Istanbul’s Waterways

Rich Historic Roots of a Very Contemporary City

Rumeli Fortress on Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey
Built in 1452 on the narrowest spot of the Bosphorus, the impressively-restored Rumeli Fortress guarded Ottoman interests between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean for more than 450 years.

I visited Istanbul for three days in 2001, and to my considerable surprise, it was love at first sight. I usually exit large cities, especially mega-cities, as fast as possible but Istanbul was different. One of the points of greatest fascination was the colorful past, the efficient present, and the inventive future of the city's waterways that have always defined so much of its larger-than-life personality.

With my earlier sense of regret at leaving so little time for Istanbul, I assigned eight days for a fuller exploration when I returned, this time with my husband, in mid-2008. Part of my mission was to understand and experience its waterways in some detail. As they say in the real estate business, it's location, location, location. Without straddling one of the most strategic locations in the world, Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul would never have become such a showcase of European and Islamic influences and the only city to straddle two continents.

Three Names, One City

In 660 BC, a minor Greek king named Byzas founded the first colony in the area. Naturally, he named it Byzantium.

In 330 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome, Italy to Byzantium, creating the Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire which ruled the region for a remarkable 1,100 years with a distinctly Christian European focus. Naturally, he named his city Constantinople.

In 1453, the city fell to the Turks who established the Ottoman Empire bringing a deeper Moslem flavor to what was already an international city of Jews, Christians and Moslems doing business with each other. Surprisingly, the Ottomans and, later, the Turkish government chose not to change the name to Istanbul until 1930, more than a decade after the long-lived Ottoman Empire fell.

Today, Istanbul's Asian and European territories are home to at least 10 million of Turkey’s 72 million people.

Galeta tower view in Istanbul
From the Genoese-built Galeta Tower (1348), visitors may overlook the Asian (left) side and the European side, including the Golden Horn.

The Bosphorus

With a mere 32 kilometers/20 miles starting in the heart of Istanbul and running east into the Black Sea, the Bosphorus is a waterway so narrow that, on a map, it masquerades as a descent-size river. Its width is 1/3 mile to two miles, making it an incredibly defense-able and control-able transport super-highway for both military ships of every size and commercial freighters. There are an astonishing number of supertankers carrying oil and natural gas from states that rim the Black Sea and mountainous, colorful containerships transporting who-knows-what in both directions.

Simply put, Istanbul's touristically-interesting north shore is in Europe; its more modern, densely residential south shore is in Asia. As the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation, the Bosphorus is the only southern saltwater exit for Russia both commercially and for its military fleet. Even building a bridge across it for the first time in 1973 made the Russians understandably nervous. There are still only two bridges that cross the Bosphorus which means that rush hour takes place mainly on the water. And do those ferries rush!

Similar to any busy airport, the Bosphorus requires its own control tower with major shipping restricted to by-the-minute intervals in both directions so they don't bump into each other. Skittering between these behemoths of the sea is one of the world's largest collections of ferries as well as numerous smaller commercial and pleasure craft. On any part of the waterway, the daytime scene is delightful, perpetual and seemingly chaotic whether viewed from land or water. In fact, it is incredibly organized and efficient. Every day ferries move 250,000 people, and visitors too are always welcome to hop aboard this inexpensive transport to get around the city and enjoy the waterside perspective.

Palace on Bosphurus
During the 18th and 19th centuries, European nobles and wealthy Moslems built exquisite summer palaces on Istanbul's shoreline.

A Day on the Water

For our eight-day stay in Istanbul, we were fortunate to find a small, inexpensive Turkish-owned hotel, in the heart of the must-see Sultanahmet district. The Hali Hotel's roof-garden breakfast room allowed us to survey the Bosphorus as our own each morning. Flanked on one side by the Blue Mosque and on the other by the even more venerable Hagia Sophia of early Byzantine vintage, this view quickly made us restless to experience all the shoreline highlights from a waterside perspective. Enter Dr Iffet Ozgonul, a nuclear physicist and university professor for the first half of her career, now the owner of Peten Travels. Over a tiny cup of strong Turkish coffee in an outdoor café, we shared with Iffet our Istanbul waterways idea, and she announced, “Leave it to me. In two days, you will have the perfect waterways day.”

Sea of Marmara
From the breakfast roof garden of the Hali Hotel, we witnessed the waterways in action.

Nothing gets your attention better than having a fully-loaded containership bearing down at considerable speed on the back end of your small motor yacht, but most of our day was more serene and educationally-illuminating. We cruised both the Asian and European shorelines of the Bosphorus, learning far more than any guidebook could offer about the multi-layered history of this ancient city. On the European side, we explored both shores of the prehistoric estuary known as the Golden Horn and learned how the Byzantine rulers had successfully protected their naval fleet and their city from enemy attacks as early as the 10th century with an enormous chain pulled across the entrance to the Horn. Only once was the chain broken by a Venetian ship's ram, and only twice was it circumvented by assaults that required the intruders to drag their ships across land on greased logs to relaunch them inside the Horn. The first time, the Byzantine navy easily destroyed the intruders; the second time in 1453, the Ottoman leader Mehmed the Conqueror prevailed with his greased logs, marking the end of the Byzantine empire.

However, the most unexpected highlight our waterways tour revealed about this city that never fails to surprise is the very current news that a single-span 720-foot/240-meter footbridge across the Golden Horn has now been approved for construction. Not so surprising, you might say, until you hear that it was architecturally-designed by none other than Leonardo da Vinci in 1502. The urban planning and feasibility studies of "Leonardo's Bridge" have been completed, and the project is currently being considered as a unique possibility to celebrate Istanbul's selection as a European Capitol of Culture for 2010. Istanbul remains, as it has always been, an exotic blend of European and Asian culture and heritage, a cross between a living museum and a very contemporary city.

For More Info

Peten Travels, which customized our Istanbul waterways appreciation day, is a Turkish tour planner and operator specializing solely in the design and delivery of small-scale natural, cultural and historical tours throughout Turkey. Established in 1997, its "Journeys of Discovery" are created and led by scholars and expert guides who provide participants with a unique educational glimpse into the lives of Turkish people, their contemporary challenges and proud traditions. About 80% of clients are 50+ in age.

For 2010 Istanbul is a designated European Capitol of Culture with year-long special events, renovations of major landmarks, the opening of new museums and exhibitions, and performances by artists from around the world. This makes 2010 an even more tempting year to explore Turkey and its most vibrant city.

Best Istanbul Guides: DK Eyewitness Travel offers three exceptional references to help visitors navigate this Queen of Mega-Cities. Eyewitness Travel Istanbul (280 pages) features beautifully commissioned photos throughout the guidebook, and spectacular cutaways and floor plans for all major sites as well as 3-D aerial views of Istanbul's most interesting districts. A much slimmer Istanbul travel tool, Top 10 Istanbul (128 pages) distills the best in each Istanbul category. There are dozens of intriguing, entertaining "Top 10" lists, including a list of Top 10 Things to Avoid! The Pocket Map & Guide of Istanbul (80 pages) is the perfect day-out companion to the three key visitor districts of the city.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide.
See her bio for many more articles she has written for Transitions Abroad.

Related Topics
Cultural Travel
Turkey: Articles and Resources

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