Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 18: Where East meets West

Byzantium. Constantinople. Istanbul. The bridge connecting Europe and Asia. Gateway to the East or the West, depending from which side of the Bosphorus you look.

An ancient city, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Fought over for millenia, before falling to the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century. Where religions meet, and Islam became the dominant force.

The Bosphorus Bridge, opened in 1973. Two more bridges have now been added, and a tunnel under the Bosphorus.

I once spent a whole day in Istanbul. It was late summer in 1978 or ’79, or thereabouts. I’d attended a meeting on potatoes organized by the International Potato Center’s regional office in Izmir, and was headed back to the UK to meet up with my wife Steph and daughter Hannah to complete our home-leave before heading back to our home in Costa Rica.

I must have taken the earliest flight possible from Izmir to Istanbul. In those days, Turkish Airlines flew DC9s on many of its internal routes, and they were fearsome flights. Hardly had we left the runway when the cabin was thick with the smoke from dozens of foul-smelling Turkish cigarettes. (I’m a non-smoker, so any cigarette smells are unpleasant; these cigarettes were particularly so).

A Turkish Airlines DC9 (with a Boeing 707 behind).

And I think many of the pilots were ex-air force, given their propensity to ‘throw’ the aircraft around the sky. In those days the DC9 had one of the steepest rates of climb of any aircraft, and the pilots certainly exploited that performance. It was also not unusual for the pilot to deploy the ailerons at 20,000 feet, and the plane would drop like a high-speed lift. Talk about losing your stomach.

Since my flight to London didn’t leave until the evening, I’d decided to take a tour of Istanbul. But for the life of me I can’t remember how this was arranged. I do remember that I had a taxi driver to myself all day, who picked me up at the airport, took me round the city, waited while I visited various attractions, and then dropped me off at the airport. Now whether this had been pre-arranged, or I just chose the first taxi I came across and negotiated a ‘tourist deal’ I simply cannot remember. Not surprising really, almost four decades later.

There were three attractions I wanted to see: the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Topkapi Palace. And any other views along the waterfront of the Bosphorus that would give me a good view over Istanbul. I was not disappointed.

The Istanbul skyline, with the minarets of the Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque on the left, and the Hagia Sophia lower down to the right.

Taking in the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, dominates Istanbul’s skyline, with its six minarets. I find Islamic art and architecture very beautiful, and the interiors of the mosque are a joy to gaze at.

It was built at the beginning of the 17th century during the rule of Ahmed I.

Not too far away and closer to the shore on the northern side of the Bosphorus, the Hagia Sophia stands proudly, though not quite as grand as the Blue Mosque.

Hagia Sophia – Greek orthodox cathedral, mosque, and now a museum.

It is more than 1500 years old, Hagia Sophia was the first Christian cathedral of the Roman Empire, became a mosque in the 1400s, and a museum in 1935. Rather plain on the outside, it contains some of the most beautiful icons and mosaics you can behold almost anywhere. They lift your spirit. I’m not a religious person (in fact, an enthusiastic atheist), yet I was moved by the spirituality of this wonderful creation.

The Topkapi Palace, also on the north shore of the Bosphorus, was the administrative headquarters and residence of the Ottoman sultans. It was built in the mid-15th century. It’s now a museum, and houses many fabulous treasures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many large gemstones (diamonds and emeralds) as I saw on display there. And lots of exquisite porcelain from China. I have few photographs from inside.

The sultan’s throne perhaps, or from inside the harem

Then along the shore of the Bosphorus, as people waited for ferries across the water, or shopped for fresh fish, I’m sure the hustle and bustle today must be much more than when I spent one memorable day in Istanbul, taking in its centuries of Greek, Roman, Christian, and Muslim heritage.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 17: Not quite a Damascene experience

If you are interested in the origins of the crops we grow, as I am, and the history of civilizations in general, then a visit to the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East must be high on your list of travel destinations. This area encompasses the so-called Fertile Crescent, one of the cradles of agriculture dating back some 10,000 years.

As I recently wrote, I had an interesting visit to Israel in 1982, and saw many of the wild relatives of wheat and barley, and legumes such as lentil and chickpea, growing in their native habitats, and learning more about the importance of ecology in the evolution of these plant populations.

I have also visited Syria a couple of times. The first time was in January 1995 when the CGIAR’s Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources held its annual meeting at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo¹. The second time was in 2000 when I went for a job interview at ICARDA. On both occasions I had overnight stops in Damascus, and on the second had the opportunity of touring the city, exploring the famous souk, and purchasing some beautifully-woven fabrics.

I regret there was never enough time to explore Damascus and its region, or visit Palmyra, the World Heritage Site of an ancient Semitic city that has been in the news in recent years after the philistines of Daesh (Isis, IS, ISIL, so-called Islamic State) destroyed so many of its iconic buildings and priceless artefacts.

Paul the Apostle will be forever associated with Damascus, as it was supposedly on the road to that city that he had his ‘Damascene experience‘. I was never struck the same way. He spent some months, after his conversion to Christianity, in the city of Ephesus that was once one of the most important port cities of Ancient Greece, on the western coast of Turkey. Did St Paul set sail from Ephesus to Rome? It seems a plausible conclusion.

And, of course, Ephesus became immortalized in Paul’s Letter (Epistle) to the Ephesians, the tenth book of the Bible’s New Testament that was written from Rome. But perhaps not by him after all.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit Ephesus on two occasions. In April 1972 I attended a meeting² in Izmir, about 80 km north of the site of Ephesus. Then, in about 1978 or 1979, while on home-leave in the UK, I attended another meeting in Izmir, this time on potatoes organized by the International Potato Center’s regional program based in that city. And we enjoyed another excursion south to Ephesus.

Just the other day, I came across a set of 35 mm slides from both trips, and that has been the impetus for this blog post.

Approaching the site of Ephesus, the first thing you see is a hill fort at the town of Selçuk, that grew up alongside the ancient city. I’ve read that the Ayasuluk fortress is Byzantine, and that the walls date from the Seljuk period (11th and 12th centuries) and Ottoman empire that superseded it.

Below the fortress lies the Basilica of St John the Baptist, who spent his last years at Ephesus and is reported to be buried here. The Basilica was built in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

The region around Ephesus has been occupied for more than 8000 years. The site of Ephesus itself is indeed impressive. A brief description of each of the locations on the map can be found here.

Entering the city along Curetes Street, with a view of the Library of Celsus in the distance, one can’t help wondering about the three millennia of history since its founding. Of course Ephesus has strong links with the founding and dissemination of Christianity in the Middle East and westwards through the Mediterranean, a region where three great religions of Juadaism, Christianity, and Islam came together, and in conflict regrettably.

When I first visited Ephesus, the Library of Celsus was in ruins, destroyed by an earthquake. By the end of the 70s it had been partially reconstructed.

In the upper part of Ephesus alongside Curetes Street, lies the Odeon (a sort of mini-theater).

Then, further down the street, also on the right, is the Temple of Hadrian.

Past the Library of Celsus, Marble Street brings you to the mighty Theater of Ephesus, or Great Theater, which took 60 years to build.

From the theater there are views along Harbour Street to the west. The sea is now more than three kilometers away.

There are the remains of many other buildings, isolated columns, mosaics, and statues lying around the site. Unfortunately, I no longer recall where these photos were taken around the city. Nevertheless, they show the beauty and magnificence of what Ephesus must have once looked like.

Among the distinguished residents of Ephesus was Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who died around 475 BC, whose writing is known only as a series of fragments. I wonder in which corners of this once great city Heraclitus found solitude on which to ponder the nature of life and relationships?

¹ Due to the civil war in Syria, and the destruction of much of Aleppo, ICARDA has now moved to new sites in Lebanon and Morocco.

² Hawkes, JG & W Lange (eds.) 1973. European and regional gene banks. Proceedings of a Conference on European and Regional Gene Banks, Izmir, Turkey, 10-15 April, 1972. Wageningen, EUCARPIA.