Sitting at the crossroads of continents, religions, and former empires, Istanbul is one of the world’s biggest—and busiest—cities. The Tower Magazine’s photographer explored the city’s glamour and squalor.
Istanbul has stood at the crossroads of Europe and Asia for over 2,000 years. It was first named Byzantium by the Greek colonists who established the city on the Bosphorus in the 6thcentury BCE. It then became Constantinople in 330 CE, when the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great made it the new capital of a fractious Roman Empire, supposedly following instructions he received in a divine vision. For more than 1,000 years, Constantinople reigned as the capital of the Byzantine Empire, serving as the Eastern border of the Christian world. In the late 15th century, the great walls of the Emperor Theodosius were finally shattered by the artillery of the Ottoman Turks, and Constantinople became the Muslim city of Istanbul, capital of yet another empire.
Istanbul is no longer a capital, but it remains one of the largest cities in both Europe and the Middle East, as well as a cosmopolitan center of culture, economics, and tourism for the modern Turkish Republic.
Returning from his trip to the war zone of Kobani on the Syrian border, where ISIS and Kurdish forces are fighting a desperate battle, Tower photographer Aviram Valdman took a respite from the stresses of combat photography in the magnificent city on the Bosphorus. There, he saw the extraordinary sights of a place that straddles Europe and Asia.
Among them was the Hagia Sophia, once the most famous of all Byzantine churches, then a mosque, and now a museum to the history of both faiths. Built by the 5th century Emperor Justinian, legend has it that when the monarch entered the completed structure for the first time, he looked up at its great dome and whispered, “Solomon, I have outdone you.”
Then there is the Yeni Carmi, a 17th century house of faith whose name means “new mosque.” Envisioned by a woman—the mother of the Sultan himself—its construction was beset by intrigue and infighting in the imperial court, but when it was finally built, it was universally revered as a masterpiece of Ottoman architecture, and it stands today as one of the most prominent tourist sites in the city.
Built at roughly the same time is the even more famous Sultan Ahmet Mosque, generally known as the Blue Mosque. Bearing a series of Byzantine-style domes rising in succession, seeming to give the impression of a stairway rising into the sky, its six minarets dominate the structure and bear witness to its size and the ambition of its architects.
But Valdman did not only explore the landmarks of Istanbul. He also saw its extraordinary diversity of people, photographing everyone from the imam of the Yeni Carmi to the fishermen who make their living along the Bosphorus, much as the first citizens of Byzantium must have done centuries ago.
Istanbul is home to two massive suspension bridges, the Bosphorus Bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. Together, they span the width of the Bosphorus and thus the border between Europe and Asia. These modern structures seem to symbolize the city’s ancient role as a crossroads and meeting place for two great continents, and their peoples and cultures.
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Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower