Our Middle East journey began from Istanbul on 29th of April, 2006.
Formerly known as Constantinople, the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire for over 1500 years, Istanbul is a city full of layers, where kingdoms came and go, and new buildings being built upon ruined ones. Occupying both sides of Bosporus Strait that separates Europe and Asia, Istanbul has always been a venue of cultural exchange between the east and west. The Sultanahmet area in Fatih District was the historical centre of Constantinople, where the emperors of the Roman Empire (330-395), Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (395-1453) and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1923) chose to establish their splendid capital. Bounded three sides by water, the Historic Area of Istanbul is an UNESCO World Heritage site with a concentration of iconic cultural heritage that are precious to human civilization, including Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, etc. Like many tourists, we specifically chose our hostel in Sultanahmet, just a stone throw away from the Blue Mosque. In Sultanahmet, we never needed to walk far to encounter the former glory of the empires.
Legends has it that in 667 BC, the Greeks came to the intersection of Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea and found the city of Byzantium at the peninsula where the current Sultanahmet area is situated.
Because of its strategic location at the sole access point of the Black Sea, Byzantium was soon developed into a trading city. After Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium in the 4th century, Byzantium became Constantinople, and its glorious time as Europe’s largest and wealthiest city officially kicked off.
Defensive walls had been erected to protect Constantinople since Constantine’s time. Walls were also constructed along the waterfront to protect the city from sea attacks. After the partitioning of the Roman Empire, Constantinople remained as the capital of Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire).
In Istanbul, hundreds of underground cisterns were constructed during the Byzantine era. Measured 138m x 65m, Basilica Cistern was constructed by thousands of slaves in the 6th century under the orders of Emperor Justinian.
Probably taken from earlier Roman buildings, two stone heads of Medusa were used as column bases in Basilica Cistern. This mysterious cistern was forgotten briefly in the Middle Ages. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, local residents knew nothing about the cistern, but soon discovered that they were able to obtain water and even fish below their home basement by just lowering a bucket through a hole in the floor. The cistern was rediscovered by scholar Petrus Gyllius in 1545.
The most prominent Byzantine icon is undoubtedly Hagia Sophia. Built in 537, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world, and housed the patriarch seat of Eastern Orthodox Church until the the 15th century.
Standing opposite to Hagia Sophia is another cultural icon of Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque. Inspired by the Byzantine icon Hagia Sophia, the Ottomans left their mark in Constantinople more than 1000 years by constructing the Blue Mosque over the former palace complex of the Byzantine emperors.
Smaller in scale than the iconic monuments, Sultanahmet also host many lesser known historical buildings in the residential neighborhoods.
Walking in Sultanahmet was like going back in time, as if every other street bend was marked by splendid timber houses and pavilions from the Ottoman era.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the Cities introduces readers his childhood Istanbul with a melancholic depiction of the Ottoman houses.
Pamuk’s writing and black and white photos showed me an unique Istanbul beyond the historical palaces, churches and mosques.
Searching for the Ottoman houses in Istanbul was not as easy as I thought, since many had been torn down in recent years.
Due to continuous urban renewal in the historical centre, many Ottoman houses were at risk for redevelopment.
Today, Sultanahmet has become a tourist hub, where many buildings have been converted into hotels and restaurants. In the time of commercialization, even the ruins of a 550-year bathhouse, the Ishak Pasa Hamam, is up for sale.
In Istanbul, we stayed at the friendly Sultan Hostel just two blocks behind the Blue Mosque.
At night, tourists would gather at restaurants in Sultanahmet to enjoy dinner and nargile or Turkish water pipe, along with live performance of the Sufi whirling dance.
Once-in-a-century pandemic has brought international travel to a complete halt. With the pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, it is unrealistic to plan for new travel anytime soon. As a result, we will take this opportunity to share some of our past travel experiences that predate this blog. The pandemic compels us to cherish our travel memories more than ever, and acknowledge that we should never take things for granted especially in turbulent times. The first travel memory we are going to write about is a 40-day journey through the Middle East from Turkey to Egypt via Syria and Jordan. In the recent decade, the Middle East has gone through drastic changes after the Arab Spring movement in early 2010’s and the rise of Isis, particularly for Syria where the ongoing civil war has displaced over 10 million and killed about half a million of Syrians in the past 9 years. Places visited and people encountered may no longer exist, but they live long in our memories.
In spring 2006, I and five other friends embarked on the 40-day journey from Toronto, Canada. We first flew to Athens via Zurich, and then landed in Istanbul on 29th of April. We spent 11 days in Turkey, visiting the splendid architecture of Istanbul and Edirne, archaeological sites of Bergama and Ephesus, and natural wonders of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, before crossing the border at Antakya into Syria. We spent a week traveling from Aleppo to Damascus, visiting Crusader castles and archaeological sites near Hama, Palmyra, Bosra and Maalula along the way. From Damascus, we hired a taxi to Amman in Jordan, where we stayed for 8 days. While Petra was our main focus in Jordan, we did manage to visit classical ruins and medieval castles, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum Desert, and Aqaba diving resort. Then on 25th of May, we hopped on a ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba for Sinai Peninsula. In Egypt, we spent the remaining week to visit the diving town of Dahab, hike the sacred Mount Sinai, admire the pyramids in Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza, and the mosques and Coptic churches in Cairo, and finally ventured out into the far western end near the Libyan border for Siwa Oasis and the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert.
Back then, I didn’t have a DSLR or smart phone, but traveled with a Nikon FM2 and 50+ rolls of films, including some Fuji Velvia (slide positives) and Ilford Delta (B&W negatives). Number of shots were limited and low light photography was restricted by the film ISO and the availability of a flat surface to place the camera. Yet, the photos’ film grains and occasional blurry effects due to hand movements somehow provoke a unique mood and vaguely remind me each distinct moment when I released the shutter. Each shot has no second take or immediate image editing. Compared to the multi gigabytes stored in memory cards, the slides and negatives of the Middle East trip are much more tangible as if one-of-a-kind souvenir from the trip. Scanning the films afterwards made me to spend a whole lot more time on each photo, and sometimes led me to rediscover bits and pieces of forgotten travel memories.
The 40-day Middle East trip in 2006 remains as one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
The first time seeing the great architecture of ancient Constantinople was like a dream come true to me.
It was hard to perceive that all the ancient architecture in Turkey were maintained by generations after generations of craftsmen throughout the centuries.
The old Ottoman houses of Istanbul provoke a sense of melancholy that can only be found in the works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
With the otherworldly landscape, hiking in Cappadocia was fun and felt like walking on another planet.
In the past decade, reading the news about how Syrians have suffered and learning about so many cultural heritage, including the Aleppo Citadel, have been destroyed or badly damaged was really upsetting.
Archaeological sites in Syria like Palmyra and Apamea (pictures above) has become venues for frequent looting and destruction under the Isis.
10 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Cities like Hama, the city famous for its ancient norias, has been standing in the forefront between the rebels and the government force.
I have encountered so many innocent Syrian children, including these school kids in Damascus, back in 2006. No one would have foreseen the brutal civil war coming in a few years’ time.
Compared to the Syrians who are still going through the civil war, the Jordanian children that I’ve met in Amman during the trip have been much more fortunate.
Every time meandering through the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads into the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and approaching the Treasury was like going into an Indiana Jones movie.
Riding a camel in Wadi Rum Desert offered every visitors a chance to feel like being Lawrence of Arabia.
I would never forget hiking the pilgrim route up Mount Sinai at 2am in complete darkness, standing at the summit in bone-chilling wind, and watching one of the most anticipated sunrises in my life.
Getting lost in the chaotic Islamic Cairo would be so much fun if not the scorching heat.
Venturing out to the remote Siwa Oasis on my own was one of the most adventurous event in my travels.
Heading out from Siwa into the Great Sand Sea gave me the perfect Sahara moments: doing rollercoaster Jeep rides up and down the dunes, watching sunset over the undulating desert horizon, and sleeping under the Milky Way in the open desert.