Webmaster's Note: Because the BikeAbout team is traveling in smaller groups for a little while, we have changed the format of the journal slightly. The dispatches for Turkey will be presented in geographical rather than chronological order. To view the chronological order, go to the itinerary.

topics: geography, Constantine the Great, HISTORY, Constantinople/Istanbul; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: February 24-26, 1998

Food of the Day: El basti

El basti was one of the delicacies that we enjoyed while in Istanbul. A chunk of stewed lamb meat cooked inside a potato-filled dough and smothered in gravy, it was perfect for the chilly afternoon "snack" some of us needed.

Person of the Day: Emperor Constantine

Istanbul was known as Constantinople from 324 AD until the 20th century. It got its name from Roman Emperor Constantine, the man most responsible for having placed it at the center of western world history for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Constantine the Great was son of one of the Roman co-emperors who came to power after Diocletian quit his throne. When Constantine's father died, Constantine's loyal troops proclaimed him emperor. For the next twenty years, however, Constantine had to fight rivals for the throne. He triumphed as sole ruler in 324.

With total control over the empire, he made many administrative reforms. He also ordered the building of Constantinople on the site of ancient Byzantium. Constantinople would become one of the most spectacular cities in the world.

Constantine also made his mark as the first Roman patron of Christianity. In his early life, Constantine had been a solar henotheist, that is, he believed in the Roman sun god, Sol, as the earthly representation of a higher power. However, in 312, Constantine claimed to have had a vision of Christ who then helped him win a key military victory. Constantine subsequently reversed the Roman policies of Christian persecution and went so far as to encourage the installation of Christianity as a practicing religion in his new city. He converted to Christianity on his deathbed in 337 AD. Constantine also left his mark with minted coins that were the currency until the 15th century!

For a brief history of Istanbul, continue reading. Otherwise, return to wherever you were.

Istanbul was first established around 1000 BC as a small settlement known as Semista. This grew into a fishing village, called Lygos, on the European side of the Bosporus (see Place of the Day) and was matched later by a village called Chalcedon on the Asian side. In 657 BC, some Greek colonists led by a man named Byzas, established their city, Byzantium, where Lygos was. Byzantium became and remained part (and even capital) of the Roman Empire until 1453 AD when it fell to the Ottomans. Along the way, it had different names and saw more history than most cities.

When, after a civil war, Roman Emperor Septimus Severus rebuilt the Byzantium he had sacked in 196 AD, he renamed it Augusta Antonia. Later, in 324, after Emperor Diocletian abdicated, Constantine struggled to power and united the whole empire. He also committed himself to rebuilding Byzantium/Augusta Antonia and renamed the new city Constantinople, after himself. This he made his capital instead of Rome. His empire became known as the Byzantine Empire.

Two hundred years later, the Byzantine Empire was at its greatest. Under Emperor Justinian (527-565), the empire, with Constantinople as its capital, grew to majestic heights. Justinian's greatest contribution to the city was the magnificent Aya Sofia, or Church of Holy Wisdom, which still stands today. For more than 1000 years, it was the greatest church in the world, and it is arguably still one of the world's greatest buildings.

By the 1450s, the Byzantine Empire had all but crumbled and the emperor held little more than the fortified city of Constantinople. It was like an island in a sea called the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim power that had developed and been consolidated over eight centuries. In 1453, the city finally fell to the Ottomans after a dramatic siege led by Mehmet II, or Mehmet the Conqueror.

Mehmet, who saw himself as successor to a great line of rulers (including Constantine and Justinian), rebuilt the city as a Muslim capital. Two of Mehmet's lasting contributions are the Blue Mosque, challenging the Aya Sofia for prominence of place in the city's old center, and Topkapi Palace, his magnificent royal residence. This tradition of building was continued by Suleiman the Magnificent who added many more mosques, including Istanbul's largest, the Süleymaniye. Suleiman the Magnificent was the same man responsible for reinforcing the great walls that currently enclose Jerusalem's Old City.

However, as with so many other great empires, the Ottomans declined too. By the 19th century, Constantinople (its name was not changed to Istanbul until 1930) was no longer what it had been. In the 20th century, after World War I and Atatürk's decision to move Turkey's capital to Ankara, Istanbul lost some of its importance. It nevertheless remains today as Turkey's largest city and port, its business and cultural center, and its greatest attraction.

As our Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit for Turkey so aptly puts it:

"Easier to live in than Cairo or Beirut, more attractive than Tel Aviv, much more in touch with the Islamic world than Athens, it is fast becoming the 'capital' of the eastern Mediterranean again."

Place of the Day: Sea of Marmara

Dividing European Turkey (and Europe) from Anatolian Turkey (and Asia) (see also Tech Fact of the Day) is an elegant 277-km- (172-mi-) long sea called the Sea of Marmara. click to view a photograph Pinched on both ends by areas where the two shore lines come close together - the Bosporus Strait in the north and the Dardanelles Strait in the south - the Sea of Marmara is the important shipping lane through which Black Sea-to-Mediterranean Sea (and vice versa) traffic moves.

Until 1973, when the first bridge was built across it just north of Istanbul, the famously difficult currents of this often-tempestuous stretch of water kept marauding armies from making too much progress in one direction or another. For example, during the First Crusade of the 11th century, the Crusaders made it across the relatively narrow Bosporus only with the aid of Byzantine Emperor Alexius whose ships and sailors provided safe and skillful conduct. Without his consent, who knows what might have happened?

The Sea of Marmara takes its name from the largest island found in its waters.

The name Bosporus is Greek for "ford of the ox." Myth has it that the maiden Io swam the strait after being changed into a heifer.

The Dardanelles are also prominent in Greek legend. The name by which it was known in antiquity, Hellespont, is believed to come from Helle, who drowned in the strait having fallen from the back of the ram Chrysomallus.

Ethan, Anthony and Padraic crossed the Sea of Marmara with relative ease (in the safe belly of a modern-day ferry) when they took the train-ferry Marmaris "express" between Izmir and Istanbul. While it wasn't exactly an express, it was a welcome sea journey that completed Padraic and Ethan's catalogue of different kinds of transport in Turkey. Once on the boat, they could boast having been on a plane, a train, a tram, a boat, all forms of automobiles (bus [big and mini], a van, a taxi), and, of course, a bike all while on Turkish territory.

Group Dispatch, February 24-26
picture of Ethan

What seems like two weeks ago, you left Ethan, Padraic and Anthony in Fethiye. Actually, in an unusual time-warped way, it was only yesterday. As some of you may have noticed, the guys were traveling the length of the Mediterranean coast at the same time the ladies were traveling up the Aegean. So, while you have lived the Aegean experience, the guys haven't moved from Fethiye since their last dispatch, which was, well, yesterday. And now, since Corinne and andrEa have arrived safely in Istanbul, it's time to bring the boys in as well, and reunite the group of five... which hasn't been a fivesome since the 8th of December.

So... off we go to Fethiye, a city back on the southern coast at the dividing line between Mediterranean and Aegean Turkey.

Having completed the southern sprint of 762 km (473 mi) in 8 days of cycling (10 days total) through dazzling and difficult countryside, the three guys decided to zip via bus over territory already covered by the ladies, but also take in a few of the more famous "unmissable" landmarks, like the ruins at Ephesus, the Artemision (or Temple of Artemis), and the city of Izmir.

A first bus quickly brought us to the road up from Marmaris that Corinne and andrEa had taken two weeks earlier after their boat from Rhodes. We looked out at the tremendous hill that the ladies had climbed and, at first, were jealous, but later, as the length, elevation, and then absence of reward became perfectly clear, heaved a sigh of relief. Through Mugla we continued, and then were dropped off at the crossroads just south of Milas. A short 5-km (3-mi) ride through Milas put us on a bus to Söke and there we stopped.

Söke is one of quite a few towns on the Aegean tourist route that seem to have escaped the maddening wave of development. There were not many hotels from which to choose (although we found a friendly one that was clean and cheap), and not much gastronomic variety (although, after a long search, we found a fine restaurant at the end of a dark alley and long, dimly lit staircase). And the rest? Well, to be perfectly honest, we didn't really look for anything else. We had work to do.

[Meanwhile, Corinne and andrEa had arrived in Gelibolu, also known as Gallipoli.]

Up early on Wednesday (chat 'n' debate day), we headed out of town and tackled our last bit of riding in Turkey, up along the coastal road between Söke and Selçuk. It was entertaining to think that a week earlier, Corinne and andrEa had made the same trip. Just as they had done, we stopped at Ephesus and the Artemision. A few kilometers further, in Selçuk, we paused for a pleasant lunch and a trip through the Ephesus Museum.

The Ephesus Museum, while not huge, is well endowed with fine artifacts and a museumologists clear vision of how they should be presented. Through the indoor rooms and outdoor ethnology displays, visitors are brought into two intriguing and equally fascinating worlds: the ancient one represented today by the ruins outside of town, and the modern one of an excited archaeologist digging through the earth to find and then reconstruct pottery, statues, and whole buildings that reveal a great deal about life in ancient times. Ephesus is particularly noteworthy for appreciators of both worlds in that it has provided and continues to provide a wealth of artifacts and information crucial to our developing understanding of Roman life in the region.

In the mid afternoon, having enjoyed strolling through so much living history both in the museum and at the ruins themselves (here we are on the Arcadian Way click to view a photograph, at the Great Theater click to view a photograph, at the Celsus Library click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, and on the Curetes Way click to view a photograph click to view a photograph), we abandoned any thought of being able to bike any of the remaining distance to Izmir. Instead we did what we have become too good at doing: finding the bus station and grabbing the first bus to our destination (this time Izmir). We are happy to say that it was our last bus, which was nice, especially since it was a minibus. This has always required actually placing the three bikes on the back seat inside the bus (instead of underneath) and inevitably cost more than we wanted to pay since the bikes occupied seats that could otherwise have been used by paying customers.

Just before dark, we were dropped on the outskirts of town. With the setting sun, we tackled the rush hour traffic all the way to the city center where, after some time, we met Gülden Güllü, the same energetic, resourceful and generous woman who had been so helpful to andrEa and Corinne while they were in Izmir. Gülden stayed with us all evening and was instrumental in guiding us to a cheap pension, an Internet café from which to chat 'n' debate, and dinner. Our hats off to Gülden, the fastest walker in the Mediterranean, for having helped BikeAbout every step of the way in Izmir.

[Meanwhile, Corinne and andrEa were just arriving in Istanbul...]

Early the next morning, the guys were on their bikes and at the train station, ready to get themselves and their steeds on the Marmaris Express, the only train service to Istanbul. Actually, it's a train-and-boat service, with the train going as far as Bandirma, located on the shores of the Sea of Marmara (see Place of the Day) and a ferry taking us from there to the European side of Istanbul.

The train trip through scenic hills and wide valleys was remarkable only for its speed. Or, actually, lack thereof. While comfortable, the train made the 350-km (217-mi) journey in a little more than 7 hours. Even flocks of sheep passed us. click to view a photograph Really! In fact, when we finally arrived at Bandirma, more than an hour late, we were aggressively hustled over to the boat, which was eager to depart. Some friendly fellows who, without asking, grabbed some of our bags and ran them to the boat (which we could just as easily have done ourselves) turned into avid capitalists once on board and tried to exact outrageous "porter" tips for their one minute of labor. Naturally, we objected.

The boat, yet another in our growing list of ferries and the final piece to the kinds-of-transport puzzle that Padraic and Ethan have now completed in Turkey (see Place of the Day), was comfortable and pretty much uneventful. Padraic and Anthony worked for all 4½ hours click to view a photograph while Ethan, computerless, read, roamed the boat click to view a photograph, and pondered the waters of the Sea of Marmara. click to view a photograph

The final approach to Istanbul on the boat is probably the best way to approach Istanbul: from the water. On the edge of the horizon, cutting through the dark, lights appeared like a low, faint yellowish haze. The closer we got, the clearer they got, until the building they illuminated took shape: the lithe, almost gravity-defying splendor of ten minarets, six belonging to the famous Blue Mosque and four to the world-renowned Aya Sofia. These two buildings, dwarfing all else, are so magnificent, so appealing, so impossible not to appreciate that even the Turkish passengers (some of whom must have seen the spectacle many times before) were struck silent.

Ethan could not help think that this was the vision beheld by travelers who, throughout the centuries, have made the trip to or through this world class city on the shores of the Bosporus Straits. Of course, a hundred years ago, the minarets were not lit, but during the day, the skyline of towering towers and heavy but floating bulbous domes surrounded by homes and palaces all protected by practically unbreachable ramparts must have been, well, just as breathtaking.

[For a brief history of Istanbul, click here.]

At the boat dock, we were met by andrEa and Corinne... and a new friend, Turgut. Corinne and andrEa had spent the better part of their day making phone calls and working on their dispatches. But now, it was chilly and they had been waiting for more than an hour. They sent us off to the Yücelt Interyouth Hostel, at the very foot of the enormous 1500-year-old Aya Sofia we had just seen from afar. If it is possible to imagine, it was even more incredible up close.

After the guys had deposited all their belongings, the others joined us at the hostel and, five again for the first time since Gaza, we went off to dinner, storytelling, and planning for the new challenges ahead.

However, our reunion was not as festive as it might have been. In the back of everyone's mind, but unvoiced at dinner since we were in the company of our friend, Turgut, were thoughts concerning the group composition. Since ongoing fundraising efforts have proven unfruitful (especially since we are all on the road and unable to maintain the constant vigil required when raising money) and the BikeAbout budget that got us this far has been almost completely exhausted, Ethan had to make the difficult decision of asking that the group of five riders be reduced to three. Basically, there isn't enough money to continue providing for all five people. So, Ethan asked Padraic and Anthony as one group, and Corinne and andrEa as another to sit down and decide which one of the two in each group would continue. It was torturous to Ethan to have to request that this be done, and he knew that the discussions within the two pairs and the final group meeting would be even harder for everyone, especially those who would be unable to continue.

With burdened thoughts, the guys returned to the hostel and the women to the apartment of a friend located on the Anatolian (Asian) side of Istanbul.

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