“Not since the world was made, was there ever seen or won, so great a treasure, or so rich. Not in the time of Alexander, nor in the time of Charlemagne… nor do I think… that in the forty richest cities in the world there had been so much wealth as was found in Constantinople.”
– Robert of Clari, Crusader sacking Constantinople in 1204.
I’m standing on the edge of a continent. For seven weeks, I’ve traversed the length of Asia and now, as I pace up the ferry gangplank, I realise I’m parting with the landmass for the last time. Across the blue Bosphorus lies Europe. As we chug past freewheeling seagulls and duck-diving cormorants, I set my sights on a skyline that Silk Road merchants would still recognise: from the almighty dome of Hagia Sophia to the medieval conical candlestick of Galata Tower.
For in Istanbul — or Constantinople, as it was known until 1930 — everything collides: continents, Christianity and Islam, and cultures. It was here the Silk Roads of Asia and Europe met. Straddling the east and west trade paths, and controlling the only sea route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, traders were funnelled through its city walls and from the taxes the city grew vastly wealthy. I disembark and wander to the Grand Bazaar to get a feel for merchant life.
“Let me help you spend your money on something you don’t need,” winks a swarthy vendor, noticing I’m lost amid the maze of gleaming copper coffee pots and towering mounds of cinnamon, saffron and rosebuds. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, it’s been in business since 1461 and was known back then as Cevâhir Bedestan (‘Bazaar of the Cloth Sellers’). It’s easy to imagine the merchants from Russia, Venice, Syria, Africa, India and Arabia who converged here to trade their wares of spices, ivory, gold, weapons — and silk.
Silk that I can see in the robes cloaking the emperors and empresses immortalised in the golden mosaics inside the dimly lit Hagia Sophia. Around 1,500 years old, the Church of the Holy Wisdom was built by Byzantine emperor Justinian I to emulate Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Legend has it the first time he passed beneath the magnificent dome, he raised his hands in the air and cried ‘I surpassed Solomon, I surpassed Solomon!’ And for 1,000 years, it was the largest cathedral in the world.
Now, as I step over the threshold and pace across slabs of stone smoothed to a gloss by centuries of footfall, I see that its high arches are propped up by a mass of spiderweb scaffolding. But they don’t obscure the great plaques inscribed with the names of Allah and Mohammed, flanking a ninth-century mosaic of the Virgin Mary bouncing a baby Jesus on her lap. Both a church and a mosque (and now a museum) over the ages, the Hagia Sophia made Constantinople not only a trading terminus, but a key pilgrimage site as well.
Other skills swapped on the Silk Road are on show inside Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Among the 21,000 tiles carpeting its interior walls are cobalt blue-and-white ones from the western Anatolian town of Iznik, whose fruit-and-flower designs were inspired by Chinese ceramics and gave the Blue Mosque its nickname.
Outside, the sky has turned steely with the threat of rain but Tolga, our guide, directs us to a lone stela, protected by black iron railings, in the corner of the square. “Welcome to the centre of the world,” he exclaims. The Milion Stone is all that remains of an arched monument built in the fourth century to mark the starting point for all roads leading to Byzantine towns. Posted beside it is a modern signpost marking the distances to other worldwide cities. Among them, I see ‘Peking (Beijing): 7,063 kilometres’ – it’s a timely reminder of how far we’ve come.