Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Churches and Synagogues of Istanbul

Istanbul is full of historical and cultural riches, and with economy car rentals this fabulous city can easily be accessed, maybe as the termination of an exciting European road trip. Combine it with the last leg of an Orient Express outing and you have the perfect Agatha Christie style romantic holiday.

Istanbul is particularly rich in churches of various shapes and shades, because of its thousand year history as capital of the God-obsessed Byzantine Empire. After Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century, when Constantine converted from paganism, churches started sprouting up everywhere and this process continued until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the city and started adding minarets to existing structures and converting them all into mosques.

It’s easy to get around this sprawling city in a car because, although it covers such a large area, the roads are good and well maintained and there are plenty of side streets to park in. Many churches in the city may not be much to look at from the outside but they more than make up for it in the glittering displays of candle-lit icons that frequently dominate the interior to create a truly mystical atmosphere. It’s a great treat to enter one of these contemplative spaces after a day out on the hectic and noisy streets of this often overly energetic city.

Although church construction largely ceased after the conquest, some continued to be built outside the then limits of the city, for example at places like Beyoglu and along the farther shores of the Bosphorus. So a tour of the churches here is not only educational and aesthetically pleasing but will take you to scenic parts of the city with fabulous views as well.
Quite a few new churches were built in the 19th century, close to the foreign embassies, such as the British Embassy Church and Armenian-Catholic Surp Yerrontutyan Church, both on the European side of the Bosphorus.

The synagogues of Istanbul, too, are as old as the churches here, the oldest having been constructed in 318AD, before Christianity became the state religion. During the Latin occupation of the city, when Crusaders made a detour here on their way to the Holy Land and stayed for a century, many synagogues were pillaged or converted into churches. But during the Ottoman period their numbers actually increased. Jews from Spain and elsewhere in Europe fled here to escape persecutions such as those of the 16th century Spanish Inquisition.

Unlike synagogues in Europe, those in Istanbul do not have any distinctive architectural style but are non-decorative and generally built into courtyards, with a plain rectangular shape. Many are still active and serving the Jewish community of Istanbul to this day.
A motoring tour of Istanbul’s churches and synagogues is just one attractive idea for getting to know this amazing and multi-faceted city. Travelling by car is also ideal for a tour of the stupendous land walls, and the less imposing but still beautiful sea walls are best viewed whilst driving along the coast road which skirts Seraglio Point, with the walls on one side and the glorious Bosphorus and then Sea of Marmara on the other.

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