Originally named Byzantium (meaning “the city on the Bosphorus”) what is now named Istanbul was peacefully ruled by Alexander the Great from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C. A Roman city from the 2nd to the 4th centuries B.C.E, Byzantium was then named Constantinople by (guess who?) the emperor Constantine, who made it the capital of his Empire and the center of Christianity. Constantinople was destroyed by riots in the 6th century of our era under the emperor Justinian but then rebuilt.
The Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in the mid-15th century, built mosques all over the city, and re-named it Istanbul (meaning “the city of Islam.”) Perhaps the best known mosque besides the Hagia Sophia, and certainly a favorite of tourists, is the so-called Blue Mosque constructed, as you can see in the last photo here, by Sulatan Ahmet I from 1609 to 1616. More photos of our tour of the Blue Mosque to follow. Note: The word “Omphalion” in the second last photo means “navel.” It suggests the “navel” or center of the earth, which was thought to be in the Hagia Sophia mosque, about which more later.
The Call to Prayer rang out frequently during our stay. We would hear it first from our hotel room at 6:00 a.m, but by our third day we took it so for granted as to find the sound barely noticeable even though there was a mosque close enough to our hotel that we felt we could reach out and almost touch the minaret from which the call rang.
As a rule business is so pressing in downtown Istanbul that even prayerful Muslims stop reverently for a moment at the call to prayer rather than rush to the nearest mosque, at least during an ordinary day.
Here is a food stand we passed as we heard the call to prayer and a pastry shop from which we heard it as well. The tasty food did not hinder our own moment of reverence.
Western visitors to Istanbul on the lookout for restaurants can feel right at home there. The seemingly universal beer, Efes, is excellent, and so are the dishes Mary and I favored, fish and vegetables:
The historical importance of the geography of Istanbul cannot be overestimated. The city spans two continents, Europe and Asia, and the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, has always made Istanbul strategically important from both a military and economic point of view. Oil tankers may be seen making their way along the Bosphorus, and a suspension bridge across the Bosphorus now tightens the connection between East and West. The photo immediately below advertises the tour of the Bosphorus available to visitors. (More about that later.)
Islam is of course central to the culture of Istanbul and has been for centuries. I was impressed nevertheless by the comfort a Westerner feels, or at least did seven years ago, moving around the city. European restaurants abound, and it is natural for European Christians to recognize places familiar to them (Nicaea, Ephesus and Antioch) in smaller surrounding cities. In other words Istanbul, despite it differences, remains a city by no means wholly foreign to us.
Mary and I had been home two weeks before we began seeing television accounts of the Egyptian Uprising that began on January 25, 2011. In hindsight the fact of political and social unrest in Egypt should not have come as a great surprise to us. When I asked our tour guide why we had to take a plane ride from Luxor International Airport to Cairo, she frankly admitted that violent extremists made it dangerous for the group to travel any other way. When I asked if a cab was a safe way to get to old Cairo, the site of Coptic churches founded according to tradition by the apostle Saint Mark, she told me not to go there at all because of recent attacks on Coptic Christians by Islamic extremists–attacks that have a long history and continue to this day.
The Egyptian Uprising (also called the Arab Spring) began in Tunisia a few weeks before we arrived in Cairo. A humiliated street vendor whose goods were casually confiscated immolated himself. Similar acts of self-immolation then spread to Egypt and other Arab countries. It is reasonable to assume from the strong impact of these events that the main sources of Arab unrest, aside from government corruption and police brutality under the likes of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, were as follows: hopelessly high unemployment, hopelessly low wages for those who were employed, and the near impossibility of well educated young people (already ingenious enough to use social media to spread their frustration) to find meaningful work. It was remarkable that this justly discontented group was able to unseat Egypt’s Mubarak in 2011, leading to the failed presidency of Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, and the coming to power of the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, in 2014. But it was incredibly naive for Westerners to hope for abrupt change from this slow-moving “revolution,” which could produce no president whose roots were not in the military.
Nearly 50 % of Egyptians live in poverty. They lack the interest in, and means to, effect significant government change. Historically what has helped them most has been the technology that, through the building of the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser, has irrigated the desert to make consistent farming possible, moved water traffic via the Lock at Edfu (see my earlier posts on these subjects) and currently, with El-Sisi’s major expansion of the Suez Canal, promised to double the number of ships passing through that waterway and so vastly increase international trade with India, China and Southeast Asia for all participating countries.
Whether the economic advantages of this expansion will seep down to the ordinary Egyptian remains to be seen given the brutality of the early stages of El-Sisi’s hold on power. (At the recent G7 Summit President Trump reportedly referred to El-Sisi as his “favorite dictator.”)
I am ending this series on Egypt from 2011 to 2019 with photos we took of 5 Egyptians whom we hope, no doubt naively, will benefit from El-Sisi’s initiatives.
Alexandria existed in my imagination long before I ever got to see the place. It rained miserably the whole day when I finally did get there, but the sogginess didn’t matter to me as much, perhaps, as it should have. When Mary and I got off the bus from Cairo, there sat Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt looking pretty much like my imagined Alexandria, which was way too distant from the facts of history to be what the city undoubtedly was, namely Egyptian. My Alexandria was Greek. Its air was that of my youthful reading–of the Homeric epics, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Euripides’ Medea along with the wisdom of Socrates who, in a line that makes little sense in today’s White House, is credited with saying that the unexamined life is not worth living.
A mere 9 years before my 2011 arrival in Alexandria, a new library was built there, replacing, but my no means equaling, the one probably built by Ptolemy II, Pharaoh of Egypt from about 283 to 246 BCE. That library was rich in the scrolls of Greek culture, but it was also a gathering place for scholars worldwide. It may have been partially burnt, but most likely it just declined over time as a result of the wholesale scorn often visited on impractical “intellectuals” whose so-called expertise it has recently become so fashionable to scorn. (Alexandria, it should be noted, helped give rise to the highly significant 3rd century AD philosophical school of Neoplatonism, which included the likes of Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus and eventually such early fathers of the Christian Church as Origen and Saint Augustine.)
The question Alexandria made me finally face up to was how my college training in the literature and philosophy of Greece and Rome stood up against the nearly universal educational emphasis these days on preparation for the technological demands of society in the world of today and tomorrow. The obvious answer for most is that Huawei, the Chinese company with an apparent solution for every technological problem you could ever have simply must, fortunately or unfortunately, replace Plato and Aristotle, to say nothing of Plotinus and Proclus, on the typical college syllabus.
You may think I will now proceed to a stout defense of the liberal arts over mere trade school advancement, however sophisticated. It certainly looks like I will from my choice of a classical amphitheater for two of my last Alexandrian photos.
But I remain fixated on the photo below of the child laborer, who must be almost 20 by now, looking back at me as I snapped my camera at him. As long as there are youngsters like him growing up all over Africa, the Middle East, and the world for that matter, how can we say that as a country we are becoming “great again” and not be found laughable. A slogan is one thing but surely “greatness,” for a country as rich in resources as ours, is another. And if skill in locating algorithms is what it takes to help this young man or his sister along, so be it.
Ramses II (1304-1213 BCE) was pharaoh during a comparatively peaceful period in Egyptian history. His was a time of construction, though Ramses also lead major military expeditions, not all of them entirely successful. Ramses had many wives and many children, the tomb of his wife Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens near Luxor being especially famous for its elegant art work. Ramses II’s mummified remains may be seen in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, though images of him are visible (as below) all over Egypt. Ramses II is the pharaoh that the 19th-century poet Percy Shelley’s refers to in the short poem Ozymandias for those of you remember reading that poem in college. Below you may see how readily the name of Ramases is used to advertise even the least impressive Egyptian tourist bazaar.