The first thing I noticed was their love for their flag. You see the Turkish flag everywhere; it’s very beautiful and really attracts the attention, with its intense red background and white crescent moon and star. While it’s clear the nation is still growing, and has the same problems we all have, it is united under the same flag. And that’s something you start to see almost as soon as you get off the plane.
On my last trip, in a break from work, I had the chance to visit two very special places: Galata Tower, the oldest tower in the world that is open for visits and, as it was a Sunday, the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, the largest Catholic church in Istanbul.
Galata Tower was built in 1348, during the Genovese rule of Constantinople, and stands 66.9 meters high with a diameter of 16.4 meters at its base. Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi launched himself from the top in 1630, wearing man-made wings, with the aim of flying to the Üsküdar hills, in Anatolia, on the other side of the Bosphorus. And he made it! He flew for more than three kilometers and landed in Dogancilar Square. Sultan Murad Kahn (Murad IV) watched him from his Sinan Pasha Palace in Sarayburnu and, when he had landed, called for him and gave him a bag of gold, saying: “This is a dangerous man: he is able to do anything he set his mind to. It’s best that this kind of man is not kept too close.” And so he banished him to Algeria, where he died. It is said that his brother, Lagari Hasan Celebi, was also the first to fly powered by rocket: he climbed onto one, with powder on his back, in 1633 and it seems he also flew. And he survived, too!
There are two things really worth knowing about the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua. First, the bronze sculpture on the exterior of a crucified Christ. It’s shape really draws the eye! And the second is that Cardinal Roncalli preached for 10 years here, while serving as the Vatican’s Ambassador. Roncalli was later named pope and, as John 23 and a man with true global vision, oversaw a significant opening-up of the church and was the driving force behind the Second Vatican Council. This was, without doubt, in part motivated by the time he spent in Turkey and the people he met there. In fact, some called him the ‘Turkish Pope’, because he spoke such good Turkish and due to his love for Istanbul and the country itself.
The two monuments are connected by one of the most interesting shopping streets in Istanbul, Istiklal Avenue, which translates as the Avenue of Independence. More than three million people pass along it every weekend and it is packed with fashion stores, art galleries, cinemas, theaters, bookstores, and bakers, like Markiz Patisserie which appears in the photo. It opened in 1840 and we stepped inside to look at its beautiful tile panels, representing Spring and Fall. Galatasary Square lies in the middle of the avenue and, at one end, the second oldest subway station in the world, which was inaugurated in 1875.
The whole street is also filled with churches, synagogues, mosques, seats of learning, and the consulates of Greece, the United Kingdom, Russia, Spain, and Sweden. During the Ottoman period, when the city was called Constantinople, it was also known as the Paris of the East, in large part due to the buildings that line this street. It was then called Cadde-i-Kebir, the Grand Avenue, but when the Republic was declared on October 29, 1923, to commemorate victory in the Turkish War of Independence, it’s name was changed to that which it now has.
There’s no doubt that both Istanbul and Turkey deserve to be visited. Walking around the city’s streets and meeting its people, you really breathe in their positive energy, drive, culture, and desire for progress.