Sultanahmet Square is More than a Tourist Hub

Sultanahmet Square bombing

I hope you will all forgive me a more serious post today. I have been having a lot of feelings about yesterday’s bombing in Istanbul and just felt the need to say something.

I took this picture on my study abroad trip to Turkey in the summer of 2013. I was standing in Sultanahmet Square, where yesterday’s terrorist attack took place.

In the last 24 hours this space has been described merely as a “tourist hub.” And it is not an inaccurate description- the square is probably the most popular site seeing space in the entire city. But it is an incomplete description.

Sultanahmet Square is a space where cultures collide and blend, both historically and today. It is home to the Blue Mosque, which has stood for over 400 years and is arguably one of the most beautiful places of worship in the world. Topkapi Palace sits north of the mosque, a surviving and beautiful reminder of the country’s Ottoman history, which has otherwise been largely erased from modern Turkish culture and memory. Beneath the square is a remarkably intact Roman Cistern, a reminder that before the city became Istanbul, before the Ottomans and the Seljuks, Constantinople was home to the Eastern Roman Empire.

hagia sofia sultanahmet square bombing

And lastly, my personal favorite, is the Hagia Sofia. Within the Hagia Sofia’s walls a history of warring cultures blends together into to something truly beautiful. It was built in the 6th Century by the Byzantine (Eastern Greek) Empire and stood as the world’s largest cathedral for nearly 1000 years. In 1204 it was converted into a Roman Cathedral and in 1453 it was transformed again, this time into a mosque by the Seljuks. It served as a mosque until 1935, when it was secularized and turned into a museum. When it became a museum, the plaster that had covered the Christian paintings for hundreds of years was removed. It is probably the only place in the world where you will find paintings of Christian angels and saints sharing walls with the holy names of Islam written in Arabic calligraphy. Within the walls of the Hagia Sofia Christianity and Islam blend and compliment each other, without one ever dominating the other. It is a poignant suggestion as to just how beautiful our world could be if only the people of these religions could learn to do the same.

Yes, the terrorists did indeed attack a tourist hub. But they also attacked a space in which these cultures intersect, literally and figuratively. This historical and religious importance of Sultanahmet Square is not exclusive to Turks, or to Muslims. It is a place where people from different backgrounds and religions, speaking different languages come and find reminders of not only the rich and extensive history of their own culture and faith, but of other cultures and faiths as well. It is a space that suggests the possibility of a world where these cultures and faiths are able to live within walking distance of each other without one ever needing to dominate the other, because when you can stand back and see them all at the same time, they are not as different or as irreconcilable as some would like to have us believe. And the possibility of realizing that world is what the terrorists attacked yesterday. That is what they fear and what they target.

Wherever you are, whatever you believe, do not let them take it. They can bomb Sultanahmet Square, but they do not get to destroy everything it stands for.