Ancient and Modern Collide on Spring Break in Istanbul

Charlotte Wang, NYUAD Class of 2014, inside the Hagia Sophia during an NYUAD-organized Spring Break trip to Istanbul.

Visiting the vibrant and historically rich metropolis of Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, during spring break gave 10 NYUAD students, two professors, and a staff leader welcome respite from hectic campus life. Organized in conjunction with and as an integral part of Professor Nadine Roth's course, Urbanism and Modernism: Paris, Istanbul, Berlin, the purpose of the trip was to research and experience the development of the modern-day city of Istanbul, track its changes through history, and explore how these changes have impacted the urban fabric of the city.

After an early morning departure from Abu Dhabi and a four-hour flight to Istanbul, the group immediately dived into exploring the city. First stop, Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower and one of Istanbul's most striking landmarks where the students gained a new perspective on the city they had been reading about in class from the panoramic view at the tower's observation deck. This turned out to be student Sora Yang's favorite part of the trip. "Seeing the city from above and having a clear overview really impressed upon me the incredibly rich and significant history of Istanbul," she said. "I was overwhelmed but inspired by how much more I want to learn." Afterward, a quick visit to the Pera Museum and its exhibition of 18th- and 19th-century-Istanbul paintings gave the group a chance to learn about and see how foreigners once perceived the city. The students even managed to take in a Frida Kahlo exhibit on the side.

During the following four days the students explored the city according to different themes. On day two, the group took in ancient Istanbul with visits to the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern, and other Istanbul icons including the Blue Mosque, the eye-popping Hagia Sofia, and the Ottoman palace complex of Topkapi. That night, NYUAD Professor of Music Zev Feldman took them to a traditional Turkish pub to listen to some live music and watch the spontaneous outbursts of dancing from their happy fellow audience members.

Seeing the city from above and having a clear overview really impressed upon me the incredibly rich and significant history of Istanbul. I was overwhelmed but inspired by how much more I want to learn.

Sora Yang, NYUAD Class of 2014

The next day focused on the various minority religious communities in Istanbul, such as the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches as well as the city's Jewish population. The group visited several churches, watched part of an Armenian Orthodox mass, and stopped in at the Jewish Museum. That afternoon the group toured the immensely elaborate Dolmabahce Palace, where the Ottoman court took up residency in the mid-19th century.

On day four the students investigated the different aspects of the idiom often used to describe Istanbul: that it is literally and metaphorically "between East and West." Therefore, the group spent time in the Spice Bazaar examining different manifestations of this idea in the city's architecture and then crossed the Bosphorus — also known as the Istanbul Strait — to the part of Istanbul that lies on the Asian continent, where they sat down for an excellent meal of Istanbulli cuisine at a beautiful waterfront restaurant.

The final day was reserved for the contemporary city. The group took a more in-depth look at Taksim Square, the square on which the students' hotel was located, and its now iconic monument depicting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's vision for the Turkish Republic. They also paid a visit to Istanbul Modern and Santralistanbul, which support and spread Istanbul's booming contemporary art scene. Later that evening, the students managed to pick up some souvenirs and presents at the famous Grand Bazaar, an absolute warren hole of thousands of stalls and shops under one roof. At the bazaar they also enjoyed a preview of different contemporary and antique Turkish carpets from a friend of staff leader Tracy Lavin, NYUAD's director of special projects and events, who owns one of the many carpet companies in the market.

Evenings allowed the group the opportunity to further explore Taksim Square. And frequent strolls along Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) and its surrounding side streets imparted the students with the vibrant and diverse nature of the modern city. Women in mini-skirts walked alongside their more conservatively dressed Muslim neighbors, while soccer fans cheered on their local teams and the scents of Istanbulli, Anatolian, and a variety of other cuisines filled the air. Istanbul is certainly a destination that we'll never forget.