Where I was one month ago. Justinian's great 5th-century cathedral still impresses. The funny thing about Istanbul-- still a new name for the city, in use only since the 15th century; before that it was "Constantinople" for over 1100 years, and before that, Byzantium-- is that it's been the capital of a declining empire for most of its history. When Constantinople succeeded Rome as the capital of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D., the Roman empire was already in decline. Within a century, it fell in the west, but in the east its tenacity was amazing. The eastern Roman empire outlasted the west by over a thousand years, and strangely it was in slow decline almost all that time. By the time the Turks captured it in 1453, they had already taken over the territories of the old Greek empire on both sides of the Aegean, in the Balkans as well as Asia Minor.
The Turks were still a rising empire then, but only for another century or so, then relative decline set in. And the Turkish empire, too, was a long time a-dying. It was "the Sick Man of Europe" in the 19th century, but didn't finally fall until 1914.
Amazed by the strange longevity of Byzantium, historian Edward Gibbon coined the phrase "the still point of the turning world" to describe it.
But no longer. Ataturk, the ruthless modernizer and secularizer, took over-- abolishing the caliphate, to the outrage of bin Laden and today's Islamists, never mind that it took place almost a century ago; for them, as for William Faulkner, "the past is not dead, it's not even past." The beauty of Hagia Sophia-- "holy wisdom," "the still point of the turning world"-- lingers on but is irrelevant to contemporary Turkey. Contemporary Turkey is more faithfully represented by this:
These tenements spread out for miles around Istanbul, which is now the fifth-largest metropolitan area in Europe with a population of 10.2 million, about ten times the population of medieval Constantinople.