As I stand below the Blue Mosque in the early morning, the Call to Prayer is deafening, drowning out all the other senses and sending forth the unmistakeable message — Istanbul is an Islamic city.
But this narrow street hides a wider view. Because just across the road stands one of the great ancient cathedrals of Christendom. The Agia Sofia spans the history of the Holy Roman Empire.
The first church here was founded in 360 AD whilst the present structure dates back to 532 AD — and for almost a thousand years formed the largest cathedral in the world.
Contrasts run through this city, at every level. We landed here in Asia, but we’re staying in Europe.
Last week, this place felt bafflingly exotic and full of oriental mystery. Yet returning now from central Turkey, Istanbul’s efficient trams and city bustle seem much more familiarly European, almost recalling Zürich rather than the Middle East.
I wend southwards through winding streets to reach the city wall. High above it run the last few kilometres of the mighty railway line which carried the Orient Express towards its European terminus at Sirkeci.
From there, the ferry across the Bosphorus sails to Kadıköy, the town which gave the quartz mineral chaldedony its name, where another line begins at Haydarpaşa station for the onward journey to Baghdad.
The long odyssey from Western Europe into Asia is divided in two by just this narrow stretch of water which lies ahead of me now.
The golden autumn grasslands looked benign enough in sunshine from our balloon flight at dawn today, but 600 kilometres into Asia Minor, and 1,600 years ago, life was hard here. So hard, in fact, that an entire civilisation went underground. Literally.
Cut up to 85 m deep in soft volcanic layers within Miocene to Holocene tuffs and ignimbrites, the underground cities of Cappadocia serve testament to how difficult life was for early Christians on these high and open plains.
Dangerous enough for whole communities of fifty thousand souls to seek refuge beneath the earth — at several places scattered around this part of northern central Turkey.
Life here is easier now than it was back then, but maybe not that much.
Avanos is a one horse town if ever I’ve seen one, and it’s clear the horse left quite some time ago.