“Istanbul was hit; Paris has been hit, Tunisia has been hit, Ankara has been hit before….Once again, international terrorism is showing its cruel and inhuman face,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel. January 12, 2016.
A suicide bomber struck at the very heart of Istanbul’s historic and tourist district on Tuesday morning.
The site of the attacks — in the Sultanahmet district — is close to two of the world’s greatest architectural and religious treasures, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia Museum. It is also located near another major tourist site, the Topkapi Palace.
Sadly, 10 German tourists who were visiting the city in a tour group were killed in the attack. The New York Times reported that Turkey says a Syrian refugee with ties to the Islamic State carried out the attack. Germans make up one out of every six foreign tourists who visit Turkey.
Every day, tourists from around the world arrive at the square to visit the landmarks that have stood at the crossroads of civilization for generations. Hearing about an attack on a place I had recently visited as a tourist in August 2015 shook me up. I feel great sadness for Turkey and Germany.
It was a typically crowded day when I took the photos below, just a few short months ago. At the time, the Blue Mosque was bustling with tourists from all over the world.
The Hagia Sofia Museum, which during its famous history first served as a church and then as a mosque, can be seen as tourists exit from the Blue Mosque.
Although the day that my husband and I visited the tourist sites in Sultanahmet was beautiful, we certainly felt that we were visiting at a tense time.
Just days before we flew into Istanbul, attackers opened fire on the U.S. consulate on August 10, 2015. On August 19, 2015, two attackers opened fire on the Dolmabahce Palace along the Bosphorus Strait, a major tourist destination. Thankfully, no one was killed in the incidents. Despite some concerns at the time, we opted to follow through with our trip.
The city felt unsettled during our time there. We had the distinct feeling that we were visiting during the calm before the storm. After we arrived, we met other American tourists who informed us that cruise ships that they traveled into the city on refused to dock overnight in Istanbul due to the attacks.
People were certainly aware that Sultanahmet could become a target. On January 6, 2015, a female suicide bomber blew herself up near the square, killing herself and a police officer.
During our trip, we had dinner with a Turkish friend — a professional woman who voiced concerns about the country’s future and openly weighed which safer countries she could possibly move to.
Many cruise ship passengers visit the major sites in the square in tour groups. We saw the largest concentration of Americans of our entire visit in the area. Indeed, one could easily see how the area could be targeted. It crossed my mind at the time.
NPR reporter Peter Kenyon noted that concerns crossed the minds of many Istanbul residents prior to the latest tragedy.
Sadly, those worries were not unfounded. The scene near the Blue Mosque looked more like a crime scene following the most recent blast on Tuesday. The usual tourists were replaced by police and emergency response workers.
And now, people are placing flowers at the site of the attack.
The bomb was reportedly detonated close to the German Fountain (pictured below). The gazebo-like structure was built in Germany and given to Turkey to commemorate the second anniversary of a visit to Istanbul by German ruler Kaiser Wilhelm II. The fountain was meant to be a symbol of friendship between Turkey and Germany. The German citizens died close to this sign of friendship.
Following the attack, the area around the German Fountain was flooded with emergency services.
The exact blast is believed to have been captured on camera below, near the Egyptian obelisk of Theodosius, another historic site in the area.
The next question inevitably becomes, is Istanbul safe to visit? It is a question that travelers also asked following the recent Paris attacks. Istanbul has grown to become one of the world’s most visited cities, but stands to lose that position with such security threats.
The MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index report projected 12.56 million visitors last year. That made it the fifth most visited city in the word, behind London, Bangkok, Paris and Dubai. TripAdvisor named Istanbul the Traveler’s Choice #1 Destination in 2014.
The New York Times reported that one shopkeeper near the attack site lamented that it was “game over” and that “No one is going to risk their lives for shopping and history.”
For now, the German government is warning its citizens traveling in Turkey to stay away from public spaces, tourist attractions, and crowded areas.
The U.S. Consulate in Turkey posted an announcement Tuesday regarding the area near the explosion and urged that “We advise U.S. citizens to avoid that area and to exercise caution if you are in the vicinity. We strongly encourage U.S. citizens to maintain a high level of vigilance, be aware of local events, and take the appropriate steps to bolster your personal security.”
In early September 2015, the U.S. State Department posted a travel warning urging that Americans “should be alert to the potential for violence. In the recent past, terrorists have conducted attacks on U.S. interests in Turkey, as well as at sites frequented by foreign tourists. … Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence.”
I certainly hope that people will continue to travel to Turkey. A loss of tourism could have a devastating impact on an already weak economy. Unfortunately, terrorism can happen in any major world city.
Conde Nast Traveler editor Pilar Guzman recently returned from a trip to Istanbul and reflected on her views on traveling to the country: “If we give into our fears and never leave our homes (because as someone who rides the New York City subway every day to 1 World Trade, that’s really what we’re talking about) we give into the terrorists’ goal of crippling tourism in a city wholly reliant on it, of undermining its economy and governance. As we know from recent events in Syria (or Libya or Yemen), it’s precisely this instability that becomes fertile ground for ever more radical forms of terrorism. And round and round we go. By continuing to claim our collective citizenship of the world, we play our part in short-circuiting this vicious cycle.”
However, I completely understand those that feel apprehensive about visiting the city due to safety concerns.
For now, we should all be sad for what happened in Istanbul.
- “Turkish tourism seen dented, not destroyed by Istanbul bombing,” Reuters.
- “Istanbul attack signals Islamic State’s apparent pivot toward tourism sector,” The Washington Post.
- “ISIS Blamed in Istanbul Attack That Kills 10 Tourists,” The New York Times.
- Turkey – U.S. Department of State.
- “Istanbul Bombing May Deal a Blow to Tourism,” USA Today.
- “Don’t Hide From Istanbul,” Conde Nast Traveler.
- “Istanbul suicide bombing: Deadliest attack on Germans in over 13 years,” CNN.