The cobblestones are wet and glistening. Flurries of rain impede our first tentative walk out into Sultanahmet. We landed in a torrential downpour of rain and Istanbul’s greeting to us was a two hour traffic jam that started on the highways and jerked, stopped, and lurched its way over the Eastern side, over the great winged expanse of the Bosphorus Bridge, over into Europe, a slow crawl down Taksim, past the Galata Tower and across the Galata Bridge. In the greyness of the evening our driver points out the hazy, inconsequential silhouette of a mosque with six spires – the Blue Mosque, my first glimpse. The water of the river is defiantly turquoise, even in the dead light, and we cross continents easily, albeit slowly.
Istanbul is a city of contrasts, both new and modern, ancient and cutting edge. We are staying at the Emine Sultan hotel, a cosy boutique establishment with ten rooms. It is a refurbished wooden structure with traditional window dressings and tiny, comfortable rooms. The service is warm, friendly and genuine. Armed with a map, guidebook and umbrellas, Em, Angela and I set out. The bulk of the Blue Mosque rears up from the twisty streets of Sultanahmet. It is here in historic Old Istanbul that I first feel the city’s magic allure, a mish mash of spells and secrets, possibilities and potential – Istanbul is a city of old dreams and Oriental fantasies, with half a foot in the present and the other in the past.
We walk by the Hippodrome, where Roman Byzantine emperors placed marble statues and booty gained from the many corners of empire – an obelisk from Karnak stands incongrously dripping with rain in the middle of the square. Our first stop is a kofte shop where we order kebab, kofte, a salad and fresh bread. The kofte is so good we ask for another plate. The walls of the restaurant are a collage of handwritten testimonials in Turkish, and photos of famous people who’ve eaten there. I think Obama came here when he visited Istanbul, though the pictures might have just been hopeful propoganda.
Inside the Grand Bazaar
On our way to the Grand Bazaar, Em and I are distracted by the brightly lit windows of shops selling Turkish delight, known locally as lokum, and we stop for a taste test. Sold by the kilogram, we purchase a few lira worth of the sweet mouthfuls and continue on our way. We tread our way along Divan Yolu, a thoroughfare from the days of the Byzantines. Electric trams now ply the route and we count the stops as our markers. We find our way there eventually, passing fresh fruit vendors, tourist touts, shoe shine men, suits on their commute home, workmen pushing great boxes on trolleys.
The Grand Bazaar is quiet when we arrive, it is only an hour or so before it closes. Nervous of losing our way within the great labyrinth, we stick close to each other and try to memorise our route. Laid out on a simple axis, the Grand Bazaar houses more than 1,000 stalls, each selling almost the same item. There is the street of the jewellers, where sparkling gold and silver gleam from display windows, leather goods hanging clustered like ripe fruit from shop fronts, muted reds, greens and yellows adorn unfurled carpets spot lit by lights for best effect.
Later that night we visit the Cemberlitas Hammam, built in 1584 by the architect Sinan, who was commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent to complete a great many works around Istanbul. The entrance to the hammam is below current day street level, but it shows how much detritus has piled up since the 16th century. This is one of the two more touristy hammams in Istanbul, but given that we’d only been in the city less than 12 hours, we figured it would be a safer option compared to going to a local hammam.
Istanbul lends itself to a black & white sensibility: decaying wooden house, Sultanahmet; corn seller
in front of the Aya Sofya; father and child, Blue Mosque; lovers in the courtyard, Blue Mosque
We brought our own bikinis, and opted for the 15 minute scrub and massage for TL55. Cemberlitas is a traditional hammam, and the sexes are segregated. Entering the hammam, we are led upstairs to our personal locker and change area. We were given a scrub mitt, undies (for those ladies without bikinis), and a towel, and led back downstairs where the bath attendants sat around, waiting for customers. It must have been akin to the old days, where women would go to the baths for the day’s gossip, sit around the central fountain and catch up on the news, free from the censorship of male company. My bath attendant spoke Japanese (not helpful!) not English, but chattered away at me as she led me into the main hall.
Here, a central dome rose above a welcoming, blissfully warm marble platform. Small antechambers led off the sides of the room and marble taps dotted the walls. Lying on the towel, we all relaxed. My bath attendant splashed a bucket of warm water on me, then left. We chatted quietly as the echoes of other conversations bounched around us. The warm light of a single electric bulb illuminated stars and circles cut into the domed ceiling. Almost twenty minutes later, the attendant was back in her underwear and with the mitt, scrubbed layers of dead skin cells and dirty away before adding soap, foam and a massage. Absolute bliss! She laughed as I repeated the Turkish words she was trying to teach me, emptied a bucket of water over my head and told me to lie down on the marble platform again for more blissful relaxation.
There were two warm pools with jets – a modern addition, no doubt, and after a suitably chilled out period, all of us jumped into the hot pools. Going to the hammam after a long, stressful day of travel was the perfect ending to our first Istanbul day.
Although the forecast was rain over the weekend, the next day dawned clear. The light on the Bosphorus glimmered for a brief moment before being swallowed by the clouds. Breakfast at Emine Sultan was a feast – dolmades – rice wrapped in vine leaves, cheeses, cereals, breads, lots of different types of jam (rosehip, anyone?), hard boiled eggs, borek – a kind of puff pastry with a cheese filling, fruit, cucumbers and tomatoes, olives. We stuffed ourselves silly then sat around drinking copious amounts of strong Turkish tea (black, lots of sugar), English breakfast and Nescafe coffee.
Just before the midday call to prayer, we slip head coverings on and enter the Blue Mosque. Built by Sultan Ahmed I, the eponymous mosque is so called because of the colour of the Iznik tiles adorning its insides. Islamic mosques usually have one or two spires – imperial mosques have five, representing the five tenets of Islam. The Blue Mosque has six minarets, perhaps Ahmed’s ambitious answer to the hulking builk of the Aya Sofya, then Istanbul’s greatest mosque, across the way. Only the the Ka’aba mosque in Mecca has six minarets – Ahmed overcame criticisms of presumptiousness by ordering a seventh built for the Ka’aba mosque.
The Blue Mosque is my favourite building here in Istanbul – there is a great lightness in its exterior structure, the unity of the domes and the height of its minarets drawing the eye into the sky, but it is its interior that truly impresses. Sheathed in more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, the space and light inside the Blue Mosque glows a surreal azure. Light flows in through doors that ring the periphery and a massive iron wrought Ottoman chandelier hangs from the ceiling.
Inside the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
We meander down across to the Aya Sofya, its warm red brick leached of colour by the grey sky. Built and added to over the centuries and reaching its final form in the rule of the Emperior Justinian, the Aya Sofya is almost 600 years older than the Blue Mosque and its architecture is unapologetically medieval. Inside, the church/mosque/museum is split into light and shadow. The great dome, the largest in the Christian world for over a thousand years, still floats above visitors as they find their way into the Aya Sofya, squinting as their eyes slowly adjust. A marvel of its time and ours, there are no visible pillars or support structures – instead the space inside is cavernous. The eye is drawn up by the light falling through windows set in the base of the great dome, giving the entire place a surreal, dreamlike quality.
During the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century, the Aya Sofya was turned into a mosque. Minarets were added, the painstakingly detailed, exquisitely beautiful Byzantine mosaics, or tessarae, were plastered over and painted, and Islamic accents added. Large calligraphic medallions bearing the name of Allah and of the prophets were late 19th century additions – personally my pet peeve about the Aya Sofya. Some of the tessarae are still in good condition underneath all that 600 year old plaster; in the central nave an ambigious Madonna holds the Infant on her knee. Byzantine art has always been melancholic, all those long faced saints with their sad expressions and golden halos – and here, in the capital of the Byzantine empire, the same melancholy dusts the everyday, elevates the merely old to romantic, makes the mind think of implausible stories of love, loss and longing.
By now we’re starving so we head off to Topkapi Palace. At the first gate, ayran sellers hawk their wares from a cool silver tin, offering the cool, yoghurt drink in paper cups. Men sell roasted chestnuts wrapped up in paper cones. The layout of Topkapi follows an Eastern design. It is more a series of pavillions, courtyards, audience chambers and halls set amongst large areas of gardens and fountains, than the European style of one central building with many wings.
Like the rest of Istanbul, Topkapi Palace is a place of fantasy stories, of hazy dreams half remembered and bejewelled, gilded lives. There is the story of Roxelana, a Circassian slave girl who rose in rank in the harem to become Suleyman’s favourite, then his wife. She persuaded the Sultan to murder his first born, Mustafa, so that her son, Selim, could ascend to the Sultan. He was known as Selim the Sot (oh how the mighty fall!) and drowned in a bathtub of champagne, or so the story goes.
The grilled windows of the kafes, of cage where royal princes were locked up; tiles and calligraphy in the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs; entering the Gate of Felicity; detail of stained glass window, Topkapi Palace
There are the stories of the black and white eunuchs in the service of the Sultan, who guarded the harem and looked after the administration of the Palace. Ibrahim the Mad drowned his entire harem of 280 girls and then had them all replaced the next day. In the later part of his life he had a propensity for obese women and filled his bed and harem with them. For years, it was tradition for crown princes to commit fraticide in order to secure their position – Mohammad III had nineteen of his brothers and half brothers murdered on the night that he found out he had been given the throne. Just to be sure, he then drowned seven of his father’s concubines who happened to be pregnant at the time. Later on, instead of murder, the Sultans and their heirs resorted to a form of house arrest, and many a royal prince spent his entire adult life locked up in the kafes, or cages, in the harem.
From top: The Audience Hall where the council would meet in deliberations; close up of
red Iznik tiles, even rarer than the blues; harem apartment; the Imperial Hall, Topkapi Palace
The buildings within the palace grounds are beautfiully appointed. Gilt ironwork, fine paints, intricate ceramic tiles adorn both interiors and exteriors. We were particularly struck by the Imperial Hall, where the Sultan would have received guests while the Valide Sultan, his mother, the true power in the harem, could keep a close eye on the members of the harem. There is a Western style chandelier, a Victorian era grandfather clock, blue and white calligraphy on the walls, pastel roccoco plaster decorations, and Ottoman tile work on the large dome overhead. The fascinating juxtaposition of styles serve to demonstrate how cosmopolitan old Istanbul was and the merging influences of its day.
Inside the Spice Markets
Turkish flag seller; crowds in front of the Yeni Camii and the Spice Markets
The word harem has been twisted by Western perception – it simply means “forbidden” and refers to the personal aspect of the buildings that are for the sole use of the Sultan and his large, extended family. In accordance with Muslim law, still in force in many countries today, the Sultan was allowed four wives, but as many concubines as he could afford. These girls were usually slaves either kidnapped or sold by their families, and the famed beauty of Circassian women were the Sultan’s preferred choice. Wives had contractual rights and could divorce under Muslim law. However they could not remarry after the Sultan’s death. Concubines could be freed and could remarry, and were often much sought after for their connections, their training and beauty.
Leaving Topkapi, we headed towards Galata Bridge, linking old and new Istanbul across the Golden Horn. At the Yeni Camii, or New Mosque – only in Istanbul could a 400 year old mosque be called new – men lined up on benches against the walls and washed in preparation for prayers. The crowds thrummed outside the Spice Bazaar, filled with teas, spices, sweets, tidbits and other knick knacks. Delicate rose buds were rose tea, powdered sachets were apple teas. Turkish delight sat in heaped jumbles, their pastel colours glowing in the light of the shops. Brightly coloured spices shaped into pyramids bore bilingual signs – paprika, saffron, curry.
As dusk descended like a poem, we boarded a ferry from Eminonu to Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. The sky wore gentle golden streaks and above us the silhouette of seagulls wheeled in the air. There is magic in this city, beauty in the calling of the gulls and the deep foghorns of the ships that ply the Bosphorus. As the light faded the mosque was lit in golden light while the neon signs of restaurants illuminated the space underneath Galata Bridge.
In Kadikoy, we stop by a fresh fruit juice vendor – pomegranate juice, tart, bursting with the taste of sunshine, blood red and delicious. We are here looking for a gozleme, or pancake shop – it is only much later, after dinner, that we realise our guidebook is outdated and the shop has moved over to Europe. Kadikoy feels much more local and fewer people speak English. The streets bustle with the shadows of many out and about on their own business, few stop to look or point or stare. The activity reaches crescendo on the main street as we dodge four lanes of traffic.
After dinner in Beyoglu, a heartwarming, delicious meal of tender lambshank wrapped in grilled aubergine, we lose ourselves in the modern streets of New Istanbul, jostling and being jostled, treading tentative steps through the Flower Passage, peeking into the bright windows of modern bars set in old 1950s buildings. Christmas decorations are still up, and fairy lights are strung overhead. Lost among the great heaving press of people, warning bells suddenly sound – a vintage tram rolls its way slowly up the street, cutting through the madding crowd like a hot knife through butter.
We end our night with an apple flavoured nargileh and a glass of hot apple tea, pepper the silence with conversations about life and love. Our last stop, the next morning, is to the little PTT booth next to the Aya Sofya, to buy stamps (TL1 each) for our postcards, then onwards to the Basilica Cistern, an underground water reservoir built in the time of Emperor Justinian. Wet, eerie, and beautiful, the cisterns are an engineering marvel (those Romans!) complete with vaulted ceilings and carved Ionic columns. Imaginatively lit, the cistern fascinates us so much we nearly miss our shuttle to the airport – it is difficult to leave Istanbul, and I wish we had more time here to explore this mad city of contrasts.
Istanbul is a whirling dervish, the call of the azan in the dawn, the sharp minarets of the Blue Mosque cut like molten gold against a black sky, the heavenly, sweet, soft first-bite of rosewater-flavoured lokum, the mist that curls around the shores of the Bosphorus in the early morning. It is a patchwork of old stories and older lives, of Byzantine glory and Byzantine plots, of betrayals and counter coups. It is easy here, to imagine the incense of censers drifting up into church domes, the sound of knights in full armour breaching the ancient walls during the Fourth Crusade, the produce and trade that made Constantinople so fabulously rich – silk from the East, gold from Africa, stained glass from Venice, ceramic from the Delft, spices from Arabia – these all found a place here, alongside the Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Venetians, Varangians, Anglo Saxons, Egyptians, Nubians and Eastern Europeans whose bloodlines have mingled and mixed over the centuries.
This city is made up of the incessant, good natured heckling of the tourist touts (who are, it must be said, no where as bad as their counterparts in Marrakesh or Cairo), the headscarf wearing, modern Istanbulli woman starting her own business, the gap toothed fortune-teller with his tame cockarel and white rabbit, the simit-seller with his wares precariously slotted onto a wooden stick, the juice vendors doling out sunshine colours in little paper cups, the chatty, smiling Turkish bath attendants, the warm smile of our receptionist every time we came back to our hotel.
Istanbul is a city of optimism, even in the greys and blacks and whites of winter; there is a sense of renewed vitality and hope here. But underneath it all, if you scratch the surface, there is an end-of-empire melancholy that can be felt in the winding lanes and old, decayed buildings of Old Istanbul. Over in Taksim Square, along the bright lights of Istikkal Caddesi, crowds gather like magpies, promenading, people watching, dining. The streets are filled with the sound and breath of a living, hopeful citizenry, and yet it is in the quiet streets of Sultanahmet that Istanbul’s true heartbeats sound the loudest.