City Across Continents: Turkey's Magical Hideaways

Part Three: Istanbul

By: - Sep 18, 2009

Istanbul is a city of contrasts, a mixture of East and West, antiquity and modernity. This contrast is evident from the moment of arrival at the airport, where travelers in trendy outfits and those in traditional garb bustle about side by side. Otherwise, they live in a patchwork of neighborhoods in a sprawling city of eighteen million, bisected by the Bosporus into the European and Asian sides

The Sultan Ahmet district, the administrative and religious base of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires for more than two thousand years, was where we stayed for three nights. Traditional Ottoman houses, restored as hotels, line the narrow cobblestone streets of this district, which sits on top of ancient Byzantium. Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Divine Wisdom) looms over the historic square. Built by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD, it was a Byzantine cathedral for its first thousand years, becoming a mosque in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks. Made a museum under the Turkish Republic, Aya Sofya has since been under perpetual restoration, as all its mosaic imagery had been whitewashed during Ottoman times. The restored mosaics shimmer in the dim light of the high dome, along with Arabic calligraphy from the Koran. 

Our walking tour included the Topkapi Palace, which was built by Mehmet the Conqueror shortly after the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and which served as the royal palace of the Ottoman sultans until 1853. The palace consists of pavilions surrounded by four large courtyards. Today it is one of the world's richest museums; its treasury is famed for its giant diamond and its emerald dagger. The palace complex and its collections grew as new sultans came to power and conquered more lands. During the reign of Ahmet III (1703-1730), who loved tulips, the courtyards blossomed with flowers. His reign is known as the Tulip Period (Lale Devri), when Turkish tulips inspired the Dutch.                                               

Separate admission is required to visit the Harem, a word driven from haram, meaning "forbidden" in Arabic. Until they were re-educated and renamed, the sultan could not touch the concubines, who were Christian girls, captured or bought in other countries; the majority were blue-eyed blondes from Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland and Russia. They acquired positions as favorites, mothers and wives. The sultans had stallion duties to perform; each ruler was the son of a foreign slave. The Harem buildings, with barred windows, connect through stone passageways; they contain tiled and painted rooms with arched doorways, large chambers, and numerous baths. The Harem functioned from the 15th century to the early 20th century. It was abolished and the women dispersed following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Another landmark of the historic city center is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, which lends its name to the square. The shimmering blue Iznik tiles of its interior give it the alternate name of Blue Mosque. Constructed between 1609 and1616 under the patronage of Sultan Ahmet I, it graces the Istanbul skyline with its six minarets. During our tour, Turkish locals, who recognized us as Americans, proudly mentioned that President Obama had visited the mosque. Across from the Blue Mosque is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, formerly the Ibrahim Pasha Palace, well worth the visit both for its Ottoman architecture, as well as its collections of calligraphy, ceramics and carpets.

A highlight of the old district is the Basilica Cistern, southwest of Hagia Sophia. It is an underground cistern built on the site of a basilica, hence the name. Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 542 AD to meet the water needs of his Great Palace, it is a rectangular structure of 140 by 70 meters, with 52 stone steps descending to the water level. 336 nine-meter-tall marble columns fan out in twelve rows of twenty-eight each, reflecting in the water they stand, for an effect which multiplies both their numbers and their magnificence. Arches distribute gravity to the columns by connecting their Corinthian and Doric capitals, creating an impressive visual effect in the ceiling of the red brick construction. Inverted Medusa heads form the bases of two of the columns. Whether they happened to be in the scrap pile of available construction material or were used as bases on purpose is a matter of speculation. Because of the magnificence of this ancient structure, the locals refer to it as Yerebatan Sarayi or "Sunken Palace". 

The Grand Bazaar, with its vaulted tunnels, offers an experience in wending through crowds. It is a covered maze of four thousand shops selling everything from modest souvenirs to priceless treasures, including a great deal of gold. The small shops, although crammed with wares, are very orderly. Vendors bargain in a great variety of languages. Since so much is imported from China or India, I had to go to three different shops to ascertain whether the silk scarf I liked was made in Turkey or not. It turned out that the raw material and design were Turkish, but the scarf was made in India because of cheaper labor. For major purchases, it is best to go with someone familiar with the place.

The Spice Bazaar is Istanbul's second largest old market with eighty-eight vaulted rooms, where every imaginable spice and herb, as well as sweets, traditional appetizers and gifts are sold. All items are neatly sorted for the eye: caviar, dried fruit, and varieties of tea. Dried vegetables, such as strung eggplant and okra, hang like ornaments; varieties of lokum (Turkish delight) entice passers-by to taste them, while colognes of various scents are offered for freshening up. Blue-glass evil eye bead talismans in attractive heaps catch the eye; called nazar boncugu, the bead is traced back to Siberian shamans.

The Bosporus cruise gave us a break from the bustling old city. On the way to the boat landing we visited the Rustem Pasha Mosque in Eminonu. Built by famed Ottoman architect Sinan in 1561, this small mosque has beautiful interior and exterior tile work. The pasha, who was married to Sultan Suleyman's daughter, Mihrimah, had the mosque built for his wife. Since multiple minarets were reserved for sultans, this mosque has a single minaret. We walked by the pigeons which crowd the courtyard of Yeni Mosque, a majestic sultan's mosque on the seashore with multiple minarets. The carts of vendors selling bird seed and people feeding the pigeons make this area a picturesque landmark.

We embarked at the mouth of the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosporus which divides the European side of Istanbul into the modern Galata and Beyoglu sections to the north and the old city to the south. The Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn to link these two parts of the city. The northern districts were the residential and business districts for non-Muslims during the Ottoman Empire, which displayed religious tolerance. Jews, Armenians and Orthodox Greeks lived in the neighborhoods of Galata, Beyoglu and the Golden Horn. The Bosporus Strait divides the European and Asian sections of the city and forms the route from the Marmara to the black Sea.

The best way to enjoy the Bosporus shoreline is by boat. In addition to chartered cruise boats, there are ferry boats, which leave at scheduled times. We cruised half-way up the Bosporus to the second bridge along the European shore, and returned following the Asian shore. Both shores are graced by fine houses along with occasional collapsed wooden ones, known as yali. Ottoman palaces, luxury hotels and fishermen enhance the scenery. During the cruise we enjoyed tea and snacks, which included kagit halvah, a large round wafer with sweet filling.

On our final day, we explored the trendier parts of Istanbul. Ortakoy, a neighborhood on the European shore of the Bosporus, has a weekly Saturday market for artisans, who sell their own crafts along with imported ones. We enjoyed walking around the stalls, admiring their creativity, and picked up gifts to take home. Take-out food stands beckoned with large baked potatoes, called kumpir, crepes cooked to order with assorted fillings, and Turkish hamburgers, called kofte. In the evening, with the first Bosporus Bridge in the background, this area around the Ortakoy Mosque, built in 1854 for Sultan Abdul Mecit, turns into a place for celebration.

Beyoglu is the heart of Art Nouveau Istanbul. Istiklal Avenue, now a gallant pedestrian street, is the heart of this district, which hums with entertainment and culture, including galleries with the latest word in fashion. A historic streetcar runs up and down the avenue between the Tunnel, which provides a short ride uphill from the Galata district and Taksim, the city's largest public square. Instead of riding the tram, we walked up Istiklal Avenue, going in an out of Art Deco arcades with shops and café interiors. Midway we had a refreshment break at a Maras ice cream stand. A specialty of the southeastern city of Maras, this ice cream is slowly hand-churned over ice, acquiring a unique consistency.

Our three-day visit to Istanbul was too brief to comprehend this multifaceted city. One needs a minimum of a week's stay to experience this constantly pulsing world-class city: modern and traditional, European and Asian, cutting edge and conservative, two millennia old, yet thrillingly hip. The museums mentioned in this article are but a few among the eighty in the city. For those who enjoy the countryside, a day trip by ferry to the Princess Islands is a good choice. There is no motor traffic on the islands; horse carriage and donkey are the only mode of transportation. The up-and-coming area around the Golden Horn is an increasingly popular visitor destination, as its former ethnic neighborhoods are restored.

The rest of Turkey offers much for the intrepid traveler. With our group's proven stamina, enthusiasm and appetite, we flew to Nevsehir to begin our next exploration: Cappadocia and Central Anatolia.