By Mary Smith.
My first acquaintance with Istanbul was with the mighty Bosphorus Sea. It was 3am, and I was being driven down the desolate highway from the Istanbul Atatürk airport. The windows were wound down, and my only company was the saturated sea breeze. I was headed into Sultanahmet in the old town of Istanbul to put my bags down for the night. There were lights on shipping vessels out in the distance dotting the skyline, gently coercing us along the shoreline. Beyond the veil of light fog that shrouded the city, I could make out the outlines of jagged rooftops and stoic, slender minarets. Straddling the Bosphorus Strait on either shore are the European and Asian sides of Turkey. For a little while I sat arrested by the stillness before me, but little did I know of the magnetic power the Bosphorus held over all of Istanbul. The next three days would reveal all.
As dawn broke, the silence that cloaked the city slowly evaporated. The horns of impatient taxi drivers, clinking of tea glasses, constant cawking of seagulls overhead, bellowing calls to prayer at mosques during various intervals in the day, the chiming bells of trams in Taksim, and the thumping bass of Turkish pop reverberate throughout the vessel of Istanbul. This constant cacophony of sound is inescapable and was only one part of the full sensory journey I found myself embarking on.
I started off my first day exploring the architectural marvels of the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque and Hagia Sofia. Sitting across from one another, neither one of these monuments appears to overshadow the other, for both appear regal and exquisite in their own essence. It occurs to me that their resounding significance even in modern day Istanbul, remain a testament to the might and glory of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires that ruled through these parts, centuries ago.
My immersion into Istanbul’s cultural vessel begins in Sultanahmet Square. I bypass the persistent hoards of touts who offered to take me on cruises on the Bosphorus and numerous street food vendors who dot the expanse of the square, tempting me with their goods. Navigating myself towards the gates of the Hagia Sofia Museum, I stepped foot into the Basilica. Built in the 6th century, it was the crowning jewel of the Christian world until it was converted into a Mosque during the Ottoman conquest. An ethereal glow basks the interior of the Church, shards of light cascade through the stained glass windows. Heavy chandeliers hang precariously from high ceilings. A painting of the Virgin Mary overlooks the floor, coexisting alongside emblems of Qu’ranic verse. Interestingly upon the Ottoman takeover, despite purging the Church of its Christianity, the Byzantine mosaics were beautiful enough for the Ottomans to want to preserve. Marvel at the gold-tinted mosaic laden domes and experience for yourself the artistry of a civilisation past.
A short stroll across the Square led me to the entrance of the Blue Mosque. Closed to visitors at prayer time, be sure to plan accordingly. Constructed in the 1600s, it is an iconic feature not just in Turkey, but also in the Islamic world. It boasts six slender minarets that frame the rounded exterior of the Mosque. The wait to get in might be long, but the sense of awe that washes over you when you enter will thrill you for a lifetime. Don’t get snap-happy and take a million photos all at once. Instead find yourself a spot on the ground and revel in the spirituality and grand mastery that permeates every last nook and cranny of this dome of intense piety and craftmanship. It was my first time in a Mosque and that too into the Blue Mosque. I felt very lucky. A line of men were getting ready to perform namāz (prayers) on the other side of the barricade, all facing in the direction of Mecca. I observed as they exemplified their deep devotion through a series of synchronised actions – standing, bending, and kneeling. What I observed was almost hypnotic.
My day permitted that I spare a good three hours to be further seduced by the structures of the Old Town. The entire complex of the opulent Topkapi Palace fixates you in a state of temporary wonderment as you walk from room to room scrutinising artifacts that formed part of the Ottoman empire collection. I could wax lyrical about each one of these monuments forever, but I know I will do it no justice until you witness their majesty for yourself. Just ensure you allow yourself ample time to dwell and absorb these sights as it is easy to get overwhelmed by it all.
The next day was dedicated solely to the mission of savouring the gastronomical delights of Turkish cuisine. Armed with a list of culinary haunts to hit up as recommended by various friends who’d lived in and passed through the city, I set off for the day. I stopped for regular tea breaks throughout the day, making sure to cut the sharpness of the black tea with exactly two sugar cubes. I snacked on Simit (sesame encrusted donuts) and gnawed on the earthy sweetness of roasted chestnuts. Come lunchtime, I devoured an Iskender kebab in the backstreets of Taksim. Pieced together with slices of succulent lamb meat carved off the spit and doused in a spicy tomato sauce which got soaked up by cubes of pita bread, it was liberally drizzled with yoghurt. The Turks’ passion for yoghurt comes in handy when neutralising the often fiery flavours that marinate through the kebabs.
Anyone who manages to walk right past a Turkish sweet shop and not stop deserves a pat on the back for their outstanding willpower. It is no mean feat ignoring the allure of the little squares of rose flavoured Turkish delight (Lokum), delicately dusted with icing sugar and held together by chunks of dates, hazelnuts or pistachios. Do treat yourself for my sweet tooth definitely betrayed me!
As dusk started descending upon the city, I found myself walking down the Galata bridge back to Sultanahmet from Taksim. Wisps of smoke spirals rising from beneath the bridge carry the smell of grilled fish. Feeling just a little peckish, I follow my nose only to discover an entire seafood paradise tucked away underneath! The day’s catch, courtesy of the many hopeful fishermen who cast their nets into the Bosphorus, is grilled, enhancing the sweetness of its white flesh, before being slapped into a sandwich. Let’s just say I enjoyed it enough to go back for seconds.
On my final day the remaining sights on my itinerary was the Grand Bazaar, a stone’s throw away from Sultanahment Square. Covering ground of about 31 streets, an average of between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors walk the narrow alleyways perusing rugs, ceramics, jewellery, spices and tea among many others. Jostling through early morning crowds, I am assailed by vivid colours, intoxicating smells and invitations by shopkeepers to come have a look at their wares. Be warned, competition is quite strong between shops as they’re placed neck to neck with one another within allocated areas. In my short few hours there, I witnessed some of the most shrewd, charismatic and audacious salesmen I had ever encountered! So plan your shopping strategies wisely and if you play your cards right, you might just score a phenomenal deal on your way out (if you make it out of the maze of crisscrossing streets)!
Nestled deep in the foliage of the Gülhane Park, sits a terraced tea garden overlooking the Bosphorus. It was here that I found myself whiling my last evening in Istanbul with a pot of freshly brewed tea. Three days had gone by in a flash, and despite my packed itinerary it felt as if I’d only skimmed the surface of what this city of such grand contrasts had to offer. Ardently Muslim and modern, conservative yet progressive, I was constantly challenged and persuaded by its fluid potency. Cradling the secrets of an ancient culture as deep and vast as the Bosphorus itself, I whispered into the very same sea breeze that welcomed me that first night that I would return to peel back more of Istanbul’s many layers to reveal the ultimate gem that it is.