Ten Good Reasons to Go to Istanbul
Country Life, April 2010
When you cross the portals of the brazen doors of the Church of Divine Wisdom, the Ayia Sophia, you are following in the footsteps of the wizened old Emperor Justinian (who presided over its opening dressed in a monks cowl on Christmas Eve 563AD). He was heard to whisper, “Oh Solomon, I have surpassed thee” as he entered. For is right. To be in the Ayia Sophia with its diffused light bouncing off the surviving fragments of old gold mosaic on the vast imperial dome is reason enough to travel to Istanbul. In the side galleries, you can run your hands over the surface of vast cool columns and marble panels gathered from all the quarters of the Empire; the Lacemedonian green of Sparta, the steel-grey of Marmara, the warmer onion skin texture of Italian cipollino, the trapped sunlight of Numidian gold and the reverent scarlet porphyry that was fetched out of the deserts of Egypt. In quiet contrast to this ordered magnificence are the fragmentary mosaics in the upper gallery; the faces of long dead Emperors, and Empresses and a sublime 13th century Deesis, with the Virgin and John the Baptist begging for our mercy before Christ in Majesty.
The Ait Meydani, the ancient circus race track of Byzantium, stands just outside the Ayia Sophia studded with monuments and overlooked by palaces. Though this whole fascinating area is dominated by the magical exterior of the 17th century Blue Mosque. A forest of six pencil-thin minarets rise up in perfect contrast to the mounting cascade of leaded domes each crowned with a stack of gilded prayer-balls. There is no especial need to ‘do’ the interior by joining the shuffling line of shoe-less tourists, smelling of socks. Stronger memories will have been inspired by sipping tea in one of the surrounding cafes during the dusk call to prayer, or by puffing away at a water piper when seagulls circle the illuminated minarets at night. Amongst the Mosque complexes less visited outbuildings, are the domed tomb of Sultan Ahmet, a carpet museum established in the royal lodge and an elegant line of shops and cafes (and a mosaic museum) which line the cavalry bazaar.
No-one can absorb the treasures of the Topkapi Palace Museum in one visit, not even by resting your eyes by repeated visits to the museums splendid restaurant and café that overlooks the Bosphorus straits. The various halls housing the collection of Chinese ceramics, jewels and silk kaftans are each worth a visit in their own right, but it is the intimate details of the palace scattered over the three great courtyards that draw me back again and again. The flowers painted on the wooden panels of a tiny dining room in the harem quarters, the gilded Ramadan canopy overlooking the Golden Horn, the simplicity of the benches of the Pashas in the Divan (the Cabinet Office of the Ottoman Empire) or that ultimate male retreat from the cares of state and multiple wives, the Baghdad Kiosk.
The Archaeological Museum of Istanbul fills a complex of halls downhill from the Topkapi Palace’s first courtyard, fronted by a charming outdoor lapidary café (beloved by cats) whose tables overlook a 15th century royal polo pavilion (the oldest surviving Turkish secular building in the city). But even if you decide to leave the ancient treasures of Lydia, Phrygia, Carian, Hittite Anatolia, Sumeria, Egypt and Babylon in favour of another Turkish coffee, you should yet step inside to look at the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus. The hunting and the battle scenes between the Greeks and Persians that have been carved on each of the four faces are one of the sculptural wonders of the ancient world.
I am tempted to say nothing about the Yerebatan Saray, for the ideal approach is to be led by a friend to this dark, dripping place with no introduction at all. For beneath the bustling streets of old Istanbul there exists a truly vast and cavernous Byzantine water cistern, sustained by a forest of ancient columns torn from the pagan shrines of antiquity. Be sure to follow the walkway to the end, keeping an eye out for drowned gorgons…
The 19th-century palace of Dolmabache palace is undeniably impressive in scale (Buckingham Palace could probably fit into its throne room) but you will have even more fun exploring a smaller, more decorative and amusing palace, such as Beylerbey. Though what this era did with even greater conviction was a railway station, and both the HaydarPasha (a schloss on the Asian shore) and the Sirkeci (the end-destination of the Orient Express) have the added attractions of working cafes and bars.
A ferry trip up the Bosphorus allows one to see, but not be oppressed by, the hundreds of palaces and yalis which line the surging waters of the straits - which connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. Keep your energy for just two landfalls, to visit either the Sadiberk Hanim (a private museum stuffed with Ottoman and archaeological treasures) or for a leg-stretching walk upto the castle above Anadolo Kavagi, from where you can look into the Black Sea. Lunch late but well on fish and mussels, getting the last boat back so that you time your return to witness a sun set over the skyline of Istanbul.
The covered bazaar of Istanbul is an ever-enticing labryinth of some 4,000 shops that sucks in visitors, who are charmed, befuddled, confused and delighted in equal measure. You can flaneur about beneath its vaults and domed Hans in a few playful hours of whimsy or spend days tracking down little visited ancient caravanserai courtyards, tombs and baroque mosques that surround the quarter. Your first visit might conclude with a couple of hours spent idling in one of the historical Turkish Baths that survive here, such as Cemberlitas or Caologugli.
The greatest of all the Sultans of Istanbul was Suleyman the Magnificent, who deserved his synonym thrice over; due to his military conquests, his role as a law-maker and his buildings. The architect of this golden era of 16th century Ottoman achievement was Mimar Sinan (the Sir Christopher Wren of Istanbul if you wish) whose works still dominate the city in a magnificent fusion of Romanesque order married to a complex spiritual and spacial imagination. The great cathedral mosque complex of the Sulemaniye is Sinan’s acknowledged masterwork in Istanbul, though for pure enchantment, you must also track down the Sokullu Mehmet Pasha mosque (near the Byzantine church of St Sergius and Bacchus) and the Rustem Pasha mosque (above the spice bazaar).
My tenth wonder is a cheat, because I am going to have to pack half a dozen things together. This day begins with a five mile walk along the siege broken land walls of Constantinople, beginning at the prison towers of Yedikule castle and finishing beside the roofless ruins of Tefkur Saray, the last palace of the Caesars. Then to the Church of the Chora (Kariye Camii) whose narthex is filled with golden mosaics depicting the childhood of the Virgin and the life of Christ. A funerary chapel built onto the flank of this medieval church contains a fresco of the Anastasis painted across the curve of its small apse. It is a master-piece of hope, and I have witnessed its powers on many occasions, such as when I watched the face of an ardent atheist become streaked with tears standing face to face with the Harrowing of Hell by the Arisen Christ . Then down the hill to walk through Balat and Fener, the old quarters of the Jews and the Phanariot Greeks, encrusted with churches, synagoes, rotting mansions and the waters of the Golden Horn.
Hallmarks of the modern Orientalist
One of the side affects of exploring Istanbul is that once tasted the memory of this eternal city is never forgotten. But the love affair can be further intensified by taking out a subscription to the supremely elegant Cornucopia magazine and reading that travel classic, Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga before delving into the Eland collection of the poetry of Istanbul. These hallmarks of the modern Orientalist can be acquired in Istanbul, at the two English Bookstores run by Ali Tuysuz on Divan Yolu or in one the Daunt bookshops in London.
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by Barnaby Rogerson