The only city on Earth to straddle two continents, Istanbul sits where Europe and Asia collide. Here, you move between civilisations in a couple of steps and transcend cultures in a matter of minutes. By Shikha Pushpan
When a young Coco Chanel got down to designing the Turkish military uniforms in the 1930s, Istanbul was undergoing a renaissance of sorts. While the 19th-century Ottoman Istanbul was considered as cosmopolitan as modern London, the city in the 20th century was embracing a miscellany of its Greek, Roman, and Venetian (and Ottoman) influences—a cultural diversity that it retains to this day. Almost a century later, as I sit along the Bosphorus reading about Istanbul’s transition from a strategic Silk Route destination to one of the most glamorous second cities in the world, a timelapse of sorts plays in my head—trading vessels get replaced by superyachts and merchants with binocular- wielding travellers; imperial mosques and palaces built by the Byzantines and Ottomans watch glass-walled skyscrapers come up. This is the modern Istanbul—where the Blue Mosque’s domes oversee lively cafes abuzz with young Istanbulus catching up post-work over raki and meze, where the world’s biggest airport makes a dent in global aviation, and boutique fashion brands give the swanky international ones a run for their money.
IN THE OLD TOWN
“So, take me back to Constantinople. Been a long time gone, Oh Constantinople.” The Four Lads’ ode to the days of Constantinople (now Istanbul) comes alive at the Hagia Sophia museum, where Greek Orthodox Christian ethos meets Ottoman mosque architecture at the site of a pagan temple. The sixth-century basilica-turned- mosque-turned-museum rises like a dream on the shores of the Bosphorus. Standing beneath its 55-metre-high dome is a humbling experience. This is where one can watch Istanbul’s multi-layered past unfold through fragile frescoes and mosaics. “Soon after the structure’s conversion into a mosque in 1453, many of the mosaics were covered with plaster due to Islam’s ban on representational imagery. The restoration process faces a peculiar challenge due to the place’s long history as both, a church and a mosque. Therefore, restorers have attempted to maintain a balance between both Christian and Islamic cultures,” I was told on my visit.
A rather recent development is the Instagram-famous cat, Gli, who has become a darling among tourists visiting the popular attraction. “She can be found standing under the Muezzins’ Loge, or in the middle of the omphalos when she wants to have some alone time!” quipped our guide. You can follow the whereabouts of the famous feline on Instagram under the handle @hagiasophiacat.
Unlike Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace offers a deep dive into the lives of the Ottomans and their harem. Constructed much later, in the 15th century, as the official residence of the sultans and their families, the erstwhile royal court offers a medley of Islamic, Ottoman, and European architecture styles and decoration in its four main courtyards, several pavillions, mosques, and manicured tulip gardens. One of my primary objectives behind visiting Topkapi Palace was to gain historical insights into the highly guarded harem of the sultans. “Contrary to popular opinion, sexuality was not the dominant ordering principle within the harem. It was not a fantasy place, instead it was very regulated and disciplined, a place where women were educated,” I was told, as we entered an inward-looking world of green and blue tiled corridors and tiny cubicles lined with sofas. A sense of enclosure and secrecy begins to grow even before you get to the main door of the harem, a 10-minute walk from the main palace gate. “The role of the Ottoman harem was that of the royal upbringing of the future wives of noble and royal men. These women were educated in order to appear in public as royal wives. Children were also born and grew up inside the harem. Harems also had markets, bazaars, playgrounds, kitchens, laundries, baths, and schools.” There were powerful women, such as Hurrem Sultan, who played an important political role in the story of the empire. In fact, it was famously said that the Ottoman Empire was ruled from the harem. Today, empty stage sets remain as the last standing testimony of the harem, which was once called home by the sultan’s wives and concubines, stepmothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, ladies in waiting, eunuchs, and maids.
As the crimson skies cast a spell on the city’s iconic skyline, I drove down Galata Bridge and was transported from Ottoman minarets to European Art Nouveau buildings on the bustling Istiklal Caddesi. Lined with 19th-century mansions, high street brands, and glitzy nightclubs, Istiklal is the perfect metaphor for 21st-century Turkey—on its one end stands the famous Taksim Square and on the other Galata Tower, both symbolic epicentres of modern Istanbul. As European as it gets, Istiklal (meaning ‘independence’) retains a slightly louche and laid- back flavour. I was walking down the street, along with a stream of chirpy Istanbulus, when a young dondurma caught me unaware. “If you see a vendor dressed in Turkish costume on Istiklal Caddesi, or other places in Istanbul, beating his stainless steel tubs with a metre-long ice-cream scoop, you have found the dondurma, or ice-cream man,” I remember being told at the beginning of the tour. How deceptive can a funny-looking ice-cream man be, I thought to myself and ordered a classic Turkish ice-cream scoop. What unfolded within the next few minutes were moments of childlike joy. The ice-cream arrived in my hand, then disappeared leaving me holding an empty cone. In the next few minutes, it was twisted, turned, and twirled in front of me and a growing crowd, before the chewy clotted cream finally landed on my cone for good. The crowd laughed, clapped, and then dispersed. A little further down the road, I bumped into a guy trying to sell his poems!
Istanbulus love their food. In this city, enjoying a meal is a community exercise. You inevitably bump into big, boisterous families exchanging their day’s highlights over lahmacun, a thin Turkish pizza with ground-lamb topping, or Iskender kebab, at roadside cafes. Munch on roasted chestnuts, simit (sesame- encrusted bread ring), kumpir (baked potato), or mussels cooked in the shell before you settle down to experience a sumptuous Turkish dinner with the locals. I chose Hacibaba as the place to feast on time-honoured Ottoman and Turkish preparations, such as manti, a type of local dumpling. In Turkish cuisine, eggplant enjoys undisputed reign. Therefore, it is recommended to try a patlican (eggplant) kebab as well. Other dining destinations to check out in the vicinity include Konak and Ara Cafe, which is popular for its Sunday brunch.
On my last day in Istanbul, I stayed back at my base, Pera Palace Hotel, to be a part of the evening high tea ceremony. A daily ritual for many years now, the ceremony is presided over by 94-year-old Ilham Ganjish, who introduced Turkey to western music. Frail in composition yet swift on the piano, Ganjish was an instant crowd-pleaser and took breaks between his compositions to interact with the audience. He walked up to our group and enquired if we were from India. Assured that he was right in his perception, he played the iconic Hindi track, Jeena isi ka naam hai. The joy of listening to an ageless Mukesh number in an iconic hallroom visited by the likes of Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway gave me goosebumps. I retired to my room smiling, hoping to be back soon, this time to explore the Asian side of the city. As they say, one visit is never enough.
Feast on Culture
The unique city of Istanbul has ample to offer. Set aside three to four days at least to explore its many facets.
Turkish Airlines operates direct flights from Mumbai and New Delhi to Istanbul.
Pera Palace Hotel is Istanbul’s first and most iconic luxury property. It was novelist Agatha Christie’s preferred retreat—her room 411 was converted into a museum. The hotel sits in close proximity to Istiklal Caddesi, Taksim Square, Galata Tower, etc. Rooms start from INR 12,000.
Watching a transcendental performance of swirling dervishes at Hodjapasha Dance Theatre will undoubtedly be your itinerary’s highlight. Spare an afternoon to visit the Grand Bazaar, home to 4,000 shops spread across 64 streets and 22 entrances. Here, you can shop for everything from customised diamond jewellery to spices and teas, and kilim. A visit to Istanbul is incomplete without buying baklava for friends and family. Karakoy Gulluoglu in Beyoğlu is a 200-year-old shop selling dozens of varieties of baklava. Spend an evening on a cruise on the Bosphorus to admire the city’s vibrant skyline from the waters.
Related: A Music Lover’s Guide To Istanbul