Chronological / Destinations / Europe

The Call of Istanbul

It was a bright and beautiful Wednesday in August 2001, the afternoon of our first day in Istanbul We emerged from the Divan Hotel into a high-end neighborhood of late 20th century buildings and crossed a wide boulevard teeming with traffic.

On the opposite side, in a municipal park the size of a large city block, rose bushes were abloom and the fragrance of honeysuckle was so strong, it was almost dizzying. As were the crowds of pedestrians. Long-legged young women in mini-skirts and high-heeled shoes strode by ageless women, their heads covered with the traditional hijab, who shuffled along in black coats that reached down to their ankles.

A woman in a chador peered out from the secret interior of her shapeless garment. Serious-looking men in business attire were trailed by noisy shoe-shine boys. Vendors steamed ears of corn in big pots, sold ice cream, proffered cherries from big wooden crates reclining in wheelbarrows, hawked lottery tickets.

Taksim Square leads to Istiklal Street, a broad and lively byway of shops, restaurants and cafes, offices and embassies housed in an assortment of nineteenth century buildings that stand shoulder to shoulder along an avenue closed to all traffic save a one-car trolley that winds its way up and down the single track in its center.

This is the heart of Beyoglu, a neighborhood that a century ago had been the mercantile center of European Istanbul, where a multitude of nationalities lived, conducted business, and frequented the area’s sophisticated hotels, theaters, cafes and shops. To this day the diversity of the region’s churches, synagogues and mosques cannot be equaled anywhere in the world.

The smells of coffee and tobacco and a melding of music wafted out from doorways. We heard the strains of “Tumbalalika,” an Eastern-sounding lullaby a favorite uncle used to sing, blaring American rock, Arabic and Greek songs all competing with street musicians playing accordions and different kinds of pipes.

Then suddenly in the midst of the all the cacophony, a high, unaccompanied voice pierced the air with an Oriental melody sung with great feeling and vibrato. Around us, people continued about their business seemingly unmindful of the song that seemed to be floating above the rooftops.

“It is the call to prayer,” our guide Hasan told us, indicating the mosque at the end of the street. Looking up to the minaret, we saw a man in a white robe surrounded by four loudspeakers, into which he sang sequentially. “This happens five times a day in every mosque,” Hasan said. In the week that followed, the call to prayer would accompany us, stopping us from whatever we were doing, compelling us to listen. It punctuated our days with the reminder of how strong a current of spirituality runs through the veins of this many-faceted city.

The Muslim story is but a latter chapter in the history of this part of the world, where civilizations are layered like strata of stone. From the terrace outside our eighth-floor room in the Divan Hotel, we could see the Bosphorus, the strait that Jason and the Argonauts had sailed in search of the Golden Fleece. Istanbul was Byzantium then, named for Byzas, leader of the Megarians, who founded the city in the seventh century B.C., some two hundred years before myths like Jason’s had been incorporated into the standard Greek repertoire. Myth and history blend artfully in any account of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul.

In cleaving the land mass between the Black Sea to the north and the Marmara Sea to the south, the Bosphorus separates Europe from Asia. Istanbul is on its southern banks, and is itself divided by a winding inlet called the Golden Horn — after Keroessa, the granddaughter of Zeus and mother of Byzas — which flows into the basin where the Bosphorus and Marmara meet.

We took a taxi down to the waterfront neighborhood of Galata and crossed the Golden Horn over a long bridge lined with fishermen, to Istanbul’s Old City, which appears rooted in an older kind of commercial world. At the southeast tip of the waterfront, we met Hasan at Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul’s most ancient section, the place where, legend has it, Byzas founded Byzantium, and where Constantine ruled after he re-named the city for himself and proclaimed it capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D. After Constantine adopted Christianity, the region became the spiritual and administrative center of the new faith and then the Eastern Church, until the Ottoman conquest of 1454.

Thereafter Sultanahmet was headquarters for the ruling Turks, the site for palaces, mosques, monuments, and the city’s largest bath. What better place, we thought, to begin our exploration into Istanbul’s past.

“I have surpassed you, O Solomon,” declared Emperor Justinian in 537 at the inauguration of the largest church in the world. It has subsequently been surpassed in size by St. Paul’s in London, St. Peter’s in Rome and the Duomo in Milan, but for sheer grandeur and majesty, the Hagia Sofia remains unequaled.

Although the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque, whitewashed its Christian paintings and mosaics and removed its ikons and statues, the structure, which became a museum in 1935, speaks to any faith.

The morning of our visit, hundreds of people roamed its vast interior. Yet despite the multitudes, the immensity of the place made it possible to feel alone. Light filtered into the cool darkness through hundreds of arched stained-glass windows.

The enormous central dome, surrounded by pairs of semi-domes and six smaller domes, seemingly soars up to heaven from its rectangular basilica. One hundred seven columns brought from all parts of the ancient world support the domes’ great weight; some are from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Their carved decorations, the church’s great bronze doors, the painting and mosaics depicting Biblical scenes and Byzantine royalty represent Byzantine art at its most exquisite.

A long plaza separates the Hagia Sophia from the Blue Mosque, named for its interior of blue and white Iznik tiles. The long stretch of greenery that runs alongside the Blue Mosque was once the Hippodrome, where chariots raced in ancient times. Today a tenth-century stone pillar, a bronze column from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and an obelisk commemorating a Pharaoh’s victory in 1550 B.C. immerse one in the spell of antiquity.

Hasan broke our spell by suggesting we stop for lunch at a place on Sultanahmet Square. It was “The World Famous Pudding Shop,” familiar to many an American backpacker from the 1960s and ‘70s who used Istanbul as a midpoint in the journey across Europe and Asia. This was the place where they got together to drink Turkish coffee, sing along to guitar music, collect mail, plan routes. Since those days, the place has expanded into a four-star boutique property named the Blue House Hotel.

The Blue House’s rooftop restaurant commands stunning views of the confluence of the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and Marmara Sea. From our table on the roof’s edge one of us faced the Blue Mosque, the other the Hagia Sophia. We watched darkness fall, the moon rise, the Blue Mosque become illuminated by blue and white lights in turn, and the red stone of the Hagia Sophia become bathed in gold.

Directly below us was a smoke shop, where visitors smoked water pipes and drank Turkish tea. A trio composed of a kind of tom-tom drum and two long and flat string instruments was playing traditional Turkish music.

Suddenly three men dressed in white caftans with cone-shaped head coverings stepped onto a little patio, crossed their arms, placing each hand on the opposite shoulder, and began to slowly spin around. As the music’s tempo quickened, they raised their arms above their heads and twirled faster and faster until they looked like spinning tops.

When it seemed they could go no faster, the tempo began to decrease, as did their rate of spinning, until both came to a halt. Unexpectedly we had witnessed the dance of the whirling dervishes.

The next morning we returned to Sultanahmet to see the actual jeweled treasures of the famed Topkapi Palace. Set amidst gardens on the top of gently sloping hills, surrounded by Byzantine sea walls on one side and Ottoman land walls on the other, this complex of pavilions, apartments, courtyards, and kiosks served as royal residence, seat of government, and symbol of the Ottoman Empire for four hundred years.

Arranged around a vast open space are a multitude of buildings that lead into courtyards, domed pavilions, and octagon-shaped kiosks — all of great detail and beauty, each with its own purpose from the rooms displaying the sultans’ collections of Chinese porcelain, to the kiosk holding the relics of the prophet Muhammad, where a man in a small glass booth ceaselessly chants passages from the Koran.

A tour of Topkapi Palace provides an interesting insight into the direction of the Ottoman Empire over time, how, as the centuries passed, the sultans became more enamored of European tastes, how Arabic design gave way to western arts and artifacts — particularly in the latter-day affection for crystal chandeliers.

Surely this shift had something to do with the decision to ultimately abandon Topkapi and relocate the imperial residence and offices to the other side of the city, the more modern, more European part of Istanbul. Coincidentally or not, the move coincided with the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire.

In step with the imperial chronology, we taxied back across the Golden Horn and followed the shoreline north to the site of Dolmabahce Palace, which was completed in 1854 at a cost of five million gold pieces and is often compared to Versailles.

The chandelier hanging in its great reception hall, a gift from Queen Victoria to Sultan Abdulmec, it is the largest in the world and is but one of 36 fabulous fixtures of Baccarat, Bohemian, and Murano design in this palace of 285 rooms and 43 reception halls, whose interior décor was, in large measure, the work of the man who designed the Paris Opera.

Dining in the fabulous Hotel Kempinski, we met Chef Fabrice, a native of Paris who has become expert in Turkish cuisine, which he compares to Greek, Lebanese and Moroccan, but with the addition of something more. “I’ve been here for nine months, and one thing I’ve learned for certain is there is so much to discover in Turkey.”

Indeed. We had yet so much to discover in Istanbul alone. In a single week, we had seen many of its famed sites, traveled the legendary Bosphorus on a ferry boat crossing from points on the European to Asian sides, attempted to navigate the world famous Golden Bazaar, partaken of the excellent cuisine, and in the process developed some sense of how this city is so much a product of its many-layered past. More important, we think, we had gotten to know a people we’d had little contact with before, people who were warm, hospitable, gracious to strangers, anxious to share the wealth of their history and culture.

More than a decade has passed since that journey and much has changed. Yet the call to prayer we heard our first afternoon in Istanbul lingers. It remains a call to return.

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