Most everyday at six, old wooden carts pass and move along the narrow cobblestoned alleyways hauling merchandise of freshly picked cucumbers, tomatoes, nuts and assorted vegetables. Here at the Grand Bazaar, farmers in their turbans make up the early morning scene as they patiently wait for shops to open. Anytime soon, this labyrinth of shops occupying 64 streets and with more than 4,000 vendors will become a dizzying tourist trap and fanciful treasure trove.
As shop keepers, mostly men and interested buyers gather beneath the old arched ceilings, the rituals of daily life commence almost immediately. As in centuries ago, they will all be haggling for that greatest textile and perfect carpets. They will select the best tea as well as weigh piles of spices that will later be brought home, perhaps far across the globe or served during lunchtime at some hotels in the old district.
Nearby, the neighborhood of Sultanahmet is just waking up. Windows flung wide open and doors ajar, as the summer air breezes in, carrying intoxicating whiffs of smoky kebabs and hookahs. Just an hour ago, one could clearly hear the call of the muezzin reverberating from every minaret, while at the same time the sound of the latest hip-hop music was blasting across the street.
Later in the day, particularly at dusk at the famous Blue Mosque, crowds would flock to the entrance where strolling tourists are ushered inside by persistent amateur guides. Then there are the devout, politely queuing outside wash-houses to cleanse themselves before the start of the evening prayer. A few meters away, the road opens up to a bustling street of boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, rooftop bars, cafés and hamams. It’s where stocky-bearded or clean-shaven men in tight jeans stand outside, beckoning tourists and travelers alike.
As the pulsating heart of Istanbul, Sultanahmet is the melting pot of human civilization and colliding cultures. Through centuries it served as the stage of history, power, wealth and intrigue. Its brick fortress splits the peninsula that runs from the eastern side of Eminönü to Küçük Ayasofya on the Sea of Marmara. Within its walls, it not only houses Istanbul’s most important landmarks but also tells a compelling story of the enigmatic face of the city that serves up a different flavor of hospitality.
I had heard for years that Istanbul or Byzantium as it was once called, had been a magnet for travelers in search of inspiration and a quest for the exotic. Decades ago, it was the final destination of the much sought after Orient-Express. In 2010, the city had grown to be one of the world’s “coolest” cities and was also awarded the prestigious title of European City of Culture.
Today, despite the millions of visitors crowding into its narrow streets and vertiginous bazaars, there is always an energy that runs through this historical city – inviting, invigorating and contagious. Forget the swelling sea traffic and the cacophony of hooting yellow taxis. There is room for everyone yearning for a new kind of spirit in this Old City.
My travel partner and I came to Istanbul to experience this first hand. As the Turkish Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur touched down on a breezy cool Friday at the Ataturk International Airport, we already began to feel the contemporary excitement of ancient Istanbul. It’s a mission, that instead of focusing our camera lens on the landscape, we opted for a close up view, perhaps a step closer into their hospitable world.
The Old City in the New World
The first sight of adventure peeks through our car window. In front of us are shimmering minarets tinged with a rosy hue while on our left are crumbling brick walls that snake along the main road leading to “Tarihi Yarımada” or “Suriçi”, the old walled city.
After stepping inside, one is transported through an ancient warp setting the scene of Istanbul’s early civilization.
From its inception, Constantinople, being the capital of the Roman Empire; to the decadence of the Byzantine era, and subsequently to the mighty Ottoman emperors that lavishly decorated the city’s skyline with towering mosques and palaces.
Standing in front of us was the Hagia Sophia whose enormous 30 meter diameter dome shelters one of the few outstanding mosaics in history. Once a patriarchal basilica, it was converted into a mosque during the time the Ottomans seized the city in the 15th century and is now a museum.
Adjacent is another architectural wonder, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque, with its six minarets and the multitude of blue tiles adorning the massive structure. It captivates its viewers up close and is even admired from the commuter ferries on the Bosporus.
Is it really possible for this old city to exist in the new world?
Turkish (delightful) Hospitality
When Dhzengis Ibryamov grins at you, it’s difficult not to smile back. He has the kind of smile that makes a waiter, a porter and a concierge, a bit of a superstar in his all-in-one-trade universe. Innocent yet boyishly warm, it’s the kind of smile that guarantees your trip to Istanbul is going to be incredible.
And it is his smile that caught our attention when we arrived on a windswept afternoon during the beginning of summer. Just like the black pair of trousers and his crispy spotless white shirt that he wears for work, he never fails to flash a smile to strangers and tourists passing by.
“Many things happen in the summer. I guess, it is the best time for business and it opens up great opportunities to meeting new people and of course, to make friends.” Typical to his character, Dhzengis easily warms up to every newcomer in his city, as in taking time to chit chat while pouring some hot water into my coffee.
While working comfortably as a waiter at the Millennium Suites Hotel in the vibrant neighborhood of Sultanahmet, he also switches roles from being a very knowledgeable concierge into an ordinary porter. He just turned 25.
“I would love to travel someday, ” he says, looking out over the Bosporus Straits. “For now, I can’t bring myself to travel around the world, but I can certainly bring Turkish hospitality to the world” he ended.
Prisons and Palaces
“Welcome to your prison!” To travelers, this is no ordinary greeting. After hearing this, my travel partner and I looked into each other’s eyes in awe.
If this is to be a scene from a movie, it is the moment where you need to swiftly find the nearest exit. Yet, there is no need for any kind of resistance when one gets to be sentenced in this most magnificent of prisons. The truth is, we blamed ourselves for getting out on bail.
Behind the century-old neoclassical structure lies a famous prison. The Sultanahmet Cezaevi, now a 5-star Four Seasons Hotel that luxuriously transports you back in time with its vaulted ceilings and arched windows that look onto a manicured landscaped courtyard. Back in the olden days, this courtyard served as an exercise space for inmates. It was also in this spot where Turkish dissident and romantic poet, Nâzım Hikmet spent his late afternoons.
Despite the many touches of traditional Four Seasons motifs, the original balletic architecture and elements remain. From the heavy wooden doors down to the marble pillars that support the arched hallways. If you move a bit closer to the pillars, you can spot some carvings left by resident inmates. I guess the most significant structure of this prison is its intimidating watch tower that always kept a sharp eye out, for prisoners not to escape.
For two days, in one of its 65 rooms, we immersed ourselves in its dizzying history, clicked cocktails at its neo-Ottoman rooftop lounge overlooking the Hagia Sophia while gazing at the minarets and listening to the call of the muezzin.
After spending a night in jail, our next move is to head off to the site of the first settlement in Istanbul – the Topkapi Palace. Not only was it the epicenter of the Ottoman Empire, it was also a subject of wondrous tales and controversies on the lives of libidinous sultans and their alluring concubines, of trusty janissaries and devious eunuchs.
Standing from its porch is a view to behold – the bustling Bosporus straits, the Golden Horn set against the Sea of Marmara and the vast continental landscape where east meets west. With massive courtyards and ornamented buildings, interwoven tiles that adorn the sultan’s harems, egg–sized diamonds and daggers of glittering gold, are without a doubt, a fascinating glimpse of what occurred behind the palace’s doors and its opulent pavilion.
On our last day in Istanbul, we decided to walk across the Galata Bridge. I was snacking on a slender döner and my travel partner munched on his baklava. The sun started to set giving a golden glow to everyone’s faces and turning the roofs of Cihangi into a dramatic red. Like a ray of hope that boosts the spirits of men who kept on throwing down their fishing lines hoping to finally get a catch.
In the distance, we could see ferries crisscrossing the banks of Eminönü in Europe and Uskudar in Asia, as well as tankers that brushed side by side with party yachts and dinner-cruise boats. Down in this busy sea passage, life goes on and memories are left in the water’s wake.
Soaking it all in, we came to realize that this is really a place that refuses to stay still. With ceaseless motion and pulsating energy, one could sometimes feel that you could be a stranger. Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul’s indigenous son, once articulated in his evocative memoir, Istanbul: Memories of the City, “to savor Istanbul’s back streets, to appreciate the vines and trees that endow its ruins with accidental grace, you must, first and foremost, be a stranger to them.”
Istanbul, is truly a city of the split personality marked by exceptional contrasts – of archaic and contemporary, secular and spiritual, tolerance and bigotry, of the Islamic east and Christian west; always with one foot in Asia and the other in Europe. Yet its real heart beat closer to the ground in the Sultanahmet quarter.
It’s ironic how I remember Charles Dudley Warner as he put it clearly that lettuce is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, so sparkling that you barely noticed the bitter in it. Istanbul in the summer of 2014 is exactly like that, with a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper and little more lavash.