You could begin Istanbul by examining the traffic jam. My hotel room looks down on Aksakal, a narrow, cobbled street that runs sharply downhill from Sultanahmet to the waters of the Golden Horn. On my first night, I watched the traffic stop, build to a solid yellow hillside of taxis, and feel the rush of leaping blood pressure while a tour bus tried to navigate the corner at the bottom of the road around a trash collector who neatly swept up after himself after clumsily emptying the neighborhood garbage cans into his truck.
You could begin Istanbul on the rooftop terrace of my tiny hotel from which you can see the roof line of the Blue Mosque above you and, in the opposite direction, the conjunction of the Golden Horn (wider far than the Hudson River) and the Bosporus, that strangely one way north and south passage between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. For twelve hours the freighters line up waiting for the southbound ships to enter the Mediterranean. Then they start their surge up the Bosporus. So crowded is the waterway, it seems you could walk from deck to deck from Europe to Asia as, indeed, a Sultan once suggested: lash ships together across the full width, lay down planks, and connect the domestic Asian side with the commercial European. Nowadays, while you can skip across the Bosporus to the Asian side on any number of ferries, you cannot, by boat, reach the many countries bordering the Black Sea. My dream of sailing to Odessa scotched, I’ll have to fly. Or, my wry hotelier adds, I could take a series of local buses—maybe 50—and reach Odessa in about two weeks.
You could begin Istanbul by taking your traveled clothes to the local laundromat and be pleased to learn that your duds will be washed, dried, ironed, and returned to your hotel by day’s end.
Most probably, you will begin Istanbul by wandering in that cherished world site: the Hippodrome where the Roman Emperor Constantine held his chariot races in the 4th century, the Blue Mosque to the right built a thousand years later, and the Hagia Sophia to the left, built in the Byzantine 4th century as an Orthodox Greek church, later converted to Catholicism in the 13thcentury, converted to a mosque in 1453, and transformed into a secular museum by Ataturk in 1935. The great discovery you’ll make here has little to do with the conflux of so many historical forces. Rather, it is how well you manage the ingratiating, ever-so-polite, agonizingly persistent, knowledgeable, my-uncle-also-lives-in [fill in your home city], carpet salesman who notices that your feet look tired, whose shop is just around the corner, who knows that you have only just arrived and are in
no position to even consider purchasing a kilim, a Persian, a Turkish, an Indian, a silk, wool, cotton, large, small, throw, runner, modern, antique, protected-by-the-state-and-requiring-a-special-license-to-export, heirloom, one-of-a-kind, special just for you carpet. I will give you a cup of coffee, you like coffee, you can have tea instead, I will just give you my card and let you look if you like, if you just want to rest your feet and drink tea, I will understand, are you hungry, my cousin has the kebab shop across the Hippodrome, there was room for 150,000 to watch the chariot races, let me send for the chicken kebab, those are his best, so juicy, ah, here is my shop, and this is my brother, Mamud, he is business manager of our shop, someone has to stay indoors, and did you say coffee or tea?
Leave the shop having spent less than $4,000 and consider yourself a model of disciplined touring. Somewhere, in all this you will perhaps recognize that early Roman days when the resident Romans spoke Greek, Byzantine days, Ottoman days, the secularization of Turkey post WWI days, jet travel days, tourism money days have been chucked in the blender and come out Orthodox Prada and Ottoman GAP. Did it all begin when Ataturk adopted the western suit and abandoned the fez?
Even in secularized Istanbul, the mosque dominates—at least dominates the skyline. The proximity of the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, and Topkapi Palace (all of which can be toured in one exhausting day) makes Sultanamhet one of the several centers of this vastly sprawling city. Another, close to the Grand Bazaar and the University of Istanbul, is the Suleymaniye Mosque.
Suleiman the Magnificent ruled from 1520 to 1566. He conquered Europe up to the gates of Vienna, creating the 400-year rivalry between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs, a conflict that ended when both empires collapsed at the end of World War I. He conquered North Africa as far as Algeria. His navy was greater than all the rest of the Mediterranean navies combined. He reformed the legal system, wrote poetry, spoke five languages, did the unthinkable when he married a slave from the harem, Roxelana. He also gradually elevated the slave Ibrahim to be his highest advisor until (probably at the urging of Roxelana) he had him strangled.
While we westerners remain fascinated by the machinations of the House of Tudor, Suleiman wielded real power during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward I, Mary, I and Elizabeth I, all of whom were, essentially, bit players in the world of imperial power grabbing.
Mimar Sinan was Suleiman’s chief architect. He was the Michelangelo to Suleiman’s Julius II. He built the Suleymaniye Mosque between 1550 and 1557. It covers the hilltop overlooking the nexus of the Golden Horn and the Bosporus. Both the emperor and his architect are buried here. See the gallery for some pictures. Perhaps, in another post, I’ll add more.
Nearby, nestled in a bit of a vale beneath the walls of the University, stands the Kalenderhane Mosque (see pictures below). This is one of the few remaining Byzantine churches, long ago converted to a mosque. The mosque, unlike the great mosques, charges a small admission fee because, ever since its Christian days, it was meant to give its riches to the poor. It must collect its riches where it can. It was here that I heard the imam’s cell phone sound. Its ring was a recording of the call to prayer that resounds through the streets five times a day, broadcast by loudspeakers from the minarets.
Speaking of which: as I was having lunch at a café near the Suleymaniye Mosque, the call to prayer sounded. I looked around and noticed that, in this university neighborhood, no one paid the slightest attention. Conversation flowed as it had all during that hour. A few moments later, the café’s Muzack system came in as obligato to the call to prayer: Bing Crosby’s ‘True Love,’ though I think the singer was Perry Como instead. Some of the conversation abated for a moment as the diners listened. Instant seventh grade for me. For the Turkish lunch crowd? Imagine.