I can't think of any place in the world where the crossroad of cultures is more apparent than in Istanbul, a 2010 European Capital of Culture. What a fascinating city!
"I am like Turkey, like the Bosporus - one part East, one part West," proclaims a character from my novel The Topkapi Secret.
Although the skyline is now delineated by the minarets of imperial mosques, by Old World standards Islam is a relative newcomer to this city, the ancient capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. After hundreds of years of resisted attempts, the Turks finally succeeded in conquering Constantinople in 1453, and renamed the city Istanbul. This means a rich texture of history and cultures awaits you at every step.
Here's a list of my personal Istanbul favorites:
Topkapi Palace For nearly three hundred years a large portion of the world was ruled from within these walls by the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Except for the pavilions around the pool, I'm inclined to agree with 18th century traveler Lady Mary Wortley Montague that the outside is boring: it looks like a 1950s California ranch style elementary school. But the Topkapi collections are top notch.
Some of the world's greatest gems are on display, including the 86 karat Spoonmaker's Diamond, said to have been bought for three spoons from a scrap merchant who found it in a rubbish heap. (Ah, those were the days...) Although not currently on display, their Topkapi Codex is claimed by some to be the oldest existing Koran, and may be the one Khalif Uthman was reading when he was stabbed to death: perhaps it still bears his blood. (Hmm. Sounds like great material for a novel there...)
Bosporus Cruise Where else can you boat the narrow passage of water between two continents? (OK. I hear you triviaphiles calling out Alaska and Gibraltar, so I'll add a qualifier) ... and still be in the same city? The banks are lined by everything from high rent apartments, to palaces, to medieval battlements of opposing Christians and Muslim forces. And don't ignore the classic Istanbul skyline, best viewed from the water, as you pull into and out of the dock. I hope your day is clear.
Basilica Cistern "It's like the waiting room between heaven and hell" is how I describe it in The Topkapi Secret. If you ask me, this is one the most striking sites in all Istanbul, and next to Haghia Sofia the best Byzantine site almost anywhere.
Built by Emperor Justinian in 532 A.D., by the time of the Ottomans it had become forgotten - until people began pulling buckets of water, complete with fish, out of their basements. What was discovered was an underground hall of 336 decorated columns partly submerged in water. Dramatic lighting now highlights the arched architecture. Classical background music sets the mood for tourists. If you imagine it as the perfect setting for a videogame - or the great action scene of an adventure novel - you won't be far off!
Turkish Cooking The Sultans' cooks scoured the empire to bring new dishes to his table. The result: success - exquisite seasonings without too much fire. Even meat-eaters will be tempted by their saucy vegetables and tasty soups. Also try gözleme - a flat pancake-like bread dish stuffed with potato and onion or any of a number of fillings.
Turkish Delight The real kind, not those gelatinous blobs that I don't like in the States, but the truly Turkish variety which is loaded with nuts and special essences. It is delightful to say the least. (Free samples are sometimes available in specialty shops.)
Pierre Loti Cafe Don't come here for the food. The beverages are passable, but two non-culinary draws make it a pilgrimage site. First the fantastic view over Istanbul - said by Pierre Loti to be the best; and second, you guessed it - it is a site of homage to the popular French author Pierre Loti himself.
Pierre came to Istanbul as a sailor and fell in love with both the place and a Turkish maiden in an ill-fated love affair. American and British readers of the late 19th century found him a bit too introspective, flowery, and risqué for their taste. (I'm not fond of his style either.)
Loti's writing may be dated, but on a positive note, his hit novel The Disenchanted, brought the attention of Europe to the plight of Turkish women. At that time most spent their entire lives in harems, leaving only twice: once to travel to the home of their new husband (usually an old stranger), and once to be buried. Subsequently, Ataturk outlawed the harem and greatly increased women's rights, bringing Turkey into leadership in Muslim women's rights.
Grand Bazaar Walking past 4,000 shops along 65 covered merchant alleys can so disorient you that you can imagine yourself as lost, or perhaps really be as lost, as you might be deep within the medina of Fez. (If you easily succumb to panic attacks, stay near the edges or pre-medicate yourself.)
Turkish Tiles and Porcelain are unlike any others. Busy is the word! Known for their lively patterns and bright colors, some dishes even sport texture, often in the form of decorative white bumps. (You can buy them from tourist shops, but beware - the quality varies and the busy pattern can hide chips and cracks.)
Entire rooms of Turkish palaces are covered with crisp blue and white wall tiles. Examples of the classic period of Iznik tiles adorn the Topkapi Palace. Being in some ways more liberal than Islamic cultures which outlaw the depiction of any creature, the traditional Turkish tiles include depictions of non-human life forms like birds, trees, or perhaps the royal tulip flower in stand-out red.
Ottoman Domestic Architecture I find this a unique and fun style. It seems a mix of Victorian, Middle Eastern and Swiss Chalet all at once. Externally, Ottoman wooden siding has a boxy look with lots of sharp angles, like San Francisco Eastlake style. But the protuberant screened second floor viewing stations are nothing like we have in America.
They were built overhanging the street so harem women could discretely watch the action passing by below. Don't ask where to find these houses. Just walk around the old town center near Topkapi Palace and you'll see them scattered everywhere, and in every color - yellow, pink, bright blue, white, and natural wood. Or visit the period town of Yeniköy, slightly up the Bosporus. Interior Ottoman styles usually feature stained wood paneling, carved furniture, and kilm-type textiles.
Turkish Baths have become a legendary world institution. Even Budapest has a Turkish Bathhouse from its days under the Turks. Descended from the Roman tradition, the Ottomans brought baths into an art form both architecturally and sensually. Some say half of the joy of the Turkish bath is getting delirious when you are nearly steam-cooked alive, and the other half is relaxing once you know you've survived.
To pray and touch the Koran, one should be physically clean, and in traditional Turkish culture, free of bodily hair. Ironically, this custom helped develop women's rights among the middle class, who could not afford to have private baths. Women were allowed to leave the house at least once or twice a week for a bath, and this got them out of the harem. (And its rumored they dallied!)
Roman Remnants have mostly been ravaged by wars and time. The outline of the Hippodrome now survives as a road encircling the park with a few Roman era monuments, and even a pink granite obelisk from Egypt that was old when Rome was young.
Haghia Sophia The masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, with a legendary dome unrivaled for centuries. The building was the center of the Eastern Church for nearly a thousand years when Turkey was Christian, but was converted to a mosque when Istanbul was conquered.
The 184 foot dome surmounts a solemn space which visually represents the struggle between East and West: beneath the dome large Koranic roundels are bolted to the wall yet here and there, partly revealed from beneath the plaster coating of later years, are exquisite mosaics of Jesus Christ depicted on a shimmering gold background.
Sunset Prayer Whatever your religion, this is one of the most ethereal experiences on earth. Half an hour before sunset, find yourself a rooftop in the Sultanahmet area, like Hotel Sultanhan's penthouse terrace cafe, order a nice beverage, get out your camera and wait for the show to begin.
The entire city becomes a 360 degree living light and sound show as one by one the mosques light up, and the mournful sounds of the call for maghreb prayers sequentially begin their round. Depending on the weather, the sky basks them in color which ranges from pink to "Maxfield Parrish" blue.
If these delights in the flagship city of contrasts inspires you, you can read more here. Also, travel tips and recipes coming soon to www.terrykelhawk.com.