As Constantinople, Byzantium and eventually Istanbul, for almost 16 centuries, this city has beamed as the Imperial capital of mighty empires. Today, Istanbul is the cultural heart of Turkey, a vibrant bridge across the physical and philosophical landmasses of Europe and Asia, located on the Sea of Marmara and straddling the powerful Bosphorus Strait. Beckoning tourists and traders alike, it has utilized its strategic position at the crossorads of two continents to grow into a fast-paced modern economy while preserving its glorious past.
Arriving at the Attaturk airport and driving on the wide, well maintained highway to the old town, the modern metropolis is on display through high-rise buildings of steel and glass, shopping malls, nightclubs, and restaurants boasting local and international cuisine alike, while cruise ships docked in the port on the Bosphorus Strait, wait for their travelers who seek to soak up the magic of this ancient sprawling city in just a few hours. However, as you start climbing one of the seven hills that the city of Istanbul is built on, it's famed past and rich culture starts to make its presence felt. Slender minarets with golden crescents on top, wide domes of mosques and squat buildings of white and beige topped with red tiles or flat terraces squeeze together in the same space. The excited chatter of hundreds of tourists mingle with the laughter of pretty young women wearing colorful headscarves and brightly colored robes, insistent salesmen calling you to their carpet stores while the sleek Tramway whizzes past Roman ruins of the Hippodrome and the grand residence of the Ottoman emperors. You are in Istanbul!
Along with mosques and their minarets, kebab cafes and koftecisi, flowers are a constant presence in Istanbul. Flowers and fruits have held a high regard since the Ottoman times and it has been carried on into the present. It is said that when Mehmet the Conqueror invaded Constantinople in 1453, he was so impressed with the love of flowers of the locals that he commissioned a portrait of himself, sitting with a rose, not his sword. Seemingly impromptu flower beds appear along main streets and street corners, most of them with vibrant tulips- the symbol of the Ottoman empire - and welcome visitors and locals alike. The love of flowers is on grand display in the expansive urban park in the Erminou district, the Gulhane Parki. Originally a part of the gardens of the Topkapi palace, entering this public garden through the stone archways on Alemdar Caddessi one is greeted with a pleasing colorful sight that is sure to soothe the soul. Carefully crafted flowerbeds of tulips, pansies and other brightly colored flowers thrive alongside playful fountains, leafy Erguvan or Judas trees that sprout pink clusters and old plane and cypress trees that provide a haven in the middle of the bustling city outside.
Built between 1460 and 1478 AD under the rule of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, Topkapi Palace served as the seat of the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years. It is now a museum housing weapons and armaments of the Turkish military, porcelains and calligraphy as well as sacred relics of the Ottoman empire. The palace complex is arranged in a series of four courtyards with the buildings surrounding them in an example of classical Ottoman architecture. Brilliant tile work in the Iznik style along with intricate plaster work in the Rococco style architecture adorns walls and ceilings of every building, the most dazzling display being in the Imperial Council (Diwan-i-Humayun) and the Harem. Exquisitely carved niches, fireplaces and ornate decorations on ceilings using wood and tile immerses the visitor into a world bygone when the Ottoman empire, at its peak ruled the land from South east Europe all the way through North Africa.
The iconic building most often associated with Istanbul's glorious history is the imposing Hagia Sofia. It came into existence as a Byzantine church built under the orders of the emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537 AD. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman empire in 1453, it became the Imperial mosque until 1935 when the founder of the republic of Turkey and its first President, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk secularized it and turned it into a museum. However, when you enter the large space that exists under the all encompassing dome, you do not think of its glorious history but gaze up in amazement at the incredible Byzantine architecture of soaring columns and grand arches supporting the massive dome, every inch of wall and ceiling space adorned with intricate mosaics in gold leaf and bright hues of blue, green and red that illuminate the space underneath. A series of windows on the upper gallery filter out sunlight through sheer alabaster screens, which falls on the intentionally unadorned minbar, where the imam would lead the faithful in prayer. There is a subtle yellow glow all around you and in spite of the hordes of awestruck visitors whispering around you, one is are transported to a quiet, peaceful place where you can only marvel at man's extraordinary creativity and the passion with which successive generations have managed to keep this masterpiece intact.
Across the Sultanhemt square sits the magnificent Sultanahemt Mosque with its characteristic six minarets instead of the usual four. The pencil thin minarets with three balconies adorned with intricate muqarnas - stalactite decorations on the corbels - encircle a magnificent building complex topped by five main domes. The interior is awash in light reflecting off the brilliant blue Iznik tiles bordered by intricate designs in red, green and gold. More than 20,000 tiles display exquisite designs of tulips, cypresses and fruits. The soaring arches made in the Ablaq style with alternating tiles of dark and light stone, banisters carved in stone, and over 200 stained glass windows take one’s eyes up to the heavens, apropos to this place of worship.
This was also the place for a spirited discussion between the kids and the adults about how does covering one's head show respect to God, and why do women have to follow a dress code to enter the mosque while all men have to do is not wear shorts.
One cannot visit Istanbul and not talk about two essential experiences - the food and the hamam. Whether it was drinking freshly squeezed nar suyu(pomegrante juice) inside the Topkapi palace gardens, or the tangy Ayran that accompanied the succulent kofte at the famed Sultanahmet Koftecisi, savoring braised lamb served over silken eggplant puree with bulgur pilaf and a side of piyaz, or the intriguing Testi kebab - a dish of meat and vegetables slow cooked in a sealed clay pot which is brought to the table or heavenly rose-scented baklava, one can only say “Sherefe!” with a glass of Raki in honor of this satisfying and soulful ancient cuisine.
The communal experience of a Turkish bathhouse is as unique in its ancient roots as in the unassuming, un-selfconsious manner in which it is handled. Cemberlitas hamami, designed by the famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1584, is a good example of this. The cavernous bath of pink stone with hot marble slabs to lie on, niches along the walls to bathe after a satisfying scrub with a traditional kese, followed by a relaxing massage is cleansing and rejuvenating like no other bath you have ever had!
Istanbul is a city like no other. A city of pretty girls in head scarves enjoying hookahs on the sidewalks of nargile cafes at midnight, of the sounds of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day, of the modern trams chugging through the age old neighborhood of Sulemaniya, crossing the Galata bridge to Taksim Square, of the underground Basilica Cistern built in the 6th century to provide water to the great palaces of Constantinople, of strong coffee and fragrant teas, of spices and carpets sold by insistent traders in the Grand Bazaar, of military vehicles standing guard at the Annual Tulip festival as a testament to the modern troubling times, and of tulips, pomegranates and whirling dervishes. When Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk says “If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too”, I cannot help but agree.