Istanbul: a digital tour by way of books, movie, meals and music | Journey
W.When I first saw this view of Istanbul decades ago, it was like I had just met the love of my life. From the northern end of the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn to the so-called Old Town, the view remains breathtaking even on an iron-gray winter day.
Rising above the waters of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus: on my left the huge complex of Topkapı Palace; before me the Byzantine wonder that is Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque; and on my right the Kapalıçarşı or the Grand Bazaar and the Suleymaniye Mosque. The latter was created by Mimar Sinan, Turkey’s greatest architect, for its greatest sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.
Istanbul is divinely good, but it also gives Raffish a run for its money
I didn’t even scratch the surface of this mega city of 17 million souls, which in places like Singapore is as modern and yet as old and mysterious as time. The steel shirt that the season has thrown over the city doesn’t spoil its old beauty. Almost moved to tears, I experience a moment of Huzun, an almost untranslatable Turkish concept that can easily be described as lustful melancholy.
Interior of the Hagia Sophia. Photo: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
I walk over the Galata Bridge and nod to the windswept fishermen who come day after day in hopes of catching palamut (skipjack tuna) and cinekop (bluefish). I look into their buckets to see what they have caught and I know that I am being watched by several of Istanbul’s many street cats. Cats are very popular in Istanbul – in some parts of the city there are even small cat houses on street corners that are lovingly adored by people.
A middle-aged man in a long coat comes by and smiles at me, and I wonder if I know him. Istanbul is known as the “largest village in the world”, where you can meet relatives, passing acquaintances and old lovers in one morning. Even the dead show up from time to time.
I take my Istanbul Kart Travel out of my pocket and ask yourself whether you should take the tram up the hill from the Eminonu harbor district or continue walking in the cold air to the center of the old town. I choose the latter.
I am lucky enough to be able to write books that are set in this vibrant, opulent, often crazy city. It is practically impossible to summarize its essence in a few paragraphs. But I’ve been trying it for over 20 years, even if the sky looks like a threat.
The author Orhan Pamuk on the Galata Bridge photographs empty highways in Istanbul on May 23, 2020. Photo: Ozan Köse / AFP / Getty Images
Istanbul: memories and the cityOrhan Pamuk, perhaps Turkey’s greatest living writer, is a brilliant guide to its greatest monuments and labyrinthine streets. There are beggars and witches here, shops selling buttons, others selling awful flesh-colored corsets, and half-forgotten Greek ayazma (sacred springs). Istanbul is divinely good, but it also gives Raffish a run for its money.
When I reach the southern end of the Golden Horn, I look back at the place where I started my walk – the hilly New Town dominated by the Galata Tower. It was built by the Genoese in 1348, is 63 meters high and has a viewing area at the top. In 1638 the adventurer Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi attached wings to his body, jumped from the tower and slid across the Bosphorus.
Galata Tower. Photo: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
This area, now known as Beyoğlu, was once home to large foreign embassies, but now it’s just ornate consulates. The Karakoy harbor district is the setting for Elif Safak’s novel 10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world. Based on the lives of sex workers and transsexuals, this is a compassionate and intimate portrait of the region. Make no mistake, Istanbul is not an easy city, and this novel reveals many of its citizens’ daily struggles for survival.
Fans of thrillers and crime will get a glimpse into the criminal side of the city Istanbul black, a collection of short stories edited by Mustafa Ziyalan. In contrast, Halidé Edip House with Wisteria (out of print) follows the early life of one of Turkey’s leading feminists in Ottoman and early republican Istanbul.
Drone photo of Sultanahmet Square. Photo: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
On the way from Eminönü to Sultanahmet I pass between the Gülhane Park (once part of the Topkapı Palace) and the lofty gate – the seat of the imperial Ottoman government. These places remind me of one of the most popular Turkish TV series of all time. Magnificent century (Magnificent century). Set at the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, it tells the story of this sultan’s reign and personal life, with a focus on his harem. Muhtesem is not a biography or a soap opera, but a Dizi, a particularly Turkish television phenomenon that can be old or modern, but must involve drama, passion and brave deeds. To find out how Istanbul was conquered by the Turks, the TV miniseries Rise of the Empires: Ottoman (on Netflix) is a Mixture of expert commentary and wonderful reconstructions.
Promotional image for TV show Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century). Photo: Tims Productions
In a slightly sensual haze caused by memories of Dizi, I see a couple of damp belly dance costumes hanging in front of a souvenir shop. Probably my favorite Turkish film of all time, 2011 Senne dancer is based on the lives of belly dancers – or rather their male colleagues, Zenne. Traditionally these young men appear at festivals, but nowadays [though not pandemic days] They can also be seen in night clubs. This often brings them into conflict with their families and with religious authorities, a reminder that large parts of the city are culturally conservative.
Most of Sultanahmet’s sights are on my left as I crown the hill and enter Divanyolu, the main thoroughfare of Sultanahmet. The first is Hagia SophiaOnce the largest church in Christianity, then a mosque, then a museum, it is now a mosque again and closed to visitors when worshipers pray. From the outside, it’s a terracotta-colored masterpiece; inside it is raised with marble and mosaic.
Obelix of Thutmose III, Hippodrome. Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty Images
I go to the Sultanahmet mosque, a huge, domed structure, the interior of which is decorated with exquisite blue Iznik tiles, hence the other name, the Blue Mosque. The iron sky is falling and I am on my way to hippodromewhere the Romans held chariot races and the Byzantines who followed them held their sometimes violent games. Three main monuments can be seen here: the Byzantine Walled obelisk, the ancient Greek Serpent pillar, and the obelix of Thutmose III, brought from Egypt in 390 AD.
I take my steps back along Divanyolu. I pass on my left Lale restaurant (Nickname Pudding Shop). It opened in the 1950s and was once a meeting place for young Western travelers on their way to Kathmandu hoping for enlightenment. Nowadays, it still sells its delicious Tavuk Göğsü pudding, which is made with sweetened, crushed chicken breast, rice, and milk. But on this occasion I go underground to pamper myself.
Simit bread seller. Photo: Robertharding / Alamy
At the end of Divanyolu is the entrance to Basilica palace, or underground palace. It’s an underground Byzantine water cistern and has a cafe that sells sahlep, a winter drink made from milk and orchid powder root, and dusted with cinnamon. I spend time listening to the classical music being played in this huge vaulted room and watching the multicolored light show dance between the old pillars.
The city is great for street food, from simit – sesame-dusted rings of fortified bread sold everywhere – to steaming kokoreç, spiced lamb intestine on a skewer. Tea, çay, which is served black here, is available all over the city, including on the ferries that cross the Bosphorus. Turkish coffee, kahve, isn’t quite as ubiquitous but can be found in a lovely pastane (pastry shop) called nearby on Divanyolu Cigdem. It also serves wonderful hearty pastries called Börek (with cheese or spinach) and some of the best sticky baklava with nuts known to mankind.
The Turkish rap scene is big, but little known outside the country. You can hear children knocking in the streets, especially in poor neighborhoods like Tarlabaşı, a multi-ethnic, sometimes troubled but always creative place. Probably the most famous rap track is an epic with 14 verses Susamam, a deeply political work produced by a collective of Istanbul rappers.
More is my way of listening arabesque: influenced by Arabic music, it is a form that identifies with the working class and its struggles. As a kind of musical dizi, it can be deeply melancholy, especially when dealing with foiled love. They are the biggest stars, including singers Bulent Ersoy and Ibrahim Tatlises, live a turbulent life straight out of the TV drama. Turkish pop is illustrated by the singer-songwriter Tarkan.
When I return to the Galata Bridge, my mind drifts to the man I saw there earlier. An old friend or someone famous? Maybe my long-dead grandfather? Anything is possible in the magical city of Huzun.
Barbara Nadels Cetin Ikmen crime Novels are set in Istanbul. Her latest, Blood Business (headline, £ 8.99), is now available in paperback. Her next book is Forfeit, which will be published on May 13th