Richard Norman travels to Istanbul; or was it Constantinople?

You may be holidaying in Istanbul, remarked a friend, but your companion (no less than the editor of this august magazine) is almost certainly on his way to Constantinople. Although culturally and (at least on one side of the Bosphorus) geographically in many respects a European city, yet in Istanbul it is not the cathedral spires of other continental capitals which twist toward the heavens; nor the sound of church bells which, echoing through the streets, calls the faithful to prayer. Instead, the adhān (in Turkish, ezan) crackles from a thousand speakers atop a hundred minarets, summoning the devout to kneel in prayer in the pools of sharp light spilling over the İznik-tiled interiors of a plethora of stunningly-engineered mosques. Best-known of these is the Blue Mosque, in the shadow of which stands the tomb of its patron, Sultan Ahmet I (r. 1603–17).

Aya Sofya
On the other side of Sultanahmet Park, and more famous still, is Aya Sofya, or Hagia Sofia. Commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, it was consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 and declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935. The ninth-century mosaic of the Virgin and Child above the apse competes for attention with the black and gold nineteenth-century medallions suspended from the walls and inscribed with gilt Arabic lettering by the master calligrapher Mustafa İzzet Efendi. Restoration in the galleries of Aya Sofya uncovered further beautiful mosaics: at this level in the building the stonework is heavily graffiti-ed: the editor and I supposed the crosses to be the work of crusader knights, but further research suggests Viking(!) authorship of the inscriptions, by members of the Byzantine army’s elite Varangian Guard. Who’d have thought it? Below Aya Sofya Justinian also built a fabulous subterranean cistern to deliver water to the city. Cleaned and renovated in 1985 it is now home to schools of koi carp, and well worth a visit.

Other sights
On either side of the colourful Spice Bazaar are two further mosques of note – the ‘New’ Mosque (built in 1597) and the Rüstem Paşa Mosque of 1560, accessed via two unassuming staircases off the busy streets outside.
The city’s most splendid museum is in the Topkapı Palace, a magnificent home to a wealth of magnificent artefacts. The jewellery of the Imperial Treasury gives way to the religious contents of the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms (which includes Abraham’s saucepan), over which a cleric chants texts from the Quran. Also within the grounds of the Palace is the church of Aya İrini, contemporary with Aya Sofya, but in its modest interior decoration a dramatic contrast to its more famous sister. A single stencilled cross is marked into the dome of the apse, and the space is now used as a concert venue.
Sight-seeing is hungry and thirsty work, and there is no overall shortage of bars and eateries in Istanbul (although in many districts it is difficult to find somewhere to drink in the evenings, as such is not the custom in an increasingly Islamic society). The best places for going out are Cankurtaran in the south, and Beyoğlu across the Galata Bridge. If wishing to indulge in a spot of retail therapy the baklava shops are ubiquitous throughout Istanbul, and the Grand Bazaar hosts a riot of better – and (very much) poorer-quality bijouterie.

Turkish baths
Of course, no trip to Turkey’s capital could be complete without visiting a hamam, or Turkish bath. As my guide book put it, ‘[in] life, there aren’t too many opportunities to wander semi-naked through a 16th-century Ottoman monument.’ The editor and I sampled the experience at the Cağaloğlu Hamamı, built by Sultan Mahmut I in 1741. The sound of our takunya (wooden clogs) ricocheted around the vast interior of the vaulted steam room, and we took our places on the stone benches in one corner. Before too long, however, we were each summoned by a be-towelled attendant, who in my case greeted me with a faceful of warm water. I had no Turkish, and he had only marginally more English (by means of which we quickly established that I was not in town to watch the football, and so settled back into silence), but the attendant soon made it clear that next I was to lie upon the central raised platform and await a rather rough massage. Despite plenty of joint-popping, I didn’t notice anywhere in the hamam the certificates of professional expertise which adorn the wall of my osteopath’s surgery: but I survived. My attendant returned me to the basin whence had come the initial bucket of water, and there lathered me with a sponge and scrubbed at my skin with a coarse cloth mitten. The treatment, overall rather agreeable, concluded with further dousing at various temperatures.

With only two full days in Istanbul there was much I failed to see, chiefly anything more of the city’s Christian heritage. It is, after all, home to the Patriarchal Church of St George, as well as a number of other churches and monasteries. But, the winter temperatures aside, it was a fascinating excursion, and highly to be commended. ND