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Istanbul's Seductive Allure

John Huba A view of the Mavi Ev, or Blue House, a hotel in the Old City.

Photo: John Huba

Mapquest wouldn't put it this way, of course, but to reach the hammam I am about to describe, take a right across the Bosporus roughly at the point where Io, Zeus's beloved, hid out from his jealous spouse, Hera, disguised as a heifer. Head toward the beached architectural whale of the Dolma­bahçe Palace, following the course, more or less, that Jason steered in search of the Golden Fleece. Cut left up a side street that no Turkish cabbie seems ever to have heard of and there you will find it. The unmarked street is, alas, one-way, with no outlet. The driver will have to exit in reverse.

Once inside the hammam, or Turkish bath, you'll be met by an attendant wearing a dish towel. Store your clothes in a cubicle equipped with a narrow cot and a glass-paneled door. Wrap yourself in a dish towel that he will provide and follow him through a tepidarium, or cool room, and down some stairs into the hammam's core, at the center of which is an octagonal marble slab heated, one assumes, by sinners stoking the fires of hell.

Since arriving in Istanbul on a fine summer Sunday not long ago I have learned a bit about the city, not least that orientalist fantasies are not what they are cracked up to be. I have read my Edward Said and should naturally have known better. But every traveler to Turkey must try a ceremonial bath once, I felt, at the very least to understand why prosperous Turks prefer to perform their ablutions at home or else enjoy a sauna at the gym.

Not since infancy have I been scoured with the thoroughness the masseur brought to the task, using a loofah and a cake of cheap soap. Never in any other setting have I been exfoliated to the point where I feared being flayed. Leveraging himself to grab me behind the knees, he tossed me about like a flapjack and began kneading, pummeling, and stretching for a period that went on long enough that I started to wonder why the glossary in my guidebook did not provide a term for uncle along with such apparently indispensable phrases as "I eat only vegetables and fruit."

The procedure, in short, takes 90 minutes. At the end I was given a fresh dish towel and invited to nap in my cell. I doubt anyone will be surprised that I declined this delight and raced out the door and onto the sidewalks. There I began to laugh aloud. Partly this was from relief, but it was also because I had been provided with the tonic of having my own pretensions revealed and skewered, out of sight of anyone I know.

As experiences go, I recommend it highly. And I feel confident that others like it are to be had reliably in Istanbul. Why?Because a more perplexing and contradictory city is hard to imagine. And is there a better recommendation to be found for a city in our post-postmodern world?

Theatrical and squalid, European and Asian, giddily rich and crushingly poor, Istanbul is both the poster child for secular Islam and a city where a new generation of young women has enraged the feminists of yesteryear by embracing traditional values and shrouding themselves. Of the fact that Istanbul is a matchless historical treasure house no one requires further reminding. But it is also a city of gaudy new constructions whose carefree and seemingly inbuilt obsolescence seems also to say something about where civilization currently stands. Of course, it is also a place hotly and deservedly touted as the next great destination, an appraisal perhaps best appreciated, in light of several "minor" bombings that occurred during my visit, with blinkers on.

"Caught as the city is between traditional and Western culture, inhabited as it is by an ultra-rich minority and an impoverished majority, overrun as it is by wave after wave of immigrants, divided as it has always been along the lines of its many ethnic groups, Istanbul is a place where, for the past 150 years, no one has been able to feel completely at home," writes Orhan Pamuk—Turkey's sulky literary star, always touted as a front-runner for a Nobel Prize—in his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City. But one could probably say more or less the same thing of Paris or, for that matter, Miami, two cities equally endowed with confounding dualities but lacking altogether the sinuous, fabulous, inscrutable, mystifying qualities that made byzantine an adjective, and that define another experience inevitable for all travelers in the city, a visit to the fabled Grand Bazaar.

I say "fabled" because it is customary to do so, although the allure of this labyrinth of 4,000 stalls was initially lost on me. It was not that the gold weighed and sold by the karat seemed gaudy, or that the red Capri coral employed so lavishly for jewelry was heated and faked, or that the Anatolian carpets were machine-milled in China, or that the bone-inlaid boxes were the same sort you can find in every tourist shop in India. Surely merchants of the ancient world coming to Constantinople from Persia and India and China and the entire Muslim sphere slipped their thumbs onto scales to cheat patrons and sold whatever was the 12th-century version of bogus goods.

Just as surely, some of their luxury stuffs were indeed that greatest of all luxuries: the real thing. And a number of my friends have managed to unearth fantastic treasures from beneath the mounds of junk at the Grand Bazaar or else in shops among the 30 or so ancient han that surround it on all sides. Typically under the guidance of local experts, these friends have found dealers who sell verifiably antique jewelry; rings set with coins allegedly bearing the profile of the emperor Hadrian's Bythinian lover, Antinoüs; Uzbekistani souzani that look like stitched versions of Ellsworth Kelly paintings; and the unusual minimalist kilims impossible to buy in London or New York. And they have also found themselves inducted, at least symbolically by way of their discoveries, into a mercantile tradition as important to the life of the city as the more officially storied exploits of the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Blues and the Greens, the crafty Venetians, and the complex and compulsively murderous Ottomans.

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