Istanbul's Seductive Allure

Istanbul's Seductive Allure

John Huba A view of the Mavi Ev, or Blue House, a hotel in the Old City. John Huba
John Huba A view of the Mavi Ev, or Blue House, a hotel in the Old City.
John Huba
Istanbul has always been marked by contrasts—old and new, east and west, secular and sacred. Now, as it attempts to bridge the gulf between Europe and the Muslim world, the city's split personality is more seductive than ever.

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.


For me the Grand Bazaar was a blur—"Are you Turkish?" the standard come-on, posed at first in Turkish and then repeated in English, although it might as well have been spoken in Mandarin for all the physical resemblance I bear to a local. Yet the place drew me back and it was only by returning, abandoning efforts at following a plan, that I began to move more easily and to take pleasure in the great welter of fabulous colors and thick aromas and dinning commerce, and to flow into the overlapping realities arranged like archaeological strata.

I wandered up crooked stairs to discover, unexpectedly, a balcony teahouse. I turned a corner on a narrow lane and happened upon a tiny room where a craftsman was hunched at a workbench drilling holes in baroque black South Sea pearls. For no particular reason, I made a random inventory of the myriad goods on offer: gramophone parts and meerschaum pipes and mosque lamps and counterfeit versions of Grand Theft Auto and felt slippers and brass cauldrons and betel boxes and backgammon sets and old marble fountains (SHIPMENT DOOR TO DOOR AROUND THE WORLD read the questionable promise in a window) and trucker hats and sterling cups inscribed in German and battery-operated statuettes of dervishes that whirled when a switch was flipped and also the fine, thick Turkish towels sold at Abdulla's shop, which my friend Ann suggested I buy in bulk and then ship home. "You may not get what you ordered," she said, "but you'll still love what you get."

Istanbul is a "very complicated idea, and we suffer a bit from this," I was told one afternoon by Kasif Gundogdu, whose store, Sofa, located a short walk from the Grand Bazaar's main entrance, some friends swear by and others write off as an overpriced junk shop. I tend to side with the former, since I found there fine primitive turquoise-glazed Kutahya pottery much like the stuff on view at the brand-new Pera Museum in Beyoglu. There, too, I began to find a way toward understanding a city undergoing phenomenal change, a place whose population has grown from 450,000 to 15 million in slightly more than 50 years. "Foreigners still think of Istanbul as carpets, coffee, earthquakes, and shish kebab," Gundogdu said. Locals, he adds, are hardly less susceptible to cliché. Anyhow, few native Istanbullus exist these days, since most residents of the city came lately, in the post-independence wave of migration from neighboring regions and the vast Turkish countryside. "They don't have the slightest idea of where they are living," Gundogdu said.

This may be true, and if so, these people are likely to be spared the distress felt by some old-timers at the offhand way the local government commits vandalism on great monuments—situating a tour bus park outside sublime Hagia Sophia, putting portable ATM machines in the middle of a cobbled plaza in Sultanahmet Square, installing an ugly tram line that snakes right through Sultanahmet (the Old City) like the welt of a surgical scar. "City planning—zero," as Gundogdu told me.

Yet, if the government's attempts at Western-style civic improvement strike a visitor as misguided, then local advances in the hsospitality business already bid fair to put some European Union countries to shame. My lodgings for the first two nights were in a converted wooden Ottoman-era yali that was clean and simple and where I occupied a room with a bay window framing a view of the Blue Mosque and the Sea of Marmara that was close to stereoscopic. Were it not for the dervish lounge act at a restaurant across the street—he whirled monotonously from seven to nine nightly, accompanied by the whine of  Turkish headache music—I would probably never have left.

Instead I switched to a vast and well-appointed room at the nearby Four Seasons, built in what was once the infamous Sultanahmet Murder Jail. In the rooms near mine were the inventor of MTV, traveling with his family and staff; a big-time movie producer; a group of Spanish nobles; and the former executive editor of the New York Times. All of these people have presumably done time in various tourist prisons, but it is fair to assume that nothing in anyone's past approaches this hotel's atmosphere of cloistered privilege. There is the location in the Old City, for starters, with views from a variety of roof terraces of the ship traffic on the Sea of Marmara or of the Sultan Ahmet and the monumental dome of Hagia Sophia. There is the sense, too, that one is indulging in an updated variant of the scene at the famous Pera Palas Hotel, run-down now but once the social center of the bustling cosmopolis Istanbul was in the 1950's, when Orhan Pamuk began to develop symptoms of the hüzün, or melancholy nostalgia, that is the theme of his memoir.

That city will never be reconstituted, of course, primarily because Istanbul is driven not by old money but by an energetic internationalized nouveau riche. Examples of these glossy types can be found on any given evening at places like the nightclub Reina, a multilevel terraced dining complex that houses a group of restaurants where the food tends to be secondary to views across the river toward Asia and where the selfsame views are generally ignored.

As at any of the "hot" restaurants in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, Reina was jammed to overflowing when I visited one mild evening, and there was something pleasurable about being a voyeur observing members of the local beau monde disporting themselves. There was no discernible air of hüzün—far from it. Rather, the place was buzzing with that particular excitement ornamental people generate when they feel certain they have fetched up in the right place.

A variant of this same crowd also flocks to the terrace of 360 Istanbul, a fine penthouse restaurant set atop a grand 19th-century apartment house on pedestrian Istiklal Caddesi, along what once was the grand embassy row. For now, at least, 360 is where the fickle sophisticates that the restaurant's South African proprietor, Michael Norman, terms "grasshoppers" have lately chosen to alight. From a table there, two friends and I got merrily loaded on Turkish wine as the sun set over the Galata Tower, built by Genoese traders in the 14th century, and the DJ played thumping house music picked up on his most recent Miami gig. At one banquette nearby was a chattering group that bore more than a passing resemblance to the cast of Entourage. At another was a family group whose patriarch looked like Jabba the Hutt.


"Istanbullus tend to find a place and devour it in a season," Norman explained as he stopped by the table, where we were navigating a catholic menu that ran to freshly grilled sea bass, olive-stuffed chicken, and lamb with mint pesto. An affable man with the unorthodox good looks of an indie film star, Norman takes a philosophical view of Istanbullus, possibly because he is married to one. "They may love you for a year or two and then move on," he said. "At the end of the day, Turkish people want their mother's food."

Oddly enough, Istanbul is one of the few cities I know of where a visitor has the impression in restaurants of eating home food. I dined wonderfully well in the city and at no place with greater satisfaction than Balikçi Sabahattin, one of those famous "typical" restaurants frequented principally by the local power elite. Set in a small square and an old wood yali near the train tracks and fortress wall separating Sultanahmet from the Sea of Marmara, the restaurant is a favorite not because of the service, which is amiable but hurried, and surely not on account of the house wine, with its turpentine top notes and alcohol content of 15 percent. No, it must be the daily assortment of mezes, or appetizers—marinated octopus; wedges of fresh feta; firinda manti, or noodle dough parcels filled with ground meat; dense black olives served with marinated peppercorns; yogurt corbasi made with cooked bulgur—and the entrées of fish brought glistening-eyed to table and then whisked away to be perfectly grilled.

I did my best in Istanbul to avoid the trap of imagining that the old quarter—a kind of "Ottoman Disneyland," as a local friend terms it—represents the larger city. I made journeys to the various brand-new museums: the somewhat misnamed Istanbul Modern, which, strangely, possesses nothing by the foremost contemporary Turkish artist, Kutlug Ataman, and the fine, privately funded Pera Museum, set in an opulently converted 19th-century mansion on a ridge overlooking the Golden Horn.

I made a point of checking out the chic department store Beymen in the posh residential quarter of Nisantasi. And, if the stock I found there was the standard luxury-goods assortment, the Prada-clad crowd at Beymen's streetside brasserie still made for compelling people-­watching as they smoked and chatted and pushed food around their plates. The men were handsome and possessed of the slightly bored air of self-enchantment that is a masculine given throughout the Mediterranean. The women, on the other hand, were vivid and intense, their clothes fine, their jewelry heavy, and their conspiratorial casts of feature surprisingly similar to those on the faces one sees at the city's superb Archaeological Museum, in a particular gallery filled with a semicircle of Roman marble busts.

I tried earnestly to engage with contemporary Istanbul, even going so far as to visit a pretentious new boutique hotel on the Asian side. But inevitably I was drawn back to Sultanahmet, to that place where 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet captured Constantinople on May 29, 1453, raising the star and crescent, swiftly reconsecrating Hagia Sophia as a mosque, and then making for the Great Palace on the First Hill, which had been built when Emperor Constantine founded the Byzantine Empire in the fourth century and left derelict after it was sacked by the Crusaders in the 13th. Little survives of the Great Palace, of course. But old empires, as the saying goes, cast long shadows, and few things in my experience rival the sensation one has in old Istanbul of immersion in continuous history, of time compressed and consciousness intensified.

This feeling is in no way diminished by the honky-tonk din of the modern city, by the jostling of packaged tour groups or the insistent attentions of Kurdish carpet touts. I spent a week wandering through mosques designed by the genius Mimar Sinan and notable as much for what the Turkish poet Cengiz Bektas refers to as the "silence, pauses and spaces," as for their aggressive massing and engineering feats. I spent two nearly hallucinatory hours in the tiny and little-visited Rüstem Pasha mosque, where the interior walls are paved with the greatest achievements of the 16th-century tile works at Iznik—50 patterns that I managed to count, no two alike.

The things I chose to see were far from unorthodox: the subterranean Basilica Cistern, with its mossy vaults and thicket of ancient columns; the exquisite Chinese porcelains displayed like so much dishware in the former kitchens of the Topkapi Palace; the contents of Hadrian's villa at the Archaeological Museum (two, or even three, visits are barely enough); the peerless carpets hung in a museum made from the mansion of a fabulously rich adviser to the Ottoman court. But it was the frayed brocade texture of Sultanahmet that seduced me—ancient and threadbare and contriving at the same time to freshness—and the way the city's marine light set off its old stones and tiled walls, and how the absurd purple sunsets framed hills pin-cushioned with sky-pricking minarets.

Wandering toward my hotel in the evening, I once or twice stopped in the park wedged between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and took a bench seat in a theater whose perimeter walls happen to count among the most profound architectural monuments on earth. From there, I watched as the human shifts changed: first the tourists waddling onto buses with their fanny packs and throwaway cameras; then holidaying locals heading home, veiled women and children following two steps behind a man; then vendors of hot corn or roasted mussels or sesame-covered bread rings called simit folding their carts and wheeling them onto the cobblestones.

Stillness took over finally, broken by the cawing of gulls as they kited around the domes of the great mosque and a brief crackling microphone sound as a muezzin prepared to intone the last of the day's five prayers. Recited by observant Muslims before retiring, the Yatsi invokes God's blessings and concludes a cycle of daily devotion that will begin again just before dawn. When the last reverberations of Allah's name died out, I headed back to my hotel along lanes that by now seemed so inky and vacant that the effect was otherworldly. As far as I could tell, Sultanahmet was mine now, to be shared only with the moving shadows belonging to Istanbul's oldest tribe, its numberless stray dogs.

GUY TREBAY is a reporter for the New York Times.


THE FACTS

Cold, rainy winters and steamy, though bearable, summers make spring and fall the best times to visit.

WHERE TO STAY

Istanbul has an unusual number of good, inexpensive lodging options.

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul
It's not for nothing that this property was named one of the top 10 hotels in T+L's 2005 World's Best Awards—located not five minutes' walk from the major monuments of the Old City, and with exceptional service. DOUBLES FROM $340
1 TEVKIFHANE SOKAK, SULTANAHMET; 800/332-3442 OR 90-212/638-8200; www.fourseasons.com

Mavi Ev (Blue House)
The most notable of several modest, clean, and well-run guesthouses in the vicinity of the Four Seasons. DOUBLES FROM $170
14 DALBASTI SOKAK, SULTANAHMET; 90-212/638-9010; www.bluehouse.com.tr

Yesil Ev (Green House)
A popular guesthouse with a cool walled courtyard tucked between the park outside the Blue Mosque and the Baths of Roxelana. Reserve well in advance. DOUBLES FROM $180
5 KABASAKAL CADDESI, SULTANAHMET; 90-212/517-6785; www.istanbulyesilev.com

Ayasofya Pansiyonlari
A streetlong complex of restored wooden yali behind the walls of Hagia Sophia. There's a row of guesthouses, as well as Sarnic, a subterranean restaurant in a Roman cistern lit only by candles. DOUBLES FROM $130 (FRONT SIDE RECOMMENDED) DINNER FOR TWO $100
SOGUKCESME SOKAK, SULTANAHMET; 90-212/513-3660; www.ayasofyapensions.com

WHERE TO EAT

Balikçi Sabahattin
DINNER FOR TWO $100, INCLUDING WINE
1 SEYIT HASAN KOYU SOKAK, CANKARTURAN, SULTANAHMET; 90-212/458-1824

Hamdi Restaurant
A typical kebab restaurant, with a tremendous variety of mezes, and great views. DINNER FOR TWO $60
TAHMIS CADDESI, 17 KALÇIN SOKAK, EMINÖNÜ; 90-212/526-1242

Reina
A kind of mall of open-air restaurants and lounges, set on the Bosporus.
44 MUALLIM NACI CADDESI, ORTAKÖY; 90-212/259-5919

360 Istanbul
Book a banquette at the edge of the terrace for a view. DINNER FOR TWO $60
32–309 ISTIKLAL CADDESI, MISIR APT. K8, BEYOGLU; 90-212/251-1042

WHERE TO SHOP

A shopper in Istanbul needs not a few good tips so much as a wrangler; most hotels can arrange a qualified guide. I especially liked the Spice Market, where caviar is cheap and the worry beads and saffron are the real thing.

Abdulla
Excellent towels, soaps, and loofahs at the Grand Bazaar; all can be shipped.
53 HALICILAR CADDESI; 90-212/522-9078

Beymen
Useful in case one needs to check up on the latest offerings from Roberto Cavalli, D&G, and Prada; there's also a fine street-level brasserie. LUNCH FOR TWO $70
23/1 ABDI IPEKÇI CADDESI; 90-212/343-0404

Mehmet Çetinkaya Gallery
Without question one of the best of the city's carpet dealers, located on an obscure side street near the Blue Mosque. This is the shop to which foreign dealers make a beeline, although not because the prices are low.
KUCUKAYASOFYA CADDESI, 7 TAVUKHANE SOKAK, SULTANAHMET; 90-212/517-6808

Sofa
My favorite store in Sultanahmet, with a stock that reflects the exuberant tastes of its owner.
85 NURUOSMANIYE CADDESI, CAGALOGLU; 90-212/520-2850

WHAT TO DO

Archaeological Museum
BETWEEN GÜLHANE PARK AND TOPKAPI PALACE, SULTANAHMET; 90-212/520-7740

Istanbul Modern
4 ANTREPO, KARAKöY 90-212/334-7300; www.istanbulmodern.org

Pera Museum
141 MESRUTIYET CADDESI, TEPEBASI, BEYOGLU; 90-212/334-9900

Cagaloglu Hamami
One of the more refined traditional baths, with a menu in English; go for the complete "Oriental luxury service" ($36 plus 10 percent tip).
34 YEREBATAN CADDESI, CAGALOGLU; 90-212/522-2424; www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr

Did you enjoy this article?

Share it.

Explore More