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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

"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.

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