Magic Carpet Ride
Istanbul is enjoying a rebirth: New pleasures and ancient treasures are establishing the city as the Paris of the East.
Brad Gooch visits the thriving Turkish metropolis.
Have you ever been to Louisiana?” asked a Turkishman with a five o’clock shadow, dressed in a powderblue suit at noon. We were walking near the EgyptianObelisk in Hippodrome Square in Istanbul. He’d been toLouisiana twice, he said, on business. My instantly intimatenew friend went on to explain why I shouldn’t slip off myshoes and enter the Blue Mosque. “It is prayer time,” he said. “Only Muslims allowed.” (Actually, I am told later, non-Muslims may enter, as long a they are respectful.) As consolation, he led me to his nearby rug shop, where I was soon holding a glass of hot tea, surrounded by every stripeof flying carpet imaginable and feeling bemused.
Of course, I’d allowed myself to be led. The night be fore I left New York a friend advised, “Talk. Go along for the ride. You can always beg off by saying you have an appointment.” Following her own advice, she’d once wound up at one of the finest rug stores of them all, the Maison de Tapis d’ Orient, along the Arasta Bazaar.
Justinian gloated over the Hagia Sophia (above) 1500 years ago, “Oh, Solomon! I have outdone you!”
Clockwise from top:
Perfume bottles on display at the Spice Bazaar: spices at the market; the bustling Grand Bazaar; the Harem audience room at Topkapi Palace.
The best preparation for Istanbul is indeed to set the mind on low, simulating a bit of a hookah daze. Jet lag helps. On the drive from Attack Air port, one finds that the city lays itself out quickly, humorously, effortlessly: an impossible jumble of wares; a jet fighter perched as a monument; stone fountains spilling water over carved calligraphic inscriptions: gorgeous Ottoman mosques with tiled domes curving from every direction; ruined Greek and Roman walls and arches that tumble down and 19th-century European cobbled streets that angle up. The cumulative effect is of Fellini’s Roma infused. with the oscillating air-raid sound of muezzins calling the faithful through public-address systems hidden in missile like minarets.
Istanbul’s allure is in its layering of cultures, from Greco-Roman Constantinople capital of the Byzantine Empire and the largest city in the world in the sixth century through the garish excesses of the 600-year reign of the Ottoman sultans, to the modern day Istanbul of the Turkish Republic. Yet unlike its precocious sister, Venice, now a self’ referential reliquary, Istanbul is alive and functioning. In fact, it’s trending up. Helped by markets newly opened to Western trade, as well as by the friendlier face of Turkey’s first female prime minister, Tansu Ciller, Istanbul is a city on an increasing number of itineraries. More livable than Beirut or Cairo, and closer to the Middle East than Athens, the city is fast gaining a reputation as the Paris of the East.
“Istanbul’s changing so fast that every time I go back it’s different,” a young woman from San Francisco informed me. “I remember when I visited in 1989 I came across my first woman with a shaved head. She said, ‘I couldn’t have done this five months ago.’ By the next year everyone was wearing Doc Martens.”
Much of Istanbul’s character is determined by its precarious teetering on a fault line between European and Arabic culture. One area code lies in Europe, the other in Asia equally significant is its location at the confluence of three bodies of water the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Black Sea. A jammed fractal landscape of 11 million citizens (up from 900,000 in the early ’60s, and in creasing by 200.000 a year as disgruntled farmers and villagers continue to move in from the country side), the city still manages to feel in many spots like a seaside resort.
The simplest approach to this megalopolis is through the old city, known as the Sultanahmet, or Stamboul to 19th-century travelers. Occupying the area of fourth-century Constantinople. its original boundaries are still traceable by a walk along a perimeter of walls. Here lie the familiar gold tinted postcard sights: the dome of Hagia Sophia; the four minarets of Suleymaniye; the cypress filled grounds of Topkapi Palace; the cobblestoned plaza in front of the Spice Bazaar. where men in woven pillbox hats sell oranges spread on colorful rugs.
The best way to fathom the Sultanahmet is to be lost a bit of vertigo inevitable anyway when cast among a warren of streets with no discernible, plan, the way up so often proving to have been the way down. Steep stone stairways lead to shadowy tunnels. A plaza in front of Istanbul University somehow becomes an entrance to the Grand Bazaar, an elaborate covered maze– medieval shopping mall, actually crowding together 65 streets and thousands of shops selling gold chains, intricate rugs, leather bomber jackets, silverware. A small, unprepossessing cottage actually turns out to be a rabbit hole to the marvelous Basilica Cistern. Justinian’s sixth-century underground reservoir whose colonnade of Byzantine pillars are arranged in vanishing perspectives. (It was, by the way, erroneously situated beneath the Russian consulate in From Russia with Love, in which James Bond seductively murmured, “The moonlight on the Bosporus is irresistible.”)
One of the first of many Westerners to be seduced by Istanbul’s baths was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: her 18th-century descriptions of the hammam, as Turkish baths are called. and her admiration for Turkish women’s bodies, were the inspiration for Ingres’ swooning Turkish Bath. It’s still possible to be massaged and doused with hot and cold water in one such bath house. The Cagaloglu Hamami, in continuous operation since 1741, is well touristed but worth penetrating to discover domed marble chapels of steam. (An etching at the entrance records 18th-century ladies on fierce platform shoes at least a foot high, meant to protect them from puddles.)
Yet across the Galata Bridge, on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn, beckons one of the livelier. hipper, more contemporary quarters of Istanbul, Beyoglu. Here Istanbul succeeds at being both dreamy and mercantile, Eastern and Western. A cross between Prague and Paris, with palatial foreign consulates (flourishing as embassies Until the capital moved to Ankara in 1923). broad boulevards. and Art Deco details, Beyoglu was the fashionable European neighborhood called Pera during the 19th and early 20th centuries. home to many Italians, Russians, Swiss. French, Greeks, Armenians, and Spanish Jews.
Its premier landmark remains the Pera Palace Hotel, a deeply fancy affair built in 1892 by the Compagnie des Wagons-lits to house passengers of the Orient Express. Agatha Christie wrote chunks of her Murder on the Orient Express in room 411. Ataturk, the charismatic founder of the Turkish Republic, occupied room 101, now a museum. (His dandified portrait. looking like that of Citizen Kane, hangs in countless hotels, taverns. and restaurants,) The grand hotel’s glass cases of bric-a-brac and flourishes of armoires might seem cloying, depending on taste; but a raki, a cloudy Turkish ouzo. is certainly called for in its Orient Bar, which was once frequented by Mata Hari and later by Greta Garbo, who played her on film.
Beyoglu recently passed through a seedy phase, still evident around Taksim Square, a Times Square expanse with plenty of blinking neon lit clubs to which dubious touts try to drag any available elbow. Mostly, though, the mood in the quarter is one of bohemian free-spiritedness a quality that extends down a steep hill to Cihangir, a notorious transvestite hangout at night, and over to the Golden Horn to the Fezhane, a museum of modern art housed in an old fez factory. Hopeful noises have been heard about turning abandoned factories into SoHo like lofts for artists. but little progress has been made so far.
A special treat of Taksim Square is its dolmus stop dolmus, meaning “full” in Turkish, refers to the fleets of seriously cool American cars from the ’50s and ’60s now pressed into service as communal taxis, taking off to central destinations when full. A dolmus stand affords a view of 54 Chevys, DeSotos,and Plymouth station wagons, all painted the same orange-yellow. One afternoon a taxi driver proudly informed me that a 1964 Cadillac rolling by “belonged to our prime minister 30 years ago.”
The luckiest, and chicest, of the Istanbullu tend to live along the Bosporus, especially on the Asian side. (As the first bridge wasn’t built across the Bosporus until 1973, many older inhabitants of the city have never even visited. Yet the Asian side is actually quite accessible by ferry.) Many cafes, fish restaurants, and hotels line the Bosporus, coming alive in May, when things grow buzzier, steamier, and a bit decadent. Hidiv Kasri, the fin de si*cle hilltop residence of an Egyptian khedive, has been turned into a hotel. So has the 19th century Ciragan Palace, where both the prime minister and Turkish-born designer Rifat Ozbek were staying when I was in town Urcan, a rambling, kitschy seaside restaurant in Sariyer decorated with lit conch shells and hanging fishnets, serves its signature levrek, a sea bass chipped from a crust of rock salt by waiters with chisels. At Cafe Miyot, young Turks dressed in Ralph Lauren or Moschino order cappuccinos while listening to tapes of Tony Bennett or Billie Holiday. The disco 2019. hidden during the winter months in a club off Taksim Square. moves up the river in summer to an abandoned auto graveyard that hums until 7:00 in the morning. All in all. a La Dolce Vita party of the sort. wildly pursued in Rome in the early 1960 has rediscovered itself in the past few summers in Istanbul.
When Flaubert visited the city in 1850, he wrote to a friend, “About Constantinople, where I arrived yesterday morning, I’ll tell you nothing today, except to say that I’ve been struck by Fourier’s idea that some time in the future it will be the capital of the world. It is really fantastic as a human anthill.” If the end of our century proves to be more lively than apocalyptic. Fourier’s farfetched prophecy could come true.