Donal O’Keeffe visits the major Turkish city that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait and is fascinated by its magical blend of museums, markets, history and restaurants.
Forked lightning split the midnight skies as I flew in on a luxurious Turkish Airlines flight to the futuristic new Istanbul Airport.
Looking down at the golden arteries of street-lights lining the twinkling, silvery circuit-board of the city once known as Constantinople, and before that Byzantium, I marvelled at the sheer scale of this sprawling home to 20 million people.
East meets west here, and history is never far away in Istanbul. Europe’s most populous metropolis, it is the only city in the world to have been the capital of three empires, and the only city to span two continents.
The ancient meets the modern here, too, and the city offers a warm welcome to tourists, 12 or so million every year.
Ever the gateway between two worlds, Istanbul was founded as the Greek colony Byzantium around 660BC, at the Great Horn, the natural harbour where the Strait of Bosporous connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and thus with the Darandelles, the Aegean and the Mediterranean.
Playing a vital role in the advancement of Christianity, in 324 Byzantium became the capital of the Roman Empire and was named Constantinople after the Emperor Constantine. The city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, becoming the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate.
If anyone place captures and encapsulates Istanbul, it is surely the 1,482-year-old Hagia Sophia. Built in 537, this was once the largest building in the world. For much of its first millennium it was a Christian cathedral, and for most of the time since, a mosque.
In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, decided, perhaps wisely, it should become a museum.
It would be impossible to gaze up at the golden interior of the vast, otherworldly dome of the Hagia Sophia without feeling a connection with the eternal.
Time and space echo here, under the glorious frescoes and half-restored mosaics of previous times.
I’m not religious — or worse, “spiritual”— but I felt slightly overwhelmed at the thought of all the souls who have walked the Earth in the time this astonishing building has stood. History is never far away, here, and God — whatever that is — is a little harder to ignore.
In the Blue Mosque, I walked shoeless on plush carpets as the faithful kneeled and prayed toward Mecca. My guide, Hakan Yucer, a personable and funny man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his city, told me only tourists call this the Blue Mosque, despite its ubiquitous blue tiles. To native Istanbullus, this is the Sultan Ahmet Camii.
Hakan joked that the reason Friday is the Muslim holy day is because “Saturday and Sunday were taken”. In truth, Friday was the day the Prophet Mohammed received his first revelations.
Daylight seems brighter, and the skies, to Irish eyes, bluer, in Istanbul, and the Topkapi Palace has to be seen to be believed; sprawling and opulent, this was in the 15th century the main residence and the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. It is colossal, and seems from another, storybook world, and I would have been lost without Hakan.
He works with the Turkish Travel Group, and their guided tour of Istanbul is worth every cent of its €60 fee.
Like the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace became a museum at the dawn of the Republic of Turkey.
There’s usually a queue outside the Sultanahmet Köftecisi, across from the Hagia Sophia, and it’s one of the most famous restaurants in the old city. It’s been serving ızgara köfte (grilled meatballs) since 1920, and its three storeys are usually packed.
The photographs on the walls show it’s a popular spot for politicians to burnish their man-of-the-people credentials. The meatballs are delicious, especially when accompanied by the red chilli sauce.
Framed photographs fill the hallway of another local institution, too. Atatürk visited here, as did Kaiser Wilhelm II, Omar Sharif, Tony Curtis, Cameron Diaz, Harrison Ford, Rudolf Nureyev and Florence Nightingale.
Some 350 metres from the Hagia Sophia, the Cağaloğlu Hamam was completed in 1741, the last Turkish Bath built in the Ottoman Empire. It has the air of an ancient temple, with pin lights of sunshine beaming down through star-shaped apertures, as marble pillars rise to rounded arches which hold aloft the great domed white ceiling.
The hamam is split into two baths, one for women, one for men, and for €60, visitors are treated to a Turkish ritual dating back to Roman times. A sauna is followed by an exfoliating body scrub, and what’s described in the brochure as “our pummelling full-body massage” on the central marble plinth.
Pummelling it is, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. That said, it left my back and shoulders freer than they’ve been in years.
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest covered markets, but its crowded interior, its sheer scale, and the repetitiveness of the fare on offer made it, for me at least, a bewildering experience.
In the lobby of the sumptuous Crowne Plaza where I stayed, (serious value at €75 per night B&B,) I wondered why I saw so many men walking around with their heads swaddled in white bandages. I learned that Istanbul has become a major centre for “health tourism”, and is a popular venue for hair transplants.
(On the plane back to Ireland, the man beside me told me he’d had an intestinal cyst and couldn’t bear the months-long wait for an Irish operation to discover whether he had cancer. In four days in Turkey, he told me, he had been “sorted for four grand and given the all-clear. Our health system is a joke.”)
Heading home, the brand-new Istanbul Airport is a striking feat of modern engineering, a vast, shining monument to what Turkish President Erdoğan calls one of his “crazy projects”.
Occupying an area larger than Manhattan, this crazy project could potentially, by its 2027 completion date, become the largest airport in the world, with a capacity for 200 million passengers per year. It has the shiny, bustling look of a sci-fi starbase.
Flying time from Dublin to Istanbul is just shy of four hours, but Turkish Airlines treats its passengers like royalty: the in-flight meals are delicious, the service is exemplary, and with movies and free wi-fi, the flight passes in a dream of comfort.
On my last night in Istanbul, I went to see a display by whirling Dervishes, something UNESCO calls one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.
An 800-year-old ritual, it’s a strange, moving experience, (literally and metaphorically,) one which blends artistic performance with religious ceremony. It ends with a reading from the Quran, one which might well speak for Istanbul itself, a friendly, vibrant place, steeped in the history of a millennium-and-a-half:
“Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times. Come, yet again. Come, come.”
I travelled as a guest of Turkish Airlines. Return flights from Dublin to Istanbul start at €325 economy, €1,035 business. Contact 01 5251849; www.turkishairlines.com Turkish Travel Group: www.turkishtravelgroup.com