Istanbul here and now
Ancient and modern times cross paths in this Turkish city,
where DJs, jazz festivals and fusion cuisine mix with mosques,
buzzing markets and palaces of the sultans
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, May 25, 2002
ISTANBUL - Istanbul is a place where oxymorons, non sequiturs and contradictions converge and digress.
William Butler Yeats regarded Byzantium (the city's original name) as a "beauty outside time." And while the city, with its grand monuments and rich traditions, does in some ways seem to suffer from a strange lack of linear progress, as if time were repeating itself in grand, patient codas, Istanbul is no longer Byzantium or Constantinople.
Despite where the travel guides lead visitors, it is not just a living museum, but a vibrant, cosmopolitan and modern city that happens to have an impressive historical pedigree.
This city has always harboured the extremes of wealth and poverty, religion and paganism, hedonism and asceticism. It is known globally for its hamam bathhouses and sensual kicks -- Russian prostitutes enjoy a thriving trade in the legal whoring district of Pera -- but also for its great houses of spirituality, which are everywhere in the oldest parts of town.
It is to the ancient quarters of Sultanahmet, Beyazit, Fatih and Eyup that most visitors to Istanbul flock, and for good reason: Imagine Notre Dame Cathedral, St. Paul's Cathedral and St. Peter's Basilica within one square kilometre, right next to a natural harbour as beautiful as Vancouver's. The scale of the treasures they hold is impressive.
The jewel in the heart of Istanbul's Sultanahmet area is the Aya Sophia. With its magnificent dome, it was considered one of the great architectural miracles of Christendom, and went through incarnations as a church, a mosque and now a museum.
Nearby is Topkapi Palace, the sprawling, intricately tiled sultan's retreat, which still houses the decadent quarters that were once home to the sultan's harem; and the world-famous Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque, one of the great temples of Islam.
Visitors can also tour the underground waterways and marble columns of the Basilica Cisterns, which were built in the fourth century and were still in use until 100 years ago; and the impressive Archeology Museum in Gulhane Park. And there is of course the myriad of bargains and treasures to be found at the dizzying Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi) -- at 500 years old and with almost 4,000 shops, it has a buzz like no other market in the world.
But the visitor to Istanbul can find far more than the archetypical great deal on a carpet or photo-op with a tea jockey in front of a big mosque.
The city's collection of ancient relics is remarkable, but beyond that there is also an entertaining, culturally modern megopolis that most tourists never see -- a city that is very much in the now.
Among the more surprising aspects of modern life in Istanbul is the quality of its music. The city is becoming a clubber's paradise, with local DJs competing with dozens of world-famous names that now visit frequently.
In the summer months, Istanbulites flock to their revered summer homes on the Aegean or Mediterranean, and usually what's left are the tourists.
The visitors who don't leave the city for the southern resort hot spot of Bodrum are treated to impressive outdoor raves on the Princes Islands off the city shoreline, or on the Black Sea beaches at Kilyos, 25 kilometres north up the Bosphorus. An impressive list of international DJs -- Carl Cox, Nick Warren, Sven Vath and Dave Seaman among them -- is already confirmed for the upcoming summer.
In Beyoglu-Taksim, Istanbul's "downtown," there is a surprising cross-section of humanity. On the same stretch of the crowded Istiklal pedestrian street, you might find conservatively dressed yuppies or tikis, neon-coated club-goers, pious Muslims in long coats, and the occasional bemused tourist.
At night, things do not slow down much around Beyoglu.
There are a number of bars, but the "night clups" (sic) should be avoided. You can recognize these by the girl-motif neon signs and greasy doormen leering at all who pass by. They are tacky beyond measure and the bouncers will likely roll you for the contents of your wallet.
Instead, find a bar, or meyhane,in Beyoglu near the Cicek Passage with a small, local fasil band playing. Order some tapas (meze)and raki -- the national drink made with dry anise liquor, not unlike ouzo -- learn some traditional dance moves from the friendly waiters and enjoy Turkish hospitality properly. The excellent magazine Istanbul Time Out, available at international paper stands, will help you sort out an entertainment itinerary.
The performing arts have also truly come alive in Istanbul. The city hosts two annual jazz festivals in mid-July and early October, and a blues fest in December. The International Film Festival, which takes place in early May, is just beginning to build momentum, attracting the attention of some of those who frequent Cannes and Venice -- but not yet the paparazzi.
Another surprisingly impressive element to the local flavour is the food. Not many are aware that Turkish food is considered among the world's great cuisines.
The Ottoman Empire's crossroads setting and the culinary demands of the Jannisaries -- the sultan's elite troops who would riot if their food was not suitably varied and well-prepared -- long ago set a high standard. Today, even the fast food is superior to the homogenous fare served by the city's international restaurants.
For a culturally enlightening food foray, walk around Kumkapi, just off the tourist map, southwest of the touts and camera-toting hordes of Sultanahmet. Millennia-old walls and narrow streets turn the area into a film noir set of alleys. There, you'll find an ancient and austere Armenian cathedral and a street filled with fishmongers and restaurants, garishly lit and ranging from cafeteria-style to quite posh.
This slice of cacophony is a unique place to take in dinner while in Istanbul, where locals and tourists alike come to eat fresh, inexpensive fish and bottles of raki. Go to Kumkapi during the gorgeous Marmara sunset and you'll hear traditional musicians playing melancholic songs of love, inviting all to sing along. This is Istanbul at its most genuine, warm and human.
Other more upscale highlights on the Istanbul culinary map include one of the city's oldest and best-regarded meat restaurants, Beyti (in Florya, near the airport), where patrons including
Ronald Reagan, Leonard Bernstein and Luciano Pavarotti have feasted on specialties such as free-range lamb sided with unique vegetable and rice pilaf creations. There is also Asitane, in Edirnekapi, which fuses authentic 15th-century Ottoman recipes with an insouciant French refinement, and Pandelli (above the cacophonous Egyptian Market in Sirkeci) for more traditional Anatolian food. This is the original "fusion" cooking -- between the Mediterranean and the Orient.
The Turks, especially in Westward-looking Istanbul, are eager to catch up with Europe, where the European Union beckons on virtually all fronts. Most educated young people can speak reasonable English, are computer-savvy and have the latest cellphones. Yet they are just as keen to retain their traditions and identity.
Constantinople was Greek far longer than it was Ottoman-Turkish. When Mehmet II overtook the city walls in 1453, it had been the most civilized and famous city in the world for more than 1,000 years. Gradually, its Greek-Christian singularity gave way to a much more polyglot populace, and Muslims eventually came to predominate. The city remained, however, a cosmopolitan, multicultural place -- Armenians, Greeks and Jews dominated commercial life -- and it entranced scores of Western writers and romantics for centuries.
In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk put an end to the antiquated Ottoman dynasty and created the Turkish Republic. Interestingly, he did not make Istanbul its capital, but chose instead the ultra-planned and controlled Ankara in central Anatolia. Under Ataturk's rule, Greeks and Armenians were expelled from the country en masse and the character of the city became homogeneously Turkish. Today, however, Istanbul's ethnic diversity is on the rebound.
The family is still the centre of Turkey's social fabric, and although it is a secular republic, the Islamic faith still holds a great deal of sway here. There is much soul-searching as this country straddles the cultural, political and religious divides between Mecca and Brussels.
Perhaps a defining image of this unique, beguiling town is a view from Galata Bridge in the heart of ancient Byzantium. The relics of Christian Byzantium meld with the
monuments to Allah's conquests, and the setting sun on the aptly named Golden Horn reflects the crumbling buildings of Pera, almost lurching into the harbour's maelstrom of shipping activity.
This is not a typical scene from the West, circa 2002. Nor is it a museum postcard. But there is a harmony, a balance in this strange performance, replayed continuously at this crossroads of a city.
If you go
Getting there: There are regular flights to Istanbul (with U.S. or European connections) from major Canadian airports. Shuttle buses and taxis provide transportation to and from the city's international airport, which is 30 kilometres outside of town.
Getting around: There are plenty of public transportation options. Buses, minibuses, trams, a subway line, and yellow taxis are all available. Cars can also be rented at various locations.
Lodging: A wealth of accommodations range from budget hostels and pensions to pricey luxury hotels.
There are several helpful Web sites for finding and booking accommodations, including the following that visitors can check out:
Information: The main Web site for Turkish tourism is http://www.turkey.org. There are several tourist offices in Istanbul, with the main branch located in Sultanahmet at the north end of the Hippodrome.
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