By Jim Ferri
The call to prayer by the muezzin startled me.
I was standing below a minaret at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and the shrill sound from the loudspeakers was almost deafening. Then, within seconds, I heard more calls reverberate across the city, a daily cacophony I soon became accustomed to since it’s such a part of life in the city.
Many minarets pierce Istanbul’s skyline but I was drawn to the Blue Mosque because it is one of the most famous. Shortly after arriving in the city one afternoon I walked there from the nearby Eresin Crown Hotel in Sultanahmet (the Old City), a very good boutique hotel where I was staying. I wanted to see the famous landmark at sunset and was well-rewarded by the sight of its dome and minarets set ablaze by the setting sun, and later bathed in the soft evening light.
The next morning I passed it again on my way to visit the adjacent Hagia Sophia, another of the city’s celebrated landmarks. Hagia Sophia is an incredible structure originally built as a basilica, then later turned into a mosque and which now enjoys still another life as a museum.
Dating from the sixth century it incorporates both Christian and Muslim influences and is one of the most spectacular buildings in Istanbul. Its huge dome, over 100 feet in diameter and close to 200 feet high, soars above marble floors that have been cracked and worn away by time. Huge hanging chandeliers give its interior an otherworldly effect.
It’s exceptionally beautiful and you could spend hours gazing at its ancient frescoes and mosaics, many of which, unfortunately, are disintegrating. Some restoration work is underway although it appears miniscule compared to the major effort required.
If you visit Hagia Sophia don’t miss going to the upper level (turn left once inside the entrance and walk up the ramp at the far end). Also try to visit early in the morning before tour groups arrive and it becomes crowded and noisy, which distracts from the beauty and the solemnity of the place.
Set in a beautiful park a few minutes walk from Hagia Sophia is Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultans and the court of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century. A series of pavilions renown for intrigue and drama, Topkapi at one time housed 5,000 people, including the Sultan and his concubines, slaves and eunuchs. Today its Treasury is home to an incredible display of wealth including the 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker Diamond.
But what draws many to Topkapi isn’t diamonds but the incredible Harem, a labyrinth of 400 or so apartments, rooms and halls in which the sultan’s wives, along with the queen mother, eunuchs and the sultan’s concubines lived.
You only get to see about 40 of the rooms in the harem but they include, among others, the dormitory and courtyard of the eunuchs, the court of the concubines and the Sultan’s consorts, and the apartments of the Queen Mother, all of which still provide you a sense of the beauty and opulence of the place. A separate ticket is require for entry.
A Spirited Street Life
Istanbul is an incredibly fascinating and colorful city with an energetic street life. Along many streets you’ll little chairs and tiny 1’ x 1’ tables out on the curb where Turkish men have their cigarettes and take their coffee. The streets are also home to many carts, whose vendors offer hot chestnuts and corn, both to be eaten as you stroll. And when the weather is warm you’ll find more outdoor cafés than you can shake a kebab at.
Istanbul is also a city that constantly surprises with sights such as veiled women standing below a billboard showing women in the briefest of bikinis, or a sidewalk entrepreneur with a bathroom scale charging people to weigh themselves. You quickly find that wandering the city’s streets is an adventure like no other.
The Grand Bazaar
Beyond its minarets, the most emblematic image of Istanbul is its fabled Grand Bazaar, a riot of color, confusion and crowds. It’s the oldest covered market in the world and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere, a mini-city of 4,500 shops on 60+ streets with 22 entrances.
Here I found it all…carpet sellers, jewelers, restaurants and cafés, lamp dealers, shoe shops, even a police station. Walking through its crowded alleyways I was surrounded by women in veil, tourists and locals seeking deals, boys running about delivering little glasses of Turkish coffee into various shops, tiny cafés set up for passerby’s to enjoy a bite to eat or a drink. It percolates with the hubbub and craziness you’d expect in any Middle Eastern bazaar.
Getting Off the Tourist Track
Walk the back streets beyond the Grand Bazaar and head towards the Golden Horn and you’ll quickly find yourself in the authentic Istanbul, the off-the-beaten-tourist path where the Turks go to shop.
I first wandered through the crowded Spice Bazaar, watching people buy their foodstuffs, before heading over towards the nearby ferry slips on the Bosporus where I found crowds of people eating fish sandwiches in little riverside restaurants. The atmosphere was almost Las Vegas-like, with gaudily dressed waiters shuttling fish from braziers set up on rocking dockside boats over to crowds sitting at little harbor-side tables.
Although the entire area was abuzz with energy, on a bridge just a few yards away a line of fishermen stood quietly and motionless, fixated only on their lines dangling in the water below. Like the veiled women beneath the billboard, they reminded me of the many incongruities you can’t help but see all over Istanbul.
If you go:
Turkish Tourist Office
821 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017
Tel: (212) 687-2194
Eresin Crown Hotel
Kucukayasofya Cad. No: 40
Tel: 90 212 638 4428