When I first saw this view of Istanbul, decades ago, it was as if I’d just met the love of my life. From the northern end of the Galata Bridge, looking across the Golden Horn to what is known as the Old City, the view remains breathtaking even on an iron-grey winter’s day.
Rising above the waters of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus are: to my left, the vast Topkapı Palace complex; before me, the Byzantine wonder that is the Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque; and to my right, the Kapalıçarşı or Grand Bazaar and the Süleymaniye mosque. This last was created by Turkey’s greatest architect, Mimar Sinan, for its greatest sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.
I’m not even scratching the surface of this megacity of 17 million souls, as modern in places as Singapore, yet as old and as mysterious as time. The shirt of steel the season has thrown over the city does not detract from her ancient beauty. Moved almost to tears, I find myself experiencing a moment of huzun, an almost untranslatable Turkish concept, which can loosely be described as pleasurable melancholy.
Walking across the Galata Bridge, I nod to the windswept fishers who come, day in and day out, in the hope of catching palamut (skipjack tuna) and cinekop (bluefish). I look in their buckets to see what they’ve caught, knowing I’m being watched by several of Istanbul’s many street cats. Felines are greatly loved in Istanbul – some neighbourhoods even have little cat houses on street corners, lovingly decorated by adoring humans.
A middle-aged man in a long overcoat passes by, smiling at me, and I wonder if I know him. Istanbul is known as the “biggest village in the world”, where one may meet relatives, passing acquaintances and old lovers in the space of one morning. Even the dead pop up from time to time.
I take my Istanbulkart travel pass out of my pocket and wonder whether to take the tram up the hill from the dockside district of Eminönü or continue walking, in the frigid air, up to the centre of the Old City. I choose the latter.
I am fortunate in being able to write books set in this vibrant, opulent, often maddening city. Condensing its essence into a few paragraphs is virtually impossible. But I’ve been giving it a go for more than 20 years now, even when the sky looks like a threat.
Istanbul: Memories and the City, by perhaps Turkey’s greatest living writer, Orhan Pamuk, is a brilliant guide to its greatest monuments and its labyrinthine backstreets. Here are beggars and witches, shops selling buttons, others offering terrifying flesh-coloured corsets, and half-forgotten Greek ayazma (sacred springs). Istanbul does divine well, but it gives raffish a run for its money, too.
When I reach the southern end of the Golden Horn, I look back to where I started my walk – the hilly New City dominated by the Galata Tower. Built by the Genoese in 1348, it is 63 metres tall and has a viewing area at the top. In 1638, adventurer Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi attached wings to his body, jumped off the tower and glided across the Bosphorus.
This area, now known as Beyoğlu, is home to what were once big foreign embassies, but are now just ornate consulates. The waterfront district of Karaköy, is the setting for Elif Safak’s novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. Based on the lives of sex workers and transsexuals, this is a compassionate and intimate portrait of the area. Make no mistake, Istanbul is not an easy city, and this novel exposes many of its citizens’ daily struggles to survive.
Fans of thrillers and crime will enjoy a glimpse into the city’s criminal side in Istanbul Noir, an anthology of short stories edited by Mustafa Ziyalan. By contrast, Halidé Edip’s House with Wisteria(out of print) follows the early life of one of Turkey’s foremost feminists in Ottoman and early republican Istanbul.
As I walk up the hill from Eminönü to Sultanahmet, I pass between Gülhane Park (once part of the Topkapı Palace) and the Sublime Porte – seat of the Imperial Ottoman government. These locations remind me of one of the most popular Turkish TV series ever, Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century). Set at the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, it tells the story of that sultan’s reign and his personal life, centering on his harem. Not a biopic or a soap opera, Muhtesem is a dizi, a particularly Turkish television phenomenon that can be ancient or modern, but must feature drama, passion and acts of courage. To find out how Istanbul was captured by the Turks, the TV miniseries Rise of Empires: Ottoman (on Netflix) is a mix of expert commentary and wonderful reconstructions.
In a mildly sensual haze, evoked by memories of dizi, I spot a couple of damp belly-dancing costumes hanging outside a souvenir shop. Probably my favourite Turkish film of all time, 2011’sZenne Dancer is based on the lives of belly dancers – or rather their male counterparts, zenne. Traditionally, these young men perform at celebrations, but these days [though not pandemic days] they can be seen in nightclubs, too. This often brings them into conflict with their families and with religious authorites, a reminder that large sections of the city are culturally conservative.
Most of Sultanahmet’s sights are on my left as I crown the hill and step on to Divanyolu, Sultanahmet’s main thoroughfare. The first is Hagia Sophia, once the greatest church in Christendom, then a mosque, then a museum, it is now a mosque again and closed to visitors when worshippers are at prayer. From the outside it’s a terracotta-coloured masterpiece; inside it is sublime with marble and mosaic.
I wander along to the Sultanahmet mosque, a vast, domed structure whose interior is decorated with exquisite blue Iznik tiles, hence its other name, the Blue mosque. The iron skies lower, and I make my way to the Hippodrome, where the Romans held chariot races and the Byzantines who followed them held their sometimes violent games. There are three main monuments to see here: the Byzantine Walled Obelisk, the Ancient Greek Serpent Column, and the Obelix of Thutmose III, brought from Egypt in AD390.
I retrace my steps along Divanyolu. On my left I pass Lale Restaurant (nicknamed the Pudding Shop). Opened in the 1950s, it was once a hangout for young western travellers on their way to Kathmandu hoping for enlightenment. These days it still sells its delicious tavuk göğsü pudding, made from sweetened, pounded chicken breast, rice and milk. But on this occasion I’m going underground for my treat.
At the end of Divanyolu there is the entrance to the Yerebatan Saray, or Underground Palace. It’s a subterranean Byzantine water cistern, and has a cafe selling sahlep, a winter drink made from milk and powdered orchid root, and dusted with cinnamon. I spend time listening to the classical music played in that vast, vaulted space, and watching the multicoloured light show dance among the ancient columns.
The city is great for street food, from simit – sesame seed-dusted rings of enriched bread sold everywhere – to steaming kokoreç, spiced lamb intestines on a skewer. Tea, çay, which is served black here, is available all over the city, including on the ferries that cross the Bosphorus. Turkish coffee, kahve, is not quite so ubiquitous but can be found nearby on Divanyolu at a lovely pastane (patisserie) called Cigdem. It also serves wonderful savoury pastries called börek (with cheese or spinach) and some of the best sticky, nut-studded baklava known to humanity.
Turkey’s rap scene is big but little-known outside the country. You can hear kids rapping on the streets, particularly in poor parts of town, such as Tarlabaşı, a multi-ethnic sometimes troubled but always creative place. Probably the most famous rap track is a 14-verse epic called Susamam, a deeply political work produced by a collective of Istanbul rappers.
More my kind of listening is Arabesk: influenced by Arabian music, it’s a form that identifies with the working classes and their struggles. A sort of musical dizi, it can be deeply melancholy, especially in its treatment of thwarted love. It’s biggest stars, singers including Bülent Ersoy and İbrahim Tatlıses, live turbulent lives straight out of TV drama. Turkish pop is exemplified by singer-songwriter Tarkan.
As I return to the Galata Bridge, my mind drifts to the man I saw there earlier. An old friend or someone famous? Maybe my long-dead grandfather? In the magical city of huzun, anything is possible.