It was a bright and beautiful Wednesday in August 2001, the afternoon our first day in Istanbul We emerged from the cool comfort of the gleaming and glamorous Divan Hotel into a high-end neighborhood of late 20th century buildings and crossed a wide boulevard teeming with traffic.
On the opposite side, in a municipal park the size of a large city block, rose bushes were abloom and the fragrance of honeysuckle was so strong, it was almost dizzying. As were the crowds of pedestrians. Long-legged young women in mini-skirts and high-heeled shoes strode by ageless women, their heads covered with the traditional hijab, who shuffled along in black coats that reached down to their ankles. A woman in a chador peered out from the secret interior of her shapeless black garment. Serious-looking men in business attire were trailed by noisy shoe-shine boys. Vendors steamed ears of corn in big pots, sold ice cream, proffered cherries from big wooden crates reclining in wheelbarrows, hawked lottery tickets.
This is Taksim Park named for the city’s water distribution system, which used to be piped to various quarters from the small stone building with an odd cone-shaped roof that stands adjacent to Taksim Square at the head of the park. We stopped to admire an imposing monument in the center of the square that commemorates Turkey’s War of Independence. Beneath it, a boy of about twelve, wearing a cape and feathered hat of “Three Musketeer” variety, was posing for a photographer while a woman standing alongside beamed with maternal pride. What was the occasion, we asked our guide Hasan. The celebration of the young man’s circumcision, he told us, an event that typically ushers in puberty in this democratic, but largely Muslim land.
Taksim Square leads to Istiklal Street, a broad and lively byway of shops, restaurants and cafes, offices and embassies housed in an assortment of nineteenth century buildings that stand shoulder to shoulder along an avenue closed to all traffic save a one-car trolley that winds its way up and down the single track in its center. This is the heart of Beyoglu, a neighborhood that a century ago had been the mercantile center of European Istanbul, where a multitude of nationalities lived, conducted business, and frequented the area’s sophisticated hotels, theaters, cafes and shops. To this day the diversity of the region’s churches, synagogues and mosques cannot be equaled anywhere in the world.
The smells of coffee and tobacco and a melding of music wafted out from doorways. We heard the strains of “Tumbalalika,” an Eastern-sounding lullaby a favorite uncle used to sing, blaring American rock, Arabic and Greek songs all competing with street musicians playing accordions and different kinds of pipes. Then suddenly in the midst of the all the cacophony, a high, unaccompanied voice pierced the air with an Oriental melody sung with great feeling and vibrato. Around us, people continued about their business seemingly unmindful of the song that seemed to be floating above the rooftops. Once again we turned to Hasan. “It is the call to prayer,” he said, indicating the mosque at the end of the street. Looking up to the minaret, we saw a man in a white robe surrounded by four loud speakers into which he sang sequentially. “This happens five times a day in every mosque,” he added. “But if you don’t hear the call, you can find the prayer schedule in any newspaper.”
In the week that followed, the call to prayer would accompany us, stopping us from whatever we were doing, compelling us to listen. It punctuated our days with the reminder of how strong a current of spirituality runs through the veins of this fascinating, many-faceted city.
The Muslim story is but a latter chapter in the history of this part of the world, where civilizations are layered like strata of stone. From the terrace outside our eighth-floor room in the Divan Hotel, we could see the Bosphorus, the strait that Jason and the Argonauts had sailed in search of the Golden Fleece. Istanbul was Byzantium then, named for Byzas, leader of the Megarians, who founded the city in the seventh century B.C., some two hundred years before myths like Jason’s had been incorporated into the standard Greek repertoire. Myth and history blend artfully in any account of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul.
In cleaving the land mass between the Black Sea to the north and the Marmara Sea to the south, the Bosphorus separates Europe from Asia. Istanbul is on its southern banks, and is itself divided by a winding inlet called the Golden Horn — after Keroessa, the granddaughter of Zeus and mother of Byzas — which flows into the basin where the Bosphorus and Marmara meet. Our first night in Istanbul, we stood on the terrace looking across the midnight-blue water to Asia and tried to position ourselves in this complicated locale that stands at the crux of so many civilizations.
The next day we took a taxi from hilly Beyoglu down to the waterfront neighborhood Galata and crossed the Golden Horn over a long bridge lined with fishermen to Istanbul’s Old City. Beyoglu and Galata, which have buildings dating back to Byzantine times, can hardly be thought of as new communities. Still they belong to a more modern social and economic order than the Old City, which appears rooted in an older kind of commercial world. At the foot of the bridge, an enormous multi-domed mosque spreads out with masses of people circulating about it. The waterfront is filled with peddlers, bands of blind musicians, boats unloading fruits and vegetables. Shopkeepers set their good on stalls outside the doorways; streets are labyrinths winding upwards, abruptly turning and disappearing into sudden alleyways.
Our taxi drove along the waterfront to the southeast tip, a peninsula at the end of the Old City where Hasan was waiting for us at Sultanahmet Square. This is Istanbul’s most ancient section, the place where, legend has it, Byzas founded Byzantium. History tells us Emperor Constantine ruled from this district after he re-named the city for himself and proclaimed it capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D.
The Milion Stone that marked the “zero point” where all roads of the world began was erected here; we were able to see its remains. After Constantine adopted Christianity, the region became the spiritual and administrative center of the new faith and then the Eastern Church until the Ottoman conquest of 1454. Thereafter Sultanahmet was headquarters for the ruling Turks, the site for palaces, mosques, monuments, and the city’s largest bath. What better place, we thought, to begin our exploration into Istanbul’s past.
“I have surpassed you, O Solomon,” declared Emperor Justinian in 537 at the inauguration of the largest church in the world. It has subsequently been surpassed in size by St. Paul’s in London, St. Peter’s in Rome and the Duomo in Milan, but for sheer grandeur and majesty, it remains unsurpassable. Although the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque, whitewashed its Christian paintings and mosaics and removed its ikons and statues, the structure known as the Hagia Sofia remained undisturbed through the centuries. In 1935, it became the museum that to this day visitors from all over the world throng to, exerting an appeal that extends beyond any specific faith.
The morning of our visit, hundreds of people were roaming through its vast interior, international tour groups, bands of traditionally dressed Turkish women, crowds of families. Yet despite the multitudes, the immensity of the place made it possible to feel alone. Light filtered into the cool darkness through what seemed like hundreds of arched windows rimmed with patterns of colorful stained glass. The enormous central dome seemingly soars up to heaven from its rectangular basilica, surrounded by pairs of semi-domes and six smaller domes. Looking up, we experienced an overwhelming sense of space. Later, having climbed the massive stone steps to the upper galleries, we looked down on the nave for an equally spectacular perspective.
One hundred seven columns brought from all parts of the ancient world support the domes’ great weight; some came from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Their carved decorations, the church’s great bronze doors, the painting and mosaics depicting Biblical scenes and Byzantine royalty, including a tenth century mosaic panel of Constantine and Justinian presenting Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia to Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms, represent Byzantine art at its most exquisite.
Standing in the central nave, we had a sensation that something was off kilter; the altar was not quite centered. Later we learned an error in the original design was detected after it was too late to do anything about it and resulted in the structure being slightly off. Having lasted for nearly a millennium and a half, however, the Hagia Sophia must be on sure enough footing. To us, the less than perfect balance only added to its majesty and charm.
A long plaza separates the Hagia Sophia from the Blue Mosque, named for its magnificent interior of blue and white Iznik tiles. On both sides of the Bosphorus, the Istanbul skyline is dominated by the graceful domes and pointed minarets of mosques. Each one we saw beckoned as each call to prayer exerted its particular tug. But time would allow us only a visit to this one, built by Sultan Ahmet I in the early seventeenth century. Positioned with its back to the shore of the Golden Horn, the Blue Mosque’s exterior with its six minarets and multitude of domes is an enchanting vision while its interior is a study in serenity. Floors of the huge open space are covered with patterned rugs, domes are painted red, white, blue and gold, the many arched windows have stained glass panels of vivid blues and golds.
The long stretch of greenery that runs alongside the Blue Mosque was once the Hippodrome, where chariots raced in ancient times. We stopped to admire its three remaining monuments: a tenth century stone pillar, a bronze column from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and an obelisk commemorating a Pharaoh’s victory in 1550 B.C. — enough to immerse anyone in the past.
Suddenly Hasan broke the spell by suggesting we stop for lunch at a place on Sultanahmet Square directly across from the Tourist Office. “It’s a favorite of ours,” he said. “The proprietor, Mr. Colpan, is a wonderful man. We turn to him whenever a tourist has problems, and he always helps us out.”
No sooner did we approach the bustling deep and narrow restaurant with the leg of lamb roasting on a spit in the doorway and took a look at the name: “The World Famous Pudding Shop” than the proverbial bell went off. We’d heard of this place. In the 1960s and ‘70s, people we knew who backpacked across Europe and Asia used Istanbul as a midpoint. They’d talked about a Pudding Shop where they got together to drink Turkish coffee, sing along to guitar music, collect mail, plan routes. They’d talked about the owners, a pair of brothers who helped out kids embarking on the search for nirvana in India and Tibet or crashing upstairs in the rough hostel on their way back. If they were broke, the brothers loaned them money. If they had run away from home, the brothers helped them establish contact with their families. If they got into trouble, the brothers interceded on their behalf.
Hasan introduced us to the younger brother, Namik Colpan, a warm and garrulous man who told us his brother Idris had passed away in the mid 1980’s. From Namik we learned how their father opened a pastry shop on the site in 1957 whose specialty was the sweet soft puddings that gave the place its name and is still served to this day. Once the routes to the east became less safe and Istanbul ceased being a transit point, the Pudding Shop ceased being a hippie-haven. But it has since expanded into a self-service style restaurant serving all manner of Turkish delights. Namik muses, “Sometimes middle aged Americans, obviously successful, well dressed, come up to me and say ‘What did you do to the place? It used to be such a nice café.’ They want to see it the way it used to be. I tell them ‘You have moved on in life; so have I.’”
Namik also has moved in the direction of hotel ownership. Forty years after the Pudding Shop first opened for business, he purchased the five-family apartment house where he had raised his family and transformed it into a four-star twenty six-room boutique property, named — appropriately enough — the Blue House Hotel. We visited the Blue House Hotel that night and were shown around by Namik’s son, Faruk, who as general manager is continuing the family tradition of hospitality.
A small garden restaurant is near the entrance, but we chose to dine at the Blue House’s rooftop restaurant that had just opened for the summer season and commands stunning views of the confluence of the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and Marmara Sea. From our table on the roof’s edge protected by a plexi-glass wall, one of us faced the Blue Mosque, the other the Hagia Sophia. It was still light out when we arrived, and from this enviable position we watched darkness fall, the moon rise, the Blue Mosque become illuminated by blue and white lights in turn, and the red stone of the Hagia Sophia become bathed in gold.
Directly below us some five stories down, we saw people at tables in what looked like an outdoor café. Later we learned it was a smoke shop, where visitors smoked water pipes and drank Turkish tea. A trio composed of a kind of tom-tom drum and two long and flat string instruments was playing traditional Turkish music. Suddenly three men dressed in white caftans with cone-shaped head coverings stepped onto a little patio, crossed their arms, placing each hand on the opposite shoulder, and began to slowly spin around.
As the music’s tempo quickened, they raised their arms above their heads and twirled faster and faster until they looked like spinning tops. When it seemed they could go no faster, the tempo began to decrease as did their rate of spinning until both came to a halt. Unexpectedly we had witnessed the dance of the whirling dervishes.
Between the spectacular view and the equally spectacular whirling dervishes, we thought it might be difficult to concentrate on food, but the Blue House’s traditional Turkish offerings proved to be their own attention-getters. Faruk suggested a full bodied red wine called Yakut to accompany an excellent dinner of thyme-seasoned grilled chicken and eggplant baked with cheese. Produced by Kavaklidere, it was one of several Turkish wines we sampled during our stay, all of which led us to believe in the great promise of the nation’s fledgling wine industry.