The next morning, prompted by memories of the movie where Melina Mercouri plans and nearly succeeds in a fantastic jewel heist, we returned to Sultanahmet to see the actual dagger and jeweled treasures of Topkapi Palace — only to discover the Treasury Room was among those sections closed for renovations. But we did get to see enough of Topkapi to understand why so many consider it one of the wonders of the world.
Set amidst gardens on the top of gently sloping hills surrounded by Byzantine sea walls on one side and Ottoman land walls on the other, this complex of pavilions, apartments, courtyards, and kiosks served as royal residence, seat of government, and symbol of the Ottoman Empire for four hundred years. Its construction began in 1472 during the reign of the conqueror Sultan Mehmet with additions and alterations made by successive sultans through the mid nineteenth century.
Accompanied by Hasan and, for the second time on this trip, the intoxicating aroma of honeysuckle, we wandered through a setting unlike any European palace or castle. Arranged around a vast open space are a multitude of buildings that lead into courtyards, domed pavilions framed by arched pillars, and octagon-shaped kiosks — all of great detail and beauty. Each had its own purpose from the rooms displaying the sultans’ collections of Chinese porcelain, to the kiosks reserved for doctors and pharmacists, to the kiosk holding the relics of the prophet Muhammad, where a man in a small glass booth ceaselessly chants passages from the Koran.
The largest crowds lined up to tour Topkapi’s harem, although only a small portion of the labyrinth where the sultan, his mother, wives, children and all their attendants lived is open to the public. Here are perhaps the most beautiful and elaborate examples of sixteenth and seventeenth century Turkish craftsmanship: walls of Iznik tiles, doors and cupboards inlaid with mother of pearl, floors covered with exquisite rugs, domes painted in elaborate design, arched windows outlined with vivid stained glass panels, deep sofas laden with cushions of luxuriously embroidered textiles.
The knowledgeable and efficient guide, who addressed her remarks in English and Turkish to a group of about 100 people, prompted us to move along. But how we longed to linger, to absorb the moods of mystery and intrigue, to speculate on what went on in these rooms.
“Oh to be a sultan,” one of us said.
A tour of Topkapi Palace provides an interesting insight into the direction of the Ottoman Empire over time, how, as the centuries passed, the sultans became more enamored of European tastes, how Arabic design gave way to western arts and artifacts — particularly in the latter-day affection for crystal chandeliers. Surely this shift had something to do with the decision to ultimately abandon Topkapi and relocate the imperial residence and offices to the other side of the city, the more modern, more European part of Istanbul. Coincidentally or not, the move coincided with the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire.
In step with the imperial chronology, we taxied back across the Golden Horn and followed the shoreline north to the site of Dolmabahce Palace, which was completed in 1854 at a cost of five million gold pieces. Unlike Topkapi, this structure so obviously belongs in the tradition of upper-end European palaces, it is often compared to Versailles. The chandelier hanging in its great reception hall, a gift from Queen Victoria to Sultan Abdulmecit, is the largest in the world, weighing 4.5 tons. And it is but one of 36 fabulous fixtures of Baccarat, Bohemian, and Murano design in this palace of 285 rooms and 43 reception halls, whose interior décor was, in large measure, the work of the man who designed the Paris Opera.
A series of interlocking white stone buildings stretching along the Bosphorus shore, Dolmabahce combines classical, Baroque and Rococo themes, although in the intricacies of design, it reminded us of the Manueline structures we had seen in Lisbon. After passing through a great wedding-cake-like gate, we strolled through beautifully tended gardens adorned with fountains and statues before joining up with a tour led by an earnest young man whose voice was giving out as a result of lecturing to so many visitors.
He led our group down hallways decorated with paintings of Istanbul, scenes by Italian artists and through state offices into a great meeting hall with entrances on either end: on the European side it led off a roadway; on the Bosphorus off a pier where boats arriving from the Asian side docked.
We climbed the famed stairway with crystal spindles that divides in two at a midpoint landing. “People tell us it’s like the staircase in the movie ‘Titanic,’” our guide joked as he escorted us into the Ambassadorial Hall, illuminated by a one-ton Baccarat chandelier. In this gold-plated hall where the sultan received visitors from other lands, the floor is three types of wood laid in a star pattern. Its central portion is covered by a large Herkimer carpet and, in stark contrast, two bear rugs — gifts from Czar Nicholas II.
Furnishings in this palace are largely European — chairs, tables, cabinets in the style of Napoleon and Louis XV. But the carpets and textiles are made by Turkish artisans, and the prayer rooms which face in the direction of Mecca have only carpets, low stools and sofas.
Again, the biggest crowds lined up to see the harem. Here, the apartments of the black eunuchs, the only men permitted in the complex, where, according to our guide “not even male flies were allowed,” were open to the public. Like the rest of Dolmabahce, the harem’s opulent furnishings and arrangements were far more European than Topkapi’s, with canopied beds and dressing tables in rooms of private apartments.
In 1922, the last of the Ottomans was installed in the palace as caliph, but with the end of the caliphate, he was removed and ordered to leave the country. Two years later, Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, directed the passage of a law that declared Dolmabahce and all the imperial palaces, mansions, and lodges, property of the nation. Ataturk himself resided in the white marble palace towards the end of his life and died there 1938.
From the Dolmabahce, it is a ten-minute drive up along the Bosphorus shore to Ciragan Palace, which, at the time the National Palaces Trust was formed, was a neglected ruin. In its long but checkered history that began in the late sixteenth century, it had been a waterside villa for members of the royal family, which, over the centuries, was successively torn down and rebuilt before finally succumbing to fire in 1910.
Some seventy-five years later, the Kempinski Hotel Group from Germany decided to lease and refurbish the palace, build a five-star luxury hotel on adjoining property, and out of the two, create the extraordinary Ciragan Palace Hotel Kempinski
We walked with the young and enthusiastic public relations manager, Evren Kaya, through the sparkling lobby of the modern hotel into the gardens at the rear that leveled off before an immense swimming pool whose waters seemed to flow right into the Bosphorus. It was an optical illusion of sorts. Nearing, we saw there was a terrace on the far side of the pool; umbrellas that appeared to be bobbing in the water actually shaded lounge chairs.
When the Ciragan Palace opened in 1991 after four years of renovation, it was one of the first of the luxury hotels in Istanbul,” Evren told us. “The owners saw the city’s potential before others did.” We were walking across the gardens now in the direction of the palace, past a cobblestone deck on the water’s edge, furnished with small tables and white deck chairs, where a jazz combo performs nightly.
Just beyond, stood the palace in all its architectural grandeur, a white marble structure lined with classical pillars and great arched windows. The interior repeats the nineteenth century Ottoman palatial themes like crystal spindles in stairways, a wealth of huge chandeliers, inlaid wooden floors and Turkish rugs, extensive use of blue and white Iznik tiles. But the color scheme takes leave of the traditional warm hues in favor of riotous sherbet shades of apricot, shocking pink, and chartreuse. The look is altogether festive.
Evren showed us the vast ballrooms, the Blue Room where a performance of “Sultan’s Night” features exotic belly dancing, and the hammam (Turkish bath) that has been carefully restored to its very bathroom fittings and is a unique and favored setting for cocktail parties, with its tiled and marbled alcoves and star-shaped skylights.
But our ultimate destination was the Tugra Restaurant, which specializes in Classical Ottoman and Nouvelle Turkish cuisine. Here Evren took her leave and put us into the hands of the gracious maitre d’ Malhud Bakmakci, who suggested, on this beautiful evening, a table on the balcony overlooking the grand balustrade that led to a terrace fronting the Bosphorus.
Malhud started us off with a perky aperitif of orange and lemon juice, a mango-flavored liqueur and Baccardi to prepare us for the overwhelming menu of manifold selections organized into tasting, modern Turkish, and traditional Ottoman menus.
White contemplating the options, we were presented with labas, small pitas with white and dark sesame seeds, and a pair of amuse bouches: a cone of bulgur stuffed with cardomam-seasoned chopped beef and an exceptional chicken pate with nuts and spices.
After some deliberation we made our decisions: (echoes of choosing one from Column A, one from Column B, one from Column C in the Chinese restaurants of our childhood): a yogurt soup with mint; a salad of grapefruit, shredded cabbage and mint; a sour soup with red lentil, chickpeas and eggplant; red mullet; spinach ravioli; grilled turbot with carrot sauce served with saffron-flavored bulgar and to accompany this range of dishes the aromatic and fruity Chardonnay Serafin we had enjoyed several times during our Istanbul stay. Dessert was quince, pumpkin, figs and walnuts in a goat cream, baklava. Each dish was delicious, novel in its seasonings and combinations of flavors, meticulously served.
Night fell. Lights came up along the edge of the Bosphorus and on the pleasure boats, ferries, and steamers plying the strait. In the distance, just before Bogazici Koprusu, the bridge that spans the continents and looks a lot like the Golden Gate, an illuminated cruise shop twinkled like a palace’s crystal chandelier. Once again on this Istanbul journey, we were struck by unexpected music, this time coming from the dining room inside. We followed the melody to three beautiful young women playing traditional Turkish music on a piano, zither, and miniature cello. A thought crossed our minds: maybe this is the kind of music the “Iliad” was recited to; how easily it could produce the kind of trance the ancient poets aimed at.
Our reverie was broken by the appearance of chef Fabrice Zanelle, who joined us for coffee. We had no problem paying our compliments to a chef who has clearly mastered the intricacies of Turkish cuisine both new and old. Fabrice demurred. The Parisian native who came to Istanbul by way of the Russian Tea Room in New York gives credit to the local products.
“Importation here is rough; I think it is political,” he said. “But I have wonderful foods to work with. The grapes are beautiful here. In the next ten years, Turkish wines will be as good as Californian. The spice market is fantastic; the fish are plentiful; I go to the fish and vegetable markets every morning. We have the best dates I’ve ever seen, gorgeous melons, beautiful grapes and cherries. And I can find small farmers who will make the cheeses that I want.
“Everyone says Turkish cuisine is similar to Greek, but it is also like Lebanese,” he added. “The Moroccan influence is there, the mixture of Arabia and Europe. I’ve been here for nine months, and one thing I’ve learned for certain is there is so much to discover in Turkey.”
Indeed. We had yet so much to discover in Istanbul alone. In a single week, we had seen many of its famed sites, traveled the legendary Bosphorus on a ferry boat crossing from points on the European to Asian sides, attempted to navigate the world famous Golden Bazaar, partook of the excellent cuisine, and in the process developed some sense of how this city is so much a product of its many-layered past. More important, we think, we had gotten to know a people we’d had little contact with before, people who were warm, hospitable, gracious to strangers, anxious to share the wealth of their history and culture.
More than a decade has passed since that journey; much has changed. Yet the call to prayer we heard our first afternoon in Istanbul lingers. It remains a call to return.
Turkish Tourist Office
821 United Nations Plaza (Ground Floor)
New York, NY 10022
Flies non-stop to Istanbul from New York, Miami, and Chicago
(The planes are Airbus 340’s with extra leg room and are immaculately maintained for the duration of the flight)