Colorful spices in the bazaar


































Blue Mosque
Interior of the Blue Mosque



Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia




















Street vendor shows off his baklava










Topkapi Palace

Heady world of Turkish delights poised at the crossroads of Europe and Asia

By Randy Mink
Photos by the author

A magical sight to behold, the silhouette of curvaceous mosque domes and tapering minarets punctuates one of the most enthralling cityscapes on the planet. Best seen from a ferry or tour boat plying the Bosphorus Strait, the skyline casts a spell on those captivated by this slice of the Muslim world straddling two continents.

As a common expression goes, “Istanbul is a city where those coming from the East find the West, and those coming from the West find the East.”

With an estimated population of 16 million, the economic and cultural powerhouse of the Turkish Republic is one of the world’s largest cities. Steeped in history and once the capital of two great empires—Byzantine and Ottoman—this gateway to the Middle East is a modern megalopolis in the midst of reinventing itself as a center for art, fashion, nightlife, dining and shopping.

Most Western visitors, while appreciating Istanbul’s 21st century amenities, seek out the grandeur of yesteryear, which, conveniently, is stashed within a compact area called the Old City. Four sights appear on most tourists’ checklists—the Grand Covered Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

Everything in Istanbul seems to shout out for a photo, and it all can get a little too rich for the blood, so make time to linger in a park, stop for ice cream, relax at a sidewalk or rooftop cafe. Or make friends with the resident cats that prowl the streets.

Much of Istanbul’s allure springs from its position as a strategic pivot point between southeastern Europe and southwest Asia. The European side claims the bulk of classic visitor attractions and commercial activity, while the Asian shore is more residential.

The Golden Horn
Ferry crosses the Bosphorus

The Bosphorus, a 19-mile strait as wide as 2.3 miles at one point, along with the Sea of Marmara, separate the Asian and European sides of Turkey, providing a passageway between the Aegean and Black seas. The Golden Horn, an arm of the Bosphorus, separates the Old City to the south and New (or European) District to the north. The area by the landmark Galata Bridge, one of five bridges across the Golden Horn, teems with activity, thanks to jostling crowds at the ferry terminals and fishermen casting their long rods into the murky water.

Full-day boat tours with set stops are available, or you can take a 90-minute cruise (only $3) that goes as far as the second Bosphorus bridge and includes no stops. Boat excursions provide a good way to escape the chaos of the city while admiring the mosques, marinas, fishing villages and waterfront palaces. At the narrowest part of the strait your boat passes the crenellated walls and watchtowers of 15th century Rumeli Fortress.

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar, assaulting the senses of the casual tourist, is Istanbul at its most exotic. A forerunner of the modern shopping mall, the ancient marketplace, dating from the 1460s and reconstructed in the 19th century, is a labyrinth with more than 60 streets and 4,000 shops.

grand bazaar
Pottery for sale in the Grand Bazaar

A fantasy world of arched passageways capped by domed ceilings and lined with stalls lit by garish light bulbs and manned by zealous merchants, the largest covered bazaar in the world is a photographer’s dream, with mounds of brightly colored spices and tea powders; heaps of dried figs, apricots and raisins; piles of nuts; and shelves of hand-painted bowls and plates. You’ll be tempted by Turkish carpets, embroidered or brocaded slippers, hand-beaten copper and brassware, leather bags and jackets, backgammon sets, fezzes, hookahs (tobacco water pipes) and spangly belly-dancing outfits. Rows and rows of tiny shops specialize in gold and silver baubles. Others peddle lokum, a cube-shaped, gel-like confection that we call Turkish delight, in a rainbow of flavors, from rosewater to pomegranate; many varieties contain pistachios and walnuts. Samples of Turkish delight are given out freely.

Display of Spice Market wares

The Spice Market, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, is another time-honored market hall worth a look. A riot of colors and fragrances, it’s packed with sacks of pistachios and hazelnuts, plump Aegean olives, dried fruits, black and herbal teas, and containers of cumin, turmeric, saffron, curry blends and other spices. Built in 1660, the emporium was the last stop for caravans that traveled the Spice Routes from China, India and Persia.

Key monuments of antiquity are clustered together in the historic Sultanahmet zone, a triangle of land at the confluence of the Bosphorus, Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara. The tourist core of Istanbul, this is likely the spot where you’ll spend most of your time.

Sultanahmet Mosque, called Blue Mosque by Westerners because of the blue-green tiles adorning much of its interior, is the city’s most visited sight, gracing the skyline with its six slender minarets, majestic main dome and succession of half-domes. Airy and full of light, the mesmerizing space is noted for its 260 stained-glass windows, ceilings painted with floral patterns and Arabic calligraphy with excerpts from the Quran. Built from 1607-1616, the mosque was ordered by Ottoman Sultan Ahmet I.

the blue mosque

Another fixture on the mystical skyline of Istanbul, located across Sultanahmet Park from the Blue Mosque, is the Hagia Sophia, the greatest work of Byzantine architecture and the largest and most important church in Christendom for 900 years. An engineering marvel commissioned by Emperor Justinian and built from 532-537, the impressive cathedral, with its vast central dome and dazzling mosaics of biblical scenes, was the site of imperial coronations after the Roman Empire moved its capital from Rome to Constantinople (the city’s name before the Ottoman conquest in 1453) and adopted Christianity. The Ottomans converted it into a mosque (adding minarets), but since 1935 the Hagia Sophia, remarkably well-preserved, has been a museum. Sheer awe strikes those who enter the huge, dimly lit nave for the first time.

Topkapi Palace, along with the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, is the third attraction in the mighty triumvirate of must-sees in Sultanahmet. The showplace residence of the sultans and nerve center of the Ottoman Empire from 1459-1856 lords over the southern tip of the peninsula, its marble-paved terraces overlooking the Bosphorus.

Everyone wants to see the palace’s fabled Harem, the exclusive compound that housed the sultan, his wives, children, servants, concubines and eunuchs. The Harem’s most impressive chamber (only 40 of the 300-some rooms are open to the public) is the Imperial Hall, where the sultan, seated on his throne (actually a long sofa), entertained visitors. It is decorated with Baroque gilt, tiles and excerpts from the Quran written in calligraphy.

Topkapi Harem
Harem in the Topkapi Palace

Also of special interest is the Treasury, which displays four imperial thrones, jewel-encrusted weapons, one of the largest diamonds in the world and the Topkapi Dagger, its handle embedded with three enormous emeralds.

For a snack in the Sultanahmet area, you might patronize one of the pushcart vendors offering roasted chestnuts, boiled or barbecued corn-on-the-cob or bagel-like bread rings coated with sesame seeds (simit). The most popular street food is the doner kebab, slivers of grilled chicken or lamb shaved off a rotating spit and served in pita-like bread.

Kebabs for sale

Many visitors are intrigued by the cats wandering the streets of Istanbul. Favorite photo subjects and objects of tourists’ affection, they are seemingly well-fed and thus taken care of by somebody. You see them jumping across rooftops, lounging on the steps of mosques, devouring scraps from fishing boats and brushing against your feet at outdoor restaurants.

The New District, north of the Golden Horn, has its own allures, humming with a youthful, fashionable, cosmopolitan vibe. Taksim Square is the gateway to pedestrianized Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street), the district’s main drag. Jam-packed at all hours, this rushing river of humanity is the pulse of modern Istanbul. Cafes, trendy shops (including international chains) and nightlife venues occupy impressive 19th-century buildings that line the thoroughfare.
Venerated since antiquity, Istanbul is still a vital, consequential spot on the world map. Bridging East and West, it’s also one of the most fascinating.

Getting There: Turkish Airlines offers nonstop flights to Istanbul from nine U.S. cities. For the last nine years running, Turkish Airlines has been rated southern Europe’s best airline by Skytrax, which evaluates global airlines and gives out annual awards. Turkey’s national flag carrier serves more countries than any other airline. (www.turkishairlines.com). The first phase of Istanbul’s new airport opened in October 2018; it is expected to be fully operational in March 2019.
Getting Around: Trams, buses and the metro (subway) link the New District and Old City. A metro line also connects the European and Asian sides, but many tourists like to take the ferry for their Asian experience. Yellow taxis are ubiquitous.
Weather: July and August are hot and humid, with temperatures reaching into the 80s. The best weather is mid-April to June and September/October.

Sightseeing Tip: When visiting mosques, take off shoes before entering. Women should cover their heads, and both sexes should cover shoulders and upper arms; no shorts or miniskirts. Avoid entering during the five daily prayer times. Turkey is 99 percent Muslim.

Language: Most people in contact with tourists know some English, but it would be helpful to learn some basic Turkish words.

Tourist Information: Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, www.hometurkey.com/en.






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