Istanbul: The empire strikes out

Istanbul takes pride in its Ottoman past but it is every bit a 21st century city

By Anthea Gerrie, December 22, 2009
Aya Sophia: you can still feel the vibes that emanate from one of the world’s great houses of prayer

Aya Sophia: you can still feel the vibes that emanate from one of the world’s great houses of prayer

One effect of Istanbul’s stint as European Capital of Culture 2010 will be an opportunity to showcase its shiny modern face. The city, best known for ancient Byzantine and Ottoman splendours, is actually a hip, thrusting metropolis with great designer shopping and a burgeoning contemporary art scene. But with a famous historic skyline dominated by domes, minarets and fortified Ottoman palaces, 21st century Istanbul remains largely unknown.

Standing beneath the dazzling dome of Aya Sofya and feeling the vibes that still emanate from one of the world’s great houses of prayer, it’s easy to understand why Istanbul has been a spiritual magnet for nearly two millennia.  This city, considered holy by both Christians and Moslems, has also been home to a vibrant Jewish community, and while Sufism is now outlawed, there is a growing New Age contingent.  

As well as its religious tolerance, Istanbul is special for the  colourful exoticism which comes with its unique geography. The former Constantinople is the only city with one foot in Europe, the other in Asia, and the mix of east and west, ancient and edgily modern, is a heady and vibrant one which recalls the Tel Aviv-Jaffa combination.

There’s no denying the appeal of the old town, with its mediaeval bazaars and sumptuous Turkish baths as well as ancient churches, and first-timers should get those under their belts.  Aya Sofya, one of the earliest Christian churches before it became one of Islam’s holiest mosques, is now a deconsecrated museum which continues to exude a spiritual atmosphere, and what’s left of the gold religious mosaics the Ottomans desecrated is worth admiring.  The architecture is the big pull of the Blue Mosque, whose multiple domes, minarets and courtyard are more impressive than the interior.

A morning in the historic district should culminate in a browse round the wonderful Spice Market followed by a typical lunch of aubergine, tomato, cucumber, chick-pea and yogurt mezzes at Hamdi next door.   

Jewish Istanbul

The first Jews arrived in Turkey with Noah’s Ark, and a vast contingent of Iberian Jews were welcomed to join the community in the 14th century under Ottoman rule following the Inquisition. Services are still held at the 15th century Ahrida Synagogue, and there are more than a dozen synagogues.  The modern community of 25,000 has access to two kosher restaurants, Carne and Levi Et Lokantasi.

No-one should leave the old city without visiting Topkapi, the Ottoman palace which is Istanbul’s top attraction. It’s worth buying an extra ticket for the Harem. Its sumptuous surroundings belie the fact that the beauties who lived here at the sultans’ pleasure were prisoners, often brutally dispatched when the ruler of the day had had enough, while favourites — often scouted for royal stardom the way models are today on the streets — acquired power and riches.

The unluckiest, who served Ibrahim the Mad, were tied in sacks and drowned in the Bosphorous when their charms faded.   

While the complex of palace buildings and surrounding gardens is a general delight, especially when the tulips are in bloom, don’t leave Topkapi  before seeing the Treasury, which contains the famous gem-encrusted dagger and other crown jewels.

Before leaving the Old Town, you may also want to shop for pashminas, gold jewellery and souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar. Here, a Turkish Bond Street has been fashioned in the main alley of a 500-year-old building which leads off into an enticing warren of ancient aisles.  Many of the cheaper pashminas are made in China; head for Sehrazat for some of the best local examples, made of beautiful printed or  embroidered silk.  Do save plenty of lira for the new town, though.  It has its very own Portobello in Cukurcuma, an up and coming area where wonderful retro relics sit side by side with Turkish antiques, alternative designer gear and locally-made jewellery.  Head for Faik Pasa Yokusu, lined with enticing bric-a-brac emporia — Popcorn is the most famous — and visit Aziz across the road for colourful, affordable fabrics and jewellery from Turkestan. Visit Buka higher up the hill for original clothes designed in-store.

While Taksim is surrounded by hotels, it’s nicer to stay right on the water, and if the budget permits, look no further than the Ciragan Palace, an old royal residence whose modern addition forms the bulk of the city’s finest hotel.  

The best rooms offer wraparound views of the Bosphorous, with the old city skyline to one side, the Ortakoy mosque and bridge to the other.  Palatial suites and a traditional Ottoman restaurant occupy the main building, and there is also a fabulous ancient marble hammam which can be visited.  Today the Turkish bath experience is delivered in privacy and comfort in the hotel’s modern subterranean hammam and spa.  

The Ciragan is situated between two of the best bits of modern Istanbul - the city’s equivalent of the Tate Modern on the road into town, which absolutely demands a visit, and Ortakoy a 10-minute stroll in the other direction.  Ortakoy, a sort of Istanbulli Hampstead, is sublime on weekends, when the indoor-outdoor House Cafe on the water is hopping day and night, and there is a great weekend crafts market.

Last updated: 10:25am, December 23 2009