Timeless Istanbul

Timeless Istanbul

Walking down the streets of Istanbul can take you back in time. From the beautiful mosques & museums to bustling bazaars, Preeti Verma Lal indulges her eyes and her tongue.

The throne is so colossal it could hold a squat town. The red velvet so dazzling it could blind a bat. The rubies and emeralds sewn on the drape so dazzling and precious, it could fill the coffers of a pauper nation. The four-poster throne is gold-leafed with an arched roof and burgundy bolsters. In Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace’s Audience Hall, Sultan Mehmed III sat on the throne in regalia, as nobles presented their documents and ambassadors came to kiss the hem of the Sultan’s skirt. In the Hall, the Sultan held Fate in his ornamented hands — on a joyful day, he showered the nobles with gifts and high offices; in a monstrous mood, he had them strangled by deaf-mute eunuchs.

Past riches

For 400 years, Topkapi Palace was the home of Ottoman sultans. For centuries, the palace held Ottoman history, secrets — and treasures — within its walls. Today, there are no sultans, no empire, no eunuchs to strangle nobles. The throne looks forlorn and the brocade has been stashed behind hardened glass. But the dazzle of diamonds still glimmer within Topkapi. Pear-shaped, 76-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond is the world’s fourth largest diamond. As if this was not ornate enough, there are two golden candleholders, each weighing 48 kg and mounted with 6,666 cut diamonds. So much of Turkey’s history lives within Topkapi that a traveller’s day in Istanbul invariably begins here.

There’s something about geography in Istanbul — it is the only city spread over two continents; half of the city is in Europe, the other half in Asia. In Istanbul, there’s something about history too — it walks hand in hand wherever you go. In the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest covered markets, history spreads over the 61 streets and peeps from the 4,000 shops. Built by Sultan Mehmet II after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the bazaar with several squares, seven fountains, 18 gates and five mosques was the hub of Mediterranean trade. Sellers of particular goods were huddled in one area — carpets in Sahaflar, gold bracelets in Kuyumcular, leather at Bit Pazari… Perhaps the most picturesque was the shoe lane — yellow shoes for Turks, blue for Greeks, black for Jews and red for Armenians.

Before you kneel on the red carpet of Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), look at the minarets. The 17th century mosque is the only one with six minarets; its interiors lined with 260 stained glass windows and 20,000 handpainted ceramic tiles with 50 different tulip motifs. The lamps that borrow sheen from electricity now, once shone with gold and gems. However, it is the Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia) that is most steeped in history. Inaugurated in 360 AD as a church, Aya Sofia was converted into a mosque in 1453 and later into a museum in 1931.

Often considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, for nearly 1,000 years, the Sofia remained the world’s largest cathedral. Istanbul is not only about piety. It is also about the famous lady with the lamp. It was in Selimiye Army Barracks that Florence Nightingale and 38 nursing students tended to the sick during the Crimean War (1853-56). The barracks built by Mahmud II in 1828 is architecturally imposing — the corridors run 2.5 km, there are 300 rooms with 300 windows. But it is that one room from where Selimiye borrows its modern fame — Nightingale’s personal quarters including a surgery room and living room. The surgery room seems frozen in time; it has original furnishings and two of the Nightingale’s fabled lamps. It was of her — and her lamps — that poet Henry Ladsworth Longfellow wrote in 1857: “Lo! In that house of misery, A lady with a lamp I see, Pass through the glimmering room, And flit from room to room.”

A foodie’s haven

If a history lover can dig forever in Istanbul, a gourmand sure will never part with his fork. A city that bridges Europe and Asia and has been the cultural and commercial hub for centuries, great food is everywhere. From red/gold street carts selling sesame-dusted simits (round bread) to chestnuts being roasted fresh in makeshift kiosks to dondurma ice cream (literally, freezing), which men in red fez spin and twirl and twist and snake in air, Istanbul can metamorphose from streetsy to ritzy in less than a blink. In the Galata Tower, one of the oldest structures in the city, food is as spectacular as the panoramic view of Istanbul. In the Spice Bazaar, the Turkish delights can send the sweet-tooth holder into a culinary trance.

In Istikilal, the kofte (meat balls) can be tempting and in Grand Bazaar, you can happily ignore the exquisite Turkish carpets and the pricey Iranian saffron. Get in to shop, stay for food. For the weary shopper and traveller, there’s creamed eggplant, spinach stewed with yoghurt, stewed figs with kaymak (Turkish clotted cream). If that day in Istanbul, if you feel like a loaded sultan, take the boat, sail across the rocky Bosphorus to Sauda Club. Shed the dishevelled look. Beautiful people dine here. Carry a fat wallet. This private island restaurant is really pricey. Sit by the window, gaze at Military Museum shimmering in the sea and dig into sumptuous fare in one of the four restaurants. 

And when the day in Istanbul is done and there’s dirt on your shoe, go to a traditional shoe-shiner, sit on a high chair, have your shoes slathered with polish, watch it shine like sun and feel like a Turk. Or, an Ottoman sultan! 

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