FOR A visitor, it can seem you have to leave Istanbul to see it. Looking back across the Galata Bridge at sunset, the city’s most glorious sights are laid out before me: the floodlit minarets of the mosque of Suleymaniye the Magnificent; the Topkapi Palace dominating Seraglio Point; the soaring domes of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
This familiar cityscape is ignored by the fishermen who line the bridge, their long fishing rods fixed onto the parapet with a homemade wood and bungee cord rest. A myriad of lines hang into the water from those arches not in use by the constant bustling stream of ferries that churn the muddy river far below. Patience is a virtue for any angler and I see a lot of chatting and little real fishing action. That may be as well: I am not sure I would want to eat anything caught in the murky harbor of the Golden Horn, even if the Turks call it “the Sweet Waters of Europe”.
The name is a reminder I have not even left the European side of Istanbul. The world’s only city to straddle two continents, its Asia part twinkles in the distance across the wide waters of the Bosphorus. It is a cliché to call Istanbul a meeting place of civilizations but that is what it is and its past names – Byzantium, then Constantinople – evoke exotic images of a rich mix of cultures, swaying between west and east, that its present still lives up to. In fact, as the countries on its borders struggle with economic and political turmoil, Turkey’s biggest city is booming anew.
“We thought it was a curse not to be accepted into the Euro,” says local historian Faruk Hanedan the next day as we sit on a ferry crossing to Asia. “Now we see it as a blessing.” Faruk is an engaging raconteur about the city’s Ottoman history but that does not mean he has no interest in current affairs, on which topic he is equally entertaining. Turkey first applied for associate membership in the European Economic Community as early as 1959 but talks on full integration are currently stalled. Its conflict with Greece over Northern Cyprus is cited as one factor but behind the excuses lies the thought that admitting an Islamic country is a major issue. Austria is standing as firm now as it did during the Siege of Vienna four centuries ago to save Christian Europe from the advancing Ottoman Empire. No matter that the current members of the EU have fought two World Wars with each other in living memory.
While Turkey is officially a secular country, with no official state religion, 99 per cent of its population is Muslim, as that skyline of mosques and minarets attests. “There are 2,800 places of worship in Istanbul,” Faruk says. “Of those, 600 mosques date to Ottoman times.” Another reminder is the number of women wearing head-scarves and even full veils among our fellow passengers. However, Faruk points out “Although we are an Islamic people, we are not an Islamic culture” and there are also plenty of bareheaded women in revealing clothes. The people onboard reflect a broader cross-section of Istanbul locals than the European side of the city, where impressions are colored by the numbers of heavily veiled tourists from more traditional Islamic countries.
One million commuters cross this channel every working day and the berthing is a well-practiced routine. A crewman lassoes a bollard and the boat shudders, refusing briefly then surrendering to the pull of the land. Gangplanks bang down and we are ashore. I walk across the docks into Haydarpaşa Station, built in a severely Teutonic German style in 1908 and the terminal for all trains from Asia. While Sirkeci Station on the European side, famously the terminal for the Orient Express, conjures up the exotic east with its design, this station on the Asian side is an image of Western efficiency. Rail travel may not have the romance it once did but I cannot resist a moment to daydream about boarding a train here bound for Baghdad or Damascus. A dream it must remain for now, as the track is closed for two years while being upgraded for high-speed rail.
What remains, though, is Bağdat (Baghdad) Avenue, a reminder that Turkey is bordered by Iraq, as well as Syria, Iran, Georgia, Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan) and Armenia on this side. Greece and Bulgaria are its European neighbors. As we drive down it, I see a wide boulevard lined with familiar international fashion brands and local designer labels, shopping malls, department stores and chic cafes and restaurants. Thronged with men and women wearing the latest fashions and sporting the latest accessories from cell phones to fast cars, it has been ranked the world’s third-best shopping street. The energy, wealth and wide range of people and faces remind me of Napoleon’s saying: “If the Earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”
I have not come to shop, however. Faruk and I have crossed the Bosphorus to visit the tile makers of the İznik Foundation. “There are 20,000 İznik tiles inside the Sultan Ahmet Mosque,” says Faruk. “Their bright colors give it the English name of the Blue Mosque. İznik once made all the tiles for the Ottoman Court but, when the court declined in the late 17th century, the secret of their production was lost.” At the İznik Foundation, I meet Professor Işıl Akbaygil who was responsible for their revival. She shows me some, their quartz base giving them a silken, sensual feel under my fingers. Professor Akbaygil was an archaeologist when she became obsessed with the beautiful remains she was finding on digs at İznik and determined to rediscover their secret. “It took three years and we almost gave up,” she says. “Then we discovered it almost by accident. Because they are made of quartz, a semi-precious stone, they are very expensive to make. Each tile is handmade and even now, when we use electric kilns instead of wood, takes about 70 days to produce.”
This symbol of the Ottoman Empire at its height is now exported around the world, with the ancient floral or geometric designs – Islam forbids the portrayal of living creatures – modified into modern forms. Architect Zaha Hadid and Turkish artist Murat Morov are among the artists who have produced new İznik designs and the tiles can be seen in major public works from Paris and UAE to Tokyo and beyond. “It is the only true luxury manufactured good that comes from Turkey,” says Dr Akbaygi. “If you look at the leading luxury brands, such as Rolex or Gucci, they share certain characteristics, namely history or heritage, a handmade side and also durability and İznik tiles have all that.” They also illustrate how modern Turkey is looking east and to its Ottoman roots, rather than solely to the west as before, for its identity.
Perhaps they are surrendering to the inevitable. No matter how much the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk tried to turn his country into a western one, foreigners see it as part of the east. The many visitors who haggle for bargains and souvenirs in the magical Grand Bazaar on the European side of Istanbul are drawn by a desire to buy the cliched souvenirs of the Orient: carpets, exotic pottery and brass trays. Dating to 1455, the bazaar’s traders claim there are at least 250,000 visitors every day, making it the most visited monument in the world as well as its biggest covered market. Its 61 streets are lined with more than 3,500 shops selling a bewildering variety of crafts.
“Most tourists think the Grand Bazaar represents Turkish culture,” says designer and businesswoman Aysegul Ozmen. “The craftsmen there make the same stuff they have always made – as that is what the tourists buy. Our culture is much richer than that – maybe our problem is that our culture is too rich.” She has been leading a program to bring modern design to traditional skills, turning handcrafts into upmarket objets d’art. Even so, she finds it difficult to define a Turkish style or look.
I realize that I too have been lulled into thinking of Turkey as a place of carpets, spices and “genuine fake” watches when I visit Armaggan, a luxurious seven-story boutique in the trendy Nişantaşı shopping district. OK, it does have carpets, but they are breathtaking examples of the weaver’s art, many copied from Ottoman designs and handmade on antique looms with silk that is colored with natural dyes. The prices, needless to say, are equally breathtaking. However, the store’s sleek interior is also filled with other work from local designers, including haute couture, glass and ceramics, photography and art. Some show strong Ottoman inspiration, some are in striking contemporary style. “Everything you see is made for us,” says department manager Yusufcan Köksal. “We plan to open in New York but we are growing the domestic market first.” Can he define Turkish style? “It is difficult,” he says. “We have so many different styles in different parts of the country.”
One designer whose work is on display is Nurdan Sen, who trained as an urban planner but studied her craft in the Grand Bazaar before branching out on her own. “They were used to women designing jewelry but they were not used to women making it,” she says. Her business has grown so fast, she now uses craftsmen from the workshops around the bazaar to produce her designs. “My style is a mix of modern and the Orient, such as Turkish, Ottoman or Islamic motifs. People recognize it as a Mediterranean style.”
“The Islamic religion discouraged the making of images of living things – aniconism,” says Faruk. “We just concentrated on calligraphy and ornamentation.” In a tiny office in a restored madrasa in the historic Sultanahmet district, I watch calligrapher Serif Tugtekin cut a pen out of reed and dip it in black ink. He writes a few ornate letters in flowing script, the great skill involved resting lightly on his shoulders. The product of a few minutes (and a lifetime of training) is a work of art worthy of hanging on a wall. He studied under two great names of calligraphy, the late Hamid Aytaç and Hasan Çelebi – who restored the calligraphy pieces inside the Blue Mosque – and is optimistic he can pass his skills on in turn to the next generation, despite the ease and allure of the computer-generated rival.
Turkey’s greatest artist, however, was an architect. Mimar Sinan was a contemporary of Michelangelo and has been described as his Ottoman counterpart. As the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire for almost 50 years, he built roads, bridges and aqueducts as well as many major buildings, including the Süleymaniye Mosque. His apprentices designed such works as the Blue Mosque, the New Mosque – based on his designs for the Selimiye Mosque, his first major commission – and even the Taj Mahal.
Sinan is buried just outside the walls of the Süleymaniye Mosque, which he designed for Süleyman the Magnificent in 1558. With a dome that is 53 meters high, much damaged during its history, it is remarkable for the restrained interior detailed in restful ivory and mother of pearl. Both these buildings – and many other Ottoman designs – trace their ancestry to the magnificent Hagia Sophia, which was built as a Greek Orthodox basilica and was the world’s largest cathedral for 1,000 years, until the construction of Seville cathedral in 1520.
In the meantime, Hagia Sophia had been converted to a Roman Catholic church, then a mosque when the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453. In 1935, arguments about its status were settled by making it a museum but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to turn it back into a mosque. That is a nod to the Islamization process he has been leading but a promise he is unlikely to follow through on given the building’s significance. He has also announced plans to build a massive mosque on Çamlıc, the hill that dominates the Asian side of the Bosphorus, a giant building “to be visible from all parts of Istanbul”. A third bridge across the straits and a major new airport, ready to handle 100million passengers a year, are also planned. Opening itself up to the Middle-East, that it dominated for large parts of its history, is obviously paying off for Turkey.
To gain an idea of the power of the Ottoman Empire, a visit to the Topkapi Palace is essential. After the Grand Bazaar, it is the most-visited sight of Istanbul and houses several major museums. Most visitors, however, head straight for the Imperial Harem, drawn by the image of decadence presented by western writers and Hollywood. Again designed by Mimar Sinan, the harem’s interior is also covered in İznik tiles, their design perhaps even more remarkable that those in the Blue Mosque. “Despite the stories,” says Faruk, “this was more like a finishing school for country girls, who could learn domestic and cultural skills before returning home with improved prospects in life. Besides being the palace of the sultan, the Topkapi was the administrative headquarters of the empire and the harem also housed hundreds of eunuchs who were what we would now call civil servants.” During the 130 years of the Sultanate of Women in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Imperial Harem effectively ran the empire.
While the Roman Empire imposed its Pax Romana, the Turkish Empire brought the peace of Islam to a vast swathe of southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa for nearly six centuries. That is always something I am reminded of when I visit any of Istanbul’s great mosques, of which my favorite is the New Mosque or Yeni Cami, which dominates the Istanbul waterfront at the southern end of the Galata Bridge. Started in 1597, it took more than 50 years to finish but its sprawling, multi-domed exterior hides a remarkable interior, a vast space under a 36-meter-high central dome. Men come and go to kneel toward the mihrab, while tourists wander around at the back. Sock-clad feet pad gently on the carpeted floor, the silence adding to the air of worship, both religious and secular. While one side offers prayers, the other takes pictures. An imam starts a reading, his voice rising and falling in a tone that that lulls hypnotically. In such a setting, it is easy to understand the appeal of Islam and its comforting rituals.
On my final day in Istanbul, I take a ferry back across the Bosphorus to visit the exquisite Şakirin Mosque which stands beside the tree-shaded Karacaahmet Cemetery. Opened in 2009, it is the first Muslim house of worship in the world to have its interior designed by a woman, Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu. The result is a breathtaking modern take on the form, with a dramatic glass chandelier and a mihrab in the shape of a golden eye with a turquoise lid. It is playful, yet filled with a real sense of worship. The chandelier is a series of waterdrop shapes that recall a prayer saying “Allah’s light should fall on worshipers like rain” and the whole space is indeed full of light. Here, east and west meet in celebration of the strengths of both. And, after the undoubted wonder of Istanbul’s more familiar mosques, this Turkish delight is a reminder that the city’s present and future is every bit as exciting as its past.