ON A SHORT TRIP, HARD CHOICES
You could drown in history in Istanbul. Two thousand years of civilisation in the city that was Byzantium and then Constantinople have left behind a myriad of mosques and palaces museums and markets . Choosing what to see and what to leave out becomes a personality assessment, a touristic Rorschach test.
So I will disclose that I skipped two of the three most famous sites in Istanbul – the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace – and used the time to drop in at a Moda cafe for pistachio ice cream made with mountain orchid root , to linger in a bubble pipe cafe (I didn’t inhale), to elbow through the Grand Bazaar and to get lost among the brooms and sauce pans in the back streets around the Spice Market.
But back on the old town tourist track, I did pay my respects to Istanbul’s most famous monument, the Haghia Sophia. Consecrated in 537AD as a Christian basillica, the Vatican City of its time, it became a mosque in 1453 and a museum in 1935. Its solemnly beautiful Christian era mosaics are being liberated from the plaster that hid them when Haghia Sophia was a mosque. The great dome, seemingly suspended in space, was completed in five years almost a milennium before St. Pauls’ Cathedral was built. Urgent restoration and monitoring work began in 1995 and is ongoing so expect scaffolding and dust. (Closed Mondays)
You can continue from the Haghia Sophia across the Hippodrome to the Topkapi Palace. (The four gilded bronze horses, now a feature of St. Mark’s Basillica in Venice, stood here in Roman times.) But just before the entrance to Topkapi Palace a picturesque pedestrian street wandered off to the left and I wandered with it. Sogukcesme Sokak ran between a high wall of the Hagia Sofia and a lineup of colourful 19th century wooden houses backing up to Topkapi Palace. These nine dwellings had been restored by the Touring and Automobile Club of Turkey and tranformed into a charming hotel. www.ayasofyapensions.com
Further along the narrow road, stone steps to the right led down to the Caferaga Medresesi, a cafe-restaurant and craft shop set in a 16th century school. Under an arcade surrounding a leafy courtyard 15 classrooms are still in use; today, subjects include marbling, calligraphy, Sultan turban making, jewellry making, glass and china painting . Book a workshop at least a day in advance and produce your own souvenir of Istanbul. The inclusive fee per hour is 250 lira plus tax for for one person or as many as five. Telephone (0212) 513 36 01-02 or email@example.com to reserve a place. Craft items are for sale and the cafe serves Turkish-style dishes
You could visit any of four dozen museums in Istanbul and a good number of palaces; the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, which fronts on the Hippodrome, gives you two for one. The museum is installed in a 16th century palace that belonged to Ibrahim Pasha, Suleyman the Magnificent’s Grand Vizier . The contents are worthy of the building: more than 40,000 gorgeous artefacts dating from the seventh to the 19th century. There’s an impressive display of carpets and fragments of carpets dating back to the 13th century and, in the basement, an intriguing exhibition of the evolution of the Turkish house. The series of life-size reconstructions extends from carpeted nomadic tents to the French –inspired interiors of 19th century. (At Meydani 46, Sulatnahamet, near Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. Open 9.00 to 16.30. closed Mondays.)
AN UNMISSABLE MOSQUE THAT’S HARD TO FIND
Built over vaulted shops whose rents were also intended to give financial support , the Rustem Pasha mosque is a perfect little jewel. The mosque was built by Mimar Sinan, the great Ottoman architect , for the Grand Vizier Rustem in 1563. This date coincided with the greatest period in Iznik tile making; glorious tiles in floral and geometric patterns cover the interior.
The mosque is small and not overwhelmed by tourists. You can approach the walls and admire the tiles at your leisure. As this is a mosque, not a museum, it closes five times a day for prayer and you will be required to remove your shoes to enter. The mosque is in the Hasircilar Carsisi (Strawmat Weaver’s Market).
Leave the Spice Bazaar by the waterfront entrance, then turn left towards Eminonu Square. The main entrance to the mosque is through a decorated archway set in the wall.
Something to read:
I loved Istanbul and enjoyed revisiting it in the pages of “Istanbul Passage”. This twisted tale of espionage, love and intrigue is played out on the streets and waterfronts of this exotic city on the Bosporus. The Pera Palace hotel, Taksim Square, the Yeni Mosque, the Flower Passage, the bazaars and fish market – are all there, providing the atmosphere for a spy story set in the first years of the Cold War. “Istanbul Passage” is a good book to bring on a visit to Istanbul and even more fun to read if the city is familiar.
Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon, at Amazon, in both Kindle and paperback format.