Istanbul - The Istanbul sunrise burns crimson through a haze of smog. It’s almost 6am in one of the world’s largest cities and already traffic is snarled up.
The red is mirrored in the many Turkish flags, with its white crescent moon and star, flying from the buildings which blanket the city’s hills. A mix of modern high-rises and 14th century domed mosques attended by minarets dot the skyline.
“We have just celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Turkish Republic,” says our tour host, Turkish Airlines spokesman Gokalp Yazir. “But we are very patriotic anyway.”
Driving down the highway, the ruins of an ancient city wall, weathered by time, run along one side. On the other the Sea of Marmara has its own traffic jam – ships waiting to enter the bay. We have four days and the many faces of this bustling megacity beckon.
In the Old City, the tale of Istanbul’s rich history is told through the monuments, mosques, palaces and basilicas. The mesmerising architecture, artefacts and relics tell the story of when the city was Byzantium to the Greeks, then Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, then Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire until the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the republic.
Winding cobbled streets lead to these layers of history. Set aside a day and a half to explore the remnants of the hippodrome before visiting the two famous religious buildings: the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. See the Basilica Cistern, an old reservoir under the city streets, and then the Topkapi Palace Museum – you need at least two hours.
A tour guide will get you past any long queue (or visit in the afternoons when the queues shorten). As our guide Ayse Nur Keskinci rattled off facts and figures at each stop, much of it lost in translation, we digested each piece of history at our own pace.
The Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque is one of 3 500 mosques in Istanbul, the only one with six minarets, its interior covered with 20 000 tiles. Blue Iznik titles on the lower level and the patterns of flowers and fruit represent gardens in Paradise as your eyes rest on the gallery illuminated by light which pouring through the 200 stained glass windows. Jewelled lamps include ostrich egg shells believed to repel insects.
The Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for almost 1 000 years. It has survived earthquakes, fires, riots and struggles for domination by Christianity and Islam. It is now a monument and museum. Its dome has gilded mosaics of the Virgin Mary and paintings of Jesus flanked by golden circles bearing the name of Allah in calligraphy, a moving display of tolerance in an intolerant world.
Nearby, under the streets, 55 steps lead down to the enormous Basilica Cistern or sunken palace where fish swim in its shallow waters. Bathed in orange light, more than 300 columns hold the roof up, including two grounded on stone blocks bearing the upside-down, carved faces of the mythical creature Medusa. This eerie oasis has captured the imagination of writer Dan Brown, directors of a James Bond movie and even a video game creator.
At the formidable imperial gates to Topkapi Palace, home to the sultans of old, the rolling grounds are made up of many buildings and courtyards. It was once home to 4 000 people – the sultan, his advisers, friends, wives and of course a harem.
Today it houses exhibitions of dazzling jewels, clocks, garments, ornate weapons and swords. It has sacred relics such as the Prophet Muhammad’s footprint, cloak and sword and even Moses’s humble staff, used to part the Red Sea.
“Could it be?” asks one tourist. “Maybe”, responds another.
A trip on the Bosphorus offers a reprieve from the crowds and congested roads, and you get a different perspective of the city as the ferry leaves at the docks of Eminönü. Its shores are home to the rich, with house prices starting at R20 million. There is a waterfront with restaurants, cafés and bars – a playground for local celebs and high society.
Other landmarks include the ruins of a fortress, palaces and summer homes which once belonged to Ottoman aristocracy, a Navy Museum, and the Bosphorus Bridge.
Shop at the Grand Bazaar, a huge covered labyrinth of 60 passages lined with 5 000 shops. Serious money can be spent here. Hone your bargaining skills because the salesmen are smooth, master hagglers. But their wares are easy to sell. There are pashminas, intricately woven carpets, colourful pottery and ceramics, glazed titles and jewellery.
At the Egyptian or Spice Bazaar there are dried leaf teas from apple to raspberry, Turkish Delight, dried fruit and spices, soaps and incense. One store owner displays a picture of himself and domestic maven Martha Stewart who gave his saffron the thumbs up. Sweet treats include huge slabs, even cakes, of Turkish Delight, and baklava – layers of phyllo pastry stuffed with nuts.
On Friday nights Taksim Square and its quarters teem with thousands of people. “Don’t worry, it’s not a demonstration,” assures Yazir. It’s just the weekend and Istiklal Avenue is buzzing. Off the side roads, cafés and restaurants are filling up. Touts in the historical Çiçek Passage try to entice customers to its famous restaurants. At the back, Nevizade Street is lined with bars and pubs with live bands. People sit outside, drinking raki, Turkish coffee, chatting and smoking to all hours of the morning. We settle at a restaurant called Zarifi for our last supper. Mezzes are chosen, glasses are filled. Belly dancers seductively sway their hips. It’s not long before guests join in, dancing and singing to popular Turkish music.
This beguiling city will seduce you and send you home with a bit of melancholy, but nothing that a piece of Turkish Delight can’t cure.
l Melanie Peters was a guest of Turkish Airlines. - Weekend Argus