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Travel
April 14, 2016

Why The City Of Istanbul Will Remind You Of So Many Others

Text by Simone Louis. Illustration by Rahul Das

An exhilarating place where art, history and deep-rooted ethnology fuse impeccably with metropolitan pizzazz, Turkey’s cultural epicentre is where one goes to traverse the globe

It was one of the most splendid moments of comprehension — standing on the upper deck of an ultra-luxury yacht in the middle of the Bosphorus on my last night in Istanbul, watching the sun setting behind opulent mansions flanked by modern buildings and busy streets. As the sky turned a heady mix of orange and purple and the LED lights of the gigantic Bosphorus Bridge began to twinkle, I turned around to gaze upon the other side of the strait, at the old heart of the city — offering a multicultural mix of Ottoman palaces, mosques, artsy bylanes, hipster haunts and the famous Grand Bazaar. Looking from one bank to the other, I realised that the charm of this place truly lies in the startling reality that this one city, alone, represents so many others.

Even besides the obvious juxtaposition of East and West that arises from the fact that it straddles both Asia and Europe, the city is a breeding ground of contrasts. Earlier that day, I had woken up in a tech-savvy room at the ritzy Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul on the European side, pulled myself out of the most plush hypo-allergenic bedding, taken advantage of the shiny chrome Nespresso machine and looked out at the mid-19th-century historical structure of the Dolmabahçe Palace, the last residence of the Ottoman sultans. In the streets below, hijab-clad women walked shoulder to shoulder with ladies in towering heels and minidresses, some of them headed towards the neighbourhood of Nisantasi — reminiscent of London with its Art Nouveau buildings and designer stores lining the sidewalks. Making my way through the hotel’s hallways, past both contemporary and traditional art, I headed out to the mural-streaked streets. Some folks may call it graffiti but, all over Istanbul, car parks, staircases, roads and industrial units are canvases for exciting frescoes which could actually gain a lot of appreciation in an art gallery.

Crossing the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, I entered the old city in pursuit of the mandatory dose of local culture. Here, the sounds of prayer chants seemed to fuse with fervent bargaining pleas and, unpredictably, the familiar lilt of Adele’s voice coming from a carpet shop. My first stop was the 400-year-old Sultan Ahmet Camii Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque. Having once rivalled the Great Mosque of Mecca, the facade, visible from most places in Istanbul, offers jaw-dropping magnificence. Painstakingly adorned with calligraphy, floral Ottoman patterns and intricate brushwork, it has six minarets — a cause of unrest at one time, since most mosques have only four. Combining both Byzantine and Islamic architecture, the structure has an interior lined in turquoise Iznik tiles, the curvatures of the pillars making the colour and artwork pop. The tablets on the walls were inscribed by the 17th-century calligrapher Ametli Kasım Gubarımare while the coloured glass windows were gifted to Sultan Ahmet Camii by the Signoria of Venice. What really made me do a double take, though, was a large LCD screen sticking out like a sore thumb, flashing local times in Paris, New York and other major cities — proving that technology isn’t necessarily always a boon.

Nearby, one can still see traces of the Roman Empire. The Hippodrome was built in the fourth century as a chariot racetrack, emulating Rome’s Circus Maximus. Its centrepiece, however, is a 3,500-year-old Egyptian obelisk, formerly carved to pay homage to a pharaoh. Not far away, the Grand Bazaar is almost like a gateway to another land. The acres of shops and stalls covered by a massive tiled roof made me feel, at first, like I was back home in Crawford Market, but this is a place that can induce a meltdown even in a professional shopper. A sensual adventure of aromas, textures and the mirage of maroons, yellows and more turquoise threaten to hypnotise you as charismatic stall owners give you the once-over, assessing your heritage and calling out with pop culture references. I, unsurprisingly, had Bollywood songs sung to me with the occasional Shah Rukh Khan dialogue thrown in. I found, though, that my origins really aided me in this cut-throat bubble of trinkets and treats — in the midst of a passionate bargaining session that I was winning hands down, one tough shopkeeper sighed in submission and asked, “You are from Mumbai, yes?”

Three hours later, I was heading out of the winding alleyways, marvelling at the fact that antique shops sat next to Chanel knock-off stalls and snickering at a carpet seller who was brandishing an intricately handcrafted One Direction rug at a family from California. Back in the European part of the city, I was sitting on a bench savouring a fish sandwich from under the Galata Bridge when a traditionally garbed lady sauntered into a Starbucks close by to pick up some coffee-flavoured versions of the local sweet called Turkish delight. Obviously, I followed suit, before returning to the hotel for an authentic hammam experience which, let’s just say, was interesting. The evening, in contrast, had me engulfed in an additionally new side of the city — pure, unrivalled luxury. From the mansion I dined at and the tremendously indulgent food I ate to the swanky celebrity-occupied club called Reina where flashing lights accompanied the thumping bass of electronic music, it was all very overwhelming, to say the least. Such were my days in Istanbul; abounding in paradoxes. I rode a heritage tram to Taksim, where I tried to catch my order of ice cream from the quick-moving, mischievous hands of a vendor-cum-performer, did some high-street shopping at İstiklâl Caddesi, went art-gallery and music-store hopping near the beloved Galata Tower, spent hours photographing heritage architecture, ate stuffed mussels from street merchants and indulged in the finest food and wine at lavish brasseries.

Coming full circle, my last night in the city saw me dining at the Esma Sultan Manor, named after the daughter of the 32nd Ottoman ruler, Sultan Abdülaziz. Here, a contemporary glass structure sits within the ruins of a former palace. An extravagant banquet and a slew of traditional dance performances later, I stood outside the transparent walls and under the brick archways of the original facade, admiring the changing colours of the Bosphorus Bridge. Across the strait, the minarets and mosques of Sultanahmet looked more other-worldly than ever.

Back on the yacht, reminiscing on my time in Istanbul before falling asleep to the echoes of techno beats and Sufi melodies, it dawned on me that, unlike my perception on the first day, all talk of East and West or old and modern had now become redundant. This was not New York, or Mumbai, or London, or the Middle East; it was all of those places at the very same time.

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