Cultural encounters in Istanbul
Istanbul images: Ferry across the Bosphorus, tea served with a smile, the radiant dome of the Aya Sofia. (Mirjam Bleeker)
As Europe's capital of culture for 2010, Istanbul has put on a year of exhibits,displays and shows. But there is more than one side to the city's culture and it can be explored at any time on any visit.
Once it was only for Christians; then, just Muslims - now it is a place for all. No longer a site of worship, Aya Sofya still provokes a hushed awe that would do any deity justice. The building, now a museum, has always been Istanbul's greatest architectural masterpiece. It is a rare visitor who crosses its threshold without an intake of breath, a widening of eyes, a stop to stand and stare. Built in 532-537 AD, the structure is a mass of soaring archways, at their crest a vast, gold mosaic dome that glints in the half-light of countless stained glass windows.
For Ibrahim Yerli, a tour guide at Aya Sofya, the impact of its beauty never diminishes. "Whenever I come here, I see it for the first time," he says, taking off his baseball cap and gazing at the ceiling. But Ibrahim and Aya Sofya are old friends, and he knows her secrets - from the marble cistern said to bring pregnant women twins if touched, to the 9th-century graffiti etched by a Viking into the wall.
We pause in front of a restored mosaic of a six-winged biblical angel, Seraphim, thought to date from the 14th Century. Until recently her face was hidden under a mask of plaster, applied by the Ottoman Turks after they conquered the city - then called Constantinople - in 1453 and made Aya Sofya a mosque. Ibrahim, too, has left his mark on the place - seven years ago he was granted permission to plant a tree in the temple grounds. "I am fond of nature," he says, taking a fistful of the squat pine's needles in his hand. "And I am proud to have this here, in the shadow of such greatness."
Just around the corner is another example of Istanbul's magnificence - Topkapı, palace of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 to 1853. From the acres of manicured gardens - once lit by tortoises carrying candles on their backs - to the centuries of bling kept in the dimly lit cabinets of the Treasury, this royal residence is a monument to excess. There is barely a surface without a covering of gold-leafed wooden fretwork or jewel-coloured tiles.
Most impressive of all Topkapı's buildings is the Harem, a palace within a palace made up of more than 400 rooms. Not quite the den of iniquity that its title implies, the Harem was home not only to the wives and concubines of successive sultans, but to the ruler's extended family. A team of up to 200 black eunuchs maintained the privacy of this space.
The rooms' complexity is labyrinthine. A sun-dappled courtyard gives way to stern dormitories, shadowy corridors and a bathroom with huge gold taps. The cavernous Imperial Hall, carpeted and edged with low divan seats, has the faded glamour and scent of an ageing stately home. Beyond are more mysterious spaces: the Courtyard of the Favourites - an outside terrace reserved for the sultan's chosen ones - and kafes: small, cell-like rooms where the unwanted brothers or sons of the sultan were imprisoned. This is a maze with no centre; a puzzle that made sense only to those who called it home.
- Aya Sofya, Aya Sofya Square, Sultanahmet
- Topkapı Palace, Babıhümayun Caddesi, topkapisarayi.gov.tr/eng
It is Saturday night in the district of Beyoğlu, and the clock has just struck nine. Wandering the tangle of narrow side streets that stretch from Tunel to Taksim, every corner I turn reveals the same scene: people, eating, outside. No-one dines alone. Meze is the most popular way to eat, and it demands a companion - or a willingness to look greedy. Each table is obscured by a smattering of tiny dishes being set at with forks and heels of bread, in between sips of rakı (aniseed brandy) and peals of raucous laughter.