I am not a terrorist or a thief; I am only trying to help you. This is a new one.
Walking through the Sultanahmet area on an autumn morning, I am accosted by many men offering their services, from proposing to act as unauthorised guide inside the Topkapi Palace to taking me to the cheapest and best place for carpets. Most of them go away when ignored. I don’t think they expect to be taken seriously; it just seems to be one of the things Turkish men do to pass time during the long off-season days.
There is something about Turkish men. And it is not just now. Look at the Topkapi Palace, built in the mid 15th century. The star attraction is the Harem Tour. An entire area devoted to the Sultan’s private proclivities, his wives and concubines and their affairs; that is where I head first. At the entrance to the Harem, the tour guide is saying something in French, his group is in splits at what must have been an obviously lewd reference to the activities within the Harem. Or so I imagine, mentally composing harem jokes as I walk in. With so many women competing for the Sultan’s affections, and for the throne for their male offspring, the palace must have been abuzz with political activity at all times.
I walk through the huge rooms with their ornate chandeliers and gilded mirrors, the stained glass windows and, best of all, the striking Turkish enamel panels. The rest of the palace pales in comparison to the opulence of the women’s quarters. Or perhaps it feels that way because I am tired after a long walk through the palace grounds and cannot wait to get to the Konyali, which comes highly recommended. No, it isn’t yet another royal chamber; Konyali is a restaurant inside the palace complex, with gorgeous views of the Bosphorus all the way to the bridges connecting the European side of Istanbul with the Asian.
“If the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure and happiness.” Watching the passing ferries and the loud hungry seagulls, it’s easy to understand Orhan Pamuk’s fondness for this river.
When I emerge from the palace, the day is warm and all shops on the road are open, waiting for the tour groups to descend. Just across the road is the Yerebatan Sarayi, the Basilica Cistern. The board outside is small and inconsequential and makes it easy for the purposeful tourist walking towards the Blue mosque to miss this place. Nothing I have read about it can prepare me for this experience. I step down out of the heat and the noise of Istanbul’s busiest district, right into an underground water cistern, complete with marble columns and muted lighting. The air is cold down here and the place reeks of what I can only call atmosphere, enhanced by the music playing from invisible speakers.
As I step out, I spot a tram on the road and get in without thinking of where I am going. It is a lot like India — pedestrians darting across streets at random, drivers with scant regard for traffic rules, blaring horns — everything except the cattle.
I get off at the end of a crowded shopping street and find myself in front of a temple to sin. The kind of sin that comes sugar-coated and deep fried and stuffed and topped with nuts and dried fruit, the kind of sin Turkey calls baklava! The shop-keeper brings it on, in flavours I had never imagined. I think about calories and suchlike only after I step out of the shop a full 20 minutes later.
At the centre of the Sultanahmet square then, is the sight that graces a million postcards from Istanbul: The Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet I as proof of the might of the Ottoman Empire. The blue tiles on the ceiling give the mosque its name, but it could have just as easily been the golden mosque or the multicolour mosque.Inside, muted sunlight filtering in through the high windows, joins forces with the warm light from the low chandeliers to illuminate the prayer area. As with all large places of worship, the tourist feels lost and overwhelmed but not the worshipper. The faithful find corners to call their own, and sit, softly reading or praying. For all its grandeur, it is an unexpectedly warm and accessible place and the little groups of women gossiping in their own nooks after prayer, their children sleeping or playing quietly among themselves make it so.
In contrast, the Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia), the Church of the Divine Wisdom, across the road is weighed down by centuries of history. It has been built thrice over the same spot and was in later avatars a mosque and now a museum. The high ceiling, the gilded but peeling murals of Christ and Madonna on the walls, the Islamic medallions mounted on the pillars; I can only stare in silent awe, as all other visitors do here. It is already dark and my stomach says it is dinner-time even if my watch does not. I spot a quiet restaurant down the road. The window display is inviting, and I can see the two old women inside making hot naan by the stove. This is possibly the only place where the owner is not standing outside, ready to grab the hungry and the unsuspecting. That clinches it for me and I walk in with my friend. After the meal, the owner brings in steaming apple tea in their typical tulip-shaped glasses, and I think a meal cannot have a better ending.
Dinner over, we are standing on the road looking for a taxi to take us back to the hotel and the stranger comes close to us and whispers, Lady, others cheating, you come with me, cheap and best food…
I go back to the hotel with a smile on my lips; Istanbul feels so much like back home.
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(This story appears in the 05 February, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)