The eternal city

Susmita Saha        Print Edition: August 7, 2011

As the muezzin's call to prayer ricochets off towers, minarets and domes in Istanbul's Taksim Square, it's met with a rather unexpected response. Teetering precariously on designer clogs teamed with tank tops, lissome ladies in loud dresses and louder voices queue up for a colourful protest march. It is the poll season in Turkey and their campaign slogans have reached a high decibel.

Istiklal Caddesi
Istiklal Caddesi is one of the liveliest commercial streets of the city.
True, Taksim Square pulls the throngs with its fashion forward vibe and political jamborees. But part of its appeal is the Independence Monument. Fashioned by Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica, the monument has Kemal Ataturk, Ismet Inonu and other Turkish luminaries clustered under a distinctively Persian arch.

Losing yourself in one of the nattiest neighbourhoods of Istanbul is a delight. It's 1 o'clock in the afternoon and I have just got into the local swing of things with a hearty bite of simit (a nigella and sesame-embedded bread roundel). Moments earlier, I had negotiated the mesh of cobblestone streets, radiating out from the Taksim Square to arrive at Istiklal Caddesi or Independence Avenue.

The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia offers a glimpse of how the city's relationship with religion changed through the centuries
Here pleasure seekers can swig raki, a cloudy aniseed liquor, at scores of atmospheric rooftop bars, or embark on a quest for the perfect doner kebab. An authentic Turkish staple, doner is a juicy pile of grilled meat, most often served on crusty flatbread and topped with fresh salad.

You really can't miss the street vendors in this buzzing thoroughfare. Dressed in chef's whites, they can be seen brandishing monster slicers against the backdrop of a vertical spit loaded with a stack of sliced lean lamb. Navigate the web of crooked lanes branching off Istiklal to stumble upon quaint teahouses offering the steaming cay in tulip-shaped glasses. In between, it's a good idea to stride across to the Greek Orthodox Church of Ayia Triada, a hidden art haven with richly-detailed frescoes. Within arm's length is the chic Taksim Republic Art Gallery. Currently a darling of the city's art connoisseurs, the gallery space was originally a part of Istanbul's water conduit system laid down by Sultan Mahmut I in 1732.

New to Istanbul's contemporary art scene, I wander around this heritage complex, where works of new generation Turkish painter Ali Balkan, are on display. Among the stylish visitors in the gallery, oversized aviators seem to vie with French poodles as the accessory of choice. Much like this 18th century reservoir turned gallery, the past often tangles with the present in many of the city's grand monuments. At the Hagia Sophia, antiquity has been preserved in the museum's marble-floored embellishments or Omphalion.

The Yerebatan cistern is famed for its Doric and Corinthian columnsv
The Yerebatan cistern is famed for its Doric and Corinthian columns
Built in 532 AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the celebrated basilica with a scalloped dome offers a glimpse of how the city's relationship with religion changed through the centuries. The story of spiritual one-upmanship goes something like this-in 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror invaded Christian Constantinople, and seized control. The Hagia Sophia church transmuted into the ornate Aya Sofya mosque and Christian iconography was buried beneath layers of plaster. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul later though it retained its importance as the juncture between Europe and Asia.

Religion was finally allowed to take a backseat in 1935, when the secular Ataturk, founder of the new Republic of Turkey, declared this architectural masterpiece a museum.

Now every afternoon, droves of tourists elbow one another for the best views of the basilica's central dome and 40 arched windows. At regular intervals, serious shutterbugs can be seen lying supine on the cool marble floors, clicking furiously. Feeling caffeine deprived already, I head to one of the cafes in Sultanahmet Square, which has tables spilling onto the tree-lined sidewalks. Idling over a cup of Turkish coffee in this historic quarter of the city seems just the right thing to do. In the middle of the coffee break, our guide Sukran Arslan, confides that the beverage is a favourite with would-be brides. "Girls of marriageable age need to whip up a mean Turkish coffee for their prospective bridegrooms." If the groom fails to make the cut, the girl furtively slips in salt instead of sugar into the coffee. "The matter," winks Sukran conspiratorially, "is settled without a fuss."

Perked up by the caffeine jolt, I dodge a gaggle of vacationers to reach Sultanahmet Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque. An exhausting feast of more than 20,000 Iznik tiles and 200 stained-glass windows, the mosque boasts 50 ravishing tulip designs, flowers, fruits and cypresses. At the entrance, miniskirts are hastily covered with modest wraps while bare arms are sheathed in capes.

Taksim Square
Taksim Square during twilight
Indeed, all of Sultanahmet Square is a visual charmer, crammed with architectural gems like the Yerebatan cistern and the Egyptian obelisk commissioned by the Pharaoh Thutmosis III in 1550 BC. As I wind my way out from the Blue Mosque, a circumcision party parading around in one of the side streets catches my eye. Togged up in the ceremonial white circumcision suit, a visibly nervous kid perched atop a horse flaunts Mashallainscribed headgear.

Enlivening the procession are revellers shaking a leg to the beat of the davul (drum) and zuma (reed flute) while a convoy of cars add to the general mayhem. Pain goes hand in hand with gain for Turkish boys, I am told. When the ceremony comes to an end, these kids are showered with gifts ranging from toys to ornate gold coins. But Sultanahmet Square is not solely a venue for ceremonial processions. The civic centre is abuzz all day with peddlers of smoked chestnuts, assorted confectioners and vendors of gozleme (Turkish pastry stuffed with spinach or mincemeat) vying for custom. To beat the crowds, it's wise to shuffle along to the Yerebatan cistern nearby.

Descending 52 moss-covered steps into a subterranean water chamber may sound a tad daunting but this 6th century cistern is overrun with tourists during the peak season (May-July). After all, trailing James Bond (From Russia With Love was shot here) is always a glamorous travel plan.

Famed for its Doric and Corinthian columns, the 1,00,000 ton-capacity tank is dank and musty. Yet its delicate engravings and resident shoals of fish usually bowl over tourists. The undisputed stars at Yerebatan, however, are the giant Medusa heads engraved on two of the column bases.

Next day, cruising along the azure Bosphorus is an enticing proposition. Ferry boats, hugging the coast, offer jaw-dropping views of Yalis or wooden mansions of the Ottoman elite. Commanding a portion of the coastline is the Rumeli Hisari, a towering fortress built by Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer to control both commercial and military traffic in the region.

Further upstream, yogurt heaven awaits at Kanlica, on Bosphorus' Asian shore. As the ferry cosies up to the pier, everyone leans perilously over the deck for cups of this creamy delight. For those intent on exploring the picture-perfect neighbourhoods around the river, this is the time to disembark. There's the hipster hangout of Ortakoy, that's worth taking a detour just for its dessert boutiques and fashion ateliers.

Egyptian obelisk
Egyptian obelisk commissioned by the Pharaoh Thutmosis III in 1550 BC
Very soon, diets are kissed a fond goodbye, as kumpirs (monster potatoes oozing with sour cream and other savoury fillings) are demolished in a matter of seconds. It's already past midnight when I walk back to the hotel with friends, after experiencing a riotous medley of Turkish dances at a local club.

The sidewalk cafes are still spilling over with teenagers while elders unwind with an evening nargile, the traditional water pipe. At that precise moment, the main thoroughfares of the city explode with the sounds of pounding drums. Marching fans wrapped in the yellow and blue Fenerbahce football club banner have taken to the streets to celebrate the team's 18th Turkish championship. It's a fantastic spectacle with hooting youngsters in canary-yellow costumes lighting fireworks and clambering on to the Independence Monument into the wee hours.

Just a few hours later, the sun peeks over the Golden Horn and local fishermen line up on the Galata Bridge, waiting patiently for their prize catch. In the City on the Seven Hills, another day has begun. But for me it's time to bid adieu.

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