Istanbul’s Magical Mystery Tour
"What happened to your head?" someone asked me on the plane heading home from Turkey. I’d been waiting for the question - after all, it was a rather rude red mark atop my forehead - and now, at last, I could answer, "I hit it on a yacht while sailing on the Bosphorus."
The Bosphorus. The name alone conjures up images of romance and mystery, scenes of intrigue and indolence and indulgence. Lined with Ottoman palaces and Italianate villas and imperial mosques, the Bosphorus is the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and, thereby, one of the busiest seaways in the world. Less the dividing line between Europe and Asia, the Bosphorus serves as the connection between two continents - and two sides of one great city.
Years ago, as an adolescent, I read a paperback novel about characters who lived and loved in Istanbul, which they referred to as Byzantium and which served as a playground for their trysts and dalliances and which was rendered particularly magical and seductive to an adolescent yearning to see the world.
As I cruised down the Bosphorus on a recent sunny autumn afternoon, I thought again of that novel - and also of JFK, Jr. and his new wife Carolyn Bessette who honeymooned in Istanbul in 1996. It was JFK, Jr.’s mother, Jackie, who had returned to Turkey in 1985 and recommended Istanbul for a honeymoon - and the two newlyweds had ensconced themselves in the Sultan’s Suite atop the Ciragan Palace Hotel along the European side of the Bosphorus.
Madonna stayed there, too, in the same palatial suite, telling the staff that no one was to have a key to her rooms - except for her boyfriend. Originally built in the late 19th century as a sultan’s palace, the Ciragan Palace was reopened in 1992 after a checkered history that included a massive fire, as well as stints serving as the headquarters for the French military during World War I and the practice grounds for the Turkish football team.
A city of myriad layers, Istanbul has been the capital of four empires (Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman), thanks in good part to its strategic locale. What was once an ancient Greek city called Byzantion, and later Nova Roma, though more popularly known as Constantinople, Istanbul is the world’s only city that encompasses two continents. The city is surrounded by water: not only the Bosphorus bisecting its two sides, but also the Marmara Sea to the south and the Golden Horn, a narrow inlet that divides the European side of Istanbul.
To stand in Sultanahmet Square, home to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the two most recognizable icons of Istanbul, is to see also the silhouettes of the obelisks from the Hippodrome of Constantinople - and to be reminded not only of chariot races but also of the passage of empires and time.
With a population of more than 13 million, the city of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest, is almost twice as populated as New York, with an area nearly seven times as large as all five New York City boroughs. A walking tour through Kuzguncuk (meaning "little raven" in Turkish) on Istanbul’s Asian side reveals a serene neighborhood filled with artists and architects and a pace of life more in keeping with Williamsburg than Manhattan. Men park themselves at tables on the sidewalk, playing checkers and sipping tea in the morning sun. Narrow streets are lined with wooden houses juxtaposed with stately mansions and vegetable gardens. At one point, we attract the attention of a trio of dogs who follow us, dutifully waiting in front of the shops and boutiques we visit. All morning, the dogs pad alongside us, attracting more dogs, until we are leading eight loyal canines through the hilly cobblestoned streets.
As the economic and cultural heart of Turkey, Istanbul is the world’s tenth most popular destination. A center of arts and fashion, culture and history, with a median age of 23, Istanbul is also a university town with more than 150,000 students - and the goal of the recent inaugural Istanbul Design Biennial is to position the city as a global design capital.
This, after all, is the city that was the world’s wealthiest at a time when Paris and London were little more than sleepy backwaters - and it was Napoleon who was reputed to have remarked that "if the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital." Today, the city is home to more than thirty billionaires, making Istanbul the fifth most popular refuge for excessive wealth.
But then, what else could be expected from a town that created the world’s largest covered bazaar with more than 4,000 shops in 1461? Today, the Grand Bazaar is as exhilarating and dynamic as the city’s population. "Life is short; spend all your money," counsels one merchant as we enter. Another calls out, "I want to see you."
As the only secular Muslim state, Turkey is a study of contrasts. Five times a day, the call to prayer echoes throughout the city of Istanbul, even as the young and beautiful head off to shop and drink and party throughout the night. The great Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (whose parents were from Istanbul and who spent three years in the city before returning to Alexandria) must’ve appreciated the unabashed physicality of young Turkish males, their arms around each other, holding hands as they lean in close, laughing at something only the two of them share.
For those of us from the States, Istanbul has, for so long, represented the magical allure of the unknown: the bridge from our Occidental history into the otherworldliness of the Orient. Located at the nexus of human history, the 2,000-year-old city is a sprawling 700-square-mile metropolis studded with nearly 20,000 cultural sites that span the breadth of human civilization - from the city’s nearly 1,000-year reign as the center of Christendom to its role as the Muslim caliphate for another 500 years.
While Turkey is a secular state with no official state religion, nearly 99% of the population of Istanbul, like the rest of Turkey, is Muslim. That fact, however, does not preclude the existence of numerous LGBT bars and nightclubs, some with backrooms and some for all-night dancing to the sounds of some of nightlife’s most renowned international deejays. A plethora of nightlife options is available for the LGBT community including transgender parties and parties for Turkish bears and barely-legal rent boys. As with all great cities, if you seek it out, you’ll find it.
It’s worth remembering that at least 26 of the 36 sultans of the Ottoman Dynasty were poets - and that the royal households practiced painting, woodworking, writing poetry, and many other forms of art. In other words, the world’s only city that straddles two continents serves to remind us how interconnected we are. The Bosphorus Bridge, built in 1973 as the world’s first transcontinental bridge, serves as a beacon of our interconnectedness in the face of cartographers’ boundaries and demarcations.
Currently, two suspension bridges span the Bosphorus, connecting Europe to Asia, with a third one planned. Arguably, the symbolism of the bridges is as meaningful as their practical import, for it isn’t long after arriving in Istanbul that you recognize that the mystery and mysticism you might have been anticipating gives way to a dawning awareness of commonality. We are all seeking the same: striving for happiness and peace of mind.
One enchanted evening, I stood on a terrace at the Ciragan Palace, a glass of Champagne in my hand. The lights of the Bosphorus Bridge were blinking blue and shining bright. Below me, people walked arm in arm through the landscaped gardens and beneath the immense historic gates. "Sir, is there anything I can do for you?" asked a server in the most gentle and sincere voice. Shaking my head, I turned to him and smiled as I raised my glass: to the Bosphorus, to Istanbul, to one the world’s most beautiful cities.
(Feature continues on following pages: Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat, Getting There, Additional Info...)