For a city that is over 2,500 years old, Istanbul is remarkably modern. Home to Greek, Roman and Ottoman kingdoms since 660 BC, Istanbul was known as Constantinople for eons before formally adopting its present name in the 1920s with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.
Owing to its history and present orientation, you are bound to notice a few peculiarities about Istanbul. Firstly, it is a bi-continental city. The Bosphorus strait divides Istanbul into its European and Asian parts and I was ‘technically’ staying on the European side of the country. Secondly, this volition for being European transcends geographical happenstance. The Turks like to think of themselves as European and not Asian. Even though my time in Istanbul was brief, this was seemingly a prestige issue for the Turks and therefore deserves special mention.
I was terribly jet-lagged on my first day in Istanbul and when I reached the hotel in Sultan Ahmet around noon I was only able to grab a bite before falling asleep helplessly.
When I woke up it was 3 pm and I quickly found out that the sun would set by 4.30 pm and along with it would shut the historical sites of Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace for the day, I headed straight for the Hagia Sophia as with the Blue Mosque it made a perfect photoframe through my window.
The walk from my hotel to Hagia Sophia was my first intimate interaction with the city. It was splendid. The air was nippy and crisp. As I climbed uphill, patterned cobblestone streets with perfectly defined edges laid to steep grades steered me under overhead rail bridges, beautiful window displays and packed cafes. The Blue Mosque appeared in glimpses between buildings while the Hagia Sophia was visible only after I had reached the top of the hill.
Between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia is a crammed public square. With closely packed benches and conniving view-obstructing fountains, it seems as though the landscape architect wanted to ensure ruining the best sightlines towards Hagia Sophia! Thankfully, as you get closer to either building, the clutter dissipates into more intimate spaces, preparing you for the wondrous historical treasures. I would have to see the Blue Mosque another day and so I headed straight to the Hagia Sophia, racing against the setting sun.
The first thing that hit me about the Hagia Sophia was the brickwork. Places where the plaster had worn out exposed the building’s tectonic composition. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings made in brick in the world. Inside, was an explosion of space. Paintings, tilework, stonework, proportions, light entering through the southwestern windows, the experience was phenomenal.
Built in 537 AD the dome of the Hagia Sophia was considered an architectural feat for its time. And when one is standing under the dome, it almost felt like the city had been recreated inside. Views from upper floors of the Hagia Sophia were spectacular too and although it was never meant to be a building you look from but look at instead, it offered lovely frames of interstitial spaces.
Back at the hotel, the rooftop restaurant provided two luxuries: exquisite furniture scattered throughout the terrace and unobstructed views of the Marmara Sea. I recall a baby high chair as the most memorable piece. Made entirely of wood, it was fully endowed with pulleys to adjust the seating height, a table and a footrest – befitting any pompous toddler.
I saw this attention to detail extend into Istanbul’s cityscape. Outdoor furniture, elaborate awnings and informal cafés articulated the city’s streets. Alongside its effervescent street life runs Istanbul’s urban transport system. The city uses at-grade rail – a tram that runs on roads shared by cars and bikes alike, an underground metro and a very unexpected funicular line to facilitate mass transit across steep grades. My trip to the vibrant shopping area of Taksim involved getting on all three!
But the one thing I am most tempted to note is that cities such as Istanbul and even Cairo and Dubai offer ample public places where you don’t need to go to buy something but can just be. These public places also render wonderful nocturnal version of themselves. Our cities unfortunately don’t do that. Even for those of us who do not wish to go to clubs to have a good time – just walking on the streets or market places or even your own neighbourhood well into the night doesn’t emerge as a viable idea and I wonder why? Is it because of the urban make-up of our cities? Is it the way the road meets the market meets the transportation line works? Or does the urban form play little role in a place where social inhibitions take precedence over feasibility – but then, aren’t the two intimately connected?
My other observation was that the Turks know how to treat their heritage – the city is dotted with a mix of religious and secular monuments. Most major cities in India also enjoy such a fabric but we are only just beginning to harbor respect to embrace our built heritage while our urban compositions constantly change.
I was not in Istanbul long enough to soak in its cosmopolitan oeuvre but I can safely say that the city takes pride in modelling what an ideal, culturally vital urban metropolis anywhere in the world can aspire to be. Istanbul offers much to learn from and the world is understandably warming up to it.
Text and Photographs Bay Aftab Jalia