Friday 22 September 2017

Istanbul: Minarets and miniskirts

Istanbul is a city where piety and partying happily collide, as Richard Conway discovers

The view from the
Bosphorus of the
soaring Süleymaniye
mosque
The view from the Bosphorus of the soaring Süleymaniye mosque
A street performer in Galata Square
Shopping in the Grand Bazaar

Richard Conway

I've been in the Secret Garden for something close to an hour now. It's small,not much bigger than my apartment back home in fact, but it's packed. Teeming even.

Dashing young things in slim-fit jeans and leather bombers somehow squeeze into every available space, as couples -- spotting gaps in the crowd -- lunge for prized comfy chairs. And all the while the music plays, catchy and loud.

This isn't much of a garden really -- there aren't any trees, nor a single blade of grass. Instead, I'm in something of an above-board speakeasy, a not-so-dingy dive bar, all shabby chic and promotion by word of mouth.

Nestled secretly in Istanbul's Nevizade district, this converted 19th-century apartment has no sign on its door, and getting in here felt a little like breaking and entering. I half expected someone to call the cops.

My company for the evening is local journalist Erman, who tells me this place is a haunt for artists and designers. I'm not surprised. In many ways, this could be an über-trendy bar in any town: a cool pub in London's Hoxton, or an edgy lounge in Brooklyn.

"So I guess this means we're definitely on the European side of town," I blurt unthinkingly, as Erman gets back from the bar, referencing the geographical, and supposed cultural, division of the city between Europe and Asia.

He looks at me with a mixture of mock disappointment and playful sympathy. "Well, the east/west division thing is a little arbitrary," he says, smiling broadly. "Istanbul is just Istanbul."

I stop for a moment. Oh no, I think, am I that tourist? Have I just stumbled headlong into cliché, unwittingly starting the conversation no one wants to have? Erman laughs, "Well, sort of!".

I apologise. I tell him I feel like the archetypal visitor to Ireland, the one who comes in search of sheep and mist. I promise to keep the naive hack questions to a minimum and he jokingly forgives me.

But he has a point. Having been here just two days, I can already see that trying to neatly divide this city into eastern or western parts -- pinning down characteristics Asian and European -- robs it of something essential. Istanbul is both of these, and is also neither.

Before touching down, I had all sorts of questions. Would it be like Damascus, or more like Budapest? Would headscarves be ubiquitous, or would I see miniskirts? Would I hear the call to prayer, but also modern music?

How silly I felt now. I was of course seeing both short(ish) skirts and headscarves, and would hear Allahu Akbar sound from minarets most days, as street cafés blasted chart hits. My questions didn't need answers. Why did I think all of these things were contradictory, anyway?

This is, after all, a city that has been variously called Lygos, Byzantium, Constantinople and Stamboul. It's been Eastern Orthodox, Western Christian, Islamic and secular. It's long been a hodgepodge of cultures, and has packed in a history more varied than most guide books can cover.

Back in the bar, Erman and I grab a seat and get into a discussion about the city's cultural make-up, which I've been finding out is something unique.

Take the 'must sees': the soaring Süleymaniye mosque, the second biggest in the city. And the big two: the splendidly Byzantine Hagia Sophia and the sumptuously Ottoman Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque).

Sitting opposite each other, this pair of buildings act as a microcosm of the city as a whole. The Hagia was originally a Byzantine basilica, praised as one of the finest examples of Eastern Roman architecture.

During the fourth crusade, it was famously converted from Orthodox Christianity to Roman Catholicism, and later still it became a mosque under the Ottoman Turks.

Now a museum, it is mind-blowing to visit. It is a bit of everything. Inside, Islamic symbols jar with Christian murals, as both faiths collide. It soars like a great cathedral, but has an Islamic demeanour.

It feels as if it belongs to both religions. But of course, it's currently secular. Outside, it is clear that it has influenced the design of the Blue Mosque, as the latter's elegant dome mirrors that of its once-Christian neighbour.

I think this is what Erman means by Istanbul is Istanbul. Things we in the west often believe clash, don't clash here; Christianity and Islam reflect each other with ease. West and east are so intertwined that using either term in isolation becomes meaningless.

Earlier today, I was on the city's equivalent of Grafton Street, Istiklâl Avenue. Here, this mixing of cultures is very evident. Situated in the Beyoglu district, it's Times Square-busy, filled with fashionable outlets, and stretches nearly three kilometres long.

Young Istanbulites hang out on corners, wearing the latest branded clothes and checking each other out. But that's not to say it's western. You can still get authentic local coffee, top-quality baklava, buy roast chestnuts and pick up as good a box of Turkish delight as anywhere else in the city.

Later, on a visit across town to the Grand Bazaar -- one of the oldest covered markets in the world -- I found the reverse to be true. You could blindingly lose yourself among carpet sellers, marble drinking fountains and Turkish tearooms if you wanted.

This place is everything one imagines an Ottoman market should be: vaulted roofs enclose headscarf shops, ceramics traders jostle for attention and stall owners ask hagglers to name their price.

But it seems some guidebooks ignore the fact that you can also bag Manchester United jerseys, down a cheeseburger and buy top of the range smartphones.

I tell Erman I have heard a lot about the old-world serenity of the Asian shore, however. Surely here, it could be said that one culture trumps the other? But as with every other question, a simple answer won't work. And when I visit, I find out for myself.

While the admittedly traditional Asian-side neighbourhood of üsküdar houses the beauteous Ottoman Beylerbeyi Palace, in 2009 something groundbreaking happened here: the first Istanbul mosque part-designed by a woman -- the Sakirin Mosque -- opened its doors.

Erman lets me in on a secret too: the supposed old-world calm of the Asian shore is less down to it being eastern and more down to it simply being a suburb of the city. Don't tell the tourist board, though.

I think I'm starting to bore him, so I offer to get us drinks, promising to really stop with the east/west questions this time. He laughs politely at my offer. You see, I don't drink alcohol and he does.

We take a moment to ponder how that might fit into our debate on European and Asian culture. All we come up with is a possible joke regarding a teetotal Irishman and a drunk Turkish guy.

We decide not to go there.

The next day, after a visit to the Istanbul Modern art gallery, I grab a taxi to the Tünel area of the city and stumble upon the boho Galipdede Street. Here, vintage stores, electric guitar shops and coffee bars lend an eclectic, modern feel.

I wonder if I've found the exception to Erman's rule -- maybe Istanbul isn't just Istanbul here. This feels a little like Barcelona to me. That is until I walk past the doors of the Galata Mevlevi Monastery, a still-functioning whirling dervish lodge.

I stroll up to a neon-signed coffee bar nearby. They seem to serve only latte-style fare here. So I go for it, ordering an unashamedly western Americano.

The lady behind the counter nods her head and smiles at me: "Not a Turkish coffee?"

NEED TO KNOW

GETTING THERE

Turkish Airlines (01-844 7920; thy.com) fly direct from Dublin to Istanbul daily.

STAYING THERE

For those on a budget, Hotel Assos (0090 212 458 4646; assoshotelistanbul.com) is a clean option near the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque. Pretty reasonable value for its location. If you want to spend a bit more, the charmingly hip midrange Lush (0090 212 243 9595; lushhotel.com) is on Siraselviler St in the heart of modern Istanbul. Billed as being in the city’s hippest district, The Sofa Hotel (0090 212 368 1818; thesofahotel.com) offers luxury near the city’s highend boutiques.

FIVE MUST DOS

If you see only one thing in Istanbul, it has to be the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine wonder.

Join the in-crowd at the Secret Garden bar (Selçuk Mah, Dizdar Hasan Bey Sok. 1, Antalya). They seemingly don’t do phone calls, or allow you to take pictures. If you can’t find it, ask a local on the street nearby.

Catch the beautiful Beylerbeyi Palace, an Ottoman summer residence, at sunset.

Brush up on your Turkish culture at the Istanbul Modern (0090 212 334 7300; istanbulmodern.org) in a converted warehouse on the Bosphorus.

See a real-life whirling dervish at the Galata Mevlevi Monastery (0090 212 245 4141; mekder.org).

INSIDER TIPS

Best coffee: Fazýl Bey’s Turkish Coffee House at 1 Fatih Cad. Acýbadem (0090 216 339 0779; fazilbey.com). Best hammam: The classic Cagaloglu Hamami at Cagaloglu off Yerebatan Cd (0090 212 522 2424; cagalogluhamami.com.tr). Taxi tip: Make sure the meter is running when you get in. Avoid: Street vendors serving apple tea to tourists. It’s truly horrid stuff.

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