For centuries, Istanbul - or Constantinople, as it was known for most of its existence - has been a meeting point between East and West.
Driving into the city from the airport I saw immediate evidence of its turbulent history, as we drove past huge sections of its old defensive walls. These colossal structures were almost - but not quite - impregnable from any attack from land or sea, and they saved the city, and the Byzantine Empire, for many centuries. It was not until the 29th May 1453, after a bitter six-week siege, that the Ottomans finally captured it.
It not hard to see why Constantinople represented such an attractive prize. It is superbly situated on either side of the Bosphorus Strait that separates Europe from Asia. Unique among all the cities of the world, it straddles two continents. It can also claim to be one of the world's biggest cities - with more than 15 million inhabitants - and at times it is hard to fathom its true scale. Istanbul bustles with energy, and seems full of contradictions. It is a seductive mixture of European and Asian, antique and modern, the familiar and the exotic. Its skyline is full of domes and minarets, but its extensive business districts have come to resemble down-town Manhattan. Huge oil tankers and cargo ships wait patiently for their turn to pass through the straits - alongside scores of tiny fishing boats waiting to unload their daily catch.
Although the city is commonly associated with the Emperor Constantine, who established it as the capital of a Byzantine Christian world, and gave it his name, this is a truly ancient city that was originally founded by the Greeks in the seventh century BC. I was travelling by Turkish Airlines to Seoul when I learned I could make a stop-over in Istanbul, and couldn't resist the opportunity to spend a few days there. I checked into the Marmara Taksim Hotel. It is situated right in the heart of the city, near to some of its most fashionable and vibrant streets. My room was modern, spacious and bright - with a fantastic sunflower-head shower that revived me before I went out for the first evening.
Istiklal Avenue was within walking distance of the hotel, and it has all the upscale shops you'd expect to find on Fifth Avenue. However, the location of these shops is rather different. They are set in a series of grandiose late Ottoman-era buildings, and are built in a positive orgy of diverse architectural styles - ranging from Neo-gothic, to Neo-classical, to Renaissance Revival to Art Noveau. It was late on a Tuesday night, but the streets were still buzzing with activity, and many of the countless shops, cafés, restaurants, bars and boutiques were all still open. I ate in a small restaurant just off the main street at Otantik Anadolu Yemekleri. I devoured a plate of Manti - delicately spiced meat dumplings with yoghurt and salad.
Pleasantly full, I retired to the hotel bar which was located on the top floor. It offered spectacular panoramic vistas of the city. As I imbibed a few glasses of the local raki, there were huge bolts of lightening, flashing across the night sky. They cast fitful but dramatic light on the city that was spread out before me - and it all seemed impossibly romantic.
The next morning I headed to the Basilica Cistern. This gigantic subterranean structure was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian and built in 532 AD. It is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul, and it was quite unlike anything I have ever seen before. Strange to say, it lay forgotten for centuries, and was only accidentally rediscovered by the Frenchman Peter Gyllius in 1545. The ceiling of this extraordinary cistern is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns. Many of these were salvaged from ruined temples and buildings elsewhere in the Byzantine Empire, and they include some intricately carved Ionic and Corinthian columns. The sheer grandeur of this structure is truly astonishing, and I could well imagine that, on hot summer days, the subterranean cool would be a blessed retreat. Located in the very north-western corner of the cistern are two huge column blocks carved with the face of Medusa. One is on its side and the other is upside down. No one knows the exact origin of the two enigmatic faces, but I found them oddly captivating. Perhaps, it was because the thick hair of curling snakes, and their exasperated expressions reminded me of my mother.
It was just a short walk from the cistern to the Grand Bazaar. Construction of the Bazaar started shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. It is not only one of the oldest, but also one of the largest covered markets in the world. It houses more than 3,000 shops, and attracts up to half a million visitors each day. I entered through the Jewellers Gate and have to confess that I was swiftly overwhelmed by the frenetic bustle - as well as by the overzealous shopkeepers who tried to press their souvenirs on me. I stumbled around the colourful and labyrinthine narrow alleys, and was soon completely lost. I needn't have panicked: thankfully, there is much more in the Grand Bazaar than rugs, jewellery and counterfeit goods.
Off the busy thoroughfares, hidden amongst the quieter back alleys and interior courtyards, there are a series of small restaurants that cater not primarily to tourists, but to the locals who work in the sprawling marketplace. Gaziantep Burç Ocakbasi is an unassuming grill house which serves up remarkably tasty and varied food from Gaziantep, a city in south-eastern Turkey that is famed as one of the country's culinary capitals. There are only a few small tables, which are lined up along the length of the alleyway that is the restaurant's home. The ambiance is provided by the smoke and sizzle coming from the grill and the hum of bazaar activity all around. I started with ali nazik, tender strips of marinated beef sitting on a bed of garlicky yogurt eggplant purée accompanied by a fresh salad, topped with chopped walnuts and zingy pomegranate molasses, which was also delicious.
Perhaps nothing can quite prepare you for seeing the Hagia Sophia for the first time. It is not just its sheer size, but also the beautiful harmony of its proportions. As I entered the building, I was immediately struck by its vast interior, and I found standing beneath its 55m-high dome to be a humbling experience. It was initially consecrated as a church in 537, but was turned into an imperial mosque under the Ottomans, before being finally converted into a museum with the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Its interior reflects its chequered past: Viking graffiti is scratched on the balustrade of the south gallery, and gigantic circular-framed disks, inscribed in calligraphy with the names of Allah and the prophet Mohammed, hang from the rafters.
While many of its Christian mosaics and artefacts have been destroyed, plastered over or whitewashed, it is remarkable that so much has been preserved, and there are still a number of truly outstanding examples which have been painstakingly restored. Light pours into the building, and casts glorious reflections on the gold of a 9th-century mosaic of the Virgin and Christ. Directly opposite the Hagia Sophia is the equally stunning Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque. Built at the bequest of Sultan Ahmet I - who demanded a mosque to rival the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia. It is a strikingly sensual building. Its exterior is wonderfully curvaceous with a cascade of domes and six slender minarets. Although the mosque is a hugely popular attraction, admission is strictly controlled as this is still a functioning mosque. Only worshippers are admitted through the main door - tourists must use the south door. The central prayer space is huge, it is illuminated by 260 stained glass windows, and its walls are richly decorated with tens of thousands of handmade Iznik tiles depicting more than fifty different kinds of tulips, fruit and cypresses. It is these striking blue tiles that give the building its unofficial name.
My flight to South East Asia was later that evening. In general, I am not a great fan of airline food, but I shouldn't have worried. Turkish Airlines include chefs on board their long-haul flights, and the range of food was both diverse and delicious. In fact, it was by far the best that I have ever been served on a plane. Istanbul is a truly unique gateway to a different and an exotic world. I hope to pass through it many more times.
Turkish Airlines- www.turkishairlines.com
The Marmara Taksim - themarmaracollection.com
Sites to see
Hagia Sophia - http://ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en
During the summer, the visiting hours are between 09.00 and 19.00, with the final entry at 18.00.
The Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque - www.bluemosque.co
The Topkapı Palace - www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr/tr
Otantik Anadolu Yemekleri-http://otantikanadoluyemekleri.com/en/
Used as the primary residence of Ottoman Sultans and their high officials for almost 400. It houses vast collections of porcelain, jewellery, armour, Ottoman miniatures, stunning examples of Islamic calligraphy and important holy relics, including Muhammed's cloak and sword. Tulips were introduced to Europe from Turkey and in spring its sumptuous gardens were full of the most vividly coloured examples I have ever seen.
Built under the reign of Constantine I in the 4th century. This church is found in an overlooked corner of the Topkapı Palace complex. After the Ottoman conquest, it was used for various purposes including as an armoury, most of its mosaics and frescos have not survived, its walls are stripped back to stark brick. Now, all that remains is a solitary great golden cross, it is an eerily evocative and hauntingly beautiful space.
Pera Palace Hotel
Established during the last years of the nineteen century, this hotel is a beautiful blend of Neo-classical, Art Noveau and oriental styles that perfectly captures the intrigue of the fin de siècle. It seems entirely fitting that Agatha Christie wrote her classic 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express here. It has been recently restored to its former glamour and the bar is the perfect place to pass time with a cocktail or two.
Sunday Indo Living