A Turkish Delight
Stately pleasure domes and shopping palaces... That's Istanbul, finds Jane Labous
Beneath the minaret spiralling into the June sky a throng of people is launching itself across the road - an old man in robes and a fez; a girl in tight jeans and high-heels; a man holding aloft a platter of golden bread rolls.
A street-trader carries a giant stick of candyfloss, his face barely visible behind clouds of candy pink. Two women covered head to toe in black burqas stand chatting in the shade. Cars, scooters and buses roar and hoot. A mother buys wine-red cherries from a market stall.
Beyond, behind the half-mile long facade of the Dolmabahce Palace, the river Bosphorus glitters in the sun, gently pushing its tankers and container ships through from the Mediterranean on and out, into the Black Sea, bound for glamorous faraway lands - Russia, Kazakhstan, and Iran.
This dusty, hectic, flirtatious city, straddled across the Bosphorus with one slippered foot in Asia and the other in Europe, is where two worlds meet. It’s a heady mix, at once exotic and dilapidated, sensual and conservative; fashionable and old-fashioned, a blend of ancient and modern built on centuries of decadence and beauty and Imperial struggles.
East and west collide here in gentle harmony amidst the palaces and mosques and stately gardens, a kaleidoscope of sounds and smells, where old people still drink dark, toffee-sweet coffee after every langourous meal while the glitterati go to work in shiny executive offices and dance to house beats in the clubs and bars which open late into the balmy nights. Walking around Istanbul, it’s easy to find yourself transported by its romance. With its history of turbulence and excess, it’s a place where the atmosphere of Byzantium and Constantinople seem very near indeed.
And if its history is one of dashing exoticism, its architecture is no less so, for this is a place where tall minarets rise endlessly into the dusky sky, where pleasure domes and pleasure gardens have infinite numbers of rooms, sanctuaries for harems, marble-tiled hammams built for sultans, ballrooms inlaid with infinite amounts of gold.
Around every corner is another exquisite tower, mosque, gateway or palace; another crumbling, ancient wall or twisting staircase. Above the Golden Horn or Haliç, the stretch of estuary which separates the old European city from the new, the old town spreads across the hillside, a jumble of tiled roofs and meandering alleyways.
The city’s main sights are the Haghia Sophia, once known as the greatest church in Constantinople; the Basilica Cistern, a Byzantine relic built in 532AD; the Topkapi Palace, dating back to 1432 when it housed the sultan and his concubines and slaves; the Blue Mosque, constructed by Sultan Ahmet in 1617, and finally the brash, kitsch, decadent Dolmabahce Palace, built in 1832 by the Ottomans.
They are all splendid creations, the gigantic span of their history a testament to this city’s rich culture. Even the football team here has a magnificent name – Galataseray’s stadium stands in the centre of the city with all the pomp of a Roman amphitheatre, its matches so violent and gladiatorial that the venue has been nicknamed Hell by rival fans.
Istanbul’s markets are legendary. “Anything you want, you’ll find,” says my guide as we approach the famous Spice Market or Misir Çarşisi in the Eminönü quarter. Locals come here to shop for spices, herbs, nuts, sweets and the most delicious turkish delight anywhere in Istanbul. The traders are relaxed, perhaps knowing that the decadent piles of lokoum, a myriad of candy colours in pink and green and red, are enough to tempt even the most abstemious of shoppers.
Here in Turkey this jelly-like sweet doesn’t just come in rose and lemon flavour; the varieties are endless, from the long rolls of dense, sticky date, chopped into rounds and studded with tiny, jewel-like pistachios, to the squares of orange-blossom speckled with hazelnuts; from the plump, fluffy rectangles of apricot and mint dusted with snow-white sugar to the tiny circles of lemon striped with nuts; from the strips of strawberry filled with cream and rolled in coconut to the fragrant flavours of cardamon, bergamot, lavender, strawberry and melon. It’s confectionery for the eyes as well as the tastebuds.
But that’s not all. There are piles of almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, peanuts and tumbles of dried apricots, figs and dates. There are slices of sugared pineapple, glacier cherry, crystallised orange and kiwi; mounds and mounds of spices; saffron, black peppercorns, white peppercorns, pink peppercorns; sticks of cinnamon bound in leaves, fresh mint, cumin, cardamon, cloves; piles of apple tea, orange tea, cinnamon tea, love tea. And then there are the sweets, syrupy Lokma fritters; glistening homemade marzipan; sugary candied chestnuts, thick, flaky halva which sticks to the roof of my mouth when I take a piece from the stallholder’s hand.
And of course there’s the baklava, its paper-thin layers of filo pastry dripping with honey and ground pistachio. The various types have Thousand and One Nightsnames - the sultan, the nightingale’s nest, the lady’s navel and the twisted turban, characterised by size and shape and the amount of honey oozing through the pastry.
“You know you want it,” shouts a stallholder jubilantly as we venture into the Kapalıçarşı or Grand Bazaar, the city’s biggest market – there are over 3000 shops and 61 streets housed in the domes and leaded windows of the Nuri Osmaniye and Beyazid Mosques. He grins as I pass his stall, gesturing hopefully to the beaded necklaces laid out in neat rows, most featuring the nazar boncugu, the tiny blue eye which Turks believe wards off evil. “I will make your day,” adds another resolutely from beneath a jungle of lanterns made of beautiful blue, green, red and yellow glass, inlaid with jewels.
This bazaar, a temple to consumerism with all the atmosphere of an Eastern market, has its nucleus in a Byzantine building called Old Bedesten, where valuables and jewellery are sold. The rest is ungeometrical, a tangle of tiny winding streets stuffed with slippers, cushions, lanterns, rugs, shoes, bags, fabric, costumes – if you want one, you can pick up a beaded, sequinned belly-dancing costume, complete with leotard and headgear – hats, chests, lamps and teapots and ceramics. It’s easy to spend the day here and theoretically you could furnish your whole house for a quarter of what you’d pay in any Western Ikea or Laura Ashley.
At the Blue Mosque, the atmosphere is peaceful. An old man sits knitting hats in the gateway to the courtyard. A father leads a small boy in a prince’s suit, complete with cape, sceptre and silver hat, across the marble tiles. “They dress them up like that before they get circumcised,” explains our guide, and Icontinue to watch him sorrowfully, wondering if the grandness of the costume is supposed to numb the pain.
Inside the hushed interior of the mosque, a few men kneel in prayer, while in the segregated women’s section an old woman studies the Koran as her grandchildren dart in and out, their laughter breaking the silence.
Just as I emerge again into the fading afternoon, the call to prayer begins. I stand listening for a moment, unsettled, to this gentle sound. Haunting, exotic, full of magic and yearning, it's somehow evocative of the past and the present and the future, echoing through the centuries across the mosques and minarets of this magnificent city.
This article was originally published in BBC Homes & Antiques.
Jane Labous travelled as a guest of Radisson SAS Bosphorus, Çiragan Cad No.46, 34349 Ortaköy, Istanbul, Turkey Tel: +0090 212 310 1500,