Istanbul Ex­press

Turkey’s largest city owes much to his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy

Business Traveler (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Rose Dykins

Sit­u­ated where east meets west, Istanbul’s al­lur­ing ar­chi­tec­ture and air of mys­ti­cism make it un­like any other city. De­spite be­ing a de­sir­able tourist des­ti­na­tion, given the vo­latil­ity of Turkey’s neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, and the re­cent po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tions in the city, it’s worth con­sult­ing the State Depart­ment web­site ( be­fore you travel there for plea­sure or business.

Then again, a num­ber of ho­tel groups have given the city their stamp of ap­proval, with an abun­dance of lux­ury open­ings. Th­ese in­clude a 180-room Raf­fles ho­tel and a 118-room St Regis. The big­gest-ever Soho House mem­bers’club – com­plete with 88 bed­rooms – is also due to open in 2014 in a for­mer US em­bassy build­ing.

If your trav­els take you to this cul­tural cross­roads, be sure to set aside some time to soak up Istanbul’s idio­syn­cratic character. Here are just a few of the city’s land­marks, the well-known and the not so well-known.

Ha­gia Sophia

The Blue Mosque on Sul­tan Ah­met Square has a beau­ti­ful in­te­rior, but the Ha­gia Sophia, at the other end of the plaza, is a far more fas­ci­nat­ing struc­ture. With Christian im­agery dis­played along­side cal­li­graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the names of Al­lah and Muham­mad, it is an em­bod­i­ment of Istanbul’s multi-lay­ered and tur­bu­lent past.

Orig­i­nally built as a Greek Ortho­dox church in the sixth cen­tury, the com­mand­ing build­ing was trans­formed into a mosque in 1453 when the Ot­tomans con­quered Con­stantino­ple (as Istanbul was for­merly known). As a re­sult, it was given a rather dras­tic makeover. The al­tar was re­moved, the fres­cos of Christian icons were plas­tered over – along with mil­lions of mo­saics – and the floors car­peted to en­able Mus­lim prayer.

It re­mained a mosque un­til 1935, when on or­ders from Mustafa Ataturk, the first pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic of Turkey, it be­came a na­tional mu­seum. The plas­ter­work and car­pets were re­moved, and the im­mac­u­lately pre­served fres­cos and floors were re­vealed be­neath. To­day, its Christian iconog­ra­phy and Is­lamic mo­tifs are jux­ta­posed un­der the same roof.

The hy­brid his­tory of the build­ing gives it an almost in­de­fin­able qual­ity. There’s some­thing strangely gothic yet ex­otic about the ash-gray mar­ble sur­faces il­lu­mi­nated by Ara­bic lanterns, and the ghost-like paint­ings upon the rich yel­low ceil­ing. Al­low plenty of time to ex­plore the build­ing’s sprawl­ing struc­ture and gal­leries, dis­cover par­tially re­cov­ered mo­saics and gaze in won­der at the mag­nif­i­cent 105-foot-wide dome sur­rounded by seraphim an­gels.

Open Tue-Sun 9:00 AM – 7:00 PM (Apr-Oct), 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM (Nov Square; ha­gia­

Basil­ica Cis­tern

Not far from the Ha­gia Sofia, on the other side of Sul­tan Ah­met Square, the mys­te­ri­ous un­der­ground Basil­ica Cis­tern is another must-see – and a great way to es­cape the heat. Of Istanbul’s net­work of un­der­ground cis­terns built to col­lect and store rain­fall to sup­ply the city with drink­ing wa­ter, the Basil­ica Cis­tern is one of only two that are open to the pub­lic. It was con­structed in the sixth cen­tury to pro­vide wa­ter for the Great Palace dur­ing the rule of Byzan­tine em­peror Jus­tinian I.

Also known as the“Sunken Palace,”the 100,000-square-foot struc­ture is a labyrinth of 336 mar­ble col­umns sup­port­ing the vaulted ceil­ing 30 feet over­head. Neon light­ing pro­vides dra­matic il­lu­mi­na­tion, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to survey even the dark­est cor­ners. Brown carp lurk­ing in the wa­ter be­neath the wooden walk­ways that cross the pools con­trib­ute to the omi­nous at­mos­phere, which lends it­self well to the con­certs and po­etry read­ings that take place here from time to time.

Look out for the two large Me­dusa­head col­umn bases at the far end – one of them is up­side down, while the other is on its side, and the rea­son for their cu­ri­ous po­si­tion­ing has never been ex­plained.

Open daily 9:00 AM – 6:00 PM. En­try yere­


While Istanbul’s vast Grand Bazaar is where you’d go to hag­gle for fake de­signer bags, and its col­or­ful Spice Mar­ket is the place to pick up myr­iad fla­vors of Turk­ish de­light, the dis­trict of Cukur­cuma is where you’re likely to find a more un­usual and in­spir­ing sou­venir.

Its hilly, cob­bled streets are lined with in­de­pen­dent an­tique deal­ers, their shops piled high with items from a cross-sec­tion of cul­tures and time pe­ri­ods. Their qual­ity and authenticity can vary (and it’s likely you’ll come across a fair amount of junk), but there are some stores that are so full of cu­riosi­ties that they feel more like hand­son mu­se­ums than re­tail out­lets. In­tri­cate iron keys, an art nou­veau mir­ror adorned with emer­alds, and a Nazi pass­port were just a few of the things I en­coun­tered dur­ing my visit there.

Rep­utable shops in­clude A La Turca (alaturc­a­, Kayabek (Alti­pat­lar Sokak 19) and Karadeniz An­tik (Firuzaga Ma­hallesi Cukur­cuma, Cad­desi 55). The lat­ter boasts a vast col­lec­tion of gold­framed oil paint­ings, brass busts and glass­ware dat­ing back to the Ot­toman Em­pire. Most good deal­ers will be able to ar­range to ship items back to the US if you do end up fall­ing in love with some­thing too bulky to hand carry.

Mu­seum of In­no­cence

“I think that if mu­se­ums, like nov­els, were to fo­cus more on pri­vate and per­sonal sto­ries, they would be bet­ter able to bring out our col­lec­tive hu­man­ity,”said Turk­ish writer and 2006 Nobel Prize win­ner Orhan Pa­muk in a Newsweek ar­ti­cle, after open­ing the first mu­seum in­spired by a book.

The Mu­seum of In­no­cence was first pub­lished in 2008, and tells the love story of a young cou­ple grow­ing up in 1970s Istanbul. In April 2012, he opened a mu­seum in Curkur­cuma, where each of the 83 dis­play boxes cor­re­sponds to the 83 chap­ters of the book, pre­sent­ing every­day ob­jects that Pa­muk sourced to bring the sto­ry­line of his novel to life.

It’s amaz­ing how well th­ese ob­jects alone re­veal the book’s nar­ra­tive as you walk from one box to the next, so it isn’t nec­es­sary to have read it be­fore your visit (though there are copies avail­able in

the mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tion space, and it’s pos­si­ble to pre-book a place on guided tours for TL5 ($2.40) if you’d like more clar­i­fi­ca­tion about the plot).

The plain crock­ery, sim­ple but­ter­fly­shaped ear­rings and cig­a­rette butts wouldn’t seem to amount to much in any other mu­seum, but their sig­nif­i­cance for the pro­tag­o­nist is re­vealed in the novel, and on their own they paint a sur­pris­ingly vivid pic­ture of the lives be­hind them. Pa­muk cap­tures the way that our sub­con­scious at­taches mem­o­ries and feel­ings to ob­jects, and the ex­hi­bi­tion makes you feel more mind­ful of this in your own life.

With one ex­hibit be­ing a news­pa­per from the 1970s, vis­i­tors also gain in­sight into how the era was a tran­si­tional time for Istanbul, as Western val­ues and ways of liv­ing be­gan to clash with Turk­ish and Is­lamic tra­di­tions.

Open Tues-Sun 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM (9:00 PM on Fri­days). En­try ma­sumiyet­


For a bird’s-eye view of Istanbul, take the el­e­va­tor up the nine-story Galata Tower (you have to walk up the fi­nal two floors) to its 360-de­gree panoramic bal­cony. Erected in 1348, the stone struc­ture stands proudly in the peace­ful cob­bled dis­trict of Galata and, on a clear day, the views across the Golden Horn are well worth the climb.

Galata’s com­pact feel and ro­man­tic charm have at­tracted an in­flux of trendy bou­tiques in re­cent years, with many of them pop­ping up inside cen­tury-old build­ings that were for­merly apart­ment blocks, their iron bal­conies and pat­terned linoleum floors still in­tact. For art­work, home­ware and de­signer cloth­ing, there’s Ate­lier 55 (Ser­dar-i Ekrem Sokak 55; ate­ and Si­may Bul­bul (Sahkulu Bostan Sokak 22) for edgy women’s wear.

Robin­son Cru­soe book­store (Salt Galata, Bankalar Cad­desi 11) is full of Turk­ish tomes trans­lated into English, while Aida Pekin (Ser­dar-i Ekrem 44A; sells ab­stract state­ment jew­elry.

Ad­mis­sion to Galata Tower is TL13 ($6); open daily 9:00 AM – 7:00 PM. BT

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