[Recently rediscovered this account of my first solo travels written in 2005]
So I’m sat in a taxi, hurtling along the road from Atatürk International towards the lights of Istanbul. The driver speaks no English; in fact he’s not even the same driver that I initially got into the taxi with, after a tag-team manoeuvre before leaving the airport. Unburdened by a seat belt he calmly takes the steering wheel in his knees, and lights a cigarette, as we enter a long corner on the ring road that hugs the coast around the Old City. I ask myself why did I decide at a fortnight’s notice to come here to spend the week before Christmas?
Thankfully that was the only time the question came to mind as I spent the next five days exploring one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Having started work in September I needed a break to clear my head from the information overload of the previous four months and found it in the cultural contrast and history of Istanbul. While not ideal weather (freezing with some snow and rain), the lack of tourists helped me see life as it is in Turkey – busy, vibrant and friendly.
I spent the majority of my time in the Old City, parts of which date back over 1,500 years. Whilst the Old City was walkable, the city itself is huge with one in six Turks living there, over 10 million people. The sheer scale of the city was apparent from the top of 60m high Galata Tower north across the river from the Old City. In every direction Istanbul stretches as far as the eye can see, a sea of houses punctuated with the distinctive minaret spires of mosques.
My first port of call was the Aya (Hagia) Sophia, built in 537AD, which was the largest domed building in the world for a thousand years. It’s difficult to describe the sheer presence of the building, the huge sense of scale, like no other building I’ve ever been in. In comparison the famous Blue Mosque beautifully set opposite across a park was underwhelming, gorgeous from the exterior but less spectacular inside. Between the two was the hidden gem of the Old Baths, now a carpet shop, but still a place of calm and tranquillity in a busy city.
I visited at least half a dozen large mosques in my time there and was most impressed with the Süleymaniye Camii, the largest in the city, and one of the few not hemmed by surrounding buildings. At the other end of the scale, the small Rüstem Pasha Mosque, hidden away in the middle of the Spice Bazaar, had the most incredible interior decorated with red tiles.
The home of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, Topkapi Palace was a highlight, demonstrating the scale and wealth of the empire. A large harem complex gave a glimpse of everyday life in the Palace whilst the treasury was almost surreal. I’ve never seen such an excess of gold, emeralds and diamonds along with the curiosity of the severed arm and skull of St. John the Baptist. Reflecting the Muslim culture and power of the empire there was also an impressive collection of items that once belonged to the Prophet Mohammad accompanied by readings from the Koran.
Before I left I had to visit the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered market in the world with over 3,000 shops. A shoppers paradise, though with 58 streets it’s easy to get lost in. I ended up the happy owner of a wooden chess set with mother of pearl inlay and a gorgeous mother of pearl box after practising my bartering skills. I somehow managed to avoid buying a carpet while there despite the best efforts of the numerous relatives of carpet shop owners who gather around the Aya Sophia and Blue Mosque.
After five days there I had grown used to wandering the street of Istanbul, the dawn muezzin calls to prayer emanating from the local mosques and despite the obvious signs of relative poverty, the sense that the city was buzzing and alive. Back in London, in an office surrounded by technology, I feel at home with the creature comforts of western society but miss the vitality of Istanbul.