Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities. It has these wonderful rolling hills, the massive blues of the Bosporus strait, and an incredible amount of history. There are numerous sprawling palaces and intricate mosques all over the city. Moreover, as far as I know, it’s the only city to straddle two continents: Europe and Asia. Now I should add that there is a lot in Istanbul, both modern and old. I’m going to talk about the older things, given my reading so far. But it just means that I have to read more about Istanbul and modern-day Turkey.
I think one book that helps to evoke old Istanbul is Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree. It’s a mystery that takes place during the Ottoman Empire in the mid 19th century. Inspector Yassim is a eunuch who has connections all over Istanbul, including with the sultan. He is set out to solve various murders that implicate the state. His closest friend is the stateless Polish ambassador who has no country to represent and is only kept on by the Ottoman state to thumb their noses at the Russians. It depicts a colorful, enchanting world in Istanbul in the mid-19th century.
It brings back the past while wandering around Sultanahmet, or Old Istanbul. There is the Blue Mosque, which honestly is one of my favorite buildings in the world. It is a pale, almost gray-blue with six minarets and eight domes. Every time I see it, it takes my breath away. Across a precisely laid out garden with fountains, there is pale pink Hagia Sofia, the former church turned mosque turned museum. If you can, you must try one of the rooftop restaurants where you can see both at the same time. Plus you’ll get a view of the Bosporus and appreciate the industry of all the boats passing by at all times of the day.
My first impression of Turkey was constant music. The hotel we stayed at had a garden with a flute player. There was a café nearby with Dervish dancers. And the call to prayer is absolutely beautiful. This impression of constant music may only hold up in the old quarter but I never forget it while I’m there.
Nearby there is also Topkapi Palace, an important place in the books. My parents liked to imagine which of the trees in the courtyard outside the museum that was the Janissary Tree. The palace is so different from the palaces that I associate in Europe. The palace is composed of interconnected buildings with large courtyards in between. All the gardens are simply lovely. You can tour the harem that has brilliantly tiled walls and intricate window installations. There is the treasure room where you can see the famous emerald dagger, so coveted in the 1964 heist movie Topkapi. If you walk to the far end of the Palace, there is a little restaurant that faces the water and the rest of the city. It’s truly spectacular.
And if you are in Old Istanbul, you have to check out the bustle of the Grand Bazaar. Many souvenirs are sold there but if you want gold jewelry, rugs, and more, you can find it there. Or you can go to the Spice market to get the olfactory experience.
There is another text that I cannot fail to mention when I think of Istanbul. I have to talk about Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Yes, the book really only focuses on the trip itself, it’s not so much about the final destination of Istanbul. But trains were a very common way to travel back in the day, like planes are now. You get a sense of what it was like, even peripherally. Moreover, you get a sense of how luxurious those trains are. Years ago, the British Museum had an exhibition about Agatha Christie and her adventures. She traveled extensively and had a fascination with archeology. Her second husband was actually an archeologist. Anyway, part of the exhibition included either a recreation or an actual car from the Orient Express outside the Museum. It was the definition of luxury. Lalique made the glass fittings. It was sleek and shiny. I wanted to travel on it really badly.
To return to Istanbul, one of the neat things is that you can see the final destination of the Orient Express. The station is still there and still used. It’s very pink and ornate. It’s not exactly number 1 on the tourist guide but it’s worth a peek if you are a fan of the Orient Express and/or Agatha Christie. There is a one-room museum about the train with menus and other artifacts but it’s left a bit to be desired.
Moreover, if you are an Agatha Christie fan, you can go check out the Pera Palace if the construction is done. (We’ve gone several times and it was still under construction). It’s in Pera, which was a more modern part of the city and was very popular with the ex-patriot community. When we went successfully, we had a lovely tea in their café. It had that 1920s charm. I would love to stay there some day. Allegedly, there is a mystery involving Agatha Christie there. She apparently disappeared for several days there with no explanation. After a few days, she suddenly reappeared and acted as if nothing was amiss.
Anyway, if you have a chance, read these books to get a sense of these bygone eras. And by all means, go to Istanbul. You won’t regret it.