Bettany Hughes Uncovers Istanbul
Thirty years after her first visit, the historian returns to find hidden treasures in the European Capital of Culture for 2010
Firecrackers and cars do not typically mix. But when one of Istanbul’s football teams wins, the traffic in the city blasts past with supporters waving fireworks from the windows and hurling them joyfully into city squares.
My two daughters, raised in the health- and-safety shackles of 21st-century Europe, were slack-jawed with delight.
It was a little bit of history for them; Ottoman generals would herald the start of a battle with a volley of pyrotechnics, and Istanbul’s sultans supervised their princes’ circumcision as fireworks sparkled over the Golden Horn. The place revels in spectacle, and as the European Capital of Culture it’s promising us a year-long party.
I should come clean. Istanbul is my favourite city. I first visited when I was 18, fell in love and have long wanted to fire my children, Sorrel, 13, and May, 9, with the same enthusiasm. I had dangerously high expectations of our family trip. It was, fortunately, a huge success.
And although it took three hours wandering up and down the backstreets of the Fener district (Istanbul is built on seven hills) to find the 7th-century church of St Mary of the Mongols, with its secret 3km underground tunnel to Haghia Sophia, tears of tiredness were allayed by a poor couple who rushed out to give us the round of bread that they had just made for their supper.
The city’s verve has much to do with its rich, mongrel past. The moustachioed man who clambered down from his crumbling apartment to let us into St Mary’s with its 6in medieval key was an Orthodox-Syrian-Christian from Armenia. The city’s geopolitical layering is compelling: in its time Istanbul has been owned by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Venetians, Neapolitans and Turks.
The Greek colonisers arrived by boat 27 centuries ago — water is a defining feature of the city. It is the teeming, platinum-lit Bosphorus and the brimming waterways — the Golden Horn, Sea of Marmara and Black Sea — that make Stamboul “a diamond between sapphires”, as Osman, founder of the Ottomans, once said. And now that water is yielding new treasures.
Recent excavations of the Marmaray tunnel under the Bosphorus — soon to be the world’s biggest sub-marine structure, linking Asia with Europe — have revealed the harbour dug by Emperor Theodosius, one of Constantinople’s first rulers, and a trove of treasure.
There have been 25,000 finds so far; whole Byzantine wooden boats, medieval rope that looks as though it were made yesterday, exquisite Roman glasses, Greek vases and Persian jewels have been put on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. My children were delighted by the gallery’s smell: some of the wooden exhibits in fetid water have been buried anaerobically for 1,000 years.
Travelling its waterways is still the way to tackle Istanbul. Modern traffic can be tedious, particularly with youngsters in tow, so plan your trip around the flurry of fabulously cheap ferry services; it’s a 90-minute ride to the pleasures of the Black Sea, 55p to travel between Asia and Europe, and about £20 to hire a private water taxi between Sultanahmet and the forest-cradled summer palaces along the Bosphorus to the north of the old city.
At sunset we were picked up by a private boat owned by the boutique Hôtel Les Ottomans. Reclining on cream leather seats with a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, zooming past wooden replicas of traditional sultans’ boats, felt as close as mere mortals get to a Bond lifestyle.
The groovy restaurant at the Sumahan hotel on the Asian shore also collected us by boat. It’s a rare joy when transport is a holiday highlight.If you don’t glide across the water, let it cascade over you in the city’s famous hammams that were once vital hubs for Ottoman women where marriages were arranged and deals done.
At Hôtel Les Ottomans — converted from a waterside mansion, appropriately by a 21st-century businesswoman — locals giggled as hamman experts combined massage and marital advice, before rubbing mango oil in our hair and glazing our skin with honey, brown sugar and lemon.
It was a sensuous experience in a city of sensations, particularly gastronomic. The Grand Bazaar’s fruit and saffron market segues into the tang of freshly frying fish at Eminonu harbour. In the Hôtel Les Ottomans, the Constantinopoli breakfast — so bountiful that it takes two waiters to carry it on silver trays — overflows with honeycomb, clotted cream and puffed sesame breads.
At the Turga restaurant, housed in the Ciragan Palace Hotel, a former summer retreat for the Sultan’s many wives — you can sample a six-hour Ottoman dining experience. “Enjoy every mouthful,” the maître d’ said. “Take it slow.”
On a Friday evening, after a rare opportunity to taste Turkish wine (a shame given that the region has made it for 4,000 years) at the Four Seasons in the shadow of Hagia Sophia, we peered over the freshly excavated layers of a Byzantine palace. Here I filled the girls’ heads with true tales of the Byzantine emperor and empress in purple robes and red buskin boots, sweeping up from hidden passages deep in the palatial complex.
Usually my daughters’ eyes glaze over at my history reveries but, fired by the sugar content of baklavas and the idea of red boots, they lit up at the news that a Byzantine archaeology park opens on the Asian shore next year. History you can scramble over — always a good thing.
Another long-awaited initiative, galvanised by the Capital of Culture 2010 programme, is the Islands Museum, where the heritage of the Princes’ Islands will be preserved. The islands, 45 minutes away by boat, are where troublesome Byzantine princes were once exiled.
Motorised vehicles are not allowed, so children, bikes and horses can roam free. The Islands Foundation is saving the remaining 19th-century homes (many originally owned by Greeks, Armenians or Jews), which are otherwise slipping into dignified decay where they stand.
My youngest measures the success of an overseas trip by the amount of wildlife she can clock; although the mosquitoes were not popular, Istanbul and the Princes’ Islands win hands down — cats everywhere on the European side, dogs on the Asian; jackdaws cracking stolen walnuts at your feet; sparrows as companions for breakfast, lizards at lunch and outsize toads on the steps up to bed.
We finished off the trip in the cool uptown port district of Ortakoy, which hums late into the night. The House Café’s urbane clientele downed mojitos and watched as fish were caught from waters that lap the deck. Above us were the techno-lights of the 20th-century Bosphorus Bridge, below a gently illuminated 18th-century mosque.
A sleek speedboat, heading for a red-carpet fashionista bash, waited patiently while a fisherman bobbing on the Bosphorus took his time to move out of the way.
This is the deep charm of Istanbul; it is exciting, friendly, richly varied and paradoxical. The city has changed immeasurably since my first visit almost 30 years ago, when the Ciragan Palace was a burnt-out ruin, loos were generally holes in the ground, and the Four Seasons Hotel was still an infamous prison.
Now the old really does co-exist with the new. And the arts programme this year reminds us that Istanbul has a gleaming future
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