Straddled by two continents, stamped by East and West, shaped by conquering tribes and centuries of trade, Istanbul’s eclectic majesty stands alone.
Story and Photos by Dario De Santis
Quite often, the most beautiful things that happen to us are surprises in life. I ended up in Istanbul by chance—due to an unexpected air transfer—and almost without having decided it, I stayed here. Love at first sight? No, Istanbul seduced me slowly, like a charming woman who, little by little, shows you something different and more intriguing each time you meet her.
I have been living here for almost a year, yet this city does not cease to amaze and allure me. “It takes more than a lifetime to understand Istanbul,” says my friend Burak, who was born and grew up on the banks of the Bosphorus.
Two centuries ago, I would have arrived in Istanbul by ship. I would have sailed the Aegean Sea and crossed the straits of the Dardanelles—scene of the epic Trojan War—to reach the Sea of Marmara, and set my sights on a horizon dominated by the ravishing silhouette of the old city: a dim succession of domes, minarets, towers and palaces. Now, like then, to the people approaching it from the sea, Istanbul appears as a mirage, a city of ethereal beauty floating on the water.
A century ago, I would have arrived by train, on board the infamous Orient Express—the train immortalized by Agatha Christie that launched from Paris, crossed Central and Eastern Europe, and finished its route here in Istanbul, where West meets East. Istanbul is in fact, nothing but this: a meeting point, sometimes a clashing point, between civilizations and worlds, a city whose destiny as a crossroads of culture is determined by its uncanny location: lying smack on the Bosphorus Strait, a waterway that literally connects Europe to Asia.
The famed train has ceased to operate, but in Istanbul we can still admire its endpoint, the Sirkeci Railway Station, one of the best examples anywhere of European Oriental architecture. In 2012, I got here by airplane, absolutely not an epic journey. Nevertheless, the ride from Sabiha Gökçen airport (the second and further airport in Istanbul) to the city centre does not fail to impress. The West has a vague and stereotyped picture of this city, I think. In our imagination (I am Italian) Istanbul evokes images of mosques, sultans, carpets, hamams (Turkish bathhouses), hookah, fez and turbans: images that can be found on late 19th-century postcards of the city once known as Constantinople.
After five minutes on the bus, we can put these faded postcards back in the drawer. The ride from the airport to the city centre is a succession of illuminated boulevards, skyscrapers, shopping malls and endless stretches of buildings and concrete. You cross the Bosphorus Bridge, and in those moments, while you wonder when the bridge ends—and where, suspended in midair, you’ve come to a point on the planet that straddles two continents—the view fills your eyes and at once you understand Istanbul is not a city like others: it is indelibly, incredibly unique.
The View From My Balcony
Once you reach Taksim Square, you can rid yourself of what you thought you knew of Istanbul. The square is the beating heart of a modern and ever-growing city. The noise of the traffic, the voices of the crowd, the glow from the signs of the restaurants (American fast food chains are not missing either!), the nightclubs, the shops: as you step off the bus a multitude of impressions sweeps you away.
In the middle of the square stands a notable sculpture, the Monument of the Republic, which portrays the heroes of the War of Independence (1919–1923). Standing out among all the characters is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, military man and politician, who is considered the founder of modern Turkey, and whose figure is ever-present here.
From Taksim Square radiates the famed Independence Avenue, or İstiklâl Caddesi, a mostly pedestrian street three kilometres in length that crosses Beyog˘lu, the modern part of the city on the European side, and goes to the old quarter of Galata. Walking towards İstiklâl, the first monument one notices is not a mosque but an imposing Greek-Orthodox church, Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity), whose huge dome and twin steeples jut out above the other buildings.
It’s a small wonder, since we are in the most cosmopolitan part of Istanbul. For centuries trade and business have flourished in this area, drawing merchants from all over the world.
Venetians, Genoese, Greeks, Hebrews, Armenians, Turks and many others have lived together (almost always) peacefully in this district, leaving an incredibly rich multicultural legacy. Seeing mosques, churches and synagogues within easy reach of each other is not hard in Beyog˘lu.
Speaking of this, from my flat I hear both the call to prayer from a nearby mosque (five times a day!), and the bells of the nearby Church of St. Anthony of Padua, a beautiful red-brick building in neo-Gothic style. Foreign diplomats and the upper class built embassies here in Pera (the former name of the neighborhood)—though when the Turkish capital became Ankara they were turned into consulates. And with that came shops, cinemas, clubs and wonderful buildings of various architectural styles—baroque, rococo, neoclassical, neo-Gothic—making this once the most fashionable district of the city. This is still partly true, and it is no accident that most foreign residents, including me, choose to live here.
My flat is in an old building, which despite being a bit unkempt, has retained its charm and is centrally located. The balcony overlooks a big patch of grass—Istanbul has plenty of these little secret gardens—and from here I have a nice view of the neighbouring houses and of the Galata Tower, one of the landmarks of the city. Out of the main door, looking on the right, I see the Golden Horn, the natural inlet of the Bosphorus Strait, and on the opposite shore, on the top of a green promontory, Topkapı Palace, which for almost 400 years was the residence of the Ottoman sultans.
Given my passion for history, I get shivers when I think of how that palace, which I stare at now, was, for centuries, the most important power centre in the world. Indeed, Istanbul really is a mecca for history lovers. A ruin, a half-faded inscription, an old fountain, a tomb: wherever you cast your glance, you find evidence of a remote, glorious past.
Just a short walk from my home, just up a steep slope, is İstiklâl. It is said more than a million people walk the boulevard every day—and it’s not hard to believe, considering Istanbul is a megalopolis with more than 15 million inhabitants. At the corner between the slope and İstiklâl rises Galatasaray Lisesi, one of the oldest high schools in Turkey, whose huge green iron doors serve as a meeting place for students, and where demonstrations can happen.
In the small square in front of the school, there’s a stop for the Nostalgic Tram, another unique symbol of this city. A picturesque heritage trolley that tourists love to take photos of, and on which cheeky kids like to climb. I’ve never taken it as it’s always packed and quite slow, but I’ve promised myself I will, if even just once.
İstiklâl is the most commercial street in all Istanbul. Here one can find everything: shopping malls, stores, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, tea rooms, bookshops, art galleries, street peddlers, nightclubs and more. In fact, it’s the main meeting ground for Istanbul’s robust night life, with tourists and locals flocking to the numerous bars and restaurants that dot and define the neighbourhood.
Some evenings, when I feel a bit down, I go for a stroll around here. I let myself be dazzled by the noises, the lights, the colours that pervade the streets; I breathe the fizzy air, and in a few minutes feel more alive than ever.
I have a love-hate relationship with this street. Sometimes it gives me a feeling of excitement to merge with the crowd, to plunge myself into the flood of people and be carried off in one direction. On the other hand, it’s a nightmare on my way to work, when I have to force my way through masses of people and the noise is deafening.
A distinctive peculiarity of the street are the many passageways that lead off of it. Some are impersonal shopping galleries, but others contain special surprises. Two “hidden” passageways should not be missed: Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage), a former 19th-century theatre converted into an elegant gallery that hosts posh cafes and restaurants; and Hazzo Pulo Pasajı, a gangway connected to a broad courtyard full of book sellers, vintage shops and tea rooms packed with students.
I like coming here on a Saturday morning, when I’ll browse through handicrafts, leaf through yellowed books in different languages, and sip tea under the shade of a tree, with the background of the chattering and laughter of youth.
In these moments I feel transported into another dimension, far away from the fuss of the metropolis. Walking down İstiklâl and continuing straight, you enter the heart of the historical district of Galata. Once here the crowd diminishes, the streets narrow, and the buildings become ancient and decadent, creating a fascinating and intimate atmosphere. The shopping malls and stores of international brands give way to small shops of souvenirs, handmade items, alternative clothing and musical instruments.
I love this area of Galata—it has a more human touch than İstiklâl. While walking, I look fleetingly at the shop windows and am ravished by all those instruments waiting for their turn to come alive. Usually I take a break to buy fresh fruit juice from one of many vitamin bars. I have a short chat with the shop assistant, who, misled by my Mediterranean features, believes I’m Turkish, whereas I am a yabanci, or foreigner.
At some point, the road leads onto a large square, where in all its stateliness rises the Galata Tower. Erected in 1348 by the Genoese on the site of a pre-existing wooden lighthouse, it’s one of the oldest towers in the world, and was part of a magnificent fortress when the Maritime Republic of Genoa ruled the Bosphorus. To this day, walking in the alleys around the tower, one comes across the ruins of the walls of the fort. It’s really worth climbing to the top just to enjoy the superb 360-degree panorama of the city.
From the hill of Galata you can either walk down the slope or take the Tünel. Though a short ride, it’s the second oldest underground urban line in the world. Either way, you will get to the Galata Bridge that connects Beyog˘lu with Sultanahmet, the historical peninsula of Istanbul.
This vast triangle of earth, surrounded on three sides by water—the Sea of Marmara to the south, the Golden Horn to the north, the Bosphorus to the east—was the site where much of the rich and complex history took place that defined Byzantium, Constantinople, and now Istanbul: three names for a city of many souls reincarnated in the great empires that choose it as their capital.
Crossing the Galata Bridge stirs one’s emotions. A colourful swarm of fishermen occupy both railings of the bridge at any time of the day. While waiting for the fish to bite, they chat, listen to the radio, smoke and sip tea. From here one can enjoy some of the best views of the city: on the left, in the distance, we glimpse the long Asian coast of Üsküdar and Kadıköy; on the right, we can see the natural harbour of the Golden Horn, named for the golden hue that spreads across its placid waters at sunset—or for the gold and riches that came aboard ships in ancient times!
In front of us, in the great square at the end of the bridge, stands the magnificent New Mosque, flanked by the wonderful market that is the Spice Bazaar. Scattered on the hills of the city, you can admire the magnificent historic mosques of Istanbul that clearly dominate the view. And finally, lying on the leafy spur at the end of the peninsula, there is the unmistakable profile of the Topkapı Palace, marked by dozens of domes, chimneys and turrets.
It is precisely in the district of Sultanahmet where the magic of Istanbul is revealed. Wandering in the streets of the ancient city, I am left with an impression that history can come to life; and, at certain moments, I get an indescribable sensation of how my own life too, flows through its continuum.
Every step I take, every time I look around, I’m captivated by the passage of centuries. Yet it’s a short-lived feeling which only lasts for a few unrepeatable moments, mainly because when I seem to get closer to the essence of time and history, its imponderable weight engulfs me in a kind of avalanche, a gigantic wave, and suddenly I find myself back in the present, with a stare lost in space.
From Greek to Roman to Ottoman Empire
After all, Istanbul has a history hard to find in any other city. Founded in 667 BC by explorers from the Greek city-state of Megara, its first incarnation was the colony of Byzantion—later called Byzantium—in honour of the expedition’s leader, Byzas.
Legend has it that the Oracle of Delphi told Byzas where to establish a new city—“before the blind” was her prophecy. Interpreting her words, Byzas founded the city on the peninsula where the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus Strait intersect, and included an acropolis on a promontory of impregnable, defensive value that had inexplicably been ignored by the inhabitants of Chalcedon (hence they were “blind”), the latter preferring the opposite bank of the strait.
Today, more than 2,500 years after the landing of Byzas, on the same promontory, built upon layers of Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins, stands the magnificent Topkapı Palace. It is a huge architectural construction, divided into four courtyards linked by massive doors. In this vast space surrounded by walls arise wonderful stalls, gardens, libraries, schools, mosques and terraces. It was truly a citadel in which unfolded the life of the court. While visiting the palace, one gets an idea of the splendour in which the Ottoman sultans lived, and how great their wealth and power really were.
My favourite part of the palace is the Hall of the Circumcision, where there’s a beautiful balcony with an extraordinary view of the city at exactly the point where the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea intersect. Seemingly, during the month of Ramadan, at sunset, the sultan came here to eat three dates, the traditional food that, according to Islamic ritual, breaks the fast.
My visit to “the harem”—the private quarters of the Ottoman sultan and his family—stirs me, leaves me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I remain entranced by the beauty of these rooms, decorated and furnished with fine taste and the finest materials; on the other hand, it sparks a sadness to see these magnificent spaces, which remind me of consumed loves, tragedies, and entire lives, now empty, drained of their vital breath. The women who lived here led noble lives: practicing arts, studying and raising children, they were served and revered—even though they could not leave the harem, and had to share their husbands (the sultan) with concubines.
Little evidence preserved from the Greek city of Byzantium remains today in the Archaeological Museum, certainly one of the most important of its kind in the world. I often visit the museum, which being ignored by mass tourism is immersed in utter serenity. Within the elegant neoclassical building are more than a million preserved artifacts, mainly from the Anatolia region of eastern Turkey and the Middle East.
I come here to admire two major works: the tomb of Alexander the Great, so called because of its outstanding bas-relief carvings of the Macedonian king; and the stunning lions, dragons and aurochs, made of rows of glazed bricks, which adorn the Ishtar Gate and the “Processional Way” of Babylon—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
After the museum I usually continue to walk in the green surroundings of Gülhane, a pretty, well-attended park. In the past, the park was part of the adjacent Topkapı Palace—it’s almost entirely surrounded by its walls. Peering into the foliage, you can spot parrots—and you’re not daydreaming: the parrots are the remnants of a zoo here until just a few years ago.
If almost nothing survived from the Greek acropolis, certainly many monuments from the Roman era have. Constantine the Great proffered the city a glorious destiny, when in AD 330 he proclaimed it the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire after he conquered it for the Romans. Byzantium was subsequently renamed Nova Roma, then shortly afterwards changed to the rather eloquent and lyrical Constantinople. Expanded to occupy seven surrounding hills, the city’s parameters grew expansively under Constantine, who along with his successors, went on to embellish it with magnificent masterpieces, whose beauty is undimmed by age. While the Western Roman Empire crumbled in central Europe, its eastern counterpart persevered in Constantinople for more than a thousand years, though it is referred to by historians as the Byzantine Empire during this time.
The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
The most famous and most visited area of all Istanbul is definitely where the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are located. Here, the density of tourists per square metre is high! It’s advisable to visit this part of the city during the week, and at less busy hours such as early morning or late afternoon. I prefer to go at nightfall, when the crowds have gone. The best observation point is the park of Sultanahmet, where you can admire the two incredible wonders simultaneously. The multifaceted soul of Istanbul is embodied here, where the meeting of civilizations has given rise to what I view as some of the greatest masterpieces of humanity.
Hagia Sophia—the Church of the Divine Wisdom was its original name—was, for centuries, the largest religious building in the world. The building we see at present (it is now a museum) dates back to the sixth century AD, and was built by Emperor Justinian I on the ruins of two earlier versions of the temple.
Quality materials sourced from all over the empire, and the best technology and knowledge of the time, were used to construct it. Hagia Sophia was so glorious—its dome was an engineering feat of its day—it became the archetype for Byzantine architecture, and above all for Ottoman structural design.
Legend has it that when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, at his first sighting of the church, Sultan Mehmet II knelt down and sprinkled his head with dirt as a sign of humility. Captivated by such greatness and perfection, Mehmet refrained from demolishing it—not, unfortunately, the Ottoman destiny of other Roman and Byzantine monuments in Istanbul.
Mehmet converted the church into a mosque, overseeing numerous revisions to the temple to make it suitable for Islamic worship. Finally, after 916 years as a church, then 482 as a mosque, Hagia Sophia opened as a museum in 1935, after Turkey became a secular republic. Today, it is the ultimate example of Byzantine architecture, and an extraordinary symbol of religious syncretism.
Its interior is simply astonishing. I will never forget what I felt the first time I saw it. Entering the nave, I was overwhelmed by the immensity of space. The words uttered by Justinian, when for the first time he entered it, came immediately to mind: “Oh Solomon, I have surpassed you!” I was enraptured by the harmony of its proportions and the richness of its detail. I was surrounded by hundreds of columns, windows, arches, mosaics, frescos, domes and chandeliers—and all these were masterfully blended into one harmonious whole.
That solemn atmosphere inspired deference, and I walked slowly, not touching anything, as if my presence could infringe on the sacredness of the place. Under the dome, so huge yet so light that it seemed to be levitating over the walls, I felt tiny and imperfect. I remember the heavenly-like vision of light streaming in from the windows reflected in golden mosaics that just seemed to illuminate everything. Every time I see Hagia Sofia it renders me speechless, as I ponder how I am standing in front of a 1,500-year-old masterpiece completed in less than six years. Truly a beauty without time!
“To really feel this city, one must explore it far and wide, venturing where no one speaks English, where crowds don’t stray”
About 200 metres away, separated by a small garden with a fountain, rises the magnificent Blue Mosque, which Sultan Ahmet had built in the 17th century to rival its Byzantine counterpart in beauty. (In fact, Sultan Ahmet’s Mosque is its official name.) It’s both hard and pointless trying to surmise if the sultan achieved his aim. In any case, we stand before one of the masterpieces of Ottoman architecture, and quite possibly of all humanity.
The exterior of the Blue Mosque emits a sight of incomparable elegance, with its minarets and its domes standing high in the sky as if they are about to leave the ground. To fully appreciate its perfection, it is better to approach the mosque from the main entrance of the courtyard, on the side of the hippodrome. Here, you can admire a harmonious cascade of domes and semi-domes that capture your sight and lead it, like an imaginary stairway, toward an infinite blue.
The interior is decorated with tens of thousands of Iznik tiles (the finest of the time), now in all shades of blue. Through its numerous stained glass windows, a suffused light, almost mystic, peeps in. The atmosphere is different from Hagia Sophia: less solemn, and great, but more bewitching and serene.
Again, I love to come here at nightfall, when the crowds have left and there are just a few passersby remaining. I walk through the nearby ancient Roman hippodrome—the outdoor square where centuries ago chariots raced to the thrill of spectators. As I walk, I look at three ancient monuments aligned upon its spine: the Egyptian Obelisk (dating to an incredible 5,000 BC!), the Serpentine Column (from the Oracle of Delphi), and the Obelisk of Constantine VII.
These are the only pieces that have survived among the many that once decorated the racecourse. They were built during ancient times and in remote places and carried here. For thousands of years they have witnessed the succession of sun and moon, seasons, times and peoples; and survived the ravages of weather, riots, sieges, wars and looting—yet still are here to be contemplated.
Immersed in these thoughts, a shiver runs through me—I am convinced these statues have a mystical power we do not understand.
I sit on a bench and wait for day to yield to night. As I look at the sky I see colours transform into an infinite scale of shades, and observe seagulls drawing inscrutable paths between the domes and minarets of the mosques, which are now magnificently illuminated by artificial light. Another day in Istanbul has gone by, and added itself to the thousands of years that have already passed.
Come With Me to Istanbul
Not so far from Hagia Sophia, in the bowels of the earth, a unique place is hidden: the Basilica Cistern. An enormous subterranean cave supported by hundreds of columns, it was built during the Roman era to supply the city with water.
The dim light reflected in the still water, along with the hint of moisture permeating the air and the maze of columns, make this place magical. In one corner of the reservoir sits two columns which display, upside down, the carved head of Medusa, the mythological being with the petrifying stare that turns one into stone—indeed, they are hypnotic. The Turkish name of the cistern conveys its own evocative power: Yerebatan Sarayı, the Sunken Palace.
Most travellers, due to lack of time or information, tend to limit their visits to these sights of Istanbul, with the addition of a short hike to the Grand Bazaar, an endless maze of galleries where more than 3,000 shops are housed. Inside, all kinds of traditional and modern products are sold: souvenirs, spices, bags, clothes, carpets, jewellery, lamps, ceramics, dishes, and more. Even if you’re not a shopping addict, the place should be visited for the folklore it offers, for the thousands of shapes, lights, smells and sounds that mix together. And I can guarantee that even during a five-minute walk through the bazaar, you will hear more languages than you ever have in your life: it is a real Babel!
To whom has more time, Istanbul offers much more. One of my favourites is still the Süleymaniye Mosque, the largest in the city, because it’s located in a more authentic part of Istanbul, on top of one of its hills. Here you find no crowds, and the building is wrapped in a quiet aura—something difficult to find in Istanbul!
This is the perfect place to attend a Muslim prayer. Come at the right time, ahead of the prayer. Pass through the entry arch into a large courtyard, but do not go directly inside the mosque. Explore, instead, the grassy courtyard, and visit the tombs of Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and his wife Roxelana. Then head to the terrace for one of the most beautiful views of Istanbul: stretching from the Golden Horn to the Asian coast, from the ancient city to the Bosphorus Strait, and flying over the bridge and the Galata Tower.
Take time to observe the life teeming beneath you; then follow in the wake of the numerous ships that cross the strait. At one point, you will hear the call to prayer. It is a delightful moment, because from this height it seems that the voice of the muezzin is rising above the sky, reaching for God. From the great mosque, the singing spreads all around, and the mosques below seem to respond to the call, singing in their turn.
In the immediate vicinity of the mosque is Süleymaniye Hamamı, the Turkish bath of Suleiman. Designed 450 years ago by the greatest Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, it’s one of the few historical hamams still in operation. One of the managers is my dear friend Ayhan, an affable and likeable guy, who chats and jokes with all the travellers who come here.
Ayhan always greets me the Turkish way, by touching our temples on both sides. He makes me sit in the beautiful wooden hall decorated in the Ottoman style. While we drink tea and smoke the nargile (local hookah), sitting comfortably on pillows, we discuss cultural differences—the ones between Turkey and Italy and the rest of the world. He tells me the latest and most entertaining anecdotes, and of course we talk a lot about football, for which the Turks have a boundless passion.
I often take advantage of the hamam’s facilities myself. Lying on the same slab of warm marble that the sultan once did, all my worries seem to vanish into the air like the steam that rises from the floor and eventually evaporates. After a Turkish bath and invigorating massage, I feel purified in spirit and body, and am ready to face the world with renewed energy.
After all I have written it still seems as if I have described only a small part of this city I now call home, this city I have come to adore. Yes, I have omitted so many things!
I should tell you about the popular district of Fatih, where Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople, lies; and about the Fener and Balat neighborhoods, the historic Greek and Jewish districts of the city, where the narrow streets are lined with ramshackle houses painted in bright colours, and where there are more churches and synagogues than mosques.
I should tell you of the Chora Church, where the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics are found; and of the Eyüp Mosque, the fourth holiest place of Islam, which is right here in Istanbul. And I should like to say a little of the hill of Pierre Loti, with its charming cafes and breathtaking views of the Golden Horn; and maybe, too, the Tower of Meander, which watches over the city.
I have omitted the wonderful Dolmabahce Palace, the last residence of the sultans, and the massive walls (six kilometres long!) that Emperor Theodosius built to protect Constantinople for a thousand years. And I ran out of space to write about what’s commonly referred to as “the Asian side” of Istanbul—across the banks of the Bosphorus, which is lovely and authentic and genuine. And, oh dear…what of the culture, the festivals, the food? Next time, perhaps.
The most charming trait of Istanbul, its quintessence I would say, is its capacity to encompass and juxtapose opposites into a unique whole. Istanbul is a city of contrasts, where East and West, old and new, tradition and innovation, religion and secularism, wealth and poverty, are continuously blending into and facing each other.
To really feel this city, one must explore it far and wide, venturing where no one speaks English, where crowds don’t stray. On my days off, I leave the house in the morning and start walking aimlessly, without a map to guide me, following streets that I do not know.
My mission is to try to go where I have not been before. I walk for hours, usually until sunset, and sometimes beyond. And when I get lost, I realize I have found something else: perhaps another part of Istanbul that I hadn’t seen before, or maybe even an aspect of myself that I did not previously know. **