Great Escapes: Istanbul

Explore a two-continent city with two sides to every story.

By Scott Vogel May 31, 2015 Published in the June 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Sultanahmet Mosque, often called the Blue Mosque

Image: Shutterstock

“I have heard it is very fine,” says Hercule Poirot in the first chapter of Murder on the Orient Express, referring to the Hagia Sophia, a Christian church built for the Emperor Justinian in the year 537, converted to an imperial mosque when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, and finally turned into a museum by Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s reform-minded first president, in 1935. Poirot never makes it to the Hagia Sophia, as any Agatha Christie fan can tell you, his plans for an Istanbul holiday derailed by an urgent telegram. But Christie herself did. Indeed, she loved the place, so much so that when the famed mystery writer—with sales eclipsed only by the Bible and Shakespeare—suddenly went missing in 1926, only two explanations suggested themselves to authorities: she was either in Istanbul or dead, most likely murdered. 

The second theory was debunked when Christie turned up alive and unscathed 11 days later, but the first was never confirmed either. All we know is that Christie’s disappearance was triggered by a huge fight with her husband Archie during which he told her that he was in love with another woman. After that, he promptly left for an illicit weekend with his mistress, and Agatha went out for a drive. The next morning her car was found abandoned, its interior suggesting evidence of a struggle, thus triggering the alarm. 

Having always assumed that Christie was a dowdy square like her Miss Marple, I was quite impressed by this biographical footnote. Not only did Christie’s characters possess shadow sides, I realized, she did too. And one trip to the city she loved is all it takes to understand her fascination with the multi-sided metropolis, the only city straddling two continents, as the guidebooks never tire of reminding you. In Istanbul, there is never just one side to anything.

We had only been in the air an hour when the cabin lights brightened, indicating that dinner on Turkish Airlines flight 34 was imminent, but I was already dozing. Normally an airborne insomniac, I had been practicing the Turkish expression for thank you—tesekkür ederim—over and over to myself, which looks hard to say until you realize it sounds exactly like tea, sugar and dream. Another note: saying tea, sugar and dream over and over to yourself has a sleep-inducing effect those Lunesta butterflies can only dream of. 

I was still bleary-eyed when the first of several carts presented themselves, each with a larger variety of à la carte items than the one before. Unaccustomed to such a bounty, I dined on five appetizers and three desserts (the exact same combination, by the way, I once witnessed Oprah eat from a distance years ago in Manhattan.) Surveying my Turkish plane from fore to aft, it seemed to me that the airline’s Business Class is like First Class elsewhere, Economy is like Business Class, and everybody lands in Istanbul the better for it. 

My first glimpses were of a rainy and chilly city during the evening rush hour. As the sun set and I took a subway and then a tram to the Old City with its many civilizationally important sights, I heard singing that sounded like it was coming from the other end of the car. But then the train stopped, the doors opened, the singing grew louder and I realized I was the only one on the train who had forgotten he was in a Muslim country. Of all the mysterious and haunting things I would see in Istanbul, the call to prayer was the most beautiful, and I felt envious of the smartly dressed, exhausted Istanbulites exiting the train. How nice it must be for a city to sing you home from work, I thought. 

“You want Turkish tea or apple tea?” asked a smiling clerk at the Hotel Sultania when I arrived soaked and shivering. Apple, I said, settling into a seat at the desk opposite his, cupping my hands around the fragrant brew for warmth. “We have 42 rooms,” he said in thickly accented but perfect English. “Each one is about one of the sultan’s wives.” Down I went to a warmly lit hallway of pointed arches to #1011, opening the door on more pointed arches and a cozy two-room suite with an oil painting of Hürrem Sultan—arguably the greatest of all the wives—over the bed, on which sat a bowl of gummy cubes of pistachio-flecked candy, the city’s ubiquitous Turkish delights. And beside that was a message from Hürrem herself, one in which she made her intentions clear:

My Sultan! You are my re-wounded hearts balm. I would fly with the burnt offering one hundred thousand times that you are my heavens bud.

Okay, maybe clear isn’t the word, but no matter. I needed no introduction to Hürrem, who was after all one of the greatest women in Ottoman history and, more to the point, the star of Magnificent Century, a nighttime soap opera and costume drama to which I have become thoroughly addicted. I am not alone. Each week, hundreds of millions of viewers in dozens of countries tune in to watch the 16th-century exploits of Roxelana the slave girl—as Hürrem was known in the days before she became the favorite concubine and then the wife of Sultan Süleyman. I had always known Roxelana in the way she is depicted in official histories, as a reckless parvenu who would stop at nothing to get her sons on the throne. Thanks to Magnificent Century, however, which gives her machinations a what-I-did-for-love cast, I became newly impressed. For me, Roxelana was nothing less than Agatha Christie in reverse. 

The popularity of things like Magnificent Century—it’s one of the biggest hits in Turkish TV history—along with the 5-year-old Hotel Sultania (ranked 7th of 977 Istanbul hotels on TripAdvisor) are to some extent attributable to the country’s present Ottomania—that is, affection for the 600-plus years of empire that lasted until 1922. This cultural bent, a recent phenomenon, has stirred comment but also alarm, from both Turks and others. One indisputably positive legacy is the popularity of restaurants like Asitane, which serves only modern recreations of dishes eaten by the sultans, several of which only survive, by the way, thanks to recovered menus from a 1539 circumcision party thrown in honor of Süleyman’s sons. It’s them we have to thank for Asitane’s soul-stirring almond soup with nutmeg, and mahmudiyye—chicken poached with apricots and raisins in a stew. It’s a meal fit for a bris and then some.

The Spice Bazaar

Image: Rob van Esch

Another of Ottomania’s upsides: fewer structures from the period live in fear of the wrecking ball. Government buildings especially have been renovated and repurposed, none more dramatically than the Sultanahmet Jail, a 1918 structure whose transformation into a luxury hotel is, yes, impressive, but also improbable. Sadly, I was sentenced to just two nights at the former minimum-security facility, which has accomplished its Christie/Roxelana-type makeover on Tevkifhane (“House of Detention”) Street, its prison walls now painted saffron, as befits its new incarnation—a handsomely intimate Four Seasons. Needless to say, I would have preferred they lock me up and throw away the key, as the atmosphere at the 65-room hotel couldn’t be any more different from the days when jailers packed 2,000 pickpockets, burglars and prostitutes 12 to a cell (although there was that one woman who kept eyeing me in the lounge). 

The inmates’ exercise yard is now a lushly landscaped courtyard, and it’s doubtful that any of Sultanahmet’s former residents ever sipped gin-and-tonics while enjoying a view of the Hagia Sophia from the roof terrace that M. Poirot would have found very fine indeed. But metal grillwork still covers the windows, and the marble pillars and inlaid floor tiles are original, while the long and lonely hallways teem with ghosts of inmates past. 

In addition to common criminals, Sultanahmet Jail also played host to some of 20th-century Turkey’s finest writers and intellectuals, journalists and dissidents, usually when they dared to defy the ruling party. Times change, of course, except when they don’t. In 2013, there were more journalists in Turkish jails than any other country on earth, which is interesting, as most Turks date the present climate of repression to the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is also the country’s chief Ottomaniac. A former mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan served as Turkey’s prime minister for 12 years before term limits threatened to end his tenure (the longest in the country’s history), at which point Erdogan promptly ran for the presidency last summer and won. 

Just as devoted to turning the country into a religious state as Atatürk—the iconic founder of modern Turkey—was to secularism, Erdogan seems, at least in the popular imagination, to be hell-bent on rolling back most of his predecessor’s reforms. Where Atatürk banned headscarves from the streets, Erdogan supports them—his wife even wears one. Where Atatürk once abolished Arabic script, substituting an alphabet similar to our own and catapulting the country into the modern world, Erdogan is on a mission to make Ottoman Turkish instruction compulsory in the schools. And then there’s the new home Erdogan moved into last year, a three-million-square-foot, 1,000-room palace that’s four times the size of Versailles. Small wonder political foes have dubbed him the new sultan.

Erdogan’s palace, the largest of its kind in the world, serves as a convenient reminder that architecture has always been a key weapon in the battle for Turkey’s soul. There are passionate defenders of Taksim Square, with its scenes of protest and demonstration, as well as the boutique-lined pedestrian artery that feeds into it, Istiklal Street. And then of course there are the Ottomaniacs, whose touchstones are the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, well-attended tourist sites both.

Curiously, no one seems to want to argue that Turkey’s soul might be located in an even more ancient past, in the Hagia Sophia, where Christian iconography—mosaics of Jesus and Mary that the Ottomans found too impressive to destroy—sit not far from the tombs of sultans. Or in the 6th-century Basilica Cistern nearby, an underground receptacle with a capacity of more than 20 million gallons of water. The solemnity of this softly lit man-made cavern fed by aqueducts, which sits just 50 steps below street level, is not to be believed. In its supporting columns, which appear to have been recycled from other buildings far from the cistern, there is evidence of even older civilizations, with at least two massive Medusa pedestals dating from the Roman period. They too are part of the country’s soul. 

“Sit there!” commanded the masseuse, a small man wearing an even smaller red towel, his patience with my Turkish language skills having reached its limit. “Wait!” 

I squinted through the steam at the dozen other men at Firuz Aga, already dizzy from the heat and fetid smell, then sank slowly onto a marble bench and commenced dousing myself with cold water from an adjacent basin. I’d wanted to find a bathhouse that didn’t cater to tourists, and was paying the price.

“He’s saying he’s not ready for you,” came a voice out of the steam, an Australian voice. “He has to get the bubbles.” It emerged that the Australian had gone to Firuz Aga to avoid tourists too, and later that he’d lived in Istanbul for two years and worked in international banking. Soon, the conversation turned, as it inevitably does these days, to the subject of which direction Turkey is headed in. “It’s a crime to insult the president, apparently,” said the man wryly, referring to the 16-year-old boy who was arrested briefly last December after he’d referred to Erdogan as “the thieving owner of the illegal palace” at a student rally. I asked him—

—“You! Now!” shouted the little man, motioning for me to remove my towel and lie face down on a marble slab in the middle of the room. I expected the vigorous scrubbing I’d been warned about by every tourist from Rick Steves on down. Still, I could have sworn this was personal. The man scraped every inch of me with what felt like a Chore Boy, punched my back, slapped my ass and covered me in suds. Suddenly an image appeared in my head, an image of me lying naked and covered in bubbles in a roomful of strange men. I felt myself retreating to that tiny inward place reserved for just such moments. 

Galata Tower

Image: Shutterstock

“I don’t think I will be able to live here in 10 years,” said Kerem with melancholy resignation. A part-time guide for Culinary Backstreets, a company known for its spectacular walking food tours, the young man had spent the better part of a day leading a small group of us to cafés, where I sampled böregi—cheese and lamb pastries that melted in the mouth—savored clotted cream and honey on bread and was fascinated by a sweet custard thickened with chicken breast. Then we’d sailed with Kerem across the Bosporus to the Asian side of the city, to the Üsküdar district and its merchants selling great hunks of halvah and olives in barrels. We’d eaten lamb’s heart in a butcher shop and fried horse mackeral in a tiny café, warmed ourselves with cups of milky salep, tried pine honey, chestnut honey, wildflower honey. I couldn’t imagine a finer food tour in the world. Kerem was smart, funny and deeply proud of his country’s culinary heritage. It was only when we made our way to Kuzunglu, where he’d grown up, that a darker mood overtook him.

At Asude Çayevi, a tea shop in the neighborhood, we ascended an impossibly narrow stairway to a bright room with windows on two sides and ancient musical instruments mounted on the walls. Presently, the old man who ran the place served our tea in short glasses (tea, sugar and cream, I said, botching it), just as another patron sat down at a table opposite ours, though not before taking a seven-stringed baglama off its nail. He tuned the instrument for a few seconds and then proceeded to play and sing an impromptu folk concert for the shop’s six patrons. It was a special moment, and not just for the tourists among us. “These are old songs that everyone knows,” said Kerem, his eyes a bit misty in the afternoon sun, his expression a mixture of wonder and worry that I won’t soon forget.  

Later, after the music, he told us of his participation in the Gezi Park protests of 2013, in which thousands of Turks streamed into Taksim Square, furious at the government’s plans to bulldoze the greensward and turn it into a shopping mall (one patterned after an ornate Ottoman-era military barracks, you will note). “But it really was an uprising,” Kerem stressed, a rare revolt against a regime that had campaigned for everything from alcohol-free zones to imprisonment for adultery, and against everything from equal rights for gays and lesbians to a free and independent press. (Even as scenes of police firing tear gas in Gezi Park were broadcast around the world on CNN International, CNN Turk aired a documentary on penguins.) 

But that was later, after the music stopped. For the moment, Kerem and I sat transfixed by the man playing the baglama, both of us wondering, along with the rest of the world, how different Turkey might ultimately be from the country we imagined.   

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