“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.” – Alphonse de Lamartine
Istanbul is a place I’ve long wanted to visit. How could you not?
The city links Europe and Asia, was the last bastion of the Roman Empire (arguably) and the setting of one my favourite James Bond books.
Mosques, kebabs and tourists
After a poor first night’s sleep I headed to the Blue Mosque (the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and the Hagia Sophia. The latter went from being a church to a mosque and finally a museum. A journey which has some parallels with the city itself.
The Hagia Sophia is more impressive on the inside than the outside. Plenty has been written about this monument by more knowledgeable people, so I won’t waste anyone’s time sharing my thoughts on the building itself. I’ll only mention that it contains four large seraphim mosaics. These six-winged protectors of God are a striking reminder of how our perception of religion has changed.
During my visit, I was unlucky enough to get stuck behind a platoon of South Korean tourists. Although there were only about 15 of them, their insistence on moving in formation made them a real pain. They flocked from spot to spot, encountering significant difficulties whenever they reached a narrow passage. Here they would bat against the wall until they eventually all trickled through. I did my best to keep away from this flock of dizzy birds, but to little avail.
At this point I stopped off at Baran Ottoman Kitchen where I enjoyed a greasy kebab and some grilled vegetables. The waiters in the restaurant were brusque but not unfriendly, a trait which I would not have noticed had I not lived in London for the past six years. It’s something which I found to be a running theme in Istanbul: everyone is happy to help with directions or to explain the make-up of a particular dish, but there is little patience if you don’t understand the initial explanation. I found this odd in a city where tourists account for a significant level of income, although I felt much the same way in Paris.
Cisterns, fish and tourists
My next stop, the Basilica Cistern or ‘Sunken Palace’, was one of the most impressive.
Built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Cistern was devised to provide water to the Great Palace, but was closed when the Palace moved. It was then forgotten until 1545 when a scholar called Petrus Gyllius discovered locals using buckets to bring up water from holes in their basements. He eventually found a way in and it became a local dumping ground. It was cleaned up in 1985 and opened to the public two years later.
As we waited in the equally impressive queue, a man dressed in a suit and tie approached me.
“Would you like to skip the queue?” he asked.
“Maybe, how much would it cost,” I answered.
“Five euros extra.”
As I hesitated, he looked me up and down and said: “You look like James Bond.”
I laughed and turned him down. He was clearly a dishonest man.
He had warned me that I would wait half an hour to get in, but in the end I waited for less than half the time. I was rewarded with a beautiful underground scene, lit up to accentuate the body of water and various columns. The Cistern was featured in the Bond film “From Russia with Love” and it’s easy to see why the producers were keen to include it.
The Cistern provides a break from the heaving city above and this despite the large number tourists passing in and out. The dark, narrow paths encourage visitors to whisper, as do the ghostlike carp that haunt the shallow water. I surveyed the fish and wondered how they managed to survive down there with seemingly no access to food. Rumours suggest the Cistern was used to breed fish in the past.
Any visit to the Cistern culminates with a glimpse of the two Medusa carvings in the northern section. The carved heads of the beast are difficult to see due to the concentration of camera wielding visitors, but are supposedly a great example of Roman art. I say supposedly as this is not one of my areas of expertise. I just know I was almost pushed into the water by the swarm of trigger happy visitors. Legend says that neither head is upright in a bid to negate the power of Medusa’s gaze. No one turned to stone while I was there, so it seems to be working.