On Istanbul

istanbul sunset

You’ll make little headway into any reading whatsoever on Istanbul before encountering those three unavoidable words – east meets west. 

But then, what value in avoiding them or the concept itself but for sheer stubbornness? It is this after all and above all which makes Istanbul unique now and always, which has defined its history and architecture and culture and everything else that matters. Nor is it a pretty but ultimately meaningless marketing promise along the Land of Smiles lines. It is something you can see and feel everywhere and which goes some way to explaining the perhaps ultimately inexplicable lure of this most mysterious of cities. 

Istanbul is a slow burn.

It is not a city to enrapture you with palatial splendour like Paris or architectural wonder like Barcelona. Outside of the financial districts far from the centre it doesn’t tower skywards like New York or boast much in the way of colossal ancient remnants like Rome. It is low-rise. Its touristic centre brims with hawkers and overpriced restaurants and the usual shops overflowing with cheap tat. It looks awful on photos, the scale of it all magically shrinking in the transition from eye to screen. It initially feels more Athens than Rome, a regular modern city happening to have history in the background and enough big-name sites to fill a weekend trip. The city before you now feels far removed from the World’s Desire of which you’d read. 

With time it opens to you.

The lofty Sultanahmet district with the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace next door might be the flower’s middle but the colour comes from the neighbourhoods which have unfolded petal-like over the city’s many centuries of life. A short walk from Sultanahmet takes you to the busy narrower streets around the Egyptian and Grand Bazaars near to a large mosque which of all things is Baroque in style. Northwest into the Eminönü with its elegant university tower and old and new faculty buildings and the Süleymaniye Mosque dominating atop the hill. Southeast closer to the river to the designer stores and expensive cafes of Beşiktaş. Across the water northeast into Karaköy with the fat Galata Tower atop that hill and boutique hotels further down, or southeast instead to Kadıköy on the Asian side which feels a different and more grounded city entirely, albeit you can still turn at the shore and see the Hagia Sophia and everything surrounding and below it across the Strait. 

It is always instructive to put the hours into walking a city, but not always interesting. In Istanbul it is fascinating, and necessary. All cities are much more than their centres, are the sums of their parts. But the contrasts in Istanbul are far sharper than most, and few cities indeed can boast districts on different continents. 

It isn’t merely the man made city which intrigues of course but the geography too, and a large part of Istanbul’s appeal lies in their intertwining.

The three in one nature of this seven-hilled city applies not only to its names and eras but also its layout: Europe’s edge, the Golden Horn curving out into the Bosphorus below then Asia beginning across the water. From the shore or high ground of any of the three you can see at least one of the other two and the Strait stretching off towards alternate continents. Whether the concrete sighting in the former case or suggestion in the latter, you feel a tremendous sense of place. The unique layout of the city is constantly reinforced by these sightings of what is ‘just over there’. The Strait disappearing around a bend in the land one way and over the horizon the other suggests its fortuitous positioning and in both cases you start to understand why this land has been fought over so many times for so many centuries. The topography isn’t dramatic, the water doesn’t sparkle, no exotic creatures roam the shores or fill the air, yet there is still something magical here, the physical qualities directly generating some of the strange, irresistible, enticing feeling which even though you can’t put your finger on it precisely still swells as your familiarity with the environs grows. 

How many have died for this seductive land we now visit freely? It has proved irresistible and its tactical and logistical and mystical attractions are all easy to perceive.

This weight of history is easily learned and understood but not necessarily felt in the modern city, compared for example to (the first) Rome or Jerusalem. Ottoman palaces and mosques abound but precious little from the Greco Roman centuries remains. You might stumble across wells or stone reliefs on random streets but in truth if you lack the archeological eye they could be from any time. Such clues can help you imagine the past and of course you can work to research detail on sights or streets or whole areas, but the city itself provides little help here. There is no cavernous Coliseum which requires minimal imagination to be filled with cheering Romans. There is the theoretical history but scant physical evidence. 

And yet.

Though concrete visualisation doesn’t come easily that knowledge of history’s weight plays on your mind more subtly. Despite lack of prompts for active contemplation there is still that subconscious remembrance that you are walking ancient streets with invisible footprints beyond number. That today’s restaurant was yesterday’s inn. That the site of a mosque was once occupied by a church. That the same sun shone on somebody in precisely the same spot looking at the same stretch of water two millenia prior. 

Simply put, few cities on this planet have such a long continuous history. You stand inside the Hagia Sophia now where its sponsor Justinian did 1,500 years previously. Mehmed the Conqueror entered some nine hundred years later. And now here you stand six centuries after that. As with Rome’s Pantheon the distances in time since the building’s birth are easy to simply say but difficult to comprehend on a human scale. 

And what of the Hagia Sophia itself?

Like the city it underwhelms at first glance. It is not an aesthetic building when seen in person, particularly compared to the later purpose-built mosques following the same style but only after centuries of improvement and innovation. The Hagia Sophia does not stand alone as it seems to in photos. Several similarly-sized neighbours are close by, each of which is more pleasing on the eye, and so their ancestor suffers by comparison. 

Its interior is a different matter entirely. The magnitude which works against the exterior to make the building bulky now astonishes. Everything inside seems oversized yet is married with a great elegance of form and layout. Were such a building to be made now you would be impressed. For it to have been constructed in the sixth century on such a scale is almost unbelievable. 

More fascinating still is that the Hagia Sophia’s history has been left very much intact. The largest church in the world for a millennium, long since made a mosque, now looks some strange hybrid of the two. Enormous circular black wooden boards with golden inscriptions from the Quran sit high above with Christian angels higher still in the dome itself, albeit the faces of three of these four are censored (the censorious covering having fallen from the face of the fourth). Past the tall minbar and to the left is the altar which faces Jerusalem. The mihrab into which the imam’s voice echoes back from Mecca sits a few degrees to the right. Directly above a golden Byzantine mosaic depicts the mother Mary (mentioned more in the Quran, of course, than the Bible). Saints are visible in the cascading arches high in the building’s corners. Long wooden stands far below are lined with booklets explaining various aspects of the Quran in a variety of languages. Leaving the mosque you pass beneath another mosaic depicting Mary being presented with a miniature Constantinople by Constantine on one side and a Hagia Sophia by Justinian on the other. Mehmed, who took both, is absent. 

The Hagia Sophia marked the beginning of Byzantine architecture and it is fascinating to see how subsequent designs have built upon it. The Blue Mosque neighbouring its ancestor across a small park is almost a more refined replica outside but different altogether within, light where the Hagia Sophia is dark, busy where its precursor is more plain and the patterning on the walls and dome colourful and intricate. The Süleymaniye Mosque a mile or so from both represents a wonderful middle ground, still ornate yet more restrained than the Blue Mosque, suggesting the heavenly scale of the Hagia Sophia yet smaller and far more intimate and with a hundred little touches of its own which reveal themselves over time and through observation, and as with Istanbul itself help you overcome a middling first impression to realise a more subtle and intangible beauty. 

There are some three thousand other mosques around this single city and it feels that way. Many stand separate and splendid but many more are wedged between the regular modern buildings which naturally form the foundation of the actual modern metropolis. Neighbouring the Hagia Sophia is the enormous Topkapi palace. The winding main street down to the water is bordered by souvenir shops and touristic confectionary stores selling baklava. Along the Strait stand mansions and other palaces akin to those in St Petersburg, although in this case your eye won’t travel far before reaching yet another bright white ornate picturesque mosque. 

The culture too is an unusual mixture impossible to term eastern or western.

This is a Muslim country in the sense that Italy is a Catholic country. Certainly there is a majority religion and signs of it everywhere and plenty of pious people. But it is resolutely secular and has been since securing its freedom from Britain and France a century before. The calls to prayer are heeded by many but ignored by far more. Some women wear burkas, headscarves are much more common, but the vast majority wear ‘western’ clothes and the younger girls walk around in short skirts and tights as unabashed as they would be in any other European city. Alcohol can only be bought from certain shops with telltale blue signs but is visibly consumed in public (in great quantities before a football match), and walking down a busy restaurant-lined street at night you will see locals in their hundreds drinking beer or wine or raki. Gay rights are legalised, each year sees an Istanbul Pride march, and there are (a handful of) LGBTQ bars. It is in all these senses too a modern and liberal country, in which your prejudices (not unfounded) of Muslim majority countries can be parked on arrival. 


The purest form of travel would be complete spontaneity. To explore utterly without foreknowledge of what’s over the horizon. Lacking that, as we surely must when travelling to a place, the best we can manage is to arrive without expectations. Of the place itself, and the experiences we might have. 

Learning a city’s history in advance might inform our visit and indeed make us feel very clever, but will also lead to anticipations of the modern incarnation which by definition won’t be realised. We can retroactively separate history by eras, dynasties, even simple years, but these are all always irrelevant to the actual place in the moment. Cities themselves are constantly changing. Few indeed have stuck in a particular time, and these only in constrained areas through tremendous efforts by the local authorities. The rest evolve continuously along with almost everything else in the human world, according to the standards of the day and most importantly the needs of their inhabitants. 

You can do all the reading you please on Istanbul, and indeed it is an incredible story. From a rather irrelevant Greek colony to Rome’s successor and the home of the church for a thousand years to the base of the world’s richest and most powerful empire and finally into if not the capital of a liberal twenty first century nation state then at least its emblematic jewel. 

But on a practical level history doesn’t exist, and expecting to find it, see it, experience it, is impossible and self-defeating. Istanbul is none of those places any more and hasn’t been for a very long time. If you visit on December 1st 2023 then you will find that day’s Istanbul. Visit on the same day in 2022 or 2024 and you will find a different city. Extrapolate that across the course of centuries and the foolhardiness of chasing the past becomes clear. 

Istanbul is not a historical city. It is a modern city with a long history. Yet in both those latter senses it remains extraordinary. Few places enrapture and intrigue to such an extent. Fewer still generate that feeling without you quite knowing how. Its past and present, its nature and architecture, its straddling of two continents geographically and culturally, all play their roles. But ultimately Istanbul’s majesty is wreathed in mystery. The city feels unknowable. Which, of course, makes you wish to know it all the more. 

My new novel – What Money Can’t Buy – is out now on Amazon. It’s available in both eBook and paperback formats, and you can find it here in the UK, here in the US, or on your own local Amazon site.

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