I was recently fortunate enough to be invited to a wedding in Istanbul, Turkey, giving me an excuse to visit this city for the first time.
Istanbul is a transcontinental city, one part in Asia and the other in Europe. My weekend visit was limited to the European side, the old town where all the main tourist attractions are located. The city, previously known as Byzantium and later Constantinople, has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires. Converted to Christianity under the Romans, it remained so until the Ottomans took over in the 15th century. Today the majority of the population is Muslim, specifically Sunni. As of the Turkish Republic forming in 1923, the focus was shifted towards the capital of Ankara; but Istanbul retains its cultural and historical importance.
I’ve never had so many positive comments on my Instagram posts as I had during this weekend – “I love Istanbul!” and “Say hi to Istanbul for me” – so it’s clearly beloved by those who have spent time here.
I’m always interested in places that were used as film locations and Istanbul doesn’t disappoint.
In the second film of the James Bond series, From Russia with Love, Istanbul Ataturk airport, the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern all feature as does the Bosphorus ferry and the Orient Express. Fast forward to the Pierce Brosnan era and The World is Not Enough sees Istanbul playing the role of Azerbaijan, with M imprisoned in an 11th century lighthouse, the Maiden Tower, at the mouth of the Bosphorus. And for a spectacular finale, in Skyfall, the motorcycle chase of the opening scenes took place through Eminonu Square, across the rooftops and into the Grand Bazaar.
(A quick Google tells me that there are several other well-known films that used Istanbul as a setting, including Argo (in which the Grand Bazaar represents a market in Teheran!), Taken 2, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)
Hagia Sophia comes from the Greek for ‘Holy Wisdom’ (in fact my second name is Sofia, and naturally I am very wise). Today a museum, it’s been both a Christian church (a Greek Orthodox basilica, 537-1453) and an imperial mosque (1453-1931). As a result, it’s an interesting mix with mosaics depicting Jesus and Mary alongside Islamic features like the mihrab (a niche in the wall that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca) and the minbar (the stair-like pulpit from which the imam delivers sermons).
Perhaps my favourite feature was some Viking graffiti on the upper level!
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is not particularly blue but, as I discovered, the popular name comes from the coloured tiles inside the mosque rather than the exterior. Its official name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I in the early 17th century. It’s an incredibly impressive building with its 13 domes and 6 minarets.
The inner courtyard was lined with notice boards, on which you could read and learn about the pillars of Islam and its various rituals. It’s possible for visitors to enter into the main dome area, having borrowed a mosque-branded covering to abide by the regulations to cover a woman’s head, shoulders and legs.
When I first entered the courtyard, I was approached by a friendly man who I thought was an official of the mosque, explaining that the mosque was closed for prayer. “I’m not a guide, I sell carpets,” he said, seemingly reassuring me… as if selling carpets to me in the mosque would be more welcome than giving me useful information! I returned the following to day to visit the interior.
The Basilica Cistern
The Cistern (in Turkish Yerebatan Sarnici, which means ‘cistern sinking into the ground’) was built in the 6th century. It’s the largest of many cisterns that lie beneath the city and that provided water to the nearby palaces for many centuries.
The underground chamber is lined with marble columns. The Hen’s Eye column, decorated with tears, is said to honour the hundreds of slaves who died during construction. Another notable design element (there are signs throughout the Cistern pointing the way) are the two columns whose bases are carved into the head of Medusa – one upside down, the other on its side.
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, is also one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions. It was built soon after the Ottoman conquest of what was then Constantinople, its construction completed in 1461. A century later, a second covered market was built a little north of the first, and gradually shops were opened up between the two so that it became one large commercial area. By the early 17th century, it was the hub of Mediterranean trade.
Different businesses now tend to be focused in different areas, for example with jewellery along one street, carpets along another, leather goods along a third… I was with a friend who seemed to be able to navigate effortlessly along the different streets, but personally I was soon completely lost. I was nervous as always about the haggling that’s always expected at this kind of market, but I was relieved to find that the sellers were not too pushy. They were actually pretty funny, their sales techniques showing quite some creativity:
“Genuine fake leather goods!”
“I have everything you need!”
“Come and buy something you don’t need!”
Given my nomadic status I didn’t really need any big carpets or lamps but I did buy some tea, spices and Turkish delight. I know the latter mostly from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which the White Queen for some reason tempts Edmund with a box of Turkish delight. I’ve never liked the powdery stuff that you get in England but the colourful range on offer here at the Bazaar was very different. I bought a stick of pomegranate and pistachio; the chocolate one was also tasty!
The Dutch-Turkish wedding itself was exactly what you could have hoped for: a short but moving ceremony, held in Turkish and English on a rooftop with views of both Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque; delicious food kicked off with a platter of cold meze; traditional Turkish dancing, and a belly-dancing scarf for each of us to join in; oh, and fezzes and Dutch bonnets to top it all off.
The best man made a poignant remark about how thankful he was that we had all come to the wedding despite what had happened (in March, there was a suicide bombing in front of the district governor’s office), and I think we were all happy to have overcome any lingering concerns to celebrate the couple on their special day.
I stayed at the Seven Hills Hotel, a short stumble across the road from the Four Seasons where the wedding was being held. Even if you don’t stay there, I’d definitely recommend that you visit the restaurant on the top floor – the highest rooftop in the city, they say – for stunning 360 degree views of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and across the Bosphorus to Asia.
Some notes about opening times: The Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays and some bank holidays. The Blue Mosque is closed periodically for prayer so make sure you check the exact times for the day you want to visit (you can enter the courtyard at any time and you’ll see the opening times for entering the building written on a board).