Stepping onto the streets of Istanbul has much the same effect as jumping, feet first into a fast flowing river, only hotter. Split in two by the the scorching sunlight and muggy shade, the steep, cobbled streets are crammed with teams of men throwing crates of groceries to and from trucks. Battered cars pick their way around the medley, casually reversing into oncoming traffic and prompting shouts from shopkeepers smoking on nearby corners.
In a city that quite literally bridges East and West the juxtaposition of cultures is impossible to miss. The Islamic influence of the Ottomans – who invaded in the 15th century – is plain to see as the bulbous heads of mosques decorate the skyline. But look a little closer and you see the remnants of what was once a stronghold of Christianity. During the Roman and Byzantine eras, hundreds of churches were built across the city, including the Hagia Sophia which remained the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years. This pinnacle of Christianity was converted into an imperial mosque within hours of the Ottoman invasion. The city was transformed overnight, as if by a simple coat of paint which to a keen eye now reveals a fascinating history.
As we wandered through the historical centre, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ornate stone buildings hint of European colonialism. Yet the honking horns and manic haggling is much more reminiscent of the streets of Delhi or Bangkok. The city, steeped in history, is also known for its progressive attitude and expanding economy – attributes it is hoping to capitalise on in its bid for the 2020 Olympic games.
What is most interesting is how the combination of cultures and eras seems to be completely absorbed by the eclectic populace. Head-scarfed girls cover themselves up with layers of clothes recognisable from Western high street chains. Mobile phones are chatted into before heading into centuries-old mosques. Men holler at you to look at their overwhelming collection of electrical gadgets displayed on wooden carts that appear to be missing a donkey. There was something wonderfully romantic at the sight of such fluidity between tradition and the influences of the modern world; between old and new.
Walking towards the Galata bridge the noise and heat intensify as the cool shade of the cobbled European-style streets gives way to wide roads heaving with more traffic and clearly no conception of rules. The bridge walls are adorned with rows of fishermen cracking open molluscs and hurling their rods into the choppy waters below. The glistening film of sewage and bobbing cans give it an unexpected beauty in the bright sunlight. As we reached the other side, overshadowed by a mosque, the crowd thickens. Columns of steam spiral randomly from the medley and it soon becomes clear that this is synonymous with the undercurrent of hissing as corn cobs grill and chestnuts roast on small carts. Beside them under an umbrella, a man with an eager expression and uncanny resemblance to one of his charred snacks shouts and waves a spatula at his scribbled prices.
Barriers prevent the crowds from crossing the already manic road so we’re forced down a sweaty pedestrian subway heaving from end to end with stalls selling flashing electronics and baskets of shoes. Armies of squeaking, flipping toy dogs pierce the echoing wall of noise. Mosaic covers the subway’s walls, as it seemingly does everywhere else from metro stations to the mosques and even toilets. Coming out into the sunlight again the bartering, haggling, shouting and grilling is all reduced to background noise as a male voice singing in the distance reverberates through the chaos. The buzz responds by increasing the pace and volume as metal shutters are pulled down with a crash and tables folded in the rush to go to prayer. An elderly woman selling corn to feed the birds fluttering outside the Mosque is reminiscent of a scene from Mary Poppins, further skewing my cultural compass.
If smells were visible, walking into the spice market would be like walking into a kaleidoscope. The aromas collide with eachother as you move your way slowly through the tunnel of people. Cumin, saffron, garlic, chilli, pistachio, coconut, rosebud tea all displayed vibrantly under neon lights. One signs reads “turkish viagra – five times in one night”, behind it the shop owner grins at my pointed finger. Walking out into the sun again we are presented with a food market and more stalls offering grilled fish, corn on the cob and kebabs.
In the evening the buzz become less urgent, more excited. Hoards of people parade the streets stopping to examine watches or buy bottles of water from small boys. Bellowing men spin huge dollops of sticky pink ice cream on long metal poles in front of them before dropping back in its tub and pummelling it. We bought one of the sticky treats before heading home to bed, exhausted.
The next morning we crossed the Bosphorus sea to a town called Kadikoy on the Asian side of the city. Although this was the same country, there was something so much more exotic about it. My initial observation, regrettably, was that the toilets became holes in the ground. Trees lined the streets as buses swinging with tassels weaved their way through the pedestrians and lorries unloading in the middle of the road.
It was here that we discovered the real Turkish kebab – real red meat or succulent chicken piled high around a metal spit, adorned with cooked tomatoes, carved off and stuffed alongside salad and chips stuffed into a crusty roll. The idea of a chip and meat sandwich does make one’s arteries contract, especially when you watch the man mop up the grease off the meat tray with the bread before adding in the ingredients. However, it looked far less suspicious than what we find outside nightclubs in Britain, and not to mention delicious enough to get another 10 minutes later.
Having eating too many kebabs, we stumbled across a wonderful train station called Haydarpasa. Opened in 1872, it was the first major rail link into Istanbul and it soon became the northern terminus for the Baghdad railway, linking Berlin to the then capital of the Ottoman Empire. The station is captivating– so beautifully decorated with marble floors and carved, colourful ceilings. Now, the trains only go into the middle of Turkey. Nevertheless, I looked out to the trains waiting at platforms adorned with pink flower beds and I imagined travellers boarding them for the Middle East and Egypt, like they did during the Ottoman era.
There was a distinct vibe of colonial exoticism and it made me wonder when we began to build and create for practicality rather than beauty. Economically, of course, it makes more sense to build something for the masses rather than the elite – this train station didn’t need marble floors or hand- carved stone walls but the beauty was astonishing even more than a century later.
My last thought upon leaving Istanbul, therefore, was this: Wouldn’t the world be a boring place if everything was for the sake of necessity rather than desire?