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Istanbul: In two worlds

Istanbul bridges Europe and Asia and was shaped by both. It's Muslim, with reminders of a long Christian past.

The sun sets behind Istanbul's Blue Mosque, with its vast dome and six minarets. It’s still used as a mosque, and is a popular tourist attraction.
The sun sets behind Istanbul's Blue Mosque, with its vast dome and six minarets. It’s still used as a mosque, and is a popular tourist attraction.Read more

ISTANBUL - Our first morning in Istanbul, the waiter in our small hotel served us the traditional Turkish breakfast of olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, crusty bread, and steaming tea. As we finished, he beckoned us up the stairs to the rooftop.

We gasped at the view. To the south, the Sea of Marmara stretched to the horizon. To the north, the vast domes of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia looked close enough to touch. And beside us, the Muslim waiter recited his favorite passage from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians: "The first commandment is love."

Our trip to Turkey last spring was full of moments like this, with Turks reaching across divisions of culture, religion, and language with questions and assistance. A country that straddles Europe and Asia, Turkey reflects the influence and history of both.

In the West, we hear about the growing influence of Islam in Turkish politics after decades of secularism and military dominance. In this lively city of 16 million people, we saw more blending than displacement.

In cafes, Muslim women wearing chic headscarves sip tea in front of TV monitors blaring sexy rock videos. Young Muslim men sip Efes beer and raki, a powerful anise-flavored liquor, at outdoor cafes. One beer-drinking tour guide explained that he'll repent when he makes the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, as an old man.

Even our waiter's knowledge of the New Testament is not as strange as it might seem. Paul once preached in Ephesus, an ancient Roman town of amphitheaters and baths that the Turks are excavating a few hours south of Istanbul. Istanbul itself was Christian from 330 A.D., when Constantine made it the capital of his Holy Roman Empire, to 1453, when Muslims conquered the city and made it the center of the Ottoman Empire.

After breakfast, we head off to see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque close up. Built as a Christian basilica in the seventh century, Hagia Sophia features soaring Byzantine domes and brilliant mosaics of saints. When the Ottomans took the city, they converted it to a mosque and installed enormous medallions in Arabic script, and a screened platform from which the sultan could watch unseen. In 1935, the secular Turkish Republic converted the building to a museum, but the worn stone floors and slanting afternoon light still evoke centuries of religious devotion.

Outside Hagia Sophia, a gentle man named Adnan introduces himself and offers to show us the Blue Mosque nearby, then take us to his cousin Joseph's carpet shop. Carpet sellers are everywhere in Turkey, hailing tourists from shops and bazaars. Maybe we suffered from an excess of Minnesota Nice, but when a fellow leads you to the mosque entrance, describes its history, then waits for 30 minutes while you visit, it's hard to refuse a visit to his cousin.

Once we reach the shop, cousin Joseph takes over with a patter that blends charm, politics, and persistence.

"Why don't more Americans visit?" he asks as an assistant unfurls carpets and another fetches us tulip-shaped glasses of tea. Is it because of the Armenians who died after World War I? The pile of carpets grows taller. Perhaps we would like a kilim, or tapestry rug, he says. What color? What size? More tea?

By the time we leave - without a carpet - we're hungry. So we hop a ferry for the Kadiköy district, a lively neighborhood of cafes and restaurants on the city's Asian side.

Along with its hills and the domes and minarets of mosques, one of Istanbul's great charms is the water that divides and defines it. The Sea of Marmara, an outlet to the Mediterranean, lies to the south. The Golden Horn, a wide inlet, divides the two European sections of the city. Meanwhile, the 21-mile-long Bosporus Strait separates the European side from the Asian and connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Yachts, fishing boats, freighters, tour boats, and ferries ply the Bosphorus all day.

A highlight of Kadiköy is Ciya Sofrasi, a modest restaurant famous for food from many regions of Turkey. Ciya's owner, Musa Dagdeviren, has dedicated himself to recovering old recipes and using local, seasonal ingredients.

In early spring, green almond soup and cooked nettles were on the menu. Even familiar dishes such as tabouli had a distinctive flavor thanks to ingredients such as pomegranate vinegar.

Our waiter brings plate after plate of mese - appetizer-sized delicacies made of eggplant, peppers, olives, lentils, tomato - until we can hold no more. An American friend living in Turkey later teaches us the word yavas, meaning "slowly," a helpful word to know when the plates come faster than your stomach can handle.

We leave with carry-out tins and feast on the contents the next day for lunch.

During five days in Istanbul, we bargain for jewelry at the Grand Bazaar and admire palaces while cruising up the Bosporus. We stroll past fine shops and restaurants in the cosmopolitan Beyoglu neighborhood and marvel at the luxury of the Topkapi Palace, where sultans and their harems lived.

But on the day we most treasure, we head off in search of more remote parts of the city. We begin with a plan to explore Yedikule, a massive fortress that guarded the city's southern approaches, then walk four miles to the Golden Horn along the ancient wall that once protected the city from European invaders.

With few tourists and no guard or "Keep Off" signs in sight, we roam the battlements that link Yedikule's seven towers. After admiring the glorious views of the Sea of Marmara, we descend into the dim, cold dungeons. No place in Istanbul gives us such a bone-deep feeling of the city's history of power and vulnerability.

Too tired to walk the entire length of the city wall, we take a cab to its northern edge and spend the next few hours meandering through the twisting, narrow streets that cut through the hills of working-class neighborhoods.

This is another city entirely. Smokestacks venting acrid coal smoke compete for rooftop space with solar water heaters and satellite TV dishes. An occasional rooster crows as if to underscore how the city has swelled with millions of immigrants from the countryside.

Dark-haired boys interrupt their pickup games of football (soccer) to test their few words of English, invariably ending with the chant "Money, money, money!"

Suddenly, a chorus of music - horn, drum, guitar - intrudes. Following the sound down a steep hill, we encounter a parade of relatives and friends celebrating an engagement. Two people carry pans of food on their shoulders. A young woman carries new clothes for her friend. And in front, carrying a bright bouquet with "You are loved" on the ribbon, walks a smiling young woman, newly betrothed.

Our path takes us past wooden Ottoman houses with overhanging second stories, many crumbling, some beautifully restored. In the conservative Fatih neighborhood, we encounter crowds of young men in turbans and women wearing the abaya, a black cloak revealing only a diamond of pale forehead and eyes. Even there, one woman blinks a wordless welcome.

Near the end of our walk, we stop at a teahouse high on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn. As we sip strong tea in the afternoon light, the call to prayer begins. In a city with more than 2,000 mosques, the call begins with one voice, then two, then a dissonant chorus amplified through loudspeakers mounted high on minarets.

Some voices are high and thin, others low and deep. For several moments, they sing out different words in different cadences united in their praise of Allah.

Slowly the voices drop off until only one is left. Then it, too, stops. For a moment before the murmur of conversation and buzz of motorbikes and buses returns, the sound of prayer echoes.

Exploring Istanbul

Delta and Air France fly to Istanbul from Philadelphia with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $895.

Within the country, distances to Cappadocia and the Aegean coast are greater than they might appear on a map. Train routes are limited, but intercity buses are frequent, punctual, clean, and affordable. But it will take all night to get from Istanbul to Cappadocia. Consider flying instead. Domestic fares are reasonable. Check Pegasus Airlines ( or Onur Air (search for it on Google and click the "translate this page" button), or stop at one of the many small travel agencies in Istanbul to have them book flights for you.

Things to see

Grand Bazaar. Even if you don't like to shop, you should visit. With thousands of shops in a roofed labyrinth of lanes and fountains, the market's size and hyped-up pitches from carpet and gold merchants can be exhausting. But bargaining over genial cups of tea for felted figures from Belarus or patchwork rugs made of carpet remnants can charm you.

Go early in the day with fresh energy and a destination in mind. A good guidebook will highlight the most interesting shops. Searching for a particular shop helps get you past the carpet salesmen who gather near entrances to steer newcomers to their stores.

Bosporus cruise. From public ferries to posh dinner cruises, there are many options to see the Bosporus Strait, the 21-mile channel that links the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. Sites include European-style palaces that sultans built, beautifully restored Ottoman houses, and seaside restaurants featuring local fish. Depending on your schedule and budget, you can devote three hours to a full day to exploring the waterway that gave Istanbul its strategic importance and carries much of its commercial traffic.

Place to stay

Of three places we stayed in the Sultanamet district, the Cosmopolitan Park Hotel ( was our favorite, despite small rooms. The hotel has beautiful views of the Sea of Marmara, a rooftop that looks out at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and a desk clerk whose love of his city is infectious. In the summer, double rooms with sea views and private baths go for about $95 a night.

More information

Turkish Culture and Tourism Office

- Steve BrandtEndText