‘The salted heads of the enemy were piled here,’ says author and historian Philip Mansel with relish, pointing at the gates of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, imperial residence of the Ottomans for 400 years. ‘During rebellious times, governors sent thousands of heads to the Sultan to prove their loyalty.’ We have just dined on meze and duck kebabs in the palace restaurant and are standing among the tulips and pansies that flank the palace walls where the gruesome heads were once heaped.
Philip Mansel is one of the lecturers on our five-day tour of Istanbul. Twenty-eight of us are staying in a former prison, transformed by the Four Seasons, the courtyard now a flowering garden and its rooftop a superb vantage point from which to experience the Turkish sunset. Later our group gathers on the jasmine-scented roof for wine and meze. On our right is Hagia Sophia, the exquisite Byzantine church turned mosque. To our left is the dome of the Blue Mosque and its six minarets that provoked hostility for daring to rival the architecture of Mecca itself. Not bad for a jail, I muse. When the muezzins begin their evening call to prayer, their thin wails weave themselves over our rooftop into a single musical strand, ‘solemn and beautiful beyond all the bells in Christendom’, as Byron wrote when visiting Istanbul in 1810. Against a darkening sky still smudged with pink, pigeons swoop past the minarets and a silver sliver of moon. As the muezzins’ calls reach their crescendo, we are unanimously enchanted and I glimpse one of our number surreptitiously dabbing her tears with the scarf she bought earlier from the Grand Bazaar.
Unlike the twisting, hectic alleys of so many souks, the covered Grand Bazaar is clean, spacious and airy, though labyrinthine enough for our tour leader, Lord Charles FitzRoy, to worry that some of the older members of our party might never emerge. Shopkeepers urge us to inspect their carpets, antique bedspreads, ceramic baubles, filigree silver jewellery, fine scarves, silk coats, embroidered boots and slippers. I buy a tiny beaded crimson velvet and gauze belly dancing outfit, jingling with gold discs, for my five-year-old daughter. The haggling is gentle, conducted with charm and humour over apple tea.
Yet shopping is just a distraction from what we culture vultures are primarily here for: knowledge. And we are receiving it in plenty from our lecturers. Along with Philip Mansel, we are also accompanied by the author, Robin Lane Fox, an Oxford reader in ancient history (see page 63). He takes us to the Hippodrome, which looks like any old busy city thoroughfare with a tourist office, throngs of people and youths jostling to sell postcards and guides. I could well have hurried through and dismissed it had Robin not gathered us round and begun conjuring up the past. The Hippodrome was Constantinople’s magnificent 100,000- capacity stadium, laid out by Emperor Septimus Severus in the 3rd century ad and enlarged by Constantine. ‘Forget the World Cup,’ Robin scoffs. ‘This was the supreme racecourse in the entire world, better than the Circus Maximus. The charioteers were sports heroes far more celebrated than anyone like Tiger Woods.’ Robin keeps us agog with such vivid, visceral accounts of chariot races and gory combat between both humans and beasts that we can almost smell dust, blood and sweat and hear the screams and the baying crowds.
Later, we cross the Marmara Sea to Asia for a private visit to one of Istanbul’s most important surviving 18th-century yalis (summer houses), once home to diplomat Nuri Burgi, ambassador to London and Nato after the second world war. The classical wooden house is painted the traditional dark red reserved for the most privileged of Ottoman subjects and we approach it via a garden through a pergola, heavy with wisteria. The current owner, Mrs Beyazit, wearing vast sunglasses, camel cashmere and plenty of gold, has laid on tea in an airy, beautifully proportioned room with sublime views of evening sunlight gilding the Bosphorus. Surrounded by Nuri Burgi’s lovingly preserved collection of Anatolian kilims, Chinese porcelain, glass, watercolours, drawings and rare books, we balance teacups and eat tiny cheese-filled pastries and delicacies stuffed with cherries and oozing syrup.
On our last day a private boat takes us down the Bosphorus. We pass vast, opulent European palaces (some gently disintegrating, some converted into five-star hotels), medieval towers, castles, minarets, splendid domes, shiny skyscrapers, ugly office blocks and traditional yalis. Nowhere is Istanbul’s character better revealed than in its architecture.
While Istanbul is an enormous, growing, messy and traffic-choked city with its fair share of brutal concrete development, it remains the fulcrum around which East and West revolve. Contradictions cohabit here: ancient and modern, empire and democracy, Islam and Christianity, fundamentalism and secularism, barbarism and civilisation. It is precisely this complex historical jumble, owing to the city’s geographical position straddling Europe and Asia, that gives Istanbul its peculiarly potent vitality. Whether it bows to Europe’s call or that of the emerging Islamic fundamentalists, Istanbul will never lose its intrinsic ability to rejuvenate itself.
www.finearttravel.co.uk, tel: 0207 437 8553. Charlotte Metcalf travelled with BA and stayed at the Four Seasons at Sultanahmet.