The New Byzantium

    Istanbul—take a grad's grand tour of this extraordinary city

    By Blythe Renniw, '04 BEd on September 1, 2010

    An alumna keeps it on the strait and narrow in this historic Turkish town

    A vendor offers Turkish tea and other delights at the Grand Bazaar.

    Imagine a place where you can go to Europe for lunch, Asia for dinner, and your journey from continent to continent takes less than 15 minutes — no passport required. Istanbul is indeed such a place. Sitting at the crossroads between East and West and divided by the Bosphorus Strait, this great city is precariously placed between two divergent cultures, but over the course of centuries this metropolis of nearly 13 million has managed a cultural balancing act that includes the best of both worlds.

    My journey to Istanbul began back in the fall of 2007. I had been teaching junior high in Edmonton for four years, and, with another Edmonton winter looming, I was getting a bad case of the travel bug. So I went to an international teaching job fair, hoping to find a bit of adventure — a position in Australia, or maybe Western Europe. Turkey wasn’t even on my radar as far as a potential place to live and teach until I received an offer from a school in Istanbul. Within minutes of speaking with the school’s director, he had totally turned me on to life in Istanbul with descriptions of its hospitality and vibrant culture.

    One of the things that attracted me to Istanbul — one of the cities designated a European Capital of Culture for 2010 — was the wealth of history that would be at my fingertips. Istanbul was the capital of Byzantium and, later, of the Ottoman Empire and it’s said that Turkey has more Greek ruins than Greece and more Roman archeological sites than Italy. In Istanbul you almost can’t walk a block without tripping over some historic site or other. In fact, the city recently had to stop construction on the new Metro line extending to the Asian side of the city because workers accidentally unearthed a “new” 8,000-year-old archeological site. But despite the richness of the city’s cultural legacy, most of its famous sites are clustered within one compact — and very walkable — square kilometre.

    The elaborate mosaic walls at Topkapi Palace(left), and the (right) haunting underground remains of the Basilica Cisterns.


    The first stop on any visitor’s itinerary should be the Hagia Sofia. Over its 17 centuries, the Hagia Sofia has had many incarnations: first as a cathedral (360–1453), then as a mosque during the reign of the Ottoman Turks (1453–1934), and now as a museum. But throughout it all, it has always remained an architectural marvel, and its soaring domed ceilings, gold Arabic calligraphy and colourful mosaics depicting Christian and Muslim religious imagery will take your breath away.

    A feast for the senses at the Spice Bazaar.

    Just across the street you can visit a real, working mosque — one of the most beautiful in the Muslim world. The Blue Mosque (officially known as Sultan Ahmet Camii), is named for its large number of blue tiles and blue stained glass windows, which, when the sun shines through, bathe the interior in a lovely azure glow. Built by the Ottomans in the early 17th century, you will still see men and women praying there when you visit. A word of advice: keep your arms, legs and shoulders covered out of respect and remember that the Blue Mosque is closed to tourists during Friday prayers.

    Topkapi Palace is another Istanbul wonder, with gilded fountains, endless mosaics and amazing views of the Bos­phorus. The residence of the Otto­man Sultan for more than 400 years, the palace is an expansive complex that takes a good two-to-three hours to tour. There are rooms dedicated to the crown jewels, the sultan’s harem, his armoury, his bath, a room just to hold his turbans — even a room dedicated to performing circumcisions.

    While still in this area of the city, stop off at the Basilica Cisterns, which were built by the Romans and served as the water filtration system for the sultan’s palaces — including Topkapi Palace — until modern times. Here, a forest of 336 stone columns grace this sunken underground cavern and carp swim in its shallow waters. It’s also quite cool down there, so it’s a great place to beat the heat on one of Istanbul’s famously hot summer days.

    Splish Splash

    Another must-do in Istanbul is a visit to a Turkish bath, or hamam — a welcome end to a long day of sweaty sightseeing. Most of the hamams in Istanbul are ancient, but a visit to the baths is still a regular part of Turkish culture today. Many women still get together with their girlfriends to head down to the neighbourhood bath and gossip while getting a scrub down. And the men — well, I couldn’t tell you what the men do — as the baths are strictly segregated by sex.

    When my mom came for a visit, we went to the Çemberlitas Bath, an historic — if touristy — bath just a 10-minute walk up from the Blue Mosque. We chose the middle road of treatments, which costs about 40 Turkish lira and consists of a steam bath, a sudsy scrub down, a light massage and a hair wash. We were a tad apprehensive at first about getting naked for a scrub down, but since everyone else in the room is naked, including your masseuse, you quickly feel at home in your birthday suit. And, if not, a bathing suit is also acceptable.

    Once the hour-long treatment is over, you’re welcome to hang out in the steam room for as long as you like, or in the outer room, which is a little cooler, or in the outer-outer room where you can enjoy a cup of tea while relaxing on a divan. Upon leaving you’ll feel like a new person — literally — for you’ll have left behind a layer of skin.

    The hippest place for shopping and dining — and seeing and being seen — is Taksim Square.

    Shopper’s Delight

    Istanbul is a city of markets, and some of its markets, like the famous Grand Bazaar, are cities unto themselves. With more than 1,000 vendors spread out over dozens of covered “streets,” it’s a bit like West Edmonton Mall — but with all the store owners constantly haggling with you, trying to convince you that they have the best jewelry/carpets/leather goods, etc. Given even an ounce of encouragement, the vendors will follow you for the next block in order to make a sale, so it helps to go in knowing what you’re looking for. For help, grab one of the many maps available, and keep in mind that the bazaar is organized by product, with sections devoted to leather, gold and carpets.

    Around Town

    (Location, street, neighbourhood)

    Hagia Sophia
    Aya Sofya Meydani, Sultanahmet

    The Blue Mosque
    Sultan Ahmet Camii, Sultanahmet

    The Basilica Cisterns
    Yerebatan Caddesi 13, Sultanahmet

    Çemberlitas Haman
    8 Vezirhan Caddesi, Çemberlita

    Taksim Square
    Istiklal Caddesi, Beyo lu

    Ortaköy Market
    Muallim Naci Caddesi, Be ikta

    The Spice Bazaar
    Misir Çar isi, Eminönü

    The Grand Bazaar
    Kapali Çar i, Beyazit

    Topkapi Palace
    Babihümayun Caddesi, Gülhane Park

    Lal Boutique
    Camenkan Sokak #14, Beyoglu

    For pure sensory overload, visit the Spice Bazaar, where, in addition to the usual kiosks of T-shirts, bags, jewellery and scarves, you’ll also find tables loaded down with nuts, tea and many, many spices. Saffron, tumeric, cinnamon, cloves and mint — you name it, they’ve got it, along with a number of exotic spices you’ve never seen or smelled before. Be sure to keep an eye out for the silver trays loaded up with free samples of Turkish delight.

    On the weekends, the neighbourhood of Ortaköy, on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait, has an excellent street market as well as great restaurants and cafés where you can relax with a water pipe, or nargile, after a morning spent shopping. But the hippest place in Istanbul for shopping and dining (or partying after-hours) is Taksim Square, also on the European side. It’s main street, Istiklal Caddesi, boasts both the big name-brand stores and unique one-of-a-kind boutiques. My favourite is the quaint boutique Lal, at the end of the Taksim strip, which features handmade goods, from unique T-shirts, hats and scarves to oyo, or Anatolian lace.

    Istanbul, not Constantinople

    Arching over the Bosphorus Strait, the bridges of Istanbul provide a tangible link between east and west, “old” and “new.” There is a noticeable difference between the two sides of the city. Although the western side is home to most of the historic tourists sites, it definitely has a more European feel to it, and English is more widely spoken there. The eastern side is generally older, its people more conservative, and living there has forced me keep up with my study of the Turkish language. But whatever side of the city you find yourself on, you’ll encounter beauty around every corner — and not just in the incredible mosques and palaces, but even down the simplest of cobblestone streets. If any part of you would be excited by hearing the call to prayer sung from the city’s many minarets, smelling the aroma of spices, tea and water pipes, even haggling with the market vendors — then put Istanbul on your list of places to visit. Just remember to bring sturdy walking shoes and repeat after me: “No thanks, I already have a carpet.”

    Blythe Rennie, ’04 BEd, just left Istanbul after two years there and is now teaching at an international school in Bangkok, Thailand.