Stepping into Istanbul’s world is like travelling through time and history. Istanbul is a modern capital and a truly magical city that, for centuries, has remained resplendent in its Ottoman wealth and ornate palaces.
Writing in 1922 for the “Toronto Star”, the young Ernest Hemingway compared the nightlife of few European cities as Madrid, Paris, Berlin with Constantinople’s one and the writer said nothing, for him, could be compared to the excitement to the nightlife of Costantinople. In a city whose imperial purpose was gradually slipping away, the sound of George Gershwin’s’Swanee’ echoed through the nightclubs.
The Jazz Age was in full swing, and Costantinople was famous all over the world for the “Maxim’s”, the Taksim nightclub opened in 1921. From all that Age an early selfie by photographer Selahattin Giz is the last testimony: the photographer turned the camera on himself at the ‘Maxim’s’ bar and, shooting his drinking companions in their sparkling black tie too, made a “Manifesto” of those night.
Istanbul is nearly unique in spreading across two continents and it like two side of the same coin: different, yet similar. And with the Bosphorus defining its shorelines, it has a special Maritime feel of its own, so geographically, it is undecided: Istanbul is in Europe and it is in Asia at the same time.
Istanbul never sleeps and today is almost cliché to say that this city is a melting pot of cultures, but is true: the many ethnicities within the Turkey, along with the influences of Byzantium, Europe, China and India, are all embedded in Instanbul.
Throughout its history, the old city of Costantinople embraced not only cultural influences and minorities, but also religions. It was successively the capital of the Christian, Greek and Islamic empires, a role that shaped the region’s history for over 2,500 years. Today, the Old City (or Historical Peninsula), with its religious buildings, and the Golden Horn, home to the Jewish Balat and the Greek Fener neighbourhoods, are reminders of the wealth of heritage bequeathed to Istanbul. For 700 years, the European quarter was home to Genoese, Jews, Greeks and many other and the 14th-century Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s most obvious landmarks, and it still symbolises the strong European influence in the city.
One never gets tired of the city skyline, the Historical Peninsula and expecially the one and only Bosphorus, the very essence of Istanbul’s magnificence and this sweeping panorama of the city is almost similar to the one painted in 1770s by the Chevalier Antoine de Favray, and today a key work in the collection of the Pera Museum.
A stroll or cruise along the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea reveals the city’s many treasures: the grand wooden “yali” (waterside mansions) and sumptuous palaces, including Dolmabahçe and Çiragğn palaces in Besiktas, the Esma Sultan Mansion and the double-minaret mosque in Ortaköy and the Küçüksu palaces.
In this painstakingly city, the streets open up one by one like a cabinet of curiosity and what is fashinating about Ottoman culture is that it is cosmopolitan at heart, embracing a world stretching from Mediterranean Sea to Central Asia.
Istanbul’s seven hills offer striking visitas of the city, embracing the green and residential quarters of Etiler and Balat and the shopping streets of Nisantasi. The panorama is dotted with architectural landmarks: Galata Tower looks over to Topkapi Palace, while views from the slopes of Cihangir and Çukurcuma stretch over the Historical Peninsula to Leander’s Tower, all the way to the Princes’ Islands on a clear day. And looking over to the Golden Horn amid its elegant, European-style architecture, the bohemian Pera-Tünel neighbourhood takes travellers back in time.
Challenging, contemporary, creative and effervescent, Istanbul is also a city of art and gastronomy. Here you can snack at any hours of the day or night on freshly prepared delicacies from street stalls and itinerant food vendors, savouring new takes on meze or classic Ottoman recipes of which it is impossible to tire.
Past and future are tastefully embraced both in its street-food stalls and its Ottoman-style restaurants, and Istanbul is also a city of choices: you can board a vapur for three liras or a private boat from a jetty. Up in the hills or in the buzzing alleys of Pera, the city is like an “open buffet”, a feast for the senses, a book of many journeys to pick from.
Every day, Istanbul draws on the past to look to the future, with strenght and elegance.
Demetrio Baffa Trasci Amalfitani di Crucoli