“Where are you from?” asks the man in the tiny shop lined up to the ceiling with fake designer purses. “Colombia? Arabic?” This seems to be a common question across Istanbul from restaurant waiters to men hawking perfume on the street.
It is not surprising considering the city was once an important stop along the Silk Road, carrying spices, ideas, religions and rugs all the way between Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, India and China.
Treasures from the Far East are still easy to find, but in the form of YSL and Gucci knockoffs. “Hey lady, which bag you looking for?” he asked. “For you my sister, I give you the best price.”
The Grand Bazaar, dating back to the 1700s is a cavernous labyrinth of lanes selling all types of kitsch tourist trinkets, stacks of gold bangles and sacks of saffron. Before big brand name malls were a thing, the Grand Bazaar was a shopper’s delight where caravans brought in exotic goods from far and wide. All the sellers keep their energy with strong coffee doled out by a man carrying a round platter with small glass cups.
It’s easy to imagine Aladdin darting through the various branches of this maze. Maybe I will be lucky enough to find the genie’s magic lamp and make my wish to travel to all the cities along the Silk Road.
In the early morning hours, men bend to wash their faces, hands and feet with water sputtering from the brass faucets on marble fountains. A shopkeeper unfurls a patterned rug on a street nudged up against the bazaar, the minarets of the Nuruosmaniye Mosque soaring behind. Aladdin would have loved to hop on one of these and soar above Istanbul’s grand domes.
I remove my shoes and entered the mosque’s chilly interior. “Allah hu Akbar,” the Imam chanted as the men kneeled and stood in unison. “The lines on the rugs are equally spaced to ensure enough room for each worshipper to prostrate towards Mecca,” explains my friend.
It’s a astoundingly serene sight in such a frenetic city.
Five times a day, the adhaan beckons from loudspeakers across the city-a heavenly chorus that brings me much needed peace and calm among all the honking horns and lively chatter over alcoholic drinks.
Istanbul is a city of many contradictions and many faiths.
On a dreary day, the Hagia Sophia is a ray of light. A scintillating, golden mosaic of Mary and child gaze down from high above the altar. Right besides this masterpiece, massive spheres marked with Koranic verses.
Across the road in the Blue Mosque, I crane my neck up to admire the exquisite swirling tiled details, leading me into a serene daze.
The next day I climb the steep streets zig zagging up to the 16th century Suleymaniye Mosque crowning one of Istanbul’s seven hills. On my way up, I pass small shops, each one selling customized belt buckles. Cats nip out of tiny crooks and crannies. My thighs feel the burn.
Up, up, I go, until I see a sign pointing to the mosque and the adjoining historic caravanserais (the resting stop for travelling Silk Road merchants). A large stone gate entrance frames my first view of this grand display of power and piousness.
The grassy grounds reveal breathtaking views of the Sultan’s city tumbling all the way to the Bosporus Strait far below. Sultan Suleyman’s final resting place on-site affords him the opportunity to watch over his city for eternity. Inside, I sit on the red carpet admiring the stained glass on its domes. What devotion was needed to create such beauty so long ago in reverence to the Almighty?
On my way back down I keep tucking under the awnings on the narrow streets, shielding my head from the drizzle. Smoke drifts from a red cart, cooking roasting chestnuts and corn-Istanbul’s street food. I wander past an archway decorated in green and gold, down a small lane, following the sweet smell of shisha. Water bubbles as middle age pot-bellied men inhale the heady smoke, releasing it into the damp air. Right next door, another Sultan’s cemetery.
Istanbul is a confusion of sights-both modern and past clashing furiously at the same time.
A man with a platter of sesame covered simit balancing on his head, dangles a cigarette in his hand. He manages to outpace me despite his acrobatic act. Another pulls a wheelbarrow through the narrow lanes. Women in black burquas, walk side-by-side with old ladies in hijabs and young women in tight jeans posing for pictures. A shop keeper boils water to prepare thick coffee. Another rests his head on a wall in a hopes of catching a quick nap. All the chaos seems strangely choreographed.
In the cheese shop, thick white slabs are stacked behind a sheep’s carcass covered in fur. More pleasant scents await in the Egyptian market. Small kiosks with arched roofs sell bins overflowing with pomegranate flowers, dried roses and so many spices. I buy a pale pink container of rose water to spritz on my face on a hot day.
“You know your scents,” says the Syrian immigrant in the Egyptian Bazaar. Curvy bottles full of intoxicatingly alluring fragrances (jasmine and sandalwood) line glass shelves. I was in search of oud. “This is from India,” he says as he unscrews the lid on an exotic oil. “Some tea for you,” he offers as he hands me a paper cup with bright red pomegranate tea, its crunchy seeds bobbing on the frothy surface. Its tangy sweetness was just the sugar buzz needed before setting off again.
Men toss long lines into the dark waters of the Bosporus Strait. Sardines writhe in buckets by their feet. Big jellyfish bob down below. I dance around puddles of briny water. The air is thick with smoke and the scent of fish. “Salaam-Alaikum,” say the men in the nearby restaurants in greeting as we pass by, gesturing to their menus and displays of the catch of the day-scales shining in the somber light and gelatinous bulging eyes staring back.
I soak up the juice of an aubergine and tomato dish with a pillowy pita over a leisurely lunch. At night, families cram onto tables at Karakoy Gulluoglu for their famous baklava stuffed with pistachios within its sticky layers.
Life in Istanbul is both sweet and sullen. At first glance, there aren’t many smiling faces in Istanbul. But when you speak to people, they are warm and generous.
“A few years ago, no one was coming here,” explained a waiter. “But now things are getting better.”
Istanbul smells, tastes and looks like a fusion of many places, rightly so as the first and last stop on the Silk Road according to the sign on the Galata Tower.
At the airport, I order a coffee. “Where are you from?” asks a woman sitting next to me. She thinks I am Turkish and I think she is Persian. “Maybe since Turkey has been a place where so many mixed from different places over the years,” she says. “There’s no other place like it on earth.”