The domed splendor of the 17th-century Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
The domed splendor of the 17th-century Blue Mosque in Istanbul. (Boston Globe Graphic / Dina Rudick)


A foray into the soul of this ancient city whose domes and minarets, stories and spices leave you wanting more

Email|Print| Text size + By Barbara Lazear Ascher
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2005

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story on Istanbul in Sunday's Travel section gave an incorrect date for Byzantium's absorption into the Roman Empire. The city, which is now Istanbul, became part of the empire in 74 BC.)

ISTANBUL -- ''If only they didn't call it Turkey," the guide sighs, his tone heavy with an end-of-empire melancholy not unfamiliar to the Turkish soul. He imagines that his own city, Istanbul, is tourism's stepchild compared with, say, Rome. ''I mean, if they called it 'Italy,' everyone would come."

Alas, that one's been taken, but Byzantium, perhaps. Or a name borrowed from the seas that send their sweet breezes over this history-laden land. Bosphorus. Aegaeum Mare. Mediterraneus. Would you come, lured by the melody of such tender sobriquets? Would you come to this domed city, site of ancient blood and lust bound up in the mosaic and gold of eternity?

It doesn't take a name change. Converts are won through exposure. And should you find yourself perched atop Istanbul's most coveted aerie, the rooftop of the Four Seasons Hotel, if the waiter exemplifying the deservedly famous Turkish hospitality brings you a pale green, icy drink of local lemon and crushed mint from the hotel's herb garden as you gaze out at afternoon light turning the Bosphorus to molten silver, you will know that this first visit will not be your last.

Flaubert suggested that six months were required to ''know" Istanbul. He was a quick study. Perhaps six years. It takes six days to understand that just as you think you are ''seeing" the city, the mirage evaporates to be replaced by another. Turkey was never a colony of the West; therefore, there is little that is familiar. Should you come here imagining yourself a Yeatsian pilgrim sailing to Byzantium, you might think you have arrived when you spot the famed skyline of domes, minarets, and red tiles. But given time, you come to understand that sailing to Byzantium is sailing to an idea of a place rather than the place itself.

Istanbul is an idea of a place. It was founded on prophecy and dream. Byzas was among the first dreamers arriving on this site in the 7th century BC after consulting the oracle at Delphi. Byzantium thrived until it was absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire in AD 196.

The divine ''sign" given to Constantine that this would be the site of his New Rome was that tools mysteriously missing from his camp just as mysteriously showed up here.

If you are to discover this city, if you are to eavesdrop on conversations of the centuries, know that Flaubert's time frame will merely whet your appetite. It will take many visits over many years to satisfy the craving for cuisine featuring sweet vegetables, tender lamb, briny fish, and rice cooked 100 ways. It will take any number of visits to observe the Ottoman splendors. And who can possibly keep the history straight? Even the locals are caught off guard by the deep layers of their past.

''Just try to build something around here," an Istanbullus laments, referring to failed attempts to extend a subway line. ''You dig down and you hit a Roman road or a Byzantine wall." The state protects its ruins. Town planning is that of the ancients.

Perhaps that explains the chaotic sense of this pulsing city. Streets wind and twist and appear to go nowhere except, if you're lucky, to an arbor-covered seafood restaurant. It is best to throw away all attempts at order and control and simply allow yourself to get lost enough to be found.

So much is left to the imagination. When visiting the sultan's bedchamber in Topkapi Palace, one can only imagine the ceremonious love scenes between Murad III and his chief wife, Safie, kidnapped from her Venetian family to become the most prized member of the sultan's harem. (Etiquette dictated that she enter the bed from the foot and slowly, ceremoniously, work her way up to her lover's lips.)

Imagine the 17th-century languor of virgins reclining in the sultan's harem after a day of lessons in music and art. And if for a moment, you wonder how any man could find peace and comfort in a palace full of women, there's a merchant in the 15th-century Grand Bazaar who will sell you an ''ancient" concoction of 15 spices and herbs, ''the secret recipe of the sultans." She smiles knowingly. ''After all, he had hundreds of wives." Then after a serious pause, she instructs, ''Take a teaspoonful after dinner. No more."

This is only slightly suspicious, because if you are fortunate enough to find your way through winding streets of dogs and children at play to the fish restaurant Balikçi Sabahattin, and if you ask the waiter to bring you whatever is good that night, and if you eat rice rich with flavors so mysterious that you ask the secret, you'll be told: ''Fifteen spices."

Do not even try to decipher Turkish. It will so exhaust your brain that you will have no energy left for wrapping it around dates of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It is a language in which meaning and preposition and question and answer and mood can all be tacked onto one word. A Faulkner sentence would be one word in Turkish. For instance, ''Musambalamamaliydik?" Translation: ''Should we not have lined it with linoleum?"

To continue your tour with imagination ready to fill in the blanks of glories long departed, you won't want to miss the Basilica Cistern built by Justinian in 532 to store water, the Byzantine delicacy of Kariye Mosque, the Hippodrome constructed by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus where 95,000 spectators once cheered chariot racers. You will stand in awe of the craft required by those who worked 26,000 Iznik tiles into the shimmering glaze of the 17th-century Blue Mosque's mosaics. And yes, the dome of the 6th-century Ayasofya (or Hagia Sophia) does seem to float. Having come all this way, do you want to leave without seeing the 86-carat Spoonmaker's diamond, the emerald-encrusted dagger, the golden cradle of the princes at Topkapi Palace? Since it would take a week to see the palace in its entirety, you might consider limiting your first visit to the Harem and the Treasury. Go early before busloads of other seekers arrive.

You mustn't leave without hiring a boat to cruise the Bosphorus (the strait that connects the Black Sea and the Marmara, that divides European Istanbul from Asian Istanbul) and stare at the city from the water. Or going to the bazaar to return boasting of your hard bargain, getting those evil eyes for $2 when the merchant demanded $10. (Who did he think you were?)

Yes, yes. All of this. Yet, there is something quieter here, something less hysterical than the building of monuments to personal or religious glory. There is something tender about a place that has been the site of so many earnest attempts to foil mortality. There is something familiar in the belief that beauty can bind up passion and give it eternal life. You need unplanned, quiet hours to hear the echoes of such yearning.

Chances are that when you hear the daily calls to prayer, resounding from a hundred minarets, you will find yourself called to secular reflection. There is something to be said for such wake-up calls, a reminder that not all knowledge exists in your guidebook. In Istanbul, knowledge as we know it -- say, knowledge of works by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona or Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, the coordinates by which we steer to get to ''know" a place -- are strangely elusive.

When evening falls, though, one can begin to sense the soul of Istanbul lumbering down through the ages, rising out of the sea and resonating off mosque walls, sighing from the tops of minarets. Nighttime is best for spying on this city. After dark, when the tourists have departed for the provinces, hotels and cruise ships, when the rug merchants have rolled up their wares, when the old men who play cards and drink black tea in glasses in cafes have gone wherever old men go, this is the time to wander the streets.

Note how the lighted domes of the Blue Mosque and Ayasofya seem poised for takeoff. So delicately are they set atop their foundations, a mere breeze could lift them as though they were skirts on young girls. Breathe deeply and catch the perfume of brine, rose, and lemon. Like courtesans, cities have their particular scent. It tells a lot. You could find yourself back by scent alone.

Your searching for the soul of Istanbul will be served best if limited to the old city. No doubt you have heard tales of swimming across the Bosphorus from the Ciragan Palace Hotel. Or so it seems when you breaststroke across the hotel pool at the water's edge. And yes, wandering its Ottoman gardens can make one feel like a sultan in the making, but you have to take a taxi in often heavy traffic to get to the heart of Istanbul, the Sultanahmet, in the old city.

For this, the best points of departure and return are the world's most luxurious former prison, the Four Seasons, or its neighboring, more modest inn, Yesil Ev. From here, you can wander the streets in early morning or late evening and be alone with the sound of your feet against ancient stones and the best guide in Istanbul, your own imagination.

Barbara Lazear Ascher is a freelance writer in New York.

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