İstanbul! Capital of both the Roman and the Ottoman empires, a bridge between Europe and Asia, home to the Hagia Sophia whose sheer elemental force invokes silence, and adorned with exquisite mosques whose call rings through the city five times a day, a city in which extreme opposites coexist, a surreal world, sensuous and sensual, the city of temptation, there is no other word for it.
If Athens surprised me, Istanbul simply delights and dazzles. It’s religion, food, drinks, nargileh, lights, shops all sparkle and beckon. It is bursting with life and energy. It is so eclectic it’s dreamlike. Exquisite mosques and grand bazaars coexist with excellent restaurants, hammams, bars and clubs. You’ll see women in scarves but also others dressed even more fashionably than the women in Paris, and some making out with their boyfriends in public. I even saw gay and lesbian couples holding hands. This is bizarre but truly incredible to me.
Built on a hill overlooking the sea, it is an architect’s dream. You can take the ferry to Asia, which is visible on the other side, for 2 Turkish Liras (less than $2). The great number of local residents and tourists give the city enormous energy as well as style.
I went to the Istiklai Caddesi (a main shopping and food street) and my response could have been comparable to what I felt at Times Square. There was everything from Swatch to Citibank to the Virgin Music store. The book shops were incredible. There were no tall buildings but historic ones and many, many more restaurants with delectable food. It is a walking street with an old red tram that goes along it every once in a while. A million people walk along it each day, and even at 3am it is crowded and well-lit. A more than perfect public moment, Mario would say.
Istanbul’s originality is comparable to Dubai’s fakeness. It is a city rich in history and culture yet teeming with a modern spirit. Tempestuous like the waves of the Bosphorus strait, and serene like the interior of Hagia Sophia, it is home to the old and the new, traditional and modern, religious and secular, modest and scandalous, spiritual and heretical.
The architecture of Istanbul is beautiful but also functional: people pray in ornate mosques, live in old classical buildings (modern on the inside), party in ancient neighborhoods in chic clubs, and drink beer, wine and raki on the stone pavements. When I was finally ready to visit the Blue Mosque, I went at prayer time, and entered even though it said the mosque is closed to visitors for thirty minutes.
While the mosques were ornate, and there are so many of them, the Hagia Sophia had a rugged, brutalist, geometric quality to it, which was very interesting. Bora told me that a lot of this architecture uses pagan symbols. Just like the Pantheon in Rome, these buildings have square bases and round domes. The square represents this world and its imperfection. The circle is considered perfect and represents the sky and the gods. The Hagia Sophia is vast on the inside and there the ruggedness is replaced by Art Nouveau-like lamps and decoration.
I had dinner with Bora, Anas and Sefdeh at what we called a fancy restaurant that overlooked the sea and the city. A big, orange moon hovered just above the sparkling horizon.
I went to the giant cistern and saw the tilted and up-side down heads of the gorgon Medusa, whom Perseus had slain because she could turn to stone anyone she looked at. It was such a perfect moment because it connected my visit to Florence and obsession with the sculpture there to the same sense of awe I felt here. This was one of hundreds of ancient cisterns scattered under Istanbul.
When I visited the inside of the Hagia Sophia, there was some renovation going on. It was perfect: tremendous chandeliers hung low on thin wires, which resembled construction lines, and a tall, red metal staircase rose to the highest point of the dome. This and the new lights that hung on wires gave me some fresh photography subjects because I loved the contrast between the ancient architecture and the modern technology.
I sat at the café at the Istanbul Modern, looking out onto an amazing panoramic view of the city, and contemplated my stay there. Anas had told me on MSN that I had missed a chance to do something crazy, something I rarely do, because I did not get on to the boat at Angelique. The boat, though, was a metaphor and looking back on the last day, I knew I had taken it.