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Picture of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
Welcome to a narrow paradise

Posted on 03 October 2010, 22:08

Flying to Byzantium: Entry 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Photos

Acton to Istanbul, Saturday: Tali (my daughter) and I were late leaving the house to get to our local tube station, Acton Town, comfortably in time for the first tube of the day to Heathrow, so we had to do it the uncomfortable way instead: racing along the dark streets noisily dragging our cases-on-wheels behind us.

Even so, as we hastened I noticed the horned moon in the sky above us, a white, waning crescent. It struck me as a good sign for a trip to conquer Constantinople, as the moon was famously in this phase when the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

Five hours later we were hurtling in a taxi from the airport into Istanbul, rear seatbelts not working, Turkish music blaring, the meter ticking over gleefully. Suddenly out my window on the left I saw the brown and white stripes of the massive walls of Constantinople, where they come down to the Sea of Marmara, which was on our right. The walls finally failed in the Ottoman siege, which is why Istanbul is now a city of mosques rather than churches. I’ve always imagined entering the city from this side, through the walls, so this was an advance thrill of the city.

‘Welcome to paradise,’ was how the receptionist at our hotel in the old town greeted us, but paradise turned out to be a very narrow room: two beds with an 18 inch strip of carpet between them. So we were quickly back out on the street waving down a taxi for another hotel.

Our new taxi took us right around the end of the peninsula, giving us a lightning tour of the Bosphorus, packed with ships, and then the Golden Horn, with the coloured buildings of the Beyoglu district heaped up on the other side.

Our driver either hadn’t done ‘the knowledge’, or was deliberately taking us the most lucrative way around town, and we quickly hit the Istanbul rush hour. Which he got through by overtaking on the wrong side of the road at speed, and then by cutting up the side alleys, Steve McQueen like, squeezing past vegetable delivery trucks, crossing over the ridge of a hill dense with houses and then dropping down into the university quarter.

Later, after we’d checked into our new hotel, we walked through the steep streets towards the Blue Mosque. I hadn’t realised Istanbul would be so hilly, or that there would be constant views of the sea glimpsed between buildings on this southern side of town. The geography of the place springs surprises on every corner.

We passed a mosque on a little street and looked down into a gloomy, forgotten graveyard next to it, and then found ourselves suddenly in a wide and grassy space, which I quickly realised was the site of the Byzantine hippodrome. All that’s left of the ancient race track now are two obelisks which stood there in Byzantine times. At the base of one of them is a sculpted block from AD 390, which still shows the emperor in the kathisma, his trackside box, surrounded by VIPs and holding out the wreath of victory.

We walked on and had our first view of Hagia Sophia (seen above) across gardens with a fountain, everywhere crowded with people. The old church turned mosque turned museum looked dense and massive – and quite ramshackle in a down at heel and homely way. All around, street vendors were selling roast chestnuts and corn on the cob from brightly coloured carts.

It was 5 o’clock and the church was closing for the night, so we walked right around it, admiring the Hag-tat on sale, including t-shirts and postcards, snow domes and souvenir miniatures of the holy building. Plus harem pants and fez hats and trinkety jewellery. We saved our Turkish lira for tomorrow and found some supper at the Sultan Pub, which has a fine roof terrace overlooking this old part of town.

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