There’s a real buzz to Istanbul – it’s exciting in a way few other cities are. The labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar is the hub of a great magical wheel. Gold sellers, carpets, ceramics… there’s no other place where window shopping is quite such fun. Take a tea-break just outside in a hidden courtyard, with vines on the walls and join the locals over a hubble-bubble pipe with a fat wad of tobacco and burning coals. Then stroll down the back way to the Spice Bazaar, past the shop which sells everything for the perfect circumcision party, past the caravanserai courtyards, the bartering and the porters lugging impossibly heavy loads. And then breathe in the smell of a thousand spices, fig, dates and olives. Count the minarets as you walk across the Galata Bridge, then grab a quick fresh fish roll for lunch.
In Istanbul there’s only one date you need remember – 1453. That’s when Mehmet the Conqueror took the city for the Ottoman Turks from the Emperor of Byzantium. So before that date it all Greeks, Romans and Christians, and after that date it’s all Islam, with the Sultan at the top. What were churches before the conquest are now mosques. Some have witnessed worship for nearly 1500 years. Topkapi Palace with its famous harem, the medusa’s head in the underground cistern, a ferry across the Bosphorus to Asia… does any city get more exotic than this?
I found the Turks unbelievably friendly. My last visit was just after 911, and they made us feel very welcome. Over the years I got to know one person, Ugur (pronounced ‘Oor’) particularly well. He was that rare thing, a blond Turk. He used to be an assistant in a carpet shop – now he runs his own and is soon to qualify as a tour guide. It was Ugur who put me onto the real dervishes. Not the ones who whirl for tourists (of whom there are plenty), but the Sufi mystics who meet after work behind an old green wooden door in the Fatih area of the city. They kneel in their suit trousers and shirts, swaying and chanting the name of Allah to reach a state of ecstasy. When the meeting is over the tables are turned, and they ask us questions about life, the universe and God.
Lift a stone in Istanbul and you start the adventure into over 2000 years of history; turn a corner and there’s a smiling face, a winding street, a peaceful mosque courtyard. And on a cold November night, whilst the last prayer of the day is going on (‘when a man can no longer tell the difference between a piece of black cotton and a piece of white cotton’) go into the gold sellers entrance of the Grand Bazaar and you will feel like Aladdin entering his cave.