İstanbul: so good they named it three times. Or several times, if epithets such as “queen of cities” and “city of the world’s desire” are included alongside the more official Byzantium, Constantinople and İstanbul.
Standing in the Hippodrome with a list of the world-class art historical sites packed into the Sultanahmet district alone left us wondering where to start. At one end of this enormous chariot race-track stands a twisted bronze column dating from the 5th century BC, brought from Delphi and once crowned by several snake heads. From here the closest visiting choices are visible. The Sultanahmet mosque, known in the West as the Blue Mosque for the Iznik tiles lining its vast interior; the mosaic museum, created by simply roofing over a selection of the beautiful floors of Justinian’s palace; the museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, a collection spanning a millennium and a half; and the Hagia Sophia with its floating dome, awash with golden light.
The art and history seen from this one spot alone would consume three days’ viewing. Then within five minutes’ walk through Sultanahmet you can lose yourself amidst the giant columns of the basilica cisterns or the many pavilions and interconnected chambers of the Topkapı palace or the fountains and tulips of Gülhane Park.
On the other side of the coin there are many queues, and many other visitors wishing to take part in the art-fest; and given that İstanbul is a 21st-century city with over 14 million inhabitants there are many people going about their daily business. While the carpet salesmen and boat-trip floggers are a cliché they are undeniably there, some pushy, some witty.
But İstanbul takes its responsibilities to art-loving visitors seriously. The basilica cisterns are advertised in several guidebooks as greeting viewers with classical music and a light-show. This might have been tasteless in the extreme but is actually a triumph of subtlety: a lone reed flute echoes around the huge columns, of which maybe half are uplit to create alleys of light above the shimmering water in which shoals of carp languidly drift. To leave this meditative space and exit into the bright noisy city brings a shock.
Some sites need no assistance. Hagia Sophia would still give a sense of breathless wonder if it had been built next to the M25; the harem apartments at the Topkapı would still provide all the requisite Romantic and Orientalist thrills had they been removed to the V&A. But the effort to present them is being made nonetheless. There are many renovation projects underway: several parts of the Topkapı and archaeological museum and half the mosaics and frescoes of the Chora church are currently under wraps. However, care has been taken to ensure that enough remains for the visitor to understand the location as well as to see treasures. It is always encouraging to see attendants bothering to prevent flash photography in front of light-sensitive exhibits. Even the tickets are beautifully designed.
And away from the major attractions there are pieces of history lying unremarked in the street. The Sublime Porte, the gate that became the name that struck fear into the heart of Europe for hundreds of years, now stands in front of modern local government offices. The remaining columns of the Theodosian Forum, 1,700 years old, have been left in a tiny enclosure next to the tram lines in Bayezit Square. Yet they aren’t an invitation to the next passing Shelley to compose an ode on vanished imperial glory or transitory human achievement. They are a mute reminder that İstanbul possesses so much of high artistic value that inevitably some of it will have to sit out in the rain.
Matt Cambridge (BA and MA Art History, 2000)