The minute I arrived in town—my first trip back in more than 20 years—I could feel the contemporary excitement that makes Istanbul one of the hottest destinations around. The narrow, cobblestoned streets around Ortakoy Mosque were so crowded on a Saturday evening, close to midnight, that I could hardly walk. Little boys were letting off neon-blue paper dragonflies, like homemade fireworks, and local girls whose tiny skirts and wild blond tresses suggested Shakira—in triplicate—were slipping past black-clad doormen at the Angelique nightspot.
A tiny stall was offering tarot readings and tattoos, and behind it the Bosporus Bridge was bathed in red hues, then blue, then yellow, so it seemed more a giant Slinky than a thoroughfare between two continents.
The particular promise and confidence of the city today lies to some extent in the fact that it has been three times the center of the world; for centuries it has known how to talk and trade with Russia to the north, Iran to the east, Central Asia just behind, and Europe all around. Unlike a Dubai or a Abu Dhabi, say, it can be in tune with the future precisely because it has so rich a sense of the past and such seasoned wisdom about the cycles of culture and history. I walked into the Spice Bazaar one day and found LCD signs in Japanese (though the merchants there were fast-talking in French and Portuguese and Spanish, while calling out, “Excuse me, lady, it’s almost free!”). The minute a few drops of rain began to fall one morning, I saw resourceful locals at the doors of the tourist buses near the Aya Sofya flogging umbrellas. And the most commonly seen couples in the backpacker area of the old district of Sultanahmet were beaming young Korean women on the arms of leather-jacketed young Turks who’d just won them over.
Around them, the handful of restored Ottoman “boutique hotels” that had greeted me in 1986 now numbered 200 and counting. Everywhere there seemed to be a natural savoir faire that reminded me of cities like Mumbai and Shanghai, able to rise from every setback to put themselves in sync with the moment. Even the sixth-century caverns at the Basilica Cistern are lit now in nightclub colors with “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy” piped incongruously around its Medusa columns.
Yet for all the racy Italian fashion ads (on the Asian side of town) and for all the enterprising salesmen laying down carpets on the streets at 9 p.m. from which to sell toys and electric shavers (on the European side), the city can seem to the anxious as if it’s on its way to becoming the next trendy but perennially torn Beirut. To this day, more than 97 percent of Turkey is Asian, which makes Istanbul an anomaly—as well as a beacon. And a city of 500,000 souls in 1920 now has to contain up to 25 times that many, as people flood in from the Anatolian heartland, perhaps unsure themselves whether the economic opportunities that their biggest city offers are worth embracing if they also bring with them secular European values. The newspapers were all talking, when I visited, about a new “hip” mosque in the Uskudar area, said to be the first such building designed by a woman. But it seemed a fair guess that the silent majority across the country, away from the imported surfaces, still saw “hipness” and mosques as pointing in opposite directions.
To go to Istanbul today is to see in bold strokes the conundrum that confronts all the fast-growing old cities in the world as they try to remain simultaneously global and themselves. And in Turkey’s biggest city, the setting seems more charged (and more allegorical) than anywhere. “It’s the most eastern part of the West and the most western part of the East,” a Turkish student said, when I asked a class in the smallish town of Isparta (through its American teacher) what they thought of Istanbul. He didn’t add that that could result in collision as much as in collusion.
It’s a bit perverse, I realize, to go to one of the planet’s most historic and enigmatic cities just to seek out what can as easily be found in Santa Monica or Tokyo. So in the days after my night in Ortakoy I took pains to pay homage to as many of the sights of old Istanbul as I could. I took a taxi out to the holiest spot in the area, the Eyup Sultan Mosque, and felt something inside me tremble as I saw pious women sobbing outside the place where the Prophet Muhammad’s friend Abu Ayyub al-Ansari is said to be buried. I went to the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum beside the Hippodrome, across from the Blue Mosque, and realized that the 500-year-old palace in which it is housed is as remarkable an artwork as anything inside it. More than once, while killing time before a ferry, I stole across the street to the Spice Bazaar and slipped through the narrow shopping lanes nearby to the almost hidden flight of stairs that leads to the exquisite—and largely unvisited—Rustem Pasha Mosque, one of the treasures of the city.
One morning I took myself to Topkapi, arriving early so I’d have the harem and the dazzling gardens almost to myself, and I was so stunned by the place that I went again, at the same time, four days later. And in the evenings, staying in Sultanahmet, I found nothing more magical than just strolling through the dimly lit alleyways, looking in on the Sokollu Mosque minutes before it closed, losing my way in a maze of streets that, even close to the tourist section, retain something of the withdrawn power and mystery of an old and very foreign place.
Yet for all these moments of ancient beauty, I kept trying to remember how Istanbul might look to a Turk, for whom it is an invigorating model of the future. If foreigners are always drawn to what is “Turkish” about the place, the Turks who pour in from the interior are, for equally good reason, drawn toward everything that seems cutting-edge and international. One of the students I’d questioned told me: “People in Turkey say, `The earth of Istanbul is made of gold.’”
It certainly can seem that way around the boutiques and cafés of the privileged quarters. After staying across the street from the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet, I moved one day over to the Bentley Hotel, near Nisantasi, and walked into a minimalist white-andblack
lobby with fashion magazines from Sweden laid out on a table. A framed letter next to the front desk expressed the thanks of a cardinal who had stayed here recently while traveling with the Pope. And after checking into a designer room there, I took a taxi down to the Istanbul Modern, whose in-your-face canvases shout out that Turkey today refuses to be boxed inside a foreigner’s quaint notions of it.
Since the summer day was buoyant and warm, I got onto a cruise ship traveling up the Bosporus, and as we passed the yali summer houses set along the water, I was forcibly reminded that affluence and style are nothing new here; novelist Gustave Flaubert, visiting in 1850, had said that Istanbul, a century hence, would be the capital of the world. Then, after catching my breath as the shoreside mansions drifted by, I got off the boat at Yenikoy and took a bus back toward the city, along the single-lane coastal road that runs along the water.
I might have been near Nice and St.-Tropez, I thought, winding through a series of jewel-like villages set against the scintillant blue. At the Sakip Sabanci Museum, I got out to find much of fortunate Istanbul stretched out on the museum’s lawns, listening to live jazz as men in Polo shirts picked nonchalantly at slices of watermelon; the museum’s Getty-worthy restaurant had, in 2007, been named by Wallpaper magazine as one of the hottest new eateries on the planet. Walking down to Bebek, a little farther south, I stepped into a Starbucks and found a beautiful terrace on the Bosporus itself, a copy of Wired draped across one table. Now I might have been in Sausalito, it seemed, or one of the gorgeous small towns around San Francisco, as I watched boats bob among the white pleasure domes and cars pass across a great suspension bridge in front of me. In the old wooden houses of Arnavutkoy, not far away, trendy couples were dining on terraces filled with bright flowers, as if posing for a vision of what many young Turks in the countryside might see as the Good Life.