As with many of the world’s great places, images of Istanbul are instantly recognisable. Icons are everywhere in this town, the capital of three empires over nearly two millennia.
Nowhere is this more obvious than Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the city. Home to many of Istanbul’s most famous attractions, it sees a constant flow of people around the Blue Mosque, Ayasofia, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar.
Easy to find on public transport (the T1 tram runs straight past it), the streets around the Hippodrome are filled with stalls, restaurants and visitors from all over the world. During the summer months Sultanahmet is best explored in the morning and late evening, avoiding both the heat of the day and the worst of the crowds.
Fishermen try their luck from the Galata bridge, while Yeni Cami (the so-called New Mosque, a mere 400 years old) dominates the skyline beyond. Just west of Sultanahmet, this busy port area is home to a never-ending stream of ferries, pleasure boats and people waiting to cross the Bosporus.
Enroute to the bridge most water access is blocked by large buildings and even larger walls. Straining for a glimpse of the waterway I sneaked off the pavement, down a small path and into an archway, and squeezed my camera between two railings. Like millions of others in Istanbul, I’d apparently do just about anything for a sea view.
Not all of Sultanahmet was busy. The steep cobbled street that ran down to my hotel was virtually deserted, day or night. With the ivy-clad wall, wandering cats and snatches of coastline, it wasn’t just a lack of fitness that caused me to pause every time I found myself here.
A reminder on the wall above a side entrance to Ayasofia that for much of its history Turkey didn’t use the Roman alphabet as it does today. One of the wide-ranging changes made by Ataturk in the 1920′s was to switch from the Arabic alphabet, in a successful bid to improve literacy rates.
I’m sure there is some significance to the bear sculptures dotted around Gülhane Park – I just don’t know what it is. They were pretty, though, in an odd sort of a way, and the park itself was perfect for both people-watching and lying gazing at clouds for hours.
I may have done both.
Walking along the rock wall beside the Sea of Marmara one morning, my caffeine levels dropped dangerously low. I chose a simple cafe set back from the water to savour my first Turkish coffee in Istanbul.
Waves crashed nearby and gulls screamed overhead as I soaked up both the beverage and the ambiance. It was good to be alive.
A few days later I found myself in the same spot as evening fell. The sun was low in the sky, bathing an enormous cruise ship in its warm glow. An old man in an orange jacket sat and watched it pass, nestled into the rocks beside the water’s edge.
I stood for a while caught up in the moment, before smiling and walking on.
Just another day in Sultanahmet.
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