Everybody tells you it’s crazy. One night is not long enough to even begin to see Istanbul. The metropolis is too big, too complicated, just too... Istanbul. They are right, of course. The city is physically vast and re-developing at a mind-blowing rate. Its populace is estimated at almost 15 million, but, in reality, is unknown. Its layers of history are manifold. Istanbul is not a city; it is a country. Istanbul is not a city; it is a planet. It is a state of mind. These are phrases commonly spoken by anyone who knows the place. But, such is life’s busy-ness, you and your travelling companion have one night only to visit.
How long must be spent in a place to feel its spirit? An hour? A year? Especially in such a famous location – for Istanbul evokes by name alone its cultural crucible, political theatre and tectonic identities – is it sheer madness to attempt only 24 hours? Well, if the winds are fair, if the flight is on time, if your fellow traveller is an expatriate and you are staying with locals – maybe not.
The plane arrives in the evening – winter, clear skies, strangely warm. A huge preparatory moon, one month before the super-moon, is hung out. It, and the hundred spot-lit construction cranes, illuminate the sprawl of buildings, mushrooming malls, roadways, suburbs that are not suburbs, land being cleared for more assembly. Your hosts drive you towards Kanlıca, and the Bosphorus, for dinner. You are told about the motifs on the Turkish flag – crescent, star, red background. There are various meanings – wolf hunting formations, Islam, battlefields. Various meanings, it’s suggested, will hold the operating keys to this country. Think of the Bosphorus: contraspective currents, hemispherical divides.
The drive is reasonable, which is to say movement occurs. You’ve been warned to expect commuter chaos, lawlessness, terrifying taxi rides, and an unholy amount of cars. Is it worse than London, New York, Mumbai, you ask? ‘Certainly.’ As you drive, over loudspeakers nearby, the signature call-to-prayer. There is so much new construction; the city is being materially reconstituted. Where once shanty-houses - Gecekondu - were built hastily in darkness and without permission by the incoming poor, now skyscrapers, apartments and mosques are arriving almost overnight. Someone is getting rich – no one is quite sure whom. Your hosts talk about the corruption, the inability to talk about corruption.
Recently, a third bridge across the water has been finished to thin traffic, miles and miles of forest surrendered, yet traffic is still terrible. There are plans for a third airport, a hub to rival Heathrow or Schipol, and - this is jaw-dropping - another manmade Bosphorus channel, ambitious, lucrative, with unpredictable ecological consequence.
You have dinner in a restaurant called Yakamoz, on the water’s edge, Asia side. The First Bridge is garlanded with red and white light-bulbs; the water is indigo ink. So, this is the Bosphorus: not river, not estuary, not sea, but Strait, freighted by international ships, history and myth, trade, treaties and military tactics – a marine axis unlike any other. You drink Raki, lots of it, which, you discover, improves your ability to understand Turkish, or at least improves the international language of mutual affection. And you drink Şalgam, the spicy version, Persian in origin, which is fermented red carrots and turnip, and which is – you don’t believe until you try it – the perfect partner to Raki.
The food is gorgeous, traditional meze, authentic versions of dishes you have tried elsewhere. Hamsi from the Black Sea, battered and fried, like Whitebait. Kaya koruğu – ‘stonecrop’ – an unidentifiable item that tastes like nothing you have tasted, flavours of vegetable, bean, salt weed, tonic, pickle. Everything is aromatic, everything ‘Çok lezzetli’.
It is mild enough to drink tea outside, coatless, watching the boats jostle, before taking a taxi to the bars in Kadıköy, for coffee and beer. Conversation moves to legislation decreeing that in new venues alcohol cannot be served within 100 metres of schools and mosques. Not only are the materials of the city shifting, so are its policies. On language, liberties, the meaning of Turkishness, the country is deeply divided. It is late. Your hosts will have to get up for work at 5.30am. This does not prevent them from having one more beer, and demonstrating an extremely elegant form of hospitality once you arrive at their apartment.
The next day, your hangover is not too bad. That’s the beauty of drinking Şalgam, your companion tells you. Now you are going to see Istanbul, in daylight, but under rain that seems unprecedented, imported from your native homeland. You board a ferry – this is one of the oldest and most beautiful fleets in the world – and make the crossing from Kadıköy to Karaköy. It’s impossible not to register the journey’s significance. The Galata tower, domes, and minarets, Byzantine, Genoese, Ottoman, and modern architecture rises behind the mist. Much of the city is indefinite, lost to the weather.
You buy a cheap transparent umbrella from a street vendor, and take a tram over Galata Bridge to Gülhane Park, one of the city’s precious green hearts. There’s not enough time to go to Eminönü to eat traditional mackerel and bread by the sea, or visit the Egyptian bazaar full of spices and herbs. Instead, high-octane unfiltered coffee in a café, then you walk up to Sultanahmet square to the ‘Blue Mosque’, blue because of its interior tiling, elaborate designs including the iconic tulip. Inside – but, aren’t such experiences private? Shouldn’t they be? Here, too, is the central, troubled debate, the relationship of religion with Turkey’s secular constitution.
It is Monday: Hagia Sophia is shut, reducing your sightseeing options and assisting your limited schedule. Instead, a one hour tour of Topkapi palace; your tour-guide is a small, kinetic, flimflam man, whose historical reportage is vivid, coruscating, and inaccurate. You glance at your companion - disguised as a tourist - and witness expressions of amusement, skepticism, annoyance. At breakneck speed, the guide sprints you past cabinets of swords, clocks, jewels, helmets, cloth, spoils of empire, or gifts to empire, depending on interpretation. Once finished, you are presented with a copy of the Koran. Outside, the clouds have lifted and the view of the city is almighty.
A few hours remain. You walk, stroll even, to Cankurtaran, a meyhane called Giritli, where, in summer, the garden’s trees are full of figs and pomegranates, and where, among other fish delicacies, you eat octopus. Octopus cooked so that it is tender, crisp, exquisite. Your companion – it should probably be disclosed – is a chef. Now his facial expression is rapturous. More Raki. Its aniseed seems to compliment all cuisine. Will its magic work back home? You will have to stop in Duty Free and see. The waiter calls you a taxi. There’s a discussion about traffic - much of the city is already in lockdown and you will be taken the long way round to the airport.
The driver drives at 140 km per hour, without his seatbelt, smoking a cigarette, and watching the television mounted next to the steering wheel. He takes the third bridge. He and your companion talk about the news bulletins, in extremely fast Turkish, and you watch the city roll by, on and on and on. Tonight’s moon is fractionally less full, slightly less bright, moving towards crescent. But this is only a translation of light and shadow. The moon is always moon, even when it is granted other profiles. Hello and goodbye, Istanbul.
Words by Sarah Hall. Images by Kadir Özdil.
Sarah Hall is the author of five novels. Her most recent work is Madame Zero – a collection of short stories which includes Mrs Fox (the story won the BBC National Short Story award in 2013).