Cosmopolitan Istanbul, a century apart
Written by Tristan Rutherford
Istanbul was as globalised a century ago as it is today. On a stroll between the city’s most historic hotels, it’s easy to map out 100 years of multicultural cool.
The creaking elevator inside the Pera Palace Hotel has witnessed celebrity from all angles. At the turn of the 20th century, princes and powerbrokers would peel back its gilded cage doors, before lounging on its red leather banquette. For this elevator wasn’t just the first in Istanbul. It was the first in the vast Ottoman Empire ruled by the Caliph at Constantinople. Just over 100 years ago, those lands stretched from the Adriatic to the Arabian Gulf and from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
After pressing the elevator button for the Pera Palace’s sumptuous fourth floor, the likes of King Zog of Albania and dancer-spy Mata Hari would alight at their Bosphorus-view suites. Their bodyguards – something no self-respecting potentate would travel without – would take a tiny courtyard room across the corridor. Agatha Christie penned Murder On The Orient Express in room 411. The English crime writer had great material to work with, as luxurious trains from Baghdad and Paris funnelled elegant passengers into the lobby below.
Then the city slowly closed. Like an Agatha Christie mystery, a veil of intrigue was pulled over the cosmopolitan capital of an increasingly tired empire. Politics, ideology, dictatorship, and decline slowly dimmed the lights inside the Pera Palace until its eventual demise. When I visited in the late 1990s, its carpets were threadbare, its ballroom forlorn.
Until now. I ride that same elevator down to a chorus of guests from Russia and the USA, from Brazil and China, and from across the Middle East. The Pera Palace emerged from a breathtaking renovation in 2010, and has been managed by Dubai-based Jumeirah since 2012. Through the revolving doors lies Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s principal shopping boulevard. Twenty years ago it was said that ghosts roamed the rococo mansions on either side of the street. Now Zara and Mango occupy the ground floors. Diners from east, west, north, and south peek out from the middle. And rooftop cafés command a panorama over this city of 15 million from the top.
As proof of Istanbul’s worldly back story, a sprinkle of splendid embassies mingles with the shops on Istiklal Caddesi. The grandest are the Swedish, the British, and the Russian. Turks once queued at these consulates for a visa out of the country. Now my foreign colleagues – journalists, chefs, and bankers among them – queue to get in.
A case in point is the Dutch Embassy at no. 197. This Italian-designed palace is a remnant of Istanbul’s previous Golden Age. A diplomat friend once explained how the embassy previously employed a dragoman to liaise with the world outside the iron gates. Now they employ Turkish-Dutch staff who cut deals in English, then hit the sushi bar up the street. Cosmopolitanism is back on the menu.
After lunch the Istiklal Caddesi crowds thicken. For respite I turn into the street’s timeless pasajı. These boutique arcades once sold silks and spices to Istanbul’s elite. Recently renovated, they now sell Ottoman objets d’art (Avrupa Pasajı), hipster clothing (Hazzopulo Pasajı), and harbour-fresh seafood (Çiçek Pasajı) to a global audience.
Ambling downhill towards the Bosphorus, I wander past the fin-de-siècle townhouses of Çukurcuma. Built for the city’s privileged in the 1890s, many of them are trimmed with Parisian balconies and frescoed ceilings. Local antique stores now cater for their current free-spending residents. Favourites include A La Turca (Faik Paşa Cadessi 4) for Ottoman vintage, Nostalji Antik (Turnacıbaşı Caddesi 32) for dusty silverware, and Hall (Kazanci Yokuşu 30) for furniture once owned by Istanbul’s historic elite. Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s new Museum of Innocence (Çukurcuma Caddesi) hosts more ephemera from the city’s past.
I finally arrive at the Kabataş Bosphorus Ferry Terminal along with scores of visitors. Istanbul’s latest belle époque has been part-fuelled by the wildfire success of its homegrown soap operas. According to the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, three out of four residents in the 16 Middle East nations surveyed had seen a Turkish TV drama. The likes of Gümüş (known as Noor in the Middle East), a story of love and deceit on the Bosphorus banks, and Aşk-ı Memnu (The Forbidden Love), also set in a ritzy waterside villa, have brought in tens of thousands of visitors keen to ogle their idols’ palatial homes on a Bosphorus Ferry Tour.
The Golden Ages of last century and this reach their apogee at Beşiktaş, a short walk north from Kabataş. Here the endless splendour of the Dolmabahçe Palace, where the final Ottoman sultans lived the highlife, occupies a full kilometre of Bosphorus shore. The palace’s once-deserted stables have been transformed into the W Hotel, which pairs rainforest showers with Bose sound systems. The adjoining street, Süleyman Seba Caddesi, now throngs with moneyed visitors who peruse hip Turkish brands Vakko and Haremlique. Hopefully that renewed elegance will rub off on my adopted football club, Beşiktaş J.K., whose stadium is currently being rebuilt around the corner.
But the most glamorous chapter of my Istanbul trail is a short stroll further on. Along the bustling waterfront sits the Çırağan Palace. No other building better symbolises the city’s rise, decline, and subsequent rebirth.
Like the Dolmabahçe, the Çırağan Palace was once a royal home until Mehmed V (the last sultan to die in Istanbul) designated it as the Ottoman Parliament in 1910. Alas, his democratic experiment quite literally went up in flames two months later. The palace burnt to the ground as the Ottomans tottered into the First World War, and the empire’s demise with it.
But don’t shed a tear. For in line with Istanbul’s renaissance, the Çırağan was reborn as a 5-star Kempinski hotel. It is famous for its US$40,000-per-night Sultan Suite, a 458m2 masterpiece that combines a private hammam
with more silk brocade than a Buckingham Palace wedding. Deals between the global elite are still cut on the palace’s marble floors. On my previous visit I saw German Chancellor Angela Merkel waiting patiently for Turkish President Abdullah
Gül, who rolled up in a Mercedes bearing the license plate 001.
The Bosphorus Strait
The Bosphorus Strait has divided Europe from the Middle East since time immemorial. Those who attempted to bridge it once did so at their peril. Take King Xerxes, who built a wooden pontoon between the two continents in 484 BC, only to see it swept away in a furious storm. (The egocentric ‘King of Kings’ had the waterway whipped in punishment.) That’s why the Istanbul authorities took no chances when building their sub-sea intercontinental Metro tunnel, which opened in late 2013. Earthquake-proof concrete tubes were sunk 60m below sea level. Today visitors may glide between Asia and Europe in a matter of minutes. Cosmopolitan city dwellers dreamed up a similar scheme a century ago. Their unfulfilled plan was for horse-drawn carts to trot underneath the Bosphorus, connecting passengers arriving on the Baghdad train with the Orient Express to Paris. However, the new Metro service, which will be able to carry 75,000 people per hour, seems much more workable.
Armaggan Bosphorus Suites
In late 2013 this wooden waterside villa scooped the award for the most sumptuous new accommodation in Istanbul. Little wonder, as it was built by the doyen of late Ottoman architecture, Sarkis Balyan, as his own private residence. With robes, toiletries, silks, and cushions from Armaggan’s homeware emporium these 18 suites aren’t for everyone (prices start from around US$2,450 per night). The establishment’s two female concierges, Banu Yegul and Nihan Yuceil, can arrange after-hours shopping trips to Armaggan, as well as private jets to Cappadocia and personalised art tours.
Bosphorus Fish Restaurants
Come spring, dozens of simple seafood restaurants pop up along both banks of the Bosphorus’s 30km-long shores. My favourites reside behind the fish market of Karaköy, midway between the Galata Tower and the Topkapı Palace. Simply select your bream (çupra), turbot (kalkan), or sea bass (levrek), which will be scaled, cleaned, and seared on the grill before your very eyes. Platters of melon, feta, and octopus salad serve as humble sides.
Heaven is an idle hour spent browsing the 30 bookstalls of Aslihan Pasajı, one of the ancient passage arcades just north of Istiklal Caddesi. Granted, there’s a lot of tat. But in between the well-thumbed Agatha Christies and Ian Flemings are vintage copies of Turkish glossy Hayat, and back- editions of Cornucopia, the much-coveted magazine for the modern Turkish aesthete.
Sabiha Gökçen Airport, Istanbul, Turkey