Guiding Star That Reveals the Glory of Old Istanbul; TRAVEL MAIL HOW THOSE PAGES FROM THE PAST BRING TURKEY ALIVE

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 31, 1996 | Go to article overview

Guiding Star That Reveals the Glory of Old Istanbul; TRAVEL MAIL HOW THOSE PAGES FROM THE PAST BRING TURKEY ALIVE


Byline: Giles Milton

CLUTCHING a suitcase in one hand and my pocket-sized 1909 Baedeker's Guide to the Mediterranean in the other, I boarded the flight to Istanbul.

Yes, the Baedeker may have been 87 years out of date but I'd been given it as a present - and I wanted to put it to the test in Turkey.

These excellent guides with their distinctive red covers dominated the travel book market for decades. They were either the best or the only guide books available to the more exotic regions of the world.

I was intrigued to see if they would stand the test of time . . . but just in case everything went horribly wrong I slipped the latest Lonely Planet guide into my pocket, too.

Istanbul - or Constantinople as it was still called in 1909 - promised many differences but much that would be familiar.

Baedeker recommended the Pera Palace Hotel. It sounded perfect, but I peeked at the Lonely Planet guide just to make sure I'd made the right choice.

`The atmosphere in the public salons and the wonderful bar of the Pera Palace is bewitching,' it said.

Full marks then to old Carl Baedeker, who would surely be surprised to learn that these days rooms are almost [pounds sterling]100 a night.

In the early years of this century, Constantinople was the last outpost of the civilised world for most English people.

Accessible by Orient Express (for whose passengers the Pera Palace was built), it was a tiring three-day journey from London.

Today, it is still an adventurous destination. Straddling the Bosphorus which divides Europe and Asia, it has still to come to terms with its geography.

Two continents, two cultures, two religions and two languages have stared at each other across a mile of choppy water and across the centuries. Stroll along the streets near the Pera Palace Hotel and you could be in Paris or London.

Cross the Golden Horn to the Phanar district and you could be in Islamic Iran: all the men wear flowing robes and the women are covered from head to foot in black.

ISTANBUL still has a hint of the exotic,

especially in the evening mists when minarets and domes appear and vanish, when ships sound their booming foghorns across the water and fishermen set up stall by the harbour's edge.

Although the population has exploded from one million in 1909 to 13 million today, and although ugly suburbs spoil your first view of the city, Baedeker's enthusiastic description of Istanbul is as true today as it was 90 years ago: `The vast city curving over the slopes . . . its green banks studded with villages, palaces, and mosques, the Golden Horn with its busy bridges and its countless vessels, all combine to form a picture of matchless beauty.'

And so to the city's sights. Baedeker enthuses for 24 pages on what to see. And, taking his advice, I began with Istanbul's most famous edifice, the former church of Haghia Sophia.

Haghia Sophia was, for almost a millennium, the largest and most lavishly adorned building in the world. It was the very centrepoint of Emperor Constantine's vast Christian empire and no expense was spared in decorating its interior. Built in 537AD, the immense dome was covered entirely in gilt and lit by tens of thousands of oil lamps.

The church was stacked with thrones of solid gold, hundreds of tons of silver, priceless relics and unique jewels.

Early travellers couldn't believe their eyes.

Haghia Sophia today is a museum and it needs some imagination to picture it in its heyday.

All that remains are a few broken fragments of mosaic or the occasional carving. But stand for a moment under the immense dome and you realise what an astonishing feat of engineering was achieved here.

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