It was sunset, and there I was at the Ataturk airport, ready to find my way out and explore. Years have passed before my wife and I decided to give Istanbul a shot. Not speaking the local language, I had to choose my options wisely at the airport. After a few negotiations, I accepted the offer a yellow-cab driver made, an offer that didn’t seem much of a rip-off. Twisted turns, abrupt stops, accelerating starts, fast change of lanes, repeated honking were just a few things I can still recall from the yellow cab experience. What was so remarkable was the people’s attitude: despite the hectic atmosphere, no body seemed to get mad.
In our way to the hotel, a feeling of déjà vu was steadily building. The cars, streets, buildings, bridges, it all looked familiar in a way with what I saw and lived in Morocco. Except one thing, it all looked in a better shape. These were first impressions that remained consistent during all my stay in Istanbul. A few hours at the hotel were enough for us to recover from the long flight. Unfortunately, it was night time- a time of day where most tourist attractions were closed. But the view from an open-air terrace in the hotel giving on Istanbul’s skyline was just spectacular. This view was one of the best things about the Bomonti area.
I woke up the next day to the spiritually soothing sound of azan. My first destination was the Sultanahmet district. Beneath a bright sun and inside grand, cavernous spaces, those first few days and late nights were spent delving as deeply into the district as possible. My curiosity was sparked repeatedly by relics at Topkapi Palace and glamorous decors at Dolmabahçe palace, and later by hills of colorful spice at the bazaars. Despite the disorienting whistles and calls from merchants of all races and ages, shopping in Istanbul’s bazaars invited our best bargaining skills. I recall several meals on Galata bridge during which we were able to survey east and west, savoring the 5-lira fresh fish sandwiches, enjoying the magnificent vibes of Turkish life at its purest.
Our most busy days ended with rewarding trips to a marble bathhouse (called “hamam”), followed by streets-side refreshing tea and hookah cooldown. Every city has a different feel to it at night, but there was something singular about the way Istanbul shined and glittered in the darkness. Golden-lit mosques with sky-scraping minarets and domed roofs ran uphill, and the Bosphorus twinkled beneath the Galata Bridge. I realize that, as I attempt to convey it, I’m not really sure what we were seeing exactly, but the feeling it inspired is still present with me now. The Blue Mosque showed a fittingly mesmerizing face high above in the hillside, and the Galata tower surveilled the Golden horn as though inspiring security to Istanbul, this place of so many faces and stories.
For anyone who feasted on its kebabs, marveled at its narrow streets or found meaning at its mosques, Istanbul—as Byzantium, as Constantinople and as my Istanbul—has welcomed generations over the ages and become the crossroad of human civilizations. In the way that the tiles in the Blue Mosque invoke reverence and the air in the Hagia Sofia’s stairwells feels dense, layers of historical depth underscore every experience I had in this city. In all of history, there is perhaps no greater union of two continents, no place from which more power has emanated, and there is an exquisite quality to modern Istanbul that goes in harmony with all that has preceded it. In my view, this is what sticks with you. This, and the nightly golden glow of streetlights in the bosphorus, is what calls you back.