From sooty working-class neighborhoods to flashy tourist sights, the city perched between Europe and Asia defies expectations.
Our first morning in Istanbul, the waiter in our small hotel served us the traditional Turkish breakfast of olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, crusty bread and steaming tea. As we finished, he beckoned us up the stairs to the rooftop.
We gasped at the view. To the south, the Sea of Marmara stretched to the horizon. To the north, the vast domes of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia looked close enough to touch. And beside us, the Muslim waiter recited his favorite passage from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians: "The first commandment is love."
Our trip to Turkey last spring was full of moments like this, with Turks reaching across divisions of culture, religion and language with questions and assistance. A country that straddles Europe and Asia, Turkey reflects the influence and history of both.
In the West, we hear about the growing influence of Islam in Turkish politics after decades of secularism and military dominance. In the lively city of 16 million people, we saw more blending than displacement. In Istanbul cafes, Muslim women wearing chic headscarves sip tea in front of TV monitors blaring sexy rock videos. Young Muslim men sip Ephes beer and raki, a powerful anise-flavored liquor, at outdoor cafes. One beer-drinking tour guide explained that he'll repent when he makes the hajj to Mecca as an old man.
Even our waiter's knowledge of the New Testament is not as strange as it might seem. Paul once preached in Ephesus, an ancient Roman town of amphitheaters and baths that the Turks are excavating a few hours south of Istanbul. Istanbul itself was Christian from 330 A.D., when Constantine made it the capital of his Holy Roman Empire, to 1453, when Muslims conquered the city and made it the center of the Ottoman Empire.
After breakfast, we headed off to see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque close up. Built as a Christian basilica in the seventh century, Hagia Sophia features soaring Byzantine domes and brilliant mosaics of saints. When the Ottomans took the city, they converted it to a mosque and installed enormous medallions in Arabic script, and a screened platform from which the sultan could watch unseen. In 1935, the secular Turkish Republic converted the building to a museum, but the worn stone floors and slanting afternoon light still evoke centuries of religious devotion.
Outside Hagia Sophia, a gentle man named Adnan introduced himself and offered to show us the Blue Mosque nearby, then take us to his cousin Joseph's carpet shop. Carpet sellers are everywhere in Turkey, hailing tourists from shops and bazaars. Maybe we suffered from an excess of Minnesota Nice, but when a fellow leads you to the mosque entrance, describes its history, then waits for 30 minutes while you visit, it's hard to refuse a visit to his cousin.
Once we reached the shop, cousin Joseph took over with a patter that blended charm, politics and persistence. "Why don't more Americans visit?" he asked as one assistant unfurled carpets and another fetched us tulip-shaped glasses of tea. Is it because of the Armenians who died after World War I? The pile of carpets grew taller. Perhaps you like a kilim. What color? What size? More tea?
By the time we left -- without a carpet -- we were hungry. So we hopped a ferry for the Kadikoy district, a lively neighborhood of cafes and restaurants on the city's Asian side.
Along with its hills and the domes and minarets of mosques, one of Istanbul's great charms is the water that divides and defines it. The Sea of Marmara, an outlet to the Mediterranean, lies to the south. The Golden Horn, a wide inlet, divides the two European sections of the city. Meanwhile, the 34-kilometer-long Bosphorus Strait separates the European side from the Asian and connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Yachts, fishing boats, freighters, tour boats and ferries ply the Bosphorus all day.
At Kadikoy, a highlight is Ciya Sofrasi, a modest restaurant famous for food from many regions of Turkey. Ciya's owner, Musa Dagdeviren, has dedicated himself to recovering old recipes and using local, seasonal ingredients.
In early spring, green almond soup and cooked nettles were on the menu. Even familiar dishes like tabouli had a distinctive flavor thanks to ingredients like pomegranate vinegar.
Our waiter brought plate after plate of mese -- appetizer-sized delicacies made of eggplant, peppers, olives, lentils, tomato -- until we could hold no more. An American friend living in Turkey later taught us the word "yavas," meaning "slowly," a helpful word to know when the plates come faster than your stomach can handle.
We left with carry-out tins and feasted on the contents for lunch the next day.
During five days in Istanbul, we bargained for jewelry at the Grand Bazaar and admired palaces on a cruise up the Bosphorus. We strolled past fine shops and restaurants in the cosmopolitan Beyoglu neighborhood and marveled at the luxury of the Topkapi palace, where sultans and their harems lived.
But on the day we most treasure, we headed off in search of more remote parts of the city. We began with a plan to explore Yedikule, a massive fortress that guarded the city's southern approaches, then walk 6.5 kilometers to the Golden Horn along the ancient city wall that once protected the city from European invaders.
With few tourists and no guard or "Keep Off" signs in sight, we roamed the battlements that link Yedikule's seven towers. After admiring the glorious views of the Sea of Marmara, we descended into the dim, cold dungeons. No place in Istanbul gave us such a bone-deep feeling of the city's history of power and vulnerability.
Too tired to walk the entire length of the city wall, we took a cab to its northern edge and spent the next few hours meandering through the twisting narrow streets that cut through the hills of working-class neighborhoods.
Here was another city entirely. Smokestacks venting acrid coal smoke competed for rooftop space with solar water heaters and satellite TV dishes. An occasional rooster crowed as if to underscore how the city has swelled with millions of immigrants from the countryside.
Dark-haired boys interrupted their pickup games of football to test their few words of English, invariably ending with the chant "Money, money, money!"
Suddenly, a chorus of music -- horn, drum, guitar -- intruded. Following the sound down a steep hill, we encountered a parade of relatives and friends celebrating an engagement. Two people carried pans of food on their shoulders. A young woman carried a set of new clothes for her friend. And in front, carrying a bright bouquet with "You are loved" on the ribbon, walked a smiling young woman, newly bethrothed.
Our path took us past wooden Ottoman houses with overhanging second stories, many crumbling, some beautifully restored. In the conservative Fatih neighborhood, we encountered crowds of young men in turbans and women wearing the abaya, a black cloak revealing only a pale diamond of forehead and eyes. Even there, one woman blinked a wordless welcome.
Near the end of our walk, we stopped at a teahouse high on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn. As we sipped strong tea in the afternoon light, the call to prayer began. In a city with more than 2,000 mosques, the call began with one voice, then two, then a dissonant chorus amplified through loudspeakers mounted high on minarets.
Some voices were high and thin, others low and deep. For several moments, they sang out different words in different cadences united in their praise of Allah. Slowly the voices dropped off until only one was left. Then it, too, stopped. For a moment before the murmur of conversation and buzz of motorbikes and buses returned, the sound of prayer echoed.
Steve Brandt is a Star Tribune staff reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com and 612-673-4438. Lynda McDonnell directs the ThreeSixty journalism program at the University of St. Thomas.