Standing amid the arcaded pavilions of the Topkapi Palace, looking down the wooded promontory of Sarayburnu with Asia to your right and Europe to your left, it is easy to see why Istanbul was always going to be one of the world’s greatest cities, and the natural capital for an empire that straddled three continents.
Many centuries compete for your attention here. On my previous visits I had always concentrated on the Byzantine monuments: the great land walls of Theodosius, the echoing basilica cisterns of Justinian and the impossibly beautiful interior of Hagia Sophia whose “great spherical dome”, wrote Procopius in the 6th century, “seems not to be founded on solid masonry but to be suspended from heaven by a golden chain”. This time, though, I decided to immerse myself in Ottoman Istanbul: a side of the city I had managed almost to ignore.
I am not alone in airbrushing the Ottomans out of history. For so important a force for so much of European history, the Ottoman empire has received remarkably little attention from writers and scholars. Insofar as it impinges at all in most people’s imaginations, the great Turkish empire is remembered as one of two clichés: either as the abode of the turbaned, sabre-wielding janissaries who haunted the nightmares of the west for three centuries; or, for the next three hundred, as the moribund “sick man of Europe”.
Indeed, for a force once so ominously familiar to the outside world, the Ottoman empire remains today one of the least explored fields in world history, “the forgotten giant” as one Ottoman historian has called it. Until recently, when the new government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to change this policy, even the Turks, taking their lead from Atatürk, also deliberately ignored an imperial past they had been taught to think of as decadent and embarrassing.
I decided to start my weekend canter through 500 years of Ottoman history at the centre of the old city in Sultanahmet, once the site of the Byzantine Hippodrome, then the ceremonial parade ground of the great Turkish dynasty that succeeded them. Here, on June 27 1530, Suleyman the Magnificent came to mark the circumcision of his sons. The empire was at its climax, and Suleyman was determined the celebrations should make Constantinople shine in a manner befitting the capital of an empire that ruled from Poland to the Persian Gulf.
As the noise of merriment rang out over the hills of the city, the princes’ foreskins were sent on golden plates to their mothers. Tightrope walkers balanced over ropes strung between the obelisks of the old Byzantine circus while, below, the custodians of two mental hospitals led laughing and howling madmen in gold chains through the crowd.
. . .
In the chill of my first evening in the city, I walked over to the site of these festivities, now deserted except for a scattering of Turkish women in headscarves quietly gossiping on park benches. A Kurdish hawker passed by, peddling paper-cones of chickpeas. Gulls hovered silently overhead. From the nearby teahouses you could hear the comforting gurgle of water pipes.
Leaving the Hippodrome, I walked past the understated magnificence of the Blue Mosque; then popped in to see the gorgeously intricate white-on-blue calligraphic tiles of the tomb of Selim II, tucked behind the baptistery of Hagia Sophia, the former cathedral that was converted into a mosque and is now a museum.
Heading down the hill, past old Ottoman wooden houses, I found myself in front of what was once the most famous gateway in the Mediterranean: the Bab-i Ali or Exalted Gate, known in the west as the Sublime Porte. It sits now almost unnoticed next to busy traffic lights with a tram rattling past but, for 300 years from the mid-15th century on, this gateway to the offices of the grand vizier and the Ottoman ministry of foreign affairs was a symbol of power – the 17th-century equivalent of the door of 10 Downing Street for the Victorians or the bay front of the White House today.
At that time, the Ottoman empire was the most powerful force in both Europe and Asia, and Istanbul was the region’s richest anchorage. From behind the Sublime Porte, the sultan and his viziers ruled a vast patchwork of peoples, assisted by a bureaucracy of celebrated efficiency. In the 19th century, one official of the Porte boasted that in 400 years it had never lost a document. Decisions made here echoed out across the globe, affecting the fate of hundreds of thousands. From here, the 16th-century grand vizier, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, ordered clocks from London, paintings from Venice, carpets from Isfahan and decorated Istanbul with one of its most beautiful mosques in honour of his equally beautiful wife. He planned canals between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, the Don and the Volga; sent galleys to Sumatra to frustrate the Portuguese and Dutch, and chose a new king of Poland to vex the Russians.
Only since Atatürk moved the capital to Ankara has the great city lost the power that it has always felt was its by right. Thanks to the ethnic cleansing over which Atatürk presided, Turkey today is a very homogenous country – 98 per cent Muslim and overwhelmingly ethnic Turkish – and it is, therefore, easy to forget how magnificently multinational the Ottoman empire once was. In my history lessons I had always conceived of the empire as exclusively Turkish-run and -led. However, strolling along the Bosphorus the following afternoon in bright sunlight, I came across the magnificent mausoleum of Kilic Ali Pasha, who had fought the warships of the west at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. One of the few commanders to stand out for his bravery, he was later made Kaptan Pasha, or Lord High Admiral, and went on to seize Cyprus from the Venetians. Here, it seemed, was a figure who might be taken to epitomise Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations – “the terrible Turk” incarnate – until I read that Kilic Ali was, in fact, an Italian from Bari who had abandoned the Catholic church for the revelations of the Prophet.
The easy assumption of some essential conflict between two very different civilisations became less tenable still when I read that the tomb complex had been constructed by another Christian convert – the great architect Mimar Sinan – and that the mosque he built was an almost perfect miniature of Hagia Sophia. At the same time as Kilic Ali was the Ottoman High Admiral, one of the most powerful Ottoman viziers was the eunuch Hasan Aga, formerly known as Samson Rowlie from Great Yarmouth in England. The janissary general known as “Ingliz Mustapha” was, in fact, a Campbell from Inverary in Scotland.
. . .
Just half a mile upstream from Kilic Ali Pasha’s complex is another monument that gives the lie to other lazy preconceptions about the Ottomans. A staple of my school history classes was the notion of Ottoman decline, the idea that after the Turks were turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683, their empire had been engaged in a long, embittered and impoverished retreat until finally the last Caliph was sent packing in 1924. This idea was a staple in the writings of the historian Bernard Lewis: militarily, economically and scientifically, he wrote, the Ottomans had been eclipsed by their Christian rivals by the beginning of the 18th century. Failure led first to profound humiliation, then growing rage and hatred of the west. According to Lewis, the Ottomans, still caught up with their sense of their own superiority, failed to show any interest in the west’s achievements – the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and so on – until it was too late.
Yet the Dolmabahçe Palace, a short walk up the bank from Kilic Ali’s mosque, shows just how rich and magnificent the Ottomans still were in the mid-19th century when it was built. It also demonstrates how much the Ottomans had become enamoured of the west.
The magnificent baroque palace that stretched for nearly half a mile up the Bosphorus was built between 1843 and 1856. Its 304 rooms range from a throne room the size of a railway station, lit by the largest chandelier in the world, to a rabbit warren of interconnected harem apartments. The fabulously florid and ostentatious neoclassical furnishings – massive gilded mirrors, overpowering pelmets, banisters of red crystal and crystal torchères rising 6ft out of the ground – may not be to everyone’s taste but they do show a love of 19th-century European style that borders on hopeless infatuation. It certainly impressed the Emperor Franz Joseph who stayed at Dolmabahçe on his way to the opening of the Suez Canal and called it “magically beautiful and senselessly luxurious” – a sure case of the Austro-Hungarian pot calling the Ottoman kettle black.
Some 20 years later, the hilltop behind Dolmabahçe was crowned with another, rather less overpowering palace, Yildiz. This was completed in 1877, and with its low gables, tiles, wooden bobbins and shutters, it looks rather like a Victorian shooting lodge magically relocated from the Highlands of Scotland. This touchingly simple palace was built by the shy, ultra-conservative and increasingly paranoid Sultan Abdülhamid who, while smothering liberal opposition to his rule and doubling the size of his secret service – it was said that he paid one-half of his empire to spy on the other – spent much of his reign honing his skills as a master woodworker: several rooms of the palace are now furnished with his own inlaid cabinets.
Whatever his failings, Abdülhamid was also no hater of the west: he enjoyed nothing more than having Sherlock Holmes stories read to him before bedtime. He also appreciated opera, drama and European music, and built a lovely small wooden private theatre in Yildiz in which to enjoy them all.
Yildiz and Dolmabahçe were the two last Ottoman palaces and between them were the setting for the drama of the final years of the Ottoman empire, as the western powers circled, ready to administer the long-planned death blow. This took place at the end of the first world war in which the Ottomans fought on the losing side. At the Paris Peace Conference, the empire’s eastern possessions were shared between the victors. As the later Field Marshal Lord Wavell wrote presciently in a letter at the time: “After ‘the war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘peace to end peace.’ ”
Yet the final end of the Ottoman dynasty came not at the hands of a western empire but at those of the Turks themselves. The last Caliph, Abdülmecid, was a scholar and painter who spent most of his middle age composing classical music, reading Victor Hugo, cultivating his gardens and painting portraits of his family. He had been in office barely four months when the Caliphate was abolished on March 3 1924 in a vote taken in Ankara, Atatürk’s new capital.
Dolmabahçe was surrounded by troops. Abdülmecid was reading the Koran – or by some accounts the essays of Montaigne – late at night when the prefect of police came to tell him that he had to leave at dawn. The Caliph took his family and just two servants into exile in Europe aboard the Orient Express. They settled in Nice. Here a few years later he was spotted by the correspondent of Time magazine. “He may be seen strolling with a mien of great dignity along the beach near Nice,” wrote the reporter, “attired in swimming trunks only, carrying a large parasol.”
We are still trying to contain the legacy of the west’s forced circumcision of the Ottoman empire in 1918-24, as Egypt undergoes its multiple revolutions and counter-revolutions and as Syria burns. No wonder then that a new generation of historians are reassessing Ottoman history in a more positive manner. Certainly there is no better place to dream about the lost opportunities and what-ifs of Middle Eastern history than by walking on foot through the remnants of what is still the Mediterranean’s great port.
‘Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42’ by William Dalrymple is published by Bloomsbury
Where to stay in Istanbul
Given the size of Istanbul, the volume of traffic and the lack of a joined-up metro system, getting the right area is key in choosing a hotel. The palatial Armaggan Bosporus Suites (armaggan bosporus.com), which opened in November, combines three lavishly furnished, immaculately restored 19th-century “water palaces”. Just be aware it is in the village suburb of Ortaköy, by the Bosphorus Bridge, and can take half an hour, often longer, to reach Sultanahmet by car. With rates from €1,440, it is also expensive.
This year’s grand opening – due on September 1 – promises to be the Raffles (raffles.com). It will have 181 rooms, two restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools and a heliport. However, unless you have a compelling reason to stay at the Zorlu Center, a massive mall (or “next-generation bazaar” as its publicists are calling it), it is less than ideally sited. It is six miles by road from historic Beyoglu, which is, perhaps, the optimum place to stay for its proximity to the main sights.
The landmark hotel in Beyoglu is the Pera Palace (jumeirah.com, from €285), which reopened after a rather soulless renovation in 2010 and is now operated by Jumeirah. However, the staff are kind and helpful, and it is opposite not just the enchanting Pera Museum, but Mezze by Lemon Tree (mezze.com.tr) – small, informal and inexpensive but offering some of the best cooking in the city.
Just to the south, in up-and-coming Karaköy, Vault Karaköy opened on March 1 (thehousehotel.com, from €180). This former Ottoman bank has modern interiors and is a five-minute walk from Galata Bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn to Sultanahmet.
Sultanahmet can feel deserted of anyone but tourists in the evening but if you want to be based there, the Four Seasons (fourseasons.com, from €590) is the place to stay. It’s converted from a 19th-century prison but you’d never guess from the room sizes and luxuriant garden at its heart.
Shangri-La (shangri-la.com/istanbul, from €395) opened on the Bosphorus last year in a former 1930s tobacco factory but it lacks the atmosphere of the former raki distillery that is now Sumahan on the Water (sumahan.com, from €295), across the water in Asia, in the village of Cengelköy. The downside is the trek into town, though weather permitting, the hotel operates a boat service to the European side.