Why do we fall in love with Istanbul? For one writer, the answer lies in the city’s sounds.
What makes Istanbul so special? Travelers to the city will find it difficult not to become enamored with the lively bazaars bound by cobblestone streets, minarets reaching for the fluffy cotton candy skies, fruit stands carrying fresh-squeezed pomegranate and orange juices, and the soulful push and pull of the Bosphorus strait hugging the city shores as if embracing a loved one after a very long absence.
Many locals and visitors alike have tried to describe what precisely is so alluring about Istanbul. It is the unique geographic position that puts it right in the middle of two distinct world paradigms, some have posited. Indeed, the “east meets west” adage, as old as Istanbul itself, has been a popular one when describing the unique qualities of the city. Surely, others have said, Istanbul’s multifaceted history (stretching back to Constantinople and the Roman Empire while also being a keeper of events as relatively recent as the Ottomans and Atatürk’s Reforms) compels visitors to come back. No, still others have argued, it is the cultural, fashion, business, and art scenes giving rise to such institutions as the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, the Istanbul Biennial, Startup Istanbul, and many others, that attract cosmopolites from the world over to see this city.
Love is an inexplicable state of being. We do not fall in love with someone because they are funny, interesting, or smart. We love against logic and reason. We love not with our mind, but with our heart. For me, the love affair with Istanbul is many layers deep, but it began with a sound.
Imagine an early morning somewhere in an Ottoman period building three blocks from the Galata Tower. The soft rays of the sunshine on a dappled living room floor. The narrow window is wide open, letting in the fresh salty air that comes into the streets with the sudden breeze from the Bosphorus. The city is fast asleep, but if you happen to be awake, you will hear a peculiar sound that will follow you to the island of Büyükada and back — the call of the seagulls. At once melodic and piercing, it plucks at the hidden strings in your soul you did not even know existed. It comes without notice and punctuates conversations you weave by a small kitchen table, while the aromatic Turkish coffee brews and menemen (Turkish dish which includes eggs, tomato, green peppers, and spices) is just about to be served.
The seagulls of Istanbul fly over the seven hills of the city and beyond. Their powerful call carries stories about the city, waiting to be told. These stories can be enchanting, like the one about Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Istanbul. They can be recent, like a story about Fatih, a twenty-two-year-old football fan who roots for the local Fenerbahçe team. They can be simple, like a story about Mehmet, an old man from Balat who goes for his daily walk at the same time each morning. And they can be hopeful, like a story about Beril, a young woman from Cihangir, who is dedicating her life to the wellbeing of refugee children.
The seagulls provide a continuous soundtrack to the everyday life in Istanbul, but there is another melody that joins the performance five times a day. A call to prayer is a signature Istanbul sound. While crossing the moody Bosphorus, a traveler will see many mosques scattered throughout the city. The treasures of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the heart of the Historical Peninsula or the New Mosque in Eminönü draw attention, but there are many smaller ones worth exploring, such as the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, whose stunning blue tiled mosaics have earned it the nickname “miniature Blue Mosque,” or the Neo-Baroque Ortaköy Mosque in the European side’s Beşiktaş area.
For a traveler to the city of three thousand mosques, this chance to visit Istanbul’s places of worship and get accustomed to routine calls to prayer is a precious one. We fear less that which we learn to understand.
Adding another dimension to the sounds of Istanbul is the chatter heard on the streets. A simit (sesame bagel) seller always stands on the same spot near the Karaköy ferry terminal. His calls for a fresh simit will make you buy one even if you are not hungry. The keepers at the simple local eateries, esnaf lokantası, will invite you to try the no-frills cooking — it is always made in the way a mother would cook. The fishermen by the Karaköy Balık Pazarı fish market will gossip away while you choose the freshest catch of the day. The souvenir shop traders at the Grand Bazaar will try to persuade you to part with your Turkish Lira. They will nearly always succeed once you reach a mosaic lamp section.
Many other sounds are layered on top of the human voices in Istanbul. The busy ferries crisscrossing the Bosphorus blow horn in the deep bass alto. The coffee shops on İstiklal Caddesi play the latest pop music tunes, while the beloved Taksim-Tünel tram rings in high pitch soprano. Like a skillful conductor, the crashing and rolling waves of the Bosphorus strait create a surprisingly soothing effect and turn this clamor of the city into one brilliant symphony.
Next time you wander through Istanbul’s hilly streets, take a listen.