ISTANBUL SMELLS OF HONEY AND WOOL, COFFEE and pistachios, newsprint and fried mackerel. It smells of luxury and necessity, of salt, canvas, tar and gasoline. Istanbul smells of commerce.Istanbul is the only city astride two continents. Asia and Europe are both joined and separated by the Bosporus, the strait whose currents flow through Istanbul in two directions--a warm, northward thrust up from the Mediterranean by way of the Sea of Marmara and a colder, less salty flow south from the Black Sea. Like the fish that have sustained many generations of Istanbullus (as the city's residents call themselves), ideas, languages and ambitions--and mercantile goods of every description--have also swirled through this conduit.
The first city on the site, Byzantium, was a modest Greek trading colony that languished under Rome. Under the Emperor Constantine, though, it became the great Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople. Constantinople's language was Greek, its law Roman, its state religion Christianity. We call its epoch, art and intrigues Byzantine , after Byzas, legendary founder of that initial Greek settlement.
Constantinople became the most populous and prosperous city of the medieval world. Trade in hides, wine, frankincense and grain was matched by a traffic in doctrines. Theological hairsplitting provided as much employment as the mercantile fleets. Franciscan monks set up shop here in the 13th Century, while St. Francis was still alive. In 1204, the Fourth Crusade--Roman Catholic armies funded by Venetian merchant bankers--sacked this capital of Eastern Orthodoxy, which was a juicier, more pluckable plum than distant Jerusalem, in the clutches of infidel Arabs. By the time the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, it had become a depopulated and demoralized shadow of a city. They named their dingy diamond Istanbul, from the Greek phrase eis ten polin , meaning "to the city."
Within 100 years, a Muslim Istanbul was again a booming cosmopolis, where a score of nationalities and sizable communities of Christians and Jews (refugees from the Spanish Inquisition) all traded with each other and the rest of the world. Caravans brought slaves from Africa and the Caucasus, spices and jewels from India, furs and amber from Russia, silver and gold from the New World, foodstuffs from around the Mediterranean, cloth from Venice and Samarkand. The famous Silk Road led here.
Today, Istanbul is a sprawling, chaotic agglomeration of peoples and purposes, astonishingly rich in art and architecture, a quintessential city, a sifter of risk and reward. The worst thing I can say about it is that it's locked in mortal combat with the automobile, the cancer of modern economic growth. But above the traffic, you can still hear peddlers hawking artichokes and melons, a muezzin's call to prayer, church bells, the melancholy notes of a tavern zither. The evening skyline of domes and minarets, crescents, crosses and dockyard cranes epitomizes the continuum of spiritual and secular endeavor.
For all its pulsating neon, Istanbul still has a human heartbeat. The pleasure of the smallest errand or transaction always makes me thankful to be here. "May your cough be gone," says a bank teller, insisting that I share her herbal tea; a boy refuses a tip for carrying heavy parcels; a taxi driver begins a $2 ride with the supplication, "In the name of God, the Compassionate and the Merciful." This is my idea of civility--of civilization--a place where you can wear your jewelry, drink the water, eat the arugula. Even the fax machines work.
Can there be any comprehensible introduction, for the first-time visitor to Istanbul, to a city stretching over so much time and space? Too many visitors end up merely awestruck--and exhausted--by the city's museums and architectural riches. It's almost impossible here to know which way to turn, which roads to take. Clearly, a plan or guiding principle is called for--and I have a suggestion as to what it might be.
Every time I return to Istanbul, I visit its markets to get my bearings. And every time I show the city to friends, I like to take them on a walking tour that focuses on trade--on markets, street sellers, vast bazaars. My aim is to present Istanbul as the unabashedly commercial nexus that it is. After all, it is the "pursuit of piastres," to quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that has fueled centuries of artistic patronage in this gilded city. Of course, the route I follow--through the European portion of the city--is incidentally studded with splendid edifices, evocative vistas, delicious snacks and quirky detours. Istanbul's markets seem to touch every other part of the city as well--which, of course, is the point.