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“Are you staying in the old part of Istanbul?” I answer my cab driver with a “maybe?” because to an outsider like me the old part is tough to tell from the even older part. All I can offer is that my hotel is near the Galata Tower. Without skipping a beat, he shakes his head and reprimands me. “That is not the old part.”
Luggage stashed at the hotel, I wind through narrow cobblestone streets toward the tower. Rising 67 metres, the imposing cone-crowned landmark has served as a dungeon or lookout for more than 600 years, and offers a stunning panoramic view of the tangled metropolis, which straddles the crossroads of Asia and Europe. One of the world’s largest and oldest cities, Istanbul was a key stop along the Silk Road trade route and home to the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires. As I look across the Golden Horn Inlet of Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait toward Istanbul’s historic quarter, where minarets and mosques, palaces and markets cluster together, it doesn’t take much imagination to see why UNESCO designated a combined 678 hectares of the city a World Heritage Site in 1985.
The next morning I find myself at Topkapi Palace, primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for most of their 624-year reign, which ended only 91 years ago. The rambling grounds and elaborately tiled rooms are overrun with tourists. Colour-coded map in hand, audioguide on, I join the long line for the weapons exhibit room. I can’t help but contrast the systematized tourist attractions of Istanbul with the off-the- beaten-track allure of central Turkey.
Two days earlier I had explored the city of Sivas, almost 900 kilometres east of Istanbul along the Silk Road, in Turkey’s Central Anatolia region. Here I felt like less of an ordered and ordinary tourist and more like Indiana Jones as I stepped around the rubble of crumbling minarets before sauntering next door to have tea in a centuries-old madrasa-turned-outdoor-café.
Central Anatolia is home to another UNESCO site. A 3½-hour drive south and then east from Sivas through scorched, grass-tufted hills is the city of Divrigi, where nestled in a hillside sits the Great Mosque and Hospital of Divrigi, built in 1228. Apart from a layer of new plush carpets and a series of speakers bolted to the ancient pillars of the place, the capacious interior seems to have changed little in its almost 800 years.
In fact, it’s the modern additions that come off as anachronisms. Flat-screen TVs are hawked two blocks from thousand-yearold ruins in Sivas, pineapple juice is passed out in shiny plastic cups outside of the sixthcentury gates of the domed Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, and light rail drops you off at the door of a sultan’s palace. Yet this is at the heart of historic Turkey’s charm — feeling like you’re walking through a living past with bits of the future poking through.
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