Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque rises as if from a height. Its hulking tiered domes overlook the water and its minarets carve out the sky.
When Kanishk Tharoor entered its spacious, sunlit interior as a 22-year-old on his first visit to Turkey, it felt transcendent. He had visited the Taj Mahal before, but this mosque, more famously called the Blue Mosque, seemed to stir in him an unprecedented reaction. “I feel like I’m fairly well travelled and have been to all sorts of places but it remains the most beautiful building I have ever entered in my life,” he says, 10 years later, on the phone from New York. “I’m not particularly religious myself but I can understand why people find the sacred within such an enormous exquisite space… I suppose I had an aesthetically religious experience.”
The 33-year-old writer and broadcaster, whose debut collection Swimmer Among The Stars: Stories was published last year, speaks in a giddy state of rapture while mapping the contours of his time in Istanbul. For years before his trip he had read the books and soaked up the history. When he actually went there it buzzed with the frisson of the new whilst meshing with the comfort of the familiar. “I was just geeking out the entire time,” he says. “Everywhere I went I was finding references to things I’d read or references to things I’d studied or written about. Before I came to Istanbul I felt like I had lived the city on the page. And then to be there in real life was just amazing.”
Istanbul is about 3,000 years old, and has been ruled by the Greeks, Romans and later Muslim conquerors. It is a city of many names, many layers and many fascinations, and sits in a country straddling Europe and Asia. For Tharoor, who graduated with a history degree, it had built up in his head over time as a magical, antique Disneyland. “It had been a place I had long imagined. In school I’d studied its Byzantine and Ottoman history. And romantic might be the wrong word—but I always dreamed of Istanbul from quite a young age, so it was such a thrill when I did go.”
Not just the Blue Mosque, he visited a series of other mosques, stopped by museums crammed with artefacts and climbed up to a Genoese fort with a view of the river Bosphorous meeting the Black Sea. And of course, there was the Hagia Sophia, a 1,700-year old structure that has moved through phases as a church, a mosque and now a museum. “Hagia Sophia is a very different kind of building. It is huge, it is more sober, it has a kind of dark solemnity inside,” he says. “It was first built in the fourth century A.D. and that sense of immediate and visceral connection to the past is something I really enjoyed.”
It’s not a sensation he gets to be wrapped in often as someone who grew up and lives in New York, an old-ish city in its own way, but one very much crusted over by modernity. “It’s very difficult sometimes to get the sense of a connection of a deep past,” says Tharoor, who hosts a history programme Museum of Lost Objects on BBC Radio 4. “What I love about Istanbul is that it’s there helplessly.”
Both New York and Istanbul are near the coast and by rivers—the Hudson and the Bosphorus respectively—but it is Istanbul that has vigorously retained its connection with its waters, unlike the American city.
Through his looking glass Tharoor articulates his memories as if drawing scenes from a painting. There are rival groups of football supporters chanting over the police lines as they queue up for the same ferry, the river swallowing the trailing embers of the dying sun at dusk, people fishing off the bridges. “The sun is setting, you have this lovely cityscape: rolling hills, the old city, and spires of various mosques and you hear the azan, and then you see gulls circling around the tips of the minarets. It was an image that remained with me,” he says.
Tharoor spent about three weeks there on a holiday with his mother, scoping it out by day and night, by boat and on foot. “I think walking is what makes cities,” he says. “Good cities have to be walkable. I know many cities aren’t. But Istanbul is pretty walkable.” He speaks sometimes in perfectly formed writerly sentences; on one occasion conjuring up an image of magnificence in his meeting with a Turkish intellectual at a café near Taksim Square, the main plaza: “He was a fascinating, evocative guy and had this immense beard, that when he spoke it was like the beard was parting to let forth words.”
Tharoor says his twin brother Ishaan has a completely different sense of the city having spent time there as a journalist writing on its political tumult and contemporary upheaval. But for Tharoor it is impossibly suffused with the past. “I wanted to sort of luxuriate in the history of Istanbul. It’s a huge city, but I wasn’t so interested in the modern metropolis of Istanbul.”
Istanbul is also one of the settings of a new novel he is working on. “Even if I hadn’t been to Istanbul I probably would still have included it in my fiction,” he says. “I believe very much in the fictive power of fiction. It so happens I have been there.”
Istanbul the place is now invariably read against Istanbul the memoir—Nobel Prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk’s portrait that hums with a deep affection and overhanging hüzün—the Arabic word for a state of spiritual anguish. “He has this slightly self-obsessed, morose, melancholic sense of the city which I can understand I suppose,” says Tharoor. “But I enjoyed it. I found it really uplifting to be there.”
Tharoor hasn’t travelled much for pure pleasure in the past few years, his trips having been determined by familial or work obligations. When he does travel, it involves a mixture of visiting the canonical sights whilst also just winging off in an unforeseen direction. “When I came to Istanbul I was more than happy just to embrace the clichéd typical things people did because this was what really fascinated me in the first place,” he says. “But at the same time just walking around the city without much of a plan… I like just the experience of being somewhere without the compulsion to be visiting sights or doing things. I like soaking these places in.”
Tharoor hasn’t been back since that visit a decade ago, but definitely hopes to go again. Is it conceivable that any other city would be able to match it history for history, view for view?
“I can’t imagine one that would in terms of the sheer age of the city, in terms of the beauty of the city, and in terms of the scale,” he says. “It’s not just a quaint old ruin. What makes the history affecting is you’re not just visiting some museum, you are in the heart of it… You’re in a very active and very major modern 21st-century cultural centre. And yet that modernity is enmeshed in the deepest antiquity imaginable. And I don’t know if there’s anywhere else in the world that really manages both those things the way Istanbul does.”