Picture of the Hagia Sophia in Turkey

Finding fresh air—and a new angle—in Istanbul.

Photograph by Boyd Matson

By Boyd Matson

From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

"I need someone to be my wife for a couple of hours. Would you be interested in playing the part and taking a bath with me?” Admittedly, the line is more likely to end a conversation than begin one, but my time in Istanbul is short, and I’m desperate, so I immediately pop the question to every woman at our tour group’s “Welcome to Turkey” mixer.

My quest is motivated by a desire to see something old and familiar in a new way. For the record, that’s not a dig at my actual wife—who isn’t on this trip—or the women in our group; it’s a reference to Istanbul, the ancient crossroads of East and West and one of the world’s great cities. Having been here numerous times, I’ve spent hours in the usual hangouts—palaces and coffee shops, mosques and museums, the spice market and Turkish baths. I’ve loved every minute, but now I’m craving something new.

During the next couple of days, the itinerary will take us back to these places so familiar I could provide the narration. I could add some bonus commentary, too. “The Topkapi Palace, home to Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years, features rooms for concubines and eunuchs. Without the former there’s not much need for the latter. The Grand Bazaar has more than 3,000 shops. All of which are prepared to make you a very special price because you are the first customer of the day.” My cynicism not only disqualifies me as a guide but proves I could use a glass of fresh perspective.

Earlier this afternoon, I had found myself arguing with a guy behind the counter at the Süleymaniye Hamam, who refused to let me enter this historic bath reserved “for couples only.” I tried to explain that my guide, Gulin, is a woman, and I am a man: “Ipso facto, we are a couple.” He won’t waver from his rote response, implying her fluent Turkish and my nonexistent Turkish means we are not a true couple.

“No” is like a four-letter word to me. Hearing it riles me up and makes me determined to keep pushing, maneuvering, and negotiating until I get “Yes.” This personality quirk—or flaw, as some might describe it—has led to some exceptional travel experiences. As soon as I hear, “You can’t go there,” I become fixated. Already today, by employing the same persistence I developed in college as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, I’ve managed to gain seldom granted access to the top balcony of the main minaret at the famous Blue Mosque. The minarets of more than 3,000 mosques puncture the Istanbul skyline. But the view is almost always from outside and below, and I want to see one from inside and above.

After a couple of hours of rejections, I find a guy who knows a guy who knows “the guy”—the muezzin, who for 25 years has been sounding the call to prayer at the Blue Mosque. Thanks to loudspeakers, he no longer climbs the interior circular staircase to deliver his calls from the top balcony. But if I want to make the climb and check out the view? “Please, be my guest,” he tells me.

Clearly, no one has been inside this minaret in quite some time. The lights aren’t working. It’s dark and dusty, with walls little more than shoulder width apart and narrow steps—102 steps by my count to the first balcony, then another 35 each to the second and third. On one step I sidestep a pigeon nest with two eggs, on another a nest with two chicks. But when I emerge into the light at the top, I find what I was looking for: a stunning panorama of the city and a rare vantage for taking in the beauty of the Hagia Sophia museum. I can’t help but marvel at how no other tourist will likely have this experience today, or this week, or maybe even this year.

Back at the hamam, which was built in 1557 for Süleyman the Magnificent and today is one of Istanbul’s oldest baths, I’m not working to change a no to a yes because of the view. My interest had been piqued when Gulin pointed it out as Istanbul’s only historic Turkish bath that is coed, an intriguing venture in a city where conservative religious doctrines hold great influence and in a country where, during the time of the Ottomans, the punishment could be death for a man found in a woman’s bath. I assume Süleymaniye is mainly for tourists now, but the staff—the scrubbers and rubbers, the soapers and splashers—must be Turkish. Is the staff coed? Does an undercurrent of treading in illicit waters permeate the bath?

It’s after Gulin and I are rejected that I start looking for a more convincing wife du jour. Once an adventurous soul accepts my invitation, we pass the couples test and are shown to a private changing room. Our eyes locked on opposite walls, we disrobe and quickly drape ourselves in the provided garments—I’m in a towel that appears to have formerly been a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant; she’s in a giant pair of boxer shorts and an oversize bikini top that could have been two large dinner napkins from the same trattoria.

We enter the bath area and see only tourists, and the staff is all male. Having my body pressed, kneaded, and shoved into hot marble is as painful as I remember. But I’m still glad I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Revisiting a favorite city can be like spending time with an old friend: If you probe deeply and ask questions, you may learn something new. And that only strengthens your friendship.

Editor at large Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on the radio.

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