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January 3, 2009 by Debbie Hindley

In September 2001 I spent five days in Istanbul. It was the last five of fourteen amazing days in Turkey as a member of a study tour. I was not supposed to be in Istanbul at that time. I should have been in Canakkale, on the Gallipoli Peninsula, taking part in a conference on war and peace. The tragic incident that changed my plan was 9/11. To me it was the most poignant of cities to be visiting at that dramatic time. I was in a city that had experienced a succession of power struggles by conquerors from the west and the east. Istanbul had survived. It had endured conflicts and converted struggles into a vibrancy of culture, preserving layer upon historical layer, while embracing the future.

For those five days I stayed in the fascinating district of Sultanahmet, within walking distance of the ruins of the Hippodrome, the Ayasofya, the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. At the end of each day I met the other members of the study tour at the rooftop bar of the hotel and marvelled at the successive citizens of the city who have preserved the ancient and continue to embrace the new in a myriad of styles. My hotel, Sarnic, was more than a representation of the ancient and modern in Istanbul. It was the ancient and the modern with an ancient cistern built by the Romans in the basement and internet facilities for guests at the rooftop bar.

Rooftop settings allow you to experience the sights, sounds and smells, particularly in the ancient district of Sultanahmet, Istanbul. The Sarnic is located between the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya (or Saint Sophia the Byzantine church) on the other, a further representation of the east and west meeting. At night both the Blue Mosque and Saint Sophia are illuminated adding to the ambience. Twice a day the call to prayer is made from the Blue Mosque and can be heard throughout Sultanahmet. The fragrance of Turkish gastronomy wafts over from the restaurants down the road. Within walking distance of the Sarnic you can experience the Cemberlitas Hamami; the original Turkish Bath designed and built of marble by the master architect Sinan in 1584. There are separate bathing sections for men and women. Bathing is not really the correct word.

After undressing, you go into a huge steam room. Everything is marble, including a huge centre dais. You lie on the hot marble and if you get too warm you can go to one of the smaller plinths and splash yourself with cool water before going back to hot marble. Once you have been sufficiently steamed one of women from Cemberlitas will scrub you with a gentle ferocity until the top layer of your skin is removed and you are left feeling clean and relaxed. I felt like I was floating as I returned to the Sarnic's rooftop, where I sat peacefully contemplating this wonderful city. Straddled between Europe and Asia over the Bosphorus Sea, Istanbul is not only a geographical landmark, but also a beacon to the world of religious, racial and political tolerance.

It is a fascinating city of contrasts and contradictions. Five days was not enough to fully appreciate Istanbul's complexities but it was enough to engage my desire to return sometime in the future.