My fascination with Istanbul started as a young boy when I saw the 1960s heist movie “Topkapi.” In it, a quirky group of thieves hatch an intricate plot to break into Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace to steal the priceless emerald-and-diamond-encrusted dagger that had belonged to Sultan Mahmud 1, who ruled in the 1700s.
In the movie, as in real life, Topkapi Palace is a museum. One of the most thrilling parts of the film was when one of the thieves eluded a floor-directed security system by dangling from the ceiling to nab the dagger. You can bet that after seeing “Topkapi,” my friends and I, substituting the flat Lincolnshire landscape for exotic Istanbul, re-enacted the good parts of the movie.
References to Istanbul started to snowball in my young life. Shortly after seeing “Topkapi,” I saw the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love,” in which 007 darts around Istanbul to help an alleged Russian defector. Then, I studied the Crusades in school, and learned how Istanbul itself — then Constantinople — was the desired bounty of the bloody Fourth Crusade.
Much later came the Agatha Christie movie, “Murder on the Orient Express,” that once again put Istanbul, which bridges Europe and Asia, also at the crossroads of exoticism and intrigue. By then, of course, I was hooked, and if I had such a thing as a bucket list, Istanbul certainly topped it.
Yet, as a young boy growing up in the relatively bucolic town of Boston, Lincolnshire, Istanbul was a distant and mysterious place representing glamour, intrigue and the lure of the faraway exotic. I couldn’t wait to go, but getting there seemed long in miles and short in opportunity.
You see, my family has lived in the Lincolnshire area for around 1,100 years. My immediate forebears, my father and paternal grandfather, had both yearned to go to sea, but they were dissuaded by family obligations. Military service during the two world wars had one in the infantry and the other in the air force – never the Royal Navy. Even the family business—stone masonry, no less–tied the Kent men to the ground.
Growing up in Boston (the Massachusetts version is named after ours), which was a small port, we’d go to see the ships come in and out. As a family, we took our annual vacations along a river in Scotland. By the age of 10 or 11, I announced I wanted to go to sea. The novelty and mystique of travel, fueled in part by “Topkapi,” inspired me to become a cadet. Given my father’s love of the sea, this time, family did not stand in the way of dreams.
After some time at college in Liverpool and during a four-year cadetship with the P&O Line, in 1977, I finally achieved my childhood goal. I was serving aboard Canberra, P&O’s flagship passenger ship, sailing into Istanbul.
The minarets of the city’s famed Blue Mosque pierce the skyline from quite a long way out, so in a way, my initial approach into Istanbul was a long, slow approach, like you might experience in a movie. We anchored on the European side of Istanbul, but I wasn’t free to disembark. It was my job to operate the tenders and ferry guests back and forth from ship to shore for their excursions, not mine. I was counting down the minutes until I was off duty.
Finally, I was relieved of duty and dashed to my cabin to change into street clothes, which I’d laid out ahead of time to hasten my departure. Along with a colleague, I boarded the next tender and once on land, we headed directly for Topkapi Palace. Due to renovation work, parts of this near-mythical place were closed to visitors. Thankfully, the treasury room, containing the dagger, was open.
And there it was, mounted on a mannequin sheathed in rich sultan’s robes — the exquisite Topkapi dagger. I was amazed at the opulence of its shimmering, gold sheath, studded with more than 50 diamonds. Diamonds also encircle the three massive emeralds that incredibly all but cover the handle of the curved dagger. The sheer value and magnificence of this treasure was almost breathtaking, it was all I thought it would be and more. I gazed upon it until my traveling companion insisted we move on.
We had little time left, so in the manner of James Bond, we peeled off in a cab toward Istanbul’s legendary Grand Bazaar. Words will never do justice to the diverse atmosphere of the bazaar, with all its hustle-and-bustle maze of stalls and overlapping aromas of spices, leather and food for sale.
We had to return to Canberra, but after that brief, initial visit, I was hooked. Istanbul had indeed lived up to its promise.
Luckily for me, that trip marked just the beginning of my travels to this fascinating city. Istanbul will keep any student of history fully absorbed. Founded by the Greeks in 600 AD as Byzantium, centuries later the city became Constantinople under Emperor Constantine and then the jewel of the Ottoman Empire. The city’s name was officially changed to Istanbul in 1930.
My journeys back have rivaled the movies. As a captain for Princess Cruises, I have been fortunate to bring the people I love along with me for the ride. I’ve traveled to Istanbul with my wife and remember the view as we departed the city with the sun setting on the Golden Horn. I have taken my two daughters to see the sights of Istanbul, although one of my most vivid memories of that trip borders on the horror genre. While we visited an outdoor café, a stubborn troop of cats repeatedly brushed past my legs. Istanbul is a city of widely tolerated cats, and I should add that I really dislike cats. I am thrilled to note I also took my mother to Istanbul, and we were reminded once again of my endless “Topkapi” games as a child.
In my visits, I frequently return to Topkapi Palace but I also make a point of showing my companions the Blue Mosque, with its towering minarets and cascading domes, and Hagia Sophia, a great architectural achievement that was originally a church, then a mosque and now a museum.
I’m looking forward to this summer, when I will rejoin Star Princess in the Mediterranean and will once again get to call upon Istanbul. I intend to visit a site I’ve yet to see, the Maiden’s Tower, which sits on an islet in the Bosphorus. It should not surprise you to learn that it also was a location for a James Bond film, this time, “The World Is Not Enough.”
Each time I arrive in Istanbul, I realize that I am not only visiting an incredible city, but also revisiting a special part of my childhood. While you could say my desire to travel was passed on to me by my father and grandfather, my fascination with Istanbul was inspired by the movies of my youth.