Always one step ahead, always slipping through your fingers just as you think you've grasped it. Jo Durden-Smith pursues the city that coined the word byzantine.

One night last May I drove up the Great Mountain of Pines on the Asian side of Istanbul, near where Constantine the Great defeated his rival Licinius in the early fourth century. I parked the car near the top, then walked up to a lanterned, treed courtyard where, hunched down on a small platform, women in checkered robes and headscarves were making gözleme, a sort of Turkish cheese tortilla. Using thin wooden rollers, they were teasing out little balls of dough into circles, which were then filled, folded, and tossed onto griddles in an endless slow rhythm as old as time.

Around the women, low stools had been set out among the beds of pansies and violets that surrounded the trees. And children and their mothers were playing and laughing while the men drank coffee and raki off brass tabletops in a restored pavilion nearby. On the walkway that surrounded the hilltop a young man was softly playing a guitar in the moonlight, as dark couples, the men in shirtsleeves, the women mostly in long skirts and with their heads covered—for the mountain is in a city ward controlled by the Islamic Welfare Party—strolled quietly by.

Far below, almost unnoticed by them, lay their extraordinary city and its linking waters: the brow of old Byzantium pushing out into the velvet shapelessness of the Sea of Marmara; and Constantine the Great's Constantinople, dominated by mosques and minarets, superimposed on and stretching back from it along the waters of the Golden Horn. Across this fabled channel the medieval Genoese concession of Galata tumbled upward from the shoreline toward the 14th-century watchtower that dominates this quarter. East of it, the faintly sheeny ribbon of the Bosphorus flowed down from the Black Sea toward the little island where the Greek hero Leander is said to have died during his doomed swim to his lover, Hero. Everywhere there were rivers of light—traffic crossing the Galata Bridge and then speeding down the European coast road past old villages and summerhouses and the great 19th-century Ottoman palace at Dolmabahçe (Dol-ma-ba-chéy). Off to my right the two bridges over the Bosphorus looked like busily flashing liquid-display chokers drawn taut over the neck of water.

After an hour or so of remote, eagle stillness up here, I drove back down to Üsküdar (Ush-keh-där), from which, ca. 400 b.c., Cyrus the Younger, the subject of future Greek historian Xenophon, led an expedition of 10,000 men back across the water to Europe, and from which, nearly 1,800 years later, the Sacred Caravan began its yearly trek to Mecca and Medina. And then I turned back in a long circle toward the reality of modern Istanbul, toward the Mehmet the Conqueror Bridge.

It marks the point where Darius, king of Persia, crossed the Bosphorus to attack the Scythians in 513-512 b.c.; where the Crusaders crossed in the opposite direction on their way to Jerusalem nearly 1,600 years later; and where 300 years after that the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II built two trade-strangling fortresses on the sites of Greek temples to Serapis and Jupiter Urius. Today, though, a more democratic—if only slightly less murderous—force holds sway. That May night, a Mercedes and a Ferrari looped and swung through the dense traffic, playing a mad game of chicken; and fireworks, to celebrate the 74th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, suddenly lit up the sky at the European end of the bridge. There, in Emirgân and Ortaköy, the cafés were still buzzing; back in Taksim, near the center, two drag queens in evening dress strutted along the sidewalk, to the gawking and hooting of motorists; and across the Horn in Laleli—the garment district where many of the shop signs are in Cyrillic—the "Natashas," the Russian prostitutes, were beginning their night's work.

Istanbul, with its emperors and its sultans, its Russians and its drag queens, its traffic and cafés, has always been one of the world's preeminent crossroads. A strategic key that opens two continents, the ideological center of successively waxing and waning empires, it's been contested and defended for over two millennia. It has also, though, from its founding ca. 650 b.c., been on a fault line between the often opposing cultures of Europe and Asia. It's the tension between these two—which helped throw up some of the glories of its Byzantine and Ottoman art and architecture—that is still giving new forms and directions to the modern city.

"Istanbul—Turkey in general—was forced to enter the twentieth century very suddenly," says art critic and curator Beral Madra in her studio in Nisantasi (Ni-shan-ti-sheh), perhaps the city's premier luxury shopping district. "It had to. It had to industrialize and enter the global economy. But it paid the price, in the process, of losing its overall cultural identity. Now there's a chaotic, multicultural atmosphere, in which everything jostles together: fundamentalism with the avant garde. There's a search for order. The unemployed poor pour into the city from now-mechanized farms in Anatolia. They see—and resent—the Westernized rich and try to bring the city into their own power. Meanwhile, the masses are pulled toward fundamentalism and standardization. The younger generation struggles to be open-minded, to not only be a part of a global culture but also to have some regional identity—which includes the Western and Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire—that could give us a sense of continuity."

It's just these discontinuities in the city's history that seem most apparent, at first blush, to the visitor today: the imposition of Constantine's court and Christianity on the old Greek colony of Byzantium, leaving a few oddments by way of remains which are now in the Archaeological Museum. Then the brutal and total conquest of Constantine's declining city by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II on May 29, 1453, which left standing mainly what was useful or immovable—notably the churches, the monumental city walls, a few columns—as testimony to the past. In the 20th century the process continued, only faster, and it's given the city a new, thrown away, out-of-kilter feel.

In the 1920s and '30s, for example, Turkey's greatest modern leader, Kemal Atatürk, dragooned the country into modernity, reinventing the language and forcing on it the Latin alphabet, so that Stamboulis (as the people of Istanbul are called) can no longer read the Arabic calligraphic manuscripts in the sultans' great palace, Topkapi, and grandchildren cannot decipher the inscriptions on their grandfathers' gravestones. Atatürk also vastly liberalized Turkish society—he gave women the vote, for instance, and abolished the sultanate—and pushed through dramatic changes in customs, from banning the traditional fez to encouraging Western-style dress and the adoption of surnames, an uncommon practice before his time. With later industrialization came concrete, which didn't lend itself to the balconies and carved facades of traditional Ottoman architecture, and—in high-rise form—shrugged older buildings aside. Then—since the 1980s—money arrived: a new and frenetic mercantile prosperity. And the result is a city that seems at first no longer either truly ancient or modern but something in between: inchoate, dated, provincial. Yes, there are showrooms for both Jaguars and Mercedes in what were the old fishing villages along the Bosphorus; and yes, Gucci and Versace, art galleries and elegant antiques stores, throng together in the Mayfair-like districts of Nisantasi and ukurcuma. But in the older parts of the city an endless crawl of cars clogs up medieval lanes. On the outskirts there are shantytowns; and in the Grand Bazaar, near the historic center, there's as much kitsch and tat for sale as fine silverware and leather. Even the most grandiloquent new buildings in Istanbul seem somehow weary, as if exhausted with the press of traffic and the crush of new arrivals, who have driven up the population from 7.5 million in 1990 to 13-15 million—nobody knows how many—today.

"The city is in terrible physical condition," says Kâmil Sükûn, founder of one of the first modern lifestyle magazines in Istanbul and now a fashion-show organizer and publisher of Who's Who in Turkey. "The people in charge of it have run it without responsibility, like children in charge of a doctor's surgery, putting an ear to the patient's shoulder instead of his chest, making short-term decisions, cutting the throat to make a hole for breathing, as we say. So now, on one level, the metabolism of the city's been destroyed. Its airways are blocked. Its physical structure, its roots, have been compromised. But at another level," he says, spreading his hands, "it still survives; it still works. Genetically, Istanbul remains the heart of an empire. And like empires it achieves its continuity through change. We can never build a Florence here. Instead, there'll be developments, like those in Hong Kong and Singapore.

"But whatever happens here, it'll be born out of its special position between East and West. In many ways we are now looking westward—we're already an important manufacturing center for the West, especially in things like ready-to-wear fashion. But now that the Iron Curtain is down, we're also rediscovering our kinship with old Ottoman Europe and with countries to the east: with Romania, Bulgaria, Abkhazia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The Greeks, too, are beginning to come back, and so are the Armenians. And though it may not be as cosmopolitan a place as it was at the turn of the last century," Sükûn says, smiling behind his enormous desk, "it's still a wonderful place to live in."

And so it is. But for the short-term visitor to be able to see it, he or she has to abandon the car and driver (you don't want to take on Istanbul traffic yourself) if only for a day or two and walk the city, propelling its special texture and geography up through the feet, little by little, into the brain. Unless you possess a streak of the Turks' cheerful fatalism (Insh' Allah—it is God's will), driving through the constant traffic jams is, in any case, profoundly irritating. Whereas on foot you'll see much that you would otherwise miss: not only cafés and markets and suddenly a hidden mosque, but also the flowers and the water (in the shape of ever-present fountains, baths, and aqueducts) that are among the preoccupations of Ottoman life and art.

The other thing you must give up is the idea that this is—or ever was, for that matter—a familiar European city. For the truth is that even the rulers of old Constantinople—now as remote from us as the pharaohs, since their archives have nearly all disappeared—were not simply displaced Romans and Italians: They were God-haunted, rigid, theocratic conservatives who, as time went on, grew to have more in common with the Osmanli sultans than they did with the worldly popes of Rome—let alone with ourselves.

Even the most famous surviving monument of Constantinople's Golden Age—the sixth-century Haghia Sophia—is a great deal less Western than it might at first seem. Having been stripped of its decoration over the centuries, it looks today like a mammoth—if drab—European-style basilica. But appearances deceive. For it was, when built, a place of hypnotic symbolism and abstraction. The whole building was once filled with light from huge windows that have since disappeared, and it sparkled with millions on millions of gold mosaic-stones, shimmering like silk and inscribed with abstract patterns. Its extraordinary floating dome was once 20 feet lower, so that the curvature of the ceiling formed a more continuous canopy and produced a more daring effect. The church furnishings—the screen, the pulpit, the hassocks—were revetted with sheets of solid silver. And the emperor's throne stood surrounded by thin marble panels that reflected back the light of a thousand candles and lamps: It is no wonder that the church was used as a lighthouse by ships. According to legend, it was the center of the universe, as well as that point where human and divine met in the body of the emperor. He was regarded as God's appointed regent upon Earth and inherited not only the court but its mysteries too—such relics as pieces of the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross, which Constantine's mother, the empress Helena, had brought from Jerusalem. These were reserved for the emperor and empress alone: There were instances in which God's regent had the eyes of foreign emissaries put out to prevent them from prying into the secrets of such matters.

So myth, mystery, and intrigue have been woven into the fabric of Istanbul for over 2,000 years, even though it's the world of a later Istanbul, the 470-year reign of the Osmanli sultans that we think of in this connection. The Osmanlis, founders of the Ottoman Empire, captured the city in 1453. They communicated with God from the Haghia Sophia and kept, in the hidden recesses of Topkapi Palace, the banner, saber, and mantle of the prophet Mohammed; two centuries later, they built the Blue Mosque.

"But there were also more important continuities between the emperors and the sultans," says Lucienne Thys-Shenocak, American-born assistant professor of history at Koç University, the city's first private college. "Mehmet the Conqueror, for example, knew Greek; he was fully aware of the Italian Renaissance; he had his portrait painted by Bellini. He saw himself as the inheritor of the Roman Byzantine empire; Caesar was one of his many honorific titles. He and his successors, in addition to the Turkic and Islamic court traditions, borrowed several of the Byzantine administrative institutions and court protocols. The Ottoman sultan meted out justice from behind a curtain, communicated in a special sign language with mutes; he continued to make trade agreements—later called capitulations—with foreigners residing in the empire, just as the Byzantine emperors had before him. The Ottomans, when they conquered the city of Istanbul, appropriated some aspects of the Byzantine culture that had preceded them and integrated this with their Turko-Islamic traditions to create a new and dynamic cultural and political entity."

The remains of the Ottoman world can be found today everywhere in the modern city: in the Stamboulis' continued love of veiled courtliness and masked gesture; in the tension between sensuousness and ritual that in the end seems to mark everything from belly dancing to smoking tobacco from the narghile (water pipe); from the slow rhythms of a restaurant meal to the languor of the baths. (The Anglican chaplain of Istanbul's Crimean Memorial Church, Ian Sherwood, describes this as one of the historical legacies of Istanbul's location—"the meeting here of Western asceticism and Eastern sensuousness.")

The odd thing is that the one place where the Ottoman world is actually rather difficult to see is in the Topkapi Palace. And again it's because it has been turned into a Western-style museum: a palace of showcases and inert treasures. The spirits have gone; only the things remain (and the hordes of tourists and schoolchildren who come daily to see them). And though some of the rooms, corridors, and courtyards are ornate, rich, and highly decorated, they somehow don't evoke the distant mysterious court the way the rich pomp and lush furnishings of the 19th-century royal palaces of Dolmabahçe and Beylerbey do their era. And though it's easy enough to imagine its beauty from historical accounts—the tortoises carrying candles to illuminate the tulip beds, the sultan's favorites hunting for hidden jewels in the gardens—it's hard to conjure up these images as you walk through the palace today. Nor do you get much sense of the brutality and intrigue that went with it. For this you need, not so much a guidebook, as, say, Lesley Blanch's evocation in The Wilder Shores of Love of the fate of Aimée Debucq de Rivery, cousin of the empress Josephine, Napoleon's wife. De Rivery was captured by Algerian corsairs and sent to the sultan as a present. She became, in time, the favorite of Sultan Abdülhamid I; the mother of Sultan Mahmud; and the confidante (and perhaps also favorite concubine) of Sultan Selim III.

The great monuments of Istanbul, then, remain (at first, at any rate) elusive: Some appear Western, others oscillate between a West that has disappeared from us and an East that remains out of reach. It is the city, however, which acts, as it has always done, as a living, changing bridge between the two. And it's the modern city to which the visitor should look to resolve the contradictions: the West you've arrived too fast from, and the East which travels to an older, slower rhythm, heedless of clocks or, it has to be said, much concerned with the past.

No amount of hurrying, though, will force this city to reveal itself. Its pattern—just like the pattern in the carpets woven at the Bedesten workshops in the suburb of Zeytinburnu—gradually emerge, layer on layer, as you walk. Although striking in profile—seen from the Galata Bridge, for instance—Istanbul at close range is not particularly pretty. So it is a mistake to look for the picturesque. Instead, think of yourself as a sensor gradually constructing a version of the city to take away.

For me, odd images survive in memory: A boy out by the airport, standing alone by the side of the road, whirling a slingshot in a cloud of butterflies; the new rich shopping in Nisantasi, clutching armfuls of brand-name bags as they stepped round a squatting, burnoosed vendor of cucumbers; and an armed guard, standing like a living statue outside the ornate entrance of Dolmanbahçe Palace, having his shoulders gently massaged from behind by an obliging fellow soldier. Sometimes these sights seemed to provide a glimpse into the city's past: my abrupt discovery, for example, of a book market in a courtyard outside the Grand Bazaar, on the site of the Chartoprateia, the book and paper market of old Byzantium; or the riotous street celebrations I saw after the league-championship win of a local football team (just like one of the chariot-factions from the Byzantine Hippodrome). One Saturday, from a waterside café, I spent a languorous hour or two watching the slow movement of small boats between the tankers on the Bosphorus, recalling not only Yeats' poem Sailing to Byzantium, but also the caïques of the Ottoman court and the jeweled fish they trailed from their sterns.

Everywhere in the city there are snapshots like these, little epiphanies, evocations of the past, which bit by bit assemble themselves in the mind. Istanbul is not a monolith, it is a gestalt; and whatever you do, wherever you go, it is still there. Explore the old villages on the European side; take a boat up the Bosphorus—it is there. Take apple tea with young Hakan Evin at one of his three carpet shops in the Grand Bazaar—learn and haggle—it is there.

And if you have a whole day to spare, then take the ferry out to the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara, where the transport is either by horse and carriage, bicycle or donkey; for it is most definitely there too. These islands were the home of monks, priests, and hermits, orphans and blinded court exiles, not to mention the new rich of the modern city. Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson stayed there among the waterfront cafés and the old wooden houses, and—how's this for a confluence of East and West?—so did the Russian leader-in-exile, Leon Trotsky.

As it happens, it's in Trotsky's room at the Pera Palas Hotel in Tebebasi, just north of Galata, that I stay during the first part of my trip to the city. I can't really recommend the much rundown hotel; and yet I cannot think of a better place to enter Istanbul's complex, hard-to-catch life. The hotel was built in 1892 to accommodate passengers from the Orient Express arriving at Sirkeci Station, across the Golden Horn. It was a place (and a time) of spies and foreign correspondents, ambassadors and assassination attempts. And the names of the guests emblazoned on the bedroom doors—Agatha Christie and Greta Garbo, Mata Hari, Ernest Hemingway, and the Shah of Persia, all one-time guests—bespeak a more romantic period, in which Istanbul was perhaps more cosmopolitan than it is today.

The hotel, however decrepit, does do one thing well—it offers a patience-trying service that introduces the visitor, little by little, to the Stambouli sense of time. Besides, it opens out right onto the street (as many of the European-style hotels do not); and it's in a wonderful location. Above it are the shops and old embassies of the city's Oxford Street, the Istiklal Caddesi, as well as the stop for the funicular that runs down to within easy walking distance of the old sea walls. Nearby are the cafés and bars of the Flower Passage, and at least two remarkable meyhanes, or eating houses: Rejans restaurant, where after the Russian Revolution the waiters were grand dukes and the pianist a baroness; and the Galata, where the local people eat, where meze (Turkish finger food) is served to the accompaniment of lute, zither, and fiddle, and where the waiters join in the late-night singing from behind the bar.

All the writers who have stayed in the Pera Palas and visited these places have struggled one way or another to come to terms with the city: its ornamentation, its squalor, its devotion, its brutality, its easy charm. They have wondered, particularly, at the progressive decay of the old Byzantine and Constantinopolitan settlements: the way in which they seem almost to have been forgotten to death, flattened by commerce, or else simply left to rot as the action of the city has moved elsewhere.

At last, though, there is renovation in the old city; its long history has started to loop round on itself. And it's here, I think, that every visitor should end up: in the little Yesil Ev hotel in Sultanahmet, between the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia. For from here—surrounded by newly installed antiques and the atmosphere of an old Turkish konan, or mansion—it becomes easier, finally, to take on the central enigmas of Istanbul's great monuments, unhustled by tourist buses and endless traffic jams. Staying here allows you to visit some mosques outside normal tourist hours. Slow drifting walks can be taken down to the Grand Bazaar and the Süleymaniye Mosque, the great Ottoman architect Sinan's finest creation. In the traffic lull at lunchtime, both the Tekfur Sarayi, the best surviving example of late-Byzantine palace architecture, and the Kariye Camii church-museum—where the restored mosaics are the finest final flowering of late-Byzantine art—are only a leisurely taxi ride away.

The renovated buildings around the Kariye museum—as well as the restored Yesil Ev and the pensions along Cold Fountain Street—are the brainchild, as it happens, of a single extraordinary man: Elik Gülersoy, general director of the Touring and Automobile Club of Turkey. Since 1923 the club has spearheaded, almost single handedly, the movement in Istanbul for restoration and preservation. He fought off successive city governments. He used the club's money to turn old, ruined pavilions and houses into hotels and pensions, restaurants, and cafés and even a crafts building, as well as toward producing several documentary films. And for me he represents much of the dogged, embattled character of this old and contradictory city.

I meet him one night in the home courtyard of the pension complex on Cold Fountain Street, near Haghia Sophia. As the gulls wheel overhead in the floodlights on the minarets, he talks about the city, turning his beads over and over in his fingers and addressing me as "my dear sir." He has something in his manner, just as the city does, of an Old Testament prophet, and at the same time all the crumpled, wry charm of an old Levantine trader, full of gossip and irony and guile.

He starts by recounting his long list of achievements, and then quietly rails against the ignorance and pollution of the times. Like many of the people I've met in Istanbul—Bedri Baykam, its best-known contemporary artist and writer, among others—Gülersoy is pessimistic about the city's future, mainly because of the growth of the fundamentalist Islamic Welfare Party. He seems, as we eat and the waiters hover, weighed down by all its past.

But then, as if finally shrugging off his mood, he gets up from the table and leads me urgently across the street, first to a restaurant he has created from an old Byzantine columned cistern, and then to a restored, wood-faced building at the street's head, in which he's created a library of the city's history. He takes me upstairs into a long, airy room lined with books from the 16th century onwards—most of which he's donated himself. And then he pulls down a volume and opens it up to a map of the headlands, shores, and waters of the city: the same eagle's-eye view—schematized and infinitely smaller—that I've seen from the Great Mountain of Pines.

"Here," Gülersoy says, stabbing a finger into the places he has helped rehabilitate. "The pavilion at Emirgân Park. Yildiz Park. Fenerbahçesi. Camliça Hill." And then, waving his hand over the map and turning, he adds: "It's finally clear that we have to get rid of the cars. The future of the city has to be on the water. Water taxis, water buses, ferries. I'm going to make a hotel in Princes' Islands, on the Big Island: The guests will get there by private motor launch, and after dinner they will sail up the Bosphorus to drink their coffee. I am going there on Tuesday with a group of people on my yacht. Why don't you come with us?"

"I'm sorry," I say, as one more snapshot falls into place in my picture of the city—and of its possible futures. "Sadly, I have to go."

And I am sad. For Istanbul is undoubtedly one of the world's most remarkable cities: It's the product, after all, of three great civilizations, supervening on one another. And yet its secret, its essence, remains forever just out of reach. It seems to turn toward the West and turn its back on it. Like a tantalizing mistress, it gives and at the same time withholds. And as I make my goodbyes to Gülersoy, I suddenly remember a line by Tevfik Fikret, an old poet quoted to me a few days before.

"Istanbul is the virgin wife of a thousand husbands."

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about the great French modernist painter Fernand Léger, as well as Venice in winter, in the January/February 1998 issue of Departures.