As hotly anticipated as ever, Dan Brown’s latest novel, ‘Inferno,’ has topped bestsellers lists everywhere since publication in May and, as many are now aware, is partially set in Istanbul. Readers are invited to follow the protagonist, Harvard professor Robert Langdon on an exhilarating romp through the art history of Florence and Venice before tracing the clues to Istanbul, where the story reaches its climax. Whilst some critics have complained that it reads more like a guidebook than a novel at times, Brown cannot be knocked for his lack of detail.
When Dan Brown was researching Inferno, he visited Istanbul in 2009 and met with renowned tour-guide Serhan Güngör. Brown later revealed that Serhan was the inspiration behind the character Mirsat, the enthusiastic guide who shows Langdon around the Hagia Sophia, before becoming increasingly bewildered and concerned by the professor’s mystifying antics. In conjunction with esteemed travel agents, Fest Travel, Serhan offered tours ‘In Search of Dan Brown’s Historic Pensinula.’ We joined him to find out more.
As Langdon’s plane lands in Istanbul, Brown notes “..it has served over the centuries as the epicenter of three distinct empires – the Byzantine, the Roman, and the Ottoman. For this reason, Istanbul was arguably one of the most historically diverse locations on earth.” Serhan told us that when Dan Brown came to visit he was keen to show him that Istanbul was so much more than the cliché of East meets West; he wanted to show him both the rich history and the cosmopolitan nature of the city today. We therefore began our tour at the logical starting point, the Istanbul Archeological Museum – for a quick journey through the city’s history, before moving onto the first real setting in ‘Inferno’, the Hagia Sophia.
Some describe it as the eighth wonder of the world, and Robert Langdon was inclined to agree, the Hagia Sophia has been dazzling visitors for over a thousand years. For symbologists such as the fictional professor, the Hagia Sophia provides particular interest because of the marriage of Christian and Muslim symbols that sit together in this church-turned-mosque-turned-museum.
Yet in the book, Mirsat becomes rather put out as Langdon, in his haste, ignores attractions such as the glittering 13th Deësis mosaic depicting Christ flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, heading straight for the tomb of Henricus Dandolo, in the upper Eastern gallery. As Mirsat rightly points out the tomb itself is very plain, lacking the iconography and artistry of many of the museum’s other features. This Venetian Doge was buried in the Hagia Sophia after playing a lead role in the 1204 Siege of Constantinople, along with a key role in Langdon solving the mystery of ‘Inferno.’
A tour with the real-life Mirsat, Serhan Güngör, is a little more comprehensive and takes in the sights that Langdon had no time for, such as the meeting of religions in the central mihrib, the semicircular niche that indicates the direction of Mecc, which is overlooked by the Virgin and Child. Serhan’s wealth of experience and expertise means that tourists are let into a few of the museum’s secrets, such as the correct way to make a wish in the legendary ‘wishing column’.
Not short of twists and turns, following another of Langdon’s sudden realizations, the story then leaps to another of Istanbul’s most visited destinations; The Basilica Cistern. Located just a short hop from the Hagia Sophia this unassuming entrance, that the professor mistakenly takes to be an underground dance club, leads to impressive 6th century structure. Descend the stairs to enter a vast and eerie cavern known locally as the Sunken Palace. Three hundred and thirty six sturdy columns, uplit with red lighting are spaced in 12 rows of 28 columns. Their bases rest in a couple of feet of water that is also home to a number of fish.
This is the location of the dramatic finale towards which the book builds, whipping up readers into a state of nail-biting tension as it goes. Two of the most intriguing sights, which the mysterious clues lead Langdon to, are the Medusa heads used as plinths in the southwestern part of the cistern. One rests on its side whilst the other is placed upside down, supposedly to rob the monster of her powers to turn onlookers to stone. Damp and greenish in hue they make for an interesting glimpse into the underworld of Greek mythology.
Although Robert Langdon apparently did not require any food to sustain him through his non-stop adventure, Dan Brown did. He particularly enjoyed the Ottoman palace cuisine at Asitane whose chef is now found Matbah, and whose menu is the result of extensive research into the kitchens of sultans’ palaces. Alongside each dish the date of its creation is written, providing diners with a little history to accompany their food. A kilometer’s walk away is another favorite of our tour guide, Nar Lokantası, a charming restaurant serving authentic Turkish cuisine with a diversity you won’t find elsewhere in Sultanahmet and an ever-changing menu.
However if you just want to enjoy a drink and a spectacular view of the Hagia Sophia, along with the rest of the old city, look no further than the A’YA Lounge on the roof terrace of Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul in Sultanahmet. This sophisticated bar offers a tranquil atmosphere and if Dan Brown was feeling altruistic should have been where Robert Langdon ended up. After the exhausting few days he had, it seems like he could have done with a drink.