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Every evening at five, a loud firecracker signaled the end of the Ramadan fast. It always made us jump. We were skittish, and with good reason. Two days after we left Istanbul for the countryside, bombs ripped through two synagogues, killing dozens. A week later, another pair of bombs demolished one of the main buildings of the British Consulate and tore the facade off HSBC's Turkey office; close to 30 were killed, more than 450 were injured.

Al-Qaeda was suspected but several extremist Islamic groups claimed responsibility. Turks were outraged. How could anyone call himself a Muslim and slaughter innocent people (mostly Turks) during the holy month of Ramadan? Outrage turned to shock when it became evident that instead of Lebanese (as first suspected), the attacks were carried out by Turks.

Istanbul is modern Turkey. It is the Turkey that politicians want the EU to see and acknowledge. The gleaming Ataturk International Airport, the sophisticated shops of Galatsaray, and the cafes of Sultanahmet could be anywhere in Europe. But like Turkey itself, Istanbul retains an essentially Asian character: clogged bazaars, the howl of the muezzin, fishermen on every bridge and quay, the quavering voices of famous singers, the sweet smell of nargile smoke.

Graceful domes and soaring minarets dominate Istanbul's skyline, adding beauty and symmetry to the dark jumble of buildings stacked upon its many hills. The most famous of Istanbul's historical and religious sites are on the European side of the Bosporus, particularly on the Golden Horn - a thumb of land with water on three sides, once the redoubt of Byzantine Constantinople.

The Blue Mosque stunned us with its cavernous interior. A high central dome dropped down to four encircling semi-domes, and a profusion of arches and columns - all elaborately decorated - gave an amazing lightness to the building. A near mirror-image across the square, the Aya (Saint) Sophia Mosque struck me in a powerful and peculiar way. Large black discs with Koranic script hung on great columns beneath a fresco of the Virgin and Child. Aya Sophia remained the most glorious of Orthodox churches, but it had for many centuries now been filled with Islamic furniture: the skewed niche in the apse, designed to face Mecca; the imam's platform, atop a steep wooden stairwell; the stained glass windows replaced with geometric designs. My Christian upbringing railed against the defilement of such a beautiful church, but I respected the Ottomans and the Turks for not defacing the many obviously Christian frescos and mosaics.

The Ottoman Empire, which endured more than 600 years, and spread from north Africa to the Balkans, is most popularly known for its excesses: gluttonous sultans, the harems, and acts of barbarism in warfare. However, the final throes of the Empire in the 20th century - when it was dubbed "the sick man of Europe" - were nothing like the glorious Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries. All-conquering, but amazingly tolerant of religion, the Ottoman Empire grew rapidly - from very humble beginnings in central Anatolia - on the back of sultans like Osman the Great, Yildirim ("Lightning'), Selim the Grim, and Suleyman the Magnificent. Reading Jason Goodwin's "Lords of the Horizon" - a compartmentalized history of the Ottomans - gave me a new appreciation of the Empire.

Istanbul's (and Turkey's) history is so rich and dense that layers of it disappear from sight and memory - like the subterranean vaulted cisterns built by the Byzantines, forgotten by the Ottomans, and rediscovered centuries later when a visitor found locals catching freshwater fish from deep holes beneath their homes. A taxi ride through the city reveals remnants of the ancient city walls. In the Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman Sultans, amazing (and apocryphal) artifacts have been dusted off from the Royal Treasury and put on display: Moses' rod, Joseph's turban, the hair and footprint of Mohammed, parts of the old door of the Kaaba.

There is Istanbul, a tourist fringe along the coast, and a few industrial cities, but Turkey's heart remains agricultural, pastoral. Tractors outnumber cars in many villages, and modern metropolises seen glimmering in the distance turn out to be hamlets surrounded by tomato greenhouses. Shepherds urge their flocks over ancient bridges beneath cave-riddled cliffs. Women sell peanuts and bananas from slapdash stalls. Men still wear the baggy trousers of Ottoman times (the crotch at ankle level), and women are wrapped in clothes so shapeless that they resemble laundry bags with heads.

Between Istanbul and the hinterland, there is much tension. But some things, thankfully, don't appear to have changed with modernity and progress. Hospitality to travelers is an Islamic, and Ottoman tradition. Visitors to the Empire were given three nights' room and board at roadside 'hans.' Throughout Turkey we experienced many acts of kindness to strangers, but none were as touching as the hospitality extended to us by the first Turk we encountered.

We met Ozden Minisker on the flight from London. She was returning home to Istanbul after several weeks in London visiting her daughter. I asked her for help with my pronunciation of Turkish words. We began to talk. Soon she had invited us to her home for tea. (How many doors swing open by simply trying to learn a language?)

A few days later we arrived at her modern flat and met her ebullient husband, Ergin. We drank tea, ate freshly-baked cake, and Ergin and I traded at playing classics on the piano. Unbeknownst to us, tonight was the weekly family dinner - even more special during Ramadan - and we had been invited. We walked to the next block of apartments and met their extended family. They were a joy and the meal was fantastic. Everyone who could spoke English for our benefit. After dinner we walked back to their flat and Ergin gave us a slide show of his photos of Turkey - he is a professional photographer. On our return to Istanbul, we visited the Minisker's again (this time armed with a bottle of fiery raki - the Turkish tipple of choice) and enjoyed yet another huge, Turkish meal.