On March 17 two days before the New York Times ran an op-ed, "McCarthyism Comes to Turkey," that highlighted the Turkish government's crackdown on social media, T, the newspaper's style magazine, reported on the best hot shaves near Istanbul's Blue Mosque. Strange bedfellows? Perhaps not. The city has always been a crossroads—of East and West, rich and poor, Christian and Muslim—with an identity that both literally and figuratively spans two continents. Since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, though, the tension that gives the city its unique charm has exploded in the virtual world. The government's decision to block Turkey's 79 million citizens from accessing Twitter caused a domestic and international uproar. In April the ruling was deemed unconstitutional and overturned by the country's constitutional court, but the debate is far from over.
It's something of a relief, then, that upon entering Serdar Gülgün's hilltop home, Macar Feyzullah Pasha, with its sweeping views of the Bosphorus and the European side of the city, I see no sign of modern technology. The restored hunting pavilion, originally built for an exiled Hungarian pasha in the 1850s, boasts no flat-screens, touch panels, or remote-controlled blinds. Instead, walking through Gülgün's home is like going back to an earlier (if not gentler) time. (That's not to say Gülgün is an out-of-touch Luddite. He e-mails and has a cell phone, and although I keep looking for a harpist, the sounds of classical Arab strings undulating through the four-story wooden frame house actually emanate from cleverly hidden speakers.)
Mint tea is set out on inlaid trays; the air smells of melon and musk. Gülgün appears at the top of the winged marble staircase, wearing a custom aubergine dinner jacket, a starched white shirt, and tasseled velvet slippers. His rimless glasses float above a thick mustache. He could be a descendant of the pasha himself, though I doubt the prince wore Levi's. "Most old homes like this have been destroyed," he tells me, standing under the frescoed ceiling of the formal entry hall, which is filled with red lacquer altar tables, supersized blue and white porcelain urns, bronze serpentine sconces, and a sprawling antique Oushak carpet. " Restoration is actually more of a recent phenomenon." An interior designer, author, and classically trained Ottoman art expert, Gülgün spent his childhood navigating the labyrinthine stalls of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. His 2011 tome, The Grand Bazaar, lavishly illustrates his favorite dealers and helps demystify the often overwhelming marketplace.
Gülgün renovated the house using period furnishings and techniques that borrowed from Istanbul's centuries as a trade entrepôt—a departure from the more popular glass luxury condominiums and postmodern limestone mansions that dot the hillside below, the construction of which has been buoyed by one of the fastest-growing economies and populations in either Europe or Asia. Istanbul, sometimes called the Paris of the East, now boasts more billionaires than the City of Light. The house's previous owner, who had acquired it from descendants of the original pasha, told Gülgün he was crazy to buy the place and that it would cost him as much to restore it as to buy it. "He was wrong," Gülgün tells me. "It was three times as much. It was a true labor of love." Over seven years Gülgün transformed the entire house with the aid of a family of expert restorers who also worked on the renovations at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's answer to Windsor Castle. The results are astounding: a bejeweled fantasy of grand proportions filled with a modern pasha's collection of antiquities.
The second floor, a giant ballroom laid out in the shape of a Byzantine cross, reveals more eye candy: a table holding a flock of taxidermy birds, garnet-dyed brocade sofas, and frescoed walls the color of emeralds on which hang ancient portraits of sultans and samples of Ottoman calligraphy in carved frames. A collection of contemporary turtle candleholders designed by Gülgün lights the scene. In a back study a pair of inlaid Syrian chests open to reveal Gülgün's collection of intricately embroidered textiles, many of which could be in museums. But the most magnificent feature is the domed ceiling, which represents an imperial yurt. This is certainly not your typical hunting cabin. "True, I don't hunt in the traditional sense," Gülgün says. "I hunt for beauty." Martine Assouline, the impeccable international design editor who published Gülgün's first book and who owns three bookstores in Istanbul, adds, "There is no one who knows the bazaar better. Plus, he gets the dealers to reveal what they have in secret." Several new projects involving Gülgün and Assouline are in the works. After dinner we move to the Belvedere, a guesthouse that sits on top of the main house and was once used by the pasha as a private retreat. A life-size taxidermy lion wearing a crown stands guard at the entry. "A sultan in Istanbul used to have a private zoo in his palace that included this lion," Gülgün says. "When the lion died, the court doctor stuffed it. You may think it's fashionable or not, but it doesn't matter to me," he adds, adjusting the lion's crown. "This is how I live." The wall of windows provides a commanding view of the First Bosphorus Bridge, which at night displays a glittering light show, a stark contrast to the surrounding architecture, yet also strangely integrated into it, a metaphor for the city itself. Just one question: Can I Instagram it?