Turkey: Istanbul – Crossroads of the world

After Dubai, Istanbul felt like an old sweater with fraying cuffs and collar. It was comfortable. Even though I had never been there before, it was familiar in a way that many European cities are.

There was a glorious hodgepodge of architecture ranges from the Hagia Irene, the first church built by Constantine I in 337, and then rebuilt by Justinian in 548, to the grand Suleymaniye Mosque and its more than 150 different surrounding structures built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1550s to the 15,000 sq m Dolmabahce Palace built by Abdulmecid I in the 1850s.

The neighborhoods felt like rabbit warrens. Beyoglu with its blocks of beautiful three to five story Second Empire architecture and Ayaspasa with its numerous wooden structures on the European side to Moda with its myriad of family-run market stalls operated out of one to two story functional structures on the Asian side.

The sidewalks were a layer cake of material representative of different times. Motorcycles dominated, and delivery cycles more prevalent due to COVID. Three-wheeled vehicles that seem to exist everywhere, except in the US.

Graffiti was not uncommon, but street art was more common. Most street art adorned the metal security shop doors. Which created a living, if ephemeral, gallery based on which shops were open.

Yet it was different. Due to the natural topography, there were no large open green parks like in London or wide expansive boulevards like in Paris. Instead, there were thousands of sidewalk stairs or roads shared by pedestrians and vehicles with extremely steep inclines and declines. Additionally, the street artists of Istanbul used theses stairs as their canvases as well. Whereas most European cities are dominated by a large cathedral with a smattering of smaller chapel-like churches, whose bells are audible only if you are in relatively close proximity, Istanbul had multiple large and small mosques dotted throughout. All of them with speakers calling for prayer five times a day, simultaneously.

However, Istanbul, like the rest of modern Turkey (and modern Europe) is rooted on secularism, which is built into its constitution and espoused by its highly revered founder, Ataturk. One cannot walk five minutes without seeing a banner emblazoned with Ataturk’s visage. I would say Ataturk is more revered by Istanbul than Washington or Lincoln is in the US.

Istanbul, like any city, is not just the sights and sounds for its lifeblood are its people. 15 million people now call the city home, practically doubling in size during the past 20 years due large to refugee settlements. Though I met only an extremely small handful of Istanbulites, everyone I met was extremely friendly. From helping me navigate where and how to purchase an Instanbulkart to getting a HES code (COVID requirement for mass transit, including ferries) to hauling my 35 kg suitcase up and down five circular stair flights.

The overwhelming hospitality was another hallmark of Istanbul. I was welcomed into the home of an Azerbajani musical family and the studio space of master erbu artist. Through the greatest cultural ambassador – food – I learned about local neighborhoods of Moda and Beskitas with people who lived in them, Burcu and Emir.

Istanbul is an ever-changing tapestry woven with challenges both historic and contemporary.  

Many of the early 20th century republic ideals are being put under pressure. While I was there a student protest surrounding the political appointment of a university leader was met with tear gas and rubber bullets in the residential neighborhood of Kadikoy. The next night throughout the city the sound of clanging pots and pans could be heard, as the residents sounded in solidarity with the student protestors.

Throughout all of this there is one thing that seems constant: the fishermen of Istanbul. Where there is access to water there were fishermen with their frayed cuffs and collars. If you watched long enough you would see a symphony of rods casting to an unheard, but highly rhythmic song. And you knew that this had been going on since the days of Constantine and would continue.