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Istanbul: Ancient City, Throbbing Metropolis

Steven Hill: Muslims, Christians, and Jews live in relative harmony here, yet it’s as if its too-jumbled history pulses within the walls, the monuments, the winding streets, indeed within each individual Turk now inhabiting this ground zero zone.

I touched down in Istanbul with a good deal of excitement. Its reputation had preceded it, causing a palpable sense of anticipation on my part. Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize winner in literature from Turkey, writes of his hometown Istanbul with a mixture of melancholy and majesty that tries to reconcile the local landscape’s ancient history with its modern aspirations. Formerly known as Byzantium under the Romans, then as Constantinople after it converted to Christianity under Emperor Constantine, and finally its current name after the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, human habitation has existed at this location as far back as the 10th century B.C.

istanbul view

During this long history, this city served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires (the latter lasting for nearly five centuries until 1922). In short, Istanbul is a historical proving ground, where empires conquered and got conquered, leaving layer upon layer of lost stories with the latest incarnation sitting atop the buried remains of Romans, Christians, Celts, Muslims, Crusaders, Jews, churches, mosques, Turks, Greeks, Venetians, Bulgarians, and other peoples who transmigrated east to west and back again.

Today Istanbul is a modernizing mega-city of nearly 14 million people, one of the largest in the world, and also the commercial heart of Turkey. Construction cranes stretch against the skyline in practically every direction, and it occurs to me that they are the true national monuments of modern Turkey. Turkey proper, for its part, is one of the most important emerging national economies in the world, with roaring economic growth rates that rival that of China and India.

Muslims, Christians, and Jews live in relative harmony here, yet it’s as if its too-jumbled history pulses within the walls, the monuments, the winding streets, indeed within each individual Turk now inhabiting this ground zero zone. How could it not? No wonder Orhan Pamuk keens over the beauty residing in Istanbul’s "crumbling city walls, in the grass, ivy weeds and trees I remember growing from the towers and walls."

Indeed, Istanbul’s unique geographical position makes it the meeting ground of East and West; it is the only city in the world to exist on two continents, Europe and Asia. These two worlds are divided by the Bosphorus Strait that runs roughly north-south through the heart of the city like the sands of an hour glass, connecting the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara to the south (which in turn is connected to the Mediterranean). That tectonic parting into two worlds in essence defines Turkey’s historic as well as modern-day dilemma: whether to step further toward the West, or further toward the East. Or straddle both, for as long as it can.

Long a member of NATO, aspiring to become a member state of the European Union, all parties to the negotiations are not sure if Turkey fits comfortably in the western camp primarily due to that “Muslim thing,” as well as vast differences in educational and wealth levels between the West and most of Turkey outside Istanbul and the country's capital, Ankara. But Turkey doesn’t fit comfortably in the East either, even with its Muslim roots, especially since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and the emergence of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as the progenitor of a secular nation now known as the Republic of Turkey (Turks are immensely proud of “their George Washington,” Ataturk, and there are statues and likenesses of him everywhere - when Time magazine held an online election to select the most important person of the 20th century, Turks practiced the old village tradition of voting early and often, resulting in Ataturk winning, much to Time - and the West’s - chagrin. The magazine voided the election and handpicked Albert Einstein instead).

Turkey is caught between two worlds, like Janus, the Roman god of doorways and new beginnings, depicted as having two heads facing opposite directions; one head looks back at the last year while the other looks forward to the new, simultaneously into the future and the past, to the west and the east (Janus being the namesake for the month of January, which begins each new year).

Walking around Istanbul, one of the first things that struck me was the vibrancy and energy of the place. It has a street-level buzz, like New York City, Paris, or Berlin. Traffic was gridlocked and there was a hustle to the place, like a beautiful con game going on, someone trying to sell you something around every corner. One taxi driver ripped us off with a clever little ruse, and we were boggle-eyed enough to fall for it. I got drawn seductively into the give and take of a Turkish carpet trader, and by the end of the session was out more money than I could have imagined but was the proud new owner of a stunning hand-woven work of Kurdish floor art.

In the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market thousands upon thousands of vendors are jammed in, their shops practically shoulder to shoulder, hawking their sparkling wares but what was even more remarkable was that the same vendor conversed one second in English (with me), the next in French, then German, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, each shop owner knowing multiple languages of commerce, each a Marco Polo of the Levant (Polo passed through Constantinople, I am told). Adding to the edge of the place, a suicide bomber detonated his terror in the middle of Taksim Square, one of the main thoroughfares, only a few blocks from where we were staying. Our taxi driver happened to be in the square when it went off, and through his halting English we could see that he was still shaken from the experience (I wrote about this earlier in this blog, see here).

istanbul street

I was thrilled to be accompanied in Istanbul by my partner Lucy Colvin and my mother-in-law, Barbara Colvin. Barbara, all of 83 years wise and from Minneapolis, wrote this about her maiden voyage in Istanbul:

I was impressed with the size of the city, and then learned there were 14 million people and so much traffic and so many cars and so many taxis. That was my first impression. And then I remembered the Turks were the Hittites that used to fight the ancient Egyptians. They are quite an attractive people. Many of the women on the streets were especially beautiful. Some people spoke good English including a few of the taxi drivers. At the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar all of the shop keepers spoke good English to us and then they turned to the other customers and spoke other languages. So it seemed to me that everyone gave the impression of being well educated. The food was delicious and attractive, including the Turkish coffee I had heard was so strong. I thought it was very delicious. The breads and rolls were outstanding. The city was beautiful. It looked very modern but so much was very, very old. The ancient walls and mosques were at least 1500 years old, still very beautiful and in good shape. It seemed more foreign than other places I’d visited but obviously quite westernized. I am so pleased to have had the privilege of being there. It’s a place I really wanted to see and was not disappointed. My favorite place was the old mosque/church called the Hagia Sophia (dating from 500 AD), as well as the Spice Market. And I loved the boat ride on the Bosphorus and seeing all the beautiful homes and palaces along the shoreline. It appeared that most people in Istanbul proper lived in apartment buildings because there is not enough room for all to have houses. I enjoyed going to the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art too, it was so lovely overlooking the Bosphorus, and the sun was sparkling on the water. That is probably the best selection of modern art I’ve seen in one place. I was impressed with hearing about Atatürk and how he wanted Istanbul to be as lovely as other western cities and so he sent many artists to study modern art in France and then added this museum. I have read two of the novels by the Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk which is helping me have more background on the city.

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Thank you Barbara. Like Rome (sort of), Istanbul's nickname is The City on Seven Hills because (like Rome) the city was built on seven hills. And Barbara gamely walked up a good chunk of those hills.

It was a short first visit, but filled with many highlights. I gave a lecture and was interviewed twice, first by a reporter from Today’s Zaman, which is the leading English-language daily in Turkey (one of two English-language dailies, the other being Hurriyet Daily News). The interviewer focused on issues related to the European Union, but also focused extensively -- relentlessly even -- on issues related to Israel, which is embroiled at the moment with Turkey over various Middle East disagreements.

One of those disagreements is over Israel's tragically violent and unjustified attack of the humanitarian flotilla that tried to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip on May 31, 2010, which resulted in nine people being killed by Israeli soldiers. After completing our interview, the Today’s Zaman reporter told me that his photographer (who had been snapping photos of me throughout the interview) had been present on the ship that had been boarded by the Israeli soldiers.

I asked the photographer a few questions, and in his broken English he responded. Yes, he had been injured by the soldiers, though not seriously. Yes, it was very scary. Yes, he was glad he was there and he would do it again because the Israeli blockade is wrong and hurting many innocent people. But he didn’t seem eager to talk about it, so finally we shook hands and said good-bye.

The article written from that interview was published on Today’s Zaman front page, below the fold. Here is a link to the article. "United States too uncritical of Israel, says American author" By Mustafa Edib Yilmaz, Today’s Zaman, Istanbul, Turkey

The second interview I gave was to an Iranian journalist who was living in Istanbul. The conversation focused a lot on relations between Iran and the United States, as well as with Europe. But what was vividly memorable about this interview is that, during the usual type of give and take between interviewer and interviewee, it came out that this journalist had been a political prisoner in Iran; indeed, he told me he had been tortured by the Iranian authorities. To be honest, at first I was somewhat skeptical.

I don't know why, perhaps it was a mixture of a natural wariness I have learned from my travels of claims that strangers make, combined with a lack of personal familiarity with the subject. Torture is just not part of my daily, quotidian frame. So I asked him, hopefully not too challengingly, but also perhaps out of a privileged sense of curiosity, "What did they do to you?" I won't forget anytime soon the look on his sudden, pained face as he described his treatment. The details of his response aren't what stick in my mind -- they were banally evil, as these things go, to borrow from Hannah Arendt -- instead what I remember is how his face twisted up as he recalled those harrowing moments.

In the close gap across the wooden table at which we sat, as I observed his breath lower and his jaw line twist, I tried to comprehend the totality of what he was saying, and I realized how much torture is psychological as well as physical. The sheer terror of being in someone else's grip, totally in their control and not your own, knowing that they have complete god-like power to determine how much pain you have to endure, how many hours and times a day, how arbitrary your life will be lived.

While I reacted with the appropriate amount of horror and condemnation for the Iranian authorities, silently I cursed myself and my thoughtless skepticism for making him relive that, and the privilege of distance and the distance of my privilege. I was an envoy from the Western comfort zone, and soon we shook hands and I departed back to it. What else could I do?

steven hill

Steven Hill
New America Foundation

Republished with permission from the Washington Monthly.