Istanbul: Introduction

  • © MPOnlineRedaktion,

    © MPOnlineRedaktion,


If you have the good fortune to find yourself sitting on a roof terrace above the Bosphorus early in the evening, İstanbul treats you to a unique spectacle: the sun sinks slowly into the Golden Horn, which glistens in the light and fully lives up to its name. The silhouettes of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the old palace of the sultans dissolve their contours as darkness falls and ocean-going ships steam from the Sea of Marmara into the Bosphorus. On all sides the muezzins' calls to prayer resound across the roofs. Every famous city leaves you with an unmistakable memory: in Istanbul it is sunsets with an unforgettable backdrop.

World-famous monuments have been restored to old glory

At moments like this it is not difficult to gaze with love on Istanbul, this ancient yet beautiful lady on the Bosphorus. Sometimes, this frame of mind is necessary in order to overlook the chaotic side of the city. You can easily feel overwhelmed here – for one thing because of the sheer size of Istanbul, for another because the unplanned expansion of the city was for a long time left to the whims of its inhabitants, who now number 13 million. A series of city governments have tried to make order out of chaos in recent years, but with limited success. Nevertheless, Istanbul is changing, especially after it was chosen to be one of three European Capitals of Culture in 2010.

This event made enough money available for the most significant historic buildings to be restored and given an adequate presentation again. Hagia Sophia, once the largest church in the Christian world, the Topkapı Palace, which was the residence of sultans for centuries, and the great mosques: these world-famous monuments are now once again resplendent. Moreover, the city is becoming more conscious of its history. It no longer ignores its Greek, Byzantine heritage, but puts it on show. Right next to Hagia Sophia, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a palace of the Byzantine emperors. The city's oldest harbour was discovered on the Sea of Marmara, at a site on the historic peninsula where delegates from the Greek sea power of Megara founded the settlement of Byzantium in 658 BC, in order to control ships entering and leaving the Black Sea.

The naming of Istanbul as European Capital of Culture placed it at the top of the list of favourite short city breaks once and for all. The city is a destination for constantly rising numbers of visitors. Cultural globalisation is tangible here. While Arab tourists seek and find western culture, visitors from Europe are fascinated by the city's characteristic mix of the Orient and the west: modern shopping malls next to centuries-old bazaars, high-rises next to wooden Ottoman buildings, miniskirts and veils – there is no place where the west and east are seen in such an eclectic manner. Huge contrasts such as that between the thoroughly European district of Beyoğlu and, just a few miles away, the pious Islamic quarter of Fatih are not encountered anywhere else. The ancient Greeks had a word to describe this state of affairs: paraxenon – almost alien, but nevertheless still somehow familiar.

Visitors can't fail to notice that the city is buzzing

One thing is particularly noticeable in Istanbul: the youthfulness of the population. Life is vibrant here, and every visitor feels the dynamism of the city. For visitors from Western Europe, who may have an outdated vision of Turkey as a country that is poor and backward, surprises await: Istanbul symbolises a country that is on the up, and rapidly modernising. Larger than London, Paris or Berlin, the city is home to many wealthy people, and has long been an economic and cultural centre for a whole region that extends far beyond national borders.

It takes no more than the half-hour boat trip from Europe to Asia to get an impression of the variety and breathtaking mix of sights and experiences that is İstanbul. You only have to turn your head a little in order to glimpse the office towers of Levent, a short distance from the impressive oriental scene of the Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia towering above it and a forest of minarets. The first suspension bridge across the Bosphorus is a further sign of the modern world. Only a few miles away from it, the pretty Leander Tower was built into the sea.

The variety of Istanbul’s architecture is exceeded by the diversity of its inhabitants. Over the centuries, the tongue of land between the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara was taken again and again by conquerors who all put their stamp on it. Greeks and Romans, Persians and Crusaders, Tartars and Turks have left their mark there. Today the descendants of people from all parts of the Ottoman Empire live in Istanbul.

Four out of five residents of Istanbul have come from Anatolia in the last 40 years. In the mid-1960s the city had a population of only 2.5 million. The Asian shore was still largely wooded, and served as pasture for animals, or was the site of rural summer dwellings. Today, it is every bit as densely populated as the European shore, where the city pushed northwards from the sea. In the meantime, the pace of immigration has slowed, and the infrastructure is adapting to the stream of newcomers. The city authorities have ambitious projects designed to put an end to the traffic chaos: a tunnel was built beneath the Bosphorus to take a rail link from Üsküdar on the Asian side to Yenikapı beneath the Topkapı Palace. A further rail link leading to Kartal on the Asian side and new connecting roads round off this scheme. The cable car (finiculère) from Kabataş to Taksim, which has been in operation since 2006, has already calmed Istanbul's traffic.

Istanbul has grown around three centres

Istanbul has three city centres today. Sultanahmet, the site of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with its six minarets reaching for the sky, forms the historic core. As in every other great metropolis that attracts swarms of visitors, this area, including the Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar, is increasingly becoming a tourist zone. Below Sultanahmet, even up to the early 1990s, there were many publishing houses and newspapers that made this district the intellectual heart of Turkey. The second centre, on the western bank of the Bosphorus to the north of the Golden Horn, with its high-rises and upmarket residential areas, has more of a European character. With Taksim as its heart, it extends from Karaköy to Maslak and has been connected to the subway system. The third important district is the Asian side of the city. The city's most expensive residential areas are located on the Bosphorus and Bagdad Caddesi, which extends above the Sea of Marmara from Kadıköy to Bostancı and many miles beyond.

Nothing in the history of Istanbul has caused such fear among the city's residents as the earthquake of 1999, a reminder that those who live in this region have to get along with the moods of Mother Earth. Since then, projects have been initiated to prepare the city for new tremors and quakes, but the quality of the buildings is very poor in parts, and not everything can be replaced. The catastrophe of March 2011 in Japan showed the people of Istanbul once again how great the danger is. They talk little about this topic. Everyone hopes that the next big quake will come sometime later, preferably in the distant future, and spare their own homes. Compulsory earthquake insurance and stricter new building regulations have been introduced to reduce the future threat.

Deniz, the sea, shapes the climate of the city

There’s one other way, too, that nature is a dominant force in the life of İstanbul. Deniz, the sea, has a direct influence on the city climate. The fishermen are the ones who best know its winds, which can change several times a day. Marine currents alternately carry sea bass and shoals of sardines through the straits. The residents of İstanbul love the northeasterly poyraz and detest the iodos from the south – the poyraz may be a little cool, but the air is so clear that every detail on the opposite bank is visible. When the iodos blows, however, it suddenly brings in heat, rain, fog and smog.

For all the talk about environmental awareness, İstanbul has not really taken this issue to heart. In consequence of the enormous property boom, every available bit of land in the inner city has been built on. Historic quarters are torn down to construct luxury real estate, and green spaces are few and far between in the city centre. Even the woodland at the margins of Istanbul is under threat. Wooded areas that are protected in principle have made way for the guarded, gated communities of the wealthy. For a planned third bridge over the Bosphorus it will be necessary to clear a swathe of woodland to build a motorway. There is, however, resistance to this: committed citizens have formed initiatives to protest against all of these developments.

In the end these matters will be no more than a footnote in the history of a great metropolis. From Byzantium to Constantinople and Istanbul, this city has had more ups and downs than most. And this grande dame has regally dealt with the fact that the founder of the republic, Kemal Atatürk, chose Ankara and not Istanbul to be his centre of power. Its old vitality has returned, and while Ankara may hold the title of capital city, İstanbul has most of the attributes of a true capital. It is the seat of money, the intelligentsia, arts and the media. As the people of the city proudly assert, the best thing about Ankara is the evening flight back to Istanbul.

    © 2015 Marco Polo Travel Publishing | Pinewood | Chineham Business Park | Crockford Lane | Chineham | Basingstoke | RG24 8AL | Great Britain