İstanbul, The Legendary Capital

A god and a beauty of history, a taboo 
A miracle of sun and water, a secret surely eternal, this is İstanbul
It’s us who are wasted away… Our hearts

Ahmet Muhip Dranas


Founded at the crossroads of two old continents, Europe and Asia, and two important seas, the Mediterranean and the Black sea, İstanbul is an imperial epic; a legend which has been the capital of three major empires.

It is still going strong ????with its uninterrupted three thousand year life span, its unique geography, unmatched history, incredible nature, legendary splendor and beauty, a city still not despoiled despite its inhabitants, an immortal city.

İstanbul is a bridge connecting two different worlds; the East and The West. It is the West at the outermost of the East, the East at the endmost of the West. İstanbul is a melting pot where Eastern and Western civilizations blend. It has hosted Western Anatolian and Hellenistic cultures upon which Roman culture was grafted. Added to this are traces of Chinese, Indian and Persian cultural influences and Altaic Turkish mythology and Islamic legends. It embraces Pagan, Christian and Muslim religions – the cradle of three cultural components. Not only is it the crossroads of the past civilizations for the East and the West, it is also an intersection point for the future.

İstanbul is a festival of cultures, beliefs, religions, languages and races within the context of an amazing cultural inheritance. It is a world theatre and a world capital. Here, not only a national one but a living universal cultural heritage is on display. That is why this historical peninsula is a universal museum that must be appreciated, carefully protected and passed on to future generations.

Let us for a moment examine the religious mosaic of İstanbul; Jews: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Karaite, Jews of Thessalonica; Christians: Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Protestant Greeks, Turkish Orthodox, Turkish Protestant, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Romanians; Armenians: Gregorian or Apostolic, Catholic, and Protestant; Chaldean, Catholic, and Protestant Syrians: European Catholics: Maltese, French, and Polish; Protestant Dutch, Germans and English; Georgians; Levantines; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Africans of various faiths; different religious orders of the Sunni and Shiite doctrines: Alawis, Bektashis, Shiite Iranians, Kirgiz, Cossacks, Uzbeks; Masons, Shamans, Buddhists, people who believe in ‘ancestor worship’…

Mosques, churches, synagogues, mausoleums, cemeteries, sacred Greek Orthodox fountains (hagiasma), saints’ tombs, fathers, saints, dervish lodges, Quranic schools… At one corner, you see animals being sacrificed, practices to avoid bad luck such as melting lead and preparing written charms; and at another, the cross thrown into the Bosphorus… On one side church bells chime, on the other the muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. In places of worship, Prayers from The Bible, The New Testament and the Quran can be heard simultaneously. In the churches of İstanbul the New Testament is cited in Latin, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Aramaic.

Every belief, paganism, atheism, orthodoxy and heterodoxy; is woven together creating a multi-dimensional structure. The names that have been bestowed are quite symbolic in this respect: The Monastery Mosque (Manastır Mescidi), Vefa Church Mosque (Vefa Kilise Camii), Little Haghia Sophia Mosque (Küçük Ayasofya Camii), Panayia Hancerotissa (The Daggered Maria Church)… The beliefs, religions, customs and people seemingly contradict yet influence each other, forming a multi-cultural mosaic.

For example in the districts of Ortaköy or Kuzguncuk; in the old people’s home known as Darulaceze; a mosque, a church and a synagogue stand side by side. In Silivrikapı Cemetery, Greeks, Armenians and Muslims are buried next to each other. In no other part of the world have such different religious and ethnic groups been blended together in such a manner. Naturally, this harmony has created a common tolerance. In this respect, İstanbul is a city where the three great religions meet and co-exist in harmony.

Church music, synagogue hymns and dervish lodge music are combined with secular music and evolve into new forms. That’s why in a recent  concert called, “I hear the sound of İstanbul” we heard the İstanbul Muezzins Choir and the Athens, Byzantium Choir sing together.
All these people who come from diverse geographical regions, of different modes of thought and sensibilities, shaped by various cultures, laws, traditions and life styles have created a very special identity for İstanbul.

İstanbul possesses a unique geographical and hence geopolitical advantage. Nature has shown benevolence to the city. The opening up of the water routes after the last ice age created an extremely beneficial land and seascape vis-à-vis the city’s North-South, East-West axis. This axis includes the Black Sea-Mediterranean and the Balkans-Anatolia-Middle East-Asia route, and encompasses the Bosphorus and The Golden Horn, a deep and protected natural port. Such an astonishing geography has endowed a long-lasting multi-dimensional and colorful history to the city. Geography and history have formed an admirable unity. İstanbul, the magnificent legendary capital, was born from this combination.

İstanbul possesses a cultural variety that dates back to ancient times, an accumulation of various identities and an astonishing natural heritage. This is what people it find so striking at first glance. There is no city anywhere else in the world with such a diverse yet harmonized culture.

The notable names of the earliest periods, such as Ur, Babylon, Karnack, Luxor, Troy, Carthage, Teotihuacán; or those of the classical era, Ephesus or Aphrodisias… These are cities that no longer exist; they are merely historical sites one may visit. Beijing, New Delhi, Katmandu, Moscow, Lhasa, London, Paris, Prague, St. Petersburg and New York are all new cities compared to İstanbul.

Athens, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, or the more recent ones, Baghdad and Damascus… These are cities with a mono-culture, cities that do not host a historical continuity or multi-cultural component. In the 17th century no city could compare to İstanbul. İstanbul is “The City” (şehr-i yegâne), peerless and unprecedented. That is why Napoleon said, ‘If the world was only one country, İstanbul would be its capital’. Pierre Gilles, who came to İstanbul in the 16th century to study the topography of ancient objects and structures, and whose work is still a primary reference, has this to say in his preface: All the other cities are mortal, but I think İstanbul will live as long as mankind exists. ‘A Chinese writer refers to İstanbul as ‘the city of cities’. Anna Comnena, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, who meticulously described the İstanbul of her day in her renowned chronicle of her father’s rule, called this city ‘the queen of cities.’ We call it ‘the legendary city’.

In an issue of the National Geographic Traveler, İstanbul was placed second after New York in “the 10 most livable cities” list. In his book ‘The City of the Future’ (1924) the architect Le Corbusier defines İstanbul as follows: ‘now if we have to compare New York and İstanbul, we can safely say that the first one is hell, and the second one is heaven on earth… İstanbul is a fruit orchard, our cities are mines…’ The İstanbul Le Corbusier knew has lost a lot of its character over the last 50 years yet it is still a unique place.

I have visited all the major cities of the world; I still take tour groups to these cities. None of them have İstanbul’s natural beauty, geography, history and liveliness. Although its cultural heritage has been damaged over the past 50 years, İstanbul is still a world capital that shines day and night. It’s a universal city with a heart that cheerfully beats 24 hours a day, with its people incessantly eating, drinking, entertaining, living; a city that is always on the go. İstanbul is a lively, passionate, energetic, turbulent dream city. It is a city full of surprises.

In the last 50 years, a period of rapid growth, just like other major and historical cities, İstanbul has been threatened by changes in its economy as well as undergoing a number of political and social developments. The consequences of unplanned industrialization, immigration and the increase in population are ruining the city. Its seas and water are getting dirtier, and its natural flora and fauna are slowly disappearing. Due to migration to urban areas in the last 50 years, the population of the city has increased eightfold, and the areas of settlement a hundredfold.

The populations of these historically marginalized centers are now overrunning İstanbul, which expanded rapidly at the expense of other centers during the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Newcomers are once again conquering the city and in the process of redefining it. But this is only temporary.

İstanbul, just like the legendary Phoenix, has successfully resisted the ravages of time and has always rebuilt itself from its ashes. It continuously reinvents itself. It has taken up a new identity with every century.  Sieges, attacks, epidemics, fires, earthquakes, immigration, destruction, rebuilding; the city is now subject to a new siege that endangers its cultural and natural heritage once again… Yet İstanbul survives. This immortal city will overcome all the setbacks of the past 50 years; it will accommodate its new residents to adjust to its unique way of life and will kindle its fire once again to become the grand city it used to be. A master in reinventing itself after all the expansion and destruction, İstanbul has the power to rebuild itself with the inexhaustible dynamism that lies within its essence.

That is why the greatest injustice to be inflicted on a city like İstanbul is to talk about ‘the good old days’, to yearn for the old İstanbul and to live in the past trying to bring back something that has already been witnessed; idolizing a preconceived notion of İstanbul. The old timers who cannot understand this, consider themselves ‘the real genuine folk of İstanbul’ while calling the change-makers ‘the others’ saying that İstanbul no longer exists. But what is really important is to preserve what we have now. Instead of reminiscing, we have to unite İstanbul’s past and present, integrate its past values and beauties with the future. In order to do this, we have to know İstanbul to understand it. Once we know it, we will learn to love it.

The best way to get to know a city is by getting lost in it, touring every corner, every alley; smelling it, breathing it, and enjoying it in every way possible in order to  increase one’s comprehension  of the links between people, cultures and places.
It is essential to walk through the streets in Fener on the Golden Horn, to be awed the dome of Haghia Sophia, to go bird watching on Camlica Hill, to gaze at the colors of the spring flowers, to taste the sea on the Bosphorus, to throw bread crisps to the seagulls at Saray Point ( Sarayburnu), to dine on bread and fish in Kadiköy (Chalcedon), marzipan in Bebek, sweets in Pera at İnci Patisserie (Beyoglu), yoghurt in Kanlica, beans over rice at Kanaat Restaurant. It is essential to drink rakı at Nevizade, boza (a beverage made of fermented millet) in Vefa; not to miss the performance of ‘Abduction from the Seraglio’ at Topkapi Palace during the İstanbul Festival. One must browse the markets of İstanbul: see the flower stands at Eminönü, the bird vendors of Azapkapi. One must witness the people of İstanbul as they visit the tombs of the city’s myriad saints or shop at the neighborhood markets. One must join the ritual of smoking  a ”nargile”, or water-pipe in the Cafer Aga Medrese or gaze at the sun on an autumn day sitting at the  waterfront of Harem.

To really soak up the city, one must see it with its flower-vendor gypsies, musicians, and boatmen selling meat balls in small boats, street vendors, the Saturday mothers, homeless kids, the drunkards, the poor. One must take in the noises, the splendor, the dirt, the colorful fish, vegetables, fruit stalls, Hacıbekir Turkish delight, roasted chestnuts, boiled com, fountains, Turkish baths, tombstones seagulls, plain trees, the moonlight…

For seven years I gazed at  Bosphorus from one of the best rooms of the beautiful buildings that make up the campus of Bosphorus University. Wherever I looked,  I could see a plethora of shades of green. I think those seven years were the years in which I really took in the city. I guided tourists in Sultanahmet; I worked at the publishing center of İstanbul “Babıali”. A couple of times I toured the whole city with my İstanbul-Loving teachers, some of whom are now buried in the Ferikoy Christian Cemetery. One of these teachers, Godfrey Goodwin, an expert in Ottoman architecture, mentions me in reference to these tours in the foreword of his excellent book ‘A history of Ottoman Architecture’.

Since 1985 I have been running a tourism agency that organizes “Strolling through İstanbul” tours for the people of İstanbul, taking them around the city, showing them İstanbul in detail. With these tours, we’ve shown thousands of “İstanbulites”, places they’ve never seen before, many historical and modern works they have passed by without noticing, and we’ve introduced them to old customs and new trends. We have shown them İstanbul’s history, geography, culture and main districts along with their concomitant legends and customs, streets, meeting places, mosques, churches, synagogues, sacred Greek fountains, tombs of saints, cemeteries, caravansaries, Turkish baths, markets, birdhouses, its flora, birds and bugs…We have told them about the city’s music and literature. We have mapped out almost eighty different routes, allotting each one a whole day to explore…
İstanbul has been and still is a web of contradictions; reality and legends, commotion and calmness, the rich and poor, the beautiful and the ugly. These contradictions span the effort to preserve cultural heritage and its destruction and the paradox of both loving and hating this amazing city.

Despite of everything, İstanbul is still a center of attraction. İstanbul has an energy that slowly wins you over and a light that constantly changes; it has a smell of its own, a soul, a different type of magic. And this light, this energy, this charm, will live on forever.

* Foreword from the book of FEST TRAVEL’s General Manager Faruk Pekin, İstanbul the Legendary Capital, İstanbul 2004.