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July 7, 2010 | by  | in Online Only |
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Istanbul: A Real Turkish Delight

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With a population of at least 12 million, Istanbul is the biggest city in Europe. And that figure doesn’t include the city’s estimated four million unregistered inhabitants. Effectively that’s give or take the entirety of New Zealand within one city, which is a great way to make us feel insignificant. Aside from the obvious fact of its size, this Turkish ‘mega city’ is unlike any other I have ever encountered. Not only does it span two continents, but it remains a living testament to the long and rich histories of some of the world’s greatest civilisations, cultures and religions. It seems that in its juxtaposing mosques and cathedrals, bazaars and department stores, Alfa Romeos and horse-drawn carriages, the entire world is on offer in Istanbul.

While so much of Istanbul’s appeal is rooted deep in its glorious past lives as Byzantium and Constantinople, today it is remarkably forward-looking. The issue of Turkey’s entry into the EU has long preoccupied the scholar, the politician and journalist alike. Can Turkey ever be considered European when the majority of its population are Muslim? Are Western Europe’s critiques of its human rights record genuine humanitarian concerns or simply a convenient excuse? There seems to be a ceaseless barrage of attempts to define the Turkish nation and its people as Western or non-Western, Christian or Muslims, Asian or European.

But, from my impressions of Istanbul, this preoccupation ends well outside Turkish borders, or at least at the doors of its parliament. Certainly the sentiment of locals suggests that EU membership is not the be-all and end-all, or the ultimate symbol of progress and modernity. Turkey, and especially cosmopolitan Istanbul, escapes neat political definitions and cultural stereotypes, it is simply too large and too diverse. Nothing exemplifies this more than Istanbul’s most famous gem, the Hagia Sophia. Once a cathedral, later a mosque and now a museum, this architectural marvel showcases equally stunning masterpieces of Christian iconographic mosaics and Islamic calligraphy side by side.

Why must we critique Orientalism by insisting that Islam is incompatible with the West? Can we not simply accept that the realities of our world are complex and multifaceted, and that in our efforts to define it, we move further away from truthful understanding? The West likes to depict the East and particularly Islam as rigid, dogmatic and fundamentalist, and yet it is our perceptions that are the least flexible.

The city Istanbul has a sense of energy unlike any other I have encountered, even in the metropolitan capitals of London, Paris and Milan. Sleazy carpet shop owners aside, its people showed me a genuine friendliness and wonderful humour. The streets thrived with activity well into the night, sparkling ethereally with strings of lights and filled with the voices of dancing youths. Istanbul has willingly embraced its diversity to produce a truly unique and wonderful city that brings us so much more than the kebab and is well worth a visit.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Peggy says:

    Future world peace is is dependant on Christian and Muslim learning to kive together, maybe Istanbul can teach us all a lesson.

  2. Touche says:

    The sweet naivety of this article is truly touching…

  3. Superior Mind says:

    I went to Istanbul in 2004. Unfortunately I arrived on the same day as George W. Bush. Put a damper on things as the place turned into a security-infested ghost town, it was quite remarkable. Moved out to the Gallipoli peninsular the same day so I missed out on Istanbul. A shame but a reason to head back to Turkey one day.

  4. estate agent london says:

    Istanbul is magic. It was my first thought is a long journey from the airport. It’s also full of stray dogs and cats, many of which closely missed the cobblestone streets of the taxi.

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