Istanbul has been one of the most important cities in world history. Exploring the pivotal moments of its past, we soon discovered its uncertain future was just as fascinating.


Two animated Turks are sitting in front of us. The four of us are discussing Istanbul, a city shaped by the influences of east and west over the centuries. We can feel their pride and excitement as they tell us the stories of Istanbul, of the past and present, of a city that had once been the centre of the world. Their love and loyalty are obvious, and the spark in their eyes tell us this is their home.

But a new influence is taking hold on Istanbul, one they’re not comfortable with. A more conservative and religious government is spreading change across the city, and the lives of these two Turks and their families are changing too. A loyalty that once came to them so quickly is becoming stretched, and their home feels a bit less like home every day.

CONSTANTINOPLE: CAPITAL OF A ROMAN CHRISTIAN EMPIRE

Istanbul has a prestigious history. It bounded onto the world scene in 330 CE, when the Roman Emperor Constantine chose a small Greek fishing port, called Byzantium, as his new capital. His New Rome. He would call it Constantinople and it would stand for 1,200 years. But Constantinople was more than just the new capital for a Roman Empire. Following Constantine’s conversion, it became the centre of Christianity.

Aya Sofya (Church of Holy Wisdom) would come to define this Roman Christian period. Consecrated as a church in 537 CE, it would be the largest church in the world for 1,000 years, famous for its massive dome and golden frescoes. Built so early in Christianity’s history, it’s awe-inspiring beauty would stimulate Christian sympathies for a millennium.

ISTANBUL: CAPITAL OF AN OTTOMAN ISLAMIC CALIPHATE

But this Roman Christian Empire was continually under threat from forces in the east. First from the Persians, then the Arabs. Finally, in 1453, it was the Ottoman Turks who burst through the city walls, capturing the last citadel of classical antiquity. After 1,200 years of rule from Constantinople, the final Roman Emperor fell, and the Ottoman horsemen of the Anatolian plains marched into the city to build a new empire. In the west, this story is told as the demise of modernity. In the Panorama 1453 museum – next to the remains of the ancient Roman Walls – the story is told as a triumph over brutality.

But these horsemen were not just building a new empire, they claimed to be acting as Caliphs, Commanders of the Faithful, Successor to the Prophet Muhammad and ruler of the entire Muslim World. The Roman Christian Empire was gone forever, and an Ottoman Islamic Caliphate had taken its place.

Aya Sofya, the defining structure of Christianity in Istanbul was converted into a mosque. A prayer niche was added and medallions of Arabic inscription of Allah and the early caliphs hung from the walls. The palace that had housed the Caesars became the Topkapı Palace, home to the Ottoman Imperial Sultans. From this palace of shaded courtyards, magnificent mosaics and flowing fountains, they oversaw an empire that was the greatest on earth, stretching from Iraq to the Balkans. Constantinople had become Istanbul.

ISTANBUL SHIFTS TO EUROPEAN SECULARISM

But in the 19th century, Europe was becoming an economic powerhouse with design on foreign lands. The Ottoman Sultans, instead of turning their back on the Europeans, tried to become like them. They left the traditional Middle Eastern Topkapı and built the magnificent Dolmabahçe Palace, flaunting their wealth in the European baroque style of grand staircases, old master paintings and gilded ceilings. It proclaimed the Sultans, not just leaders of Islam, but European monarchs in the age of Grand European Empires.

But the Dolmabahçe Palace was just a shiny façade over a weak empire. General Atatürk, a war hero, sifted through the ashes of the Turkish defeat in WWI and formed a new Turkish state. He disbanded the Caliphate and made religion a private matter. He turned his back on the religious imperial capitals of Istanbul past and moved the capital to Ankara. A new capital for a new secular Turkish state. And that great symbol of Istanbul, the Aya Sofya, no longer a cathedral, nor a mosque, was made a museum so that its treasures could be enjoyed by everyone.

MODERN DAY ISTANBUL

In modern-day Istanbul the ancient capital still sits on the hill, its mosques, churches and palaces proclaim its heritage and are a reminder of its magnificent past. But across the water from the ancient capital, lies the lively neighbourhoods of Beyoğlu, Karaköy and Kadıköy, that define Atatürk’s modern Turkish state.

Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoğlu is the main shopping street and the life and soul of this modern city. It’s where the young come to drink, discuss life and party. A raw energy bounces along the streets and between the buildings, rooftop bars heave with crowds and an odd assortment of vendors complete this urban scene.

Just down the hill are the streets of Karaköy, lined with modern coffee shops serving flat whites to locals and tourists perched on pavement tables debriefing over brunch. The magnificent Istanbul Modern Art Museum and the cool exhibition space of Tophane-I Amire Museum are packed with pieces questioning who and why we are.

A quick ferry ride across the Bosphorus and you reach Kadıköy. A modern produce market, packed with food from all over the world, surrounded by bars and restaurants. A rendezvous point for many of Istanbul’s businessmen. It seems you could be in any European city in the world. And yet if you look a little deeper, and get a little help, you find that Istanbul is changing again.

CHANGING ISTANBUL

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, said, “democracy is like a train you get off when you have reached the destination.” Since he was democratically elected in 2003, he has instigated more conservative Islamic policies. The courts, the police, the media and public education are increasingly subject to the control of his party. He is reversing the liberal secular trend of the last 100 years. As a tourist, you feel that change too. Wikipedia is banned, various international news outlets are unavailable, even blog boards are inaccessible in a country where the authorities are determined to control the flow of information.

For many Erdoğan is fulfilling his democratic electoral mandate but for others, his moves have gone too far. In May 2013, protestors opposing an urban development were forcibly evicted from their sit-in in Taksim’s Gezi Park. From this oppression of free assembly, a movement grew and soon over 5,000 demonstrations of almost 3.5 million people were calling on the government to stop encroaching on their freedom of expression. But the uprising was crushed with 11 killed and more than 8,000 injured.

We meet our friendly Turks in a bar in Kadıköy. They used to live in Taksim, but since the 2013 uprising this once flourishing, liberal neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul is becoming more traditional. So, they, like many others, have upped sticks and headed across the Bosphorus to Kadıköy.

As we sip local beer, they tell us that 15 years ago, Turkey saw millions of European tourists, but their numbers have decreased significantly, replaced by Arab tourists as the country becomes more aligned with their beliefs. They explain that Turkey is increasingly becoming a country of men. Men serve you in restaurants, men sell their wares at stalls. Men can be seen at prayers. Men drink tea at street corners and men play Rummikub into the night. Even for the tourist, the absence of women in day to day situations is clear to see.

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BUT SOME THINGS ARE BETTER

And yet for all those people that don’t like the changes, there are as many that do. Groups of more conservative people, harking back to a more traditional way of life, have been given a voice by Erdoğan. And in turn, he has invested heavily in the infrastructure of the country. Motorways zip between cities. Smart tolls and excellent signage keep traffic flowing with barely a pothole to be seen.

The Istanbul transport network is excellent. A new tunnel under the Bosphorus connects Europe and Asia. The journey from the airport is fast and easy. An integrated transport system connects trams with metros, and ferries with funiculars. Ticketing is simple with carriages clean and spacious. The only risk to travellers is to be the victim of the pernicious man-spreading for which perpetrators are summarily warned.

WHAT NEXT FOR ISTANBUL?

Istanbul has always been where the thoughts and beliefs of Europe, met those of the Middle East. As we walked the neighbourhoods and spoke to locals, we found those influences were on the move again in modern day Istanbul.

But perhaps the trend to a more conservative future is not just the story of Istanbul, buffeted by two changing continents. Instead, maybe it is a global trend, where many countries looking inward instead of outward, focusing on their own national needs rather than international ones. A trend found in the offices of the White House, in the corridors of Westminster and in the palaces of Rome. Perhaps Turkey is just leading the rest of the world away from its liberal secular journey of the last 100 years.

And what of the Aya Sofya, that symbol of Constantinople and Istanbul? For almost 900 years it was a Christian Church, for another 500 an Islamic Mosque and then for the last 100 a secular museum to both. Well, in June 2016 Muslim prayers were held in the mosque for the first time in 85 years, in 2017 groups gathered to call for the museum to be converted back to a mosque and in 2018 Erdoğan, stood in Aya Sofya, reciting the first verse of the Quran and dedicating it to Mehmet the Conqueror, the sultan who captured Istanbul for the Turks back in 1453. Somehow this remarkable building still reflects this ever-changing city.


MORE READING

Read about our experience learning the backstory to the Caliphate in Córoba. For our take on the power of empire read about the Christian sites in Jerusalem or our Jewish walking tour.


DETAILS/ HISTORICAL SITES IN ISTANBUL

Aya Sofya /9:00 – 18:00, 15th Apr– Sep; 9:00 – 16:00, Oct –14th Apr; Price: ₺40 + ₺30 for the overprice audio guide, which if you have a decent guidebook, you should skip. Visiting information can be found here.

Panorama 1453 Museum /8:00 – 17:00. Price: ₺15. Visiting information can be found here.

Dolmabahçe Palace /9:00 – 16:00. Closed Mon & Thur; Price: ₺60 full entrance to all the sites. Info here.

Topkapi Palace /9:00 – 18:00, 15th Apr-Sep; 9:00 – 16:00, Oct –14th Apr; Closed Tues. Price: ₺40 + ₺25 for Harem. Visiting information is here.

Tophane-I Amire Museum is next to Tophane tram station. It is only open when exhibits are showing.

Istanbul Modern Art Museum is closed for refurbishment.

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Our experience unravelling the history of Istanbul and discussing their uncertain future / #istanbul

Our experience unravelling the history of Istanbul and discussing their uncertain future / #istanbul

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