Istanbul: A Great European City

By Williams, Ian | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2009 | Go to article overview
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Istanbul: A Great European City


Williams, Ian, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


After half a millennium of Crusader-style propaganda, Westerners all know that Turks eat babies. But in fact, walking the streets of Istanbul with a six-monthold baby is a revelation: adult males - as much as, if not more than women-could not resist coming up to stroke the baby's hand and chin.

The city defies expectations and stereotypes and now looks like the cosmopolitan world capital it was for so many centuries. It is an organic growth of ultra-modern high rises rising from a seedbed of traditional wooden houses, sadly being reduced to mulch by time and gentrification. Apart from the great monuments, the Roman walls, the mosques and churches, it is sad that so Utile of the ancient city survives, but that is because the all-too-flammable wood that has been the favored building material for millennia has led to urban renewal by conflagration.

Old Ottoman wooden houses crumbling on the backstreets are eloquent testimony to the relative fragility and evanescence of the city's fabric over the centuries. A lamp overturned could do as much damage as barbarian invasion, and even Ottoman palaces went up inflames.

My favorite part of Istanbul is Sultanahmet, which clusters on the hills near the Topkapi Palace. A few decades ago, Sultanahmet was a louche quarter of gangsters and smugglers. They have moved on, but it still maintains a definite charm.

The narrow, steep and winding cobbled streets allegedly follow the Ottoman strictures: they were to be no wider than three horsemen could ride abreast. In many of them, their stirrups would have tangled with each other, and in any case the Sipahis - members of the Ottoman Empire's elite mounted cavalry force - would have crashed their helmets on the overhanging medieval-style upper storeys.

Nevertheless, such restrictions do not prevent cars from trying to squeeze past pedestrians up the steep slopes and around the hairpin bends.

In keeping with their multi-faceted exterior walls, the roofs of Sultanahmet are a Harry Potter fantasy of tumbled tiles and random angles and equaUy random chimneys poking out, enhanced by rooftop flower pots and the new talismans of satellite dishes. Concrete in bright hues of yeUow and pink escapes the Third World ubiquity of turquoise blue, and is interspersed with wooden and corrugated iron additions and extensions.

The area is undergoing serious gentrification, but only in a few favored cases does that involve repairing and repainting the topsyturvy blackened wood structures. Rebuilding is done mostly in concrete, often with the same eccentrically shaped exteriors, and from a quick view of construction techniques they are unUkely to be much more durable than the rickety, and sometimes deserted, wooden houses alongside.

Perhaps the best indication of Turkey's accretive civilization is the incredible archaeological excavations taking place in Yenikapi, just south of Sultanahmet, To set the contrast, I once stood in the Beersheba museum, in a confiscated mosque, perasing the Israeli Department of Antiquities time chart - in which the mosque did not exist, since history stopped in 660 and resumed in 1900.

When, during the digging for a new underground railway tunnel, Turkish archaeologists discovered the silted-up remains of a Byzantine harbor with the preserved remains of 9th and 10th century ships, they did not concrete over the inconvenient reminder. Instead they delayed the hugely expensive project while they excavated and rescued the relics. Indeed they went digging even further, and took the origins of the city back to Neolithic times.

The archaeologists assured me that there was no popular upsurge against the display, rather pride in this reinforcement of the antiquity of their city.

One of the joys of Istanbul is stumbling across ancient churches and mosques nestled among the houses, quite apart from the better-known and huger monuments such as Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and the Sultan Ahmet mosque that gives the district its name.

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