Its ruins are Roman and look west into Europe, its palaces and mosques are Ottoman. The language, brutish and unintelligible, was carried centuries ago on horseback from the ranges and plains of central Asia, assimilating words from Persian and Arabic along the way. On the tram, the locals’ distant looks pass through you from round, full Asiatic faces the colour of cafe-au-lait. In the old city, home to an embarrassment of riches in Roman ruins, palaces and mosques, the tourist industry feels restrained and dignified – not rapacious, but ever tempted by the armies of naive cruise ship passengers passing through.
The call to prayer that rings out in stereo over the rooftops in İstanbul is noticeably different from those in Indonesia and the Arab world. İstanbul’s faith is an open and tolerant Islam softened by the miles and the need to adapt – sufi mysticism still has a visible cultural, if not religious, impact in İstanbul. But the old city is only a tiny part of a metropolis of 14 million. Immediately to the west, the suburbs around Fatih are staunchly religious, conservative and inward-looking – imagine the characters in Deliverance occupying a pocket of Manhattan. Sombre women cloaked head to toe in chador are the norm and there’s barely a smile for the visitor.
Unexpectedly, a short ferry ride away on the Asian side, the girls of Kadiköy stride joyous and confident in tight jeans past boutique fashion stores and restaurants with football on the telly. It’s not empty consumerism or a hipster trend, Istanbul is a fluid, maritime European city and Kadiköy has soul. The call to prayer sings out over lanes bustling with busy coffee shops and raki bars in the long, warm evening. Street bands play into the night as Kurdish waiters joke around with busking drummer girls.
It’s different again on the handful of islands to the city’s south, a popular getaway. There the asiatic faces fall away, replaced by mediterranean features and weathered, dark chocolate skin. The syllables sound Greek, orthodox Christian monasteries top the hills and the day moves at a languid pace, as in Crete, Sicily and Lipari. And it’s in the view from the Princes Islands, these sleepy refuges from the hectic city, that the scale of İstanbul is most apparent. The city is built up in almost a 180 degree vista – it’s buildings as far as the eye can see into Europe to the left and into Asia to the right. Pockets of high rise pop up randomly along the coasts and you know that somewhere, behind the hills, up the Bosphorus, there’s more.
And the Bosphorus flows quietly, comfortable in the knowledge that it’s the reason İstanbul exists. Its silent waters are all that separates Southern Europe from Asia, and all that unites the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. They hold hostage the warm water ports of 6 nations – Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria. Geography rarely gets the credit it deserves for shaping history, but in Istanbul it’s inescapable. The container ships that loom over your passenger ferry, and the dozens moored off the European shore, need these waters and they echo ancient trade routes that have enriched these shores for millennia, and still continue to do so.
İstanbul is the capital of an ancient power and the cultural heart of a nation aspiring to the EU. It’s a romantic cruise on an ancient waterway and a Russian container hulk headed for Brazil. It’s fiercely secular and devoutly religious. It’s a whirling dervish and an installation at the İstanbul Modern. And İstanbul is no open air museum – it’s a city very much of the present, protecting the treasures of its past.