Ashoak Upadhyay

Istanbul’s troubled modernity

Updated on: Oct 09, 2012
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Istanbul encapsulates Turkey’s dilemma of determinedly erasing its Ottoman past to create a modern Turkey, and yet referring to its past to showcase its cultural richness.

The four minarets clearly visible on the far side of the four-lane wide street packed with mid-morning traffic, the light rail or tram carriages working their way on their own tracks, are slim and elegant, seeming to pierce an azure sky. Laleli Mosque is located, like all mosques in Istanbul, on a hillock, so no one can miss its majesty evident 400 years on. The muezzin’s call resonates through the babble of window shoppers on the southern side of the Yenicerilar Caddesi, the old Divan Yolu that leads down to Sultanahmet, once the seat of the Byzantine and Ottoman kings and, today, the epicentre of Istanbul’s tourism.

Swarms of tourists and Turks are busy shopping, gawking into windows and entrances of boutiques stocked with the latest fashions, bargaining with street vendors hawking counterfeit Lacoste jackets, handbags and women wear at throwaway prices — all on one side of the Caddesi or avenue. The far side where Laleli Mosque stands is dotted all the way down to the tip of the Golden Horn Peninsula and the Sultanahmet district with historical monuments: mosques on gentle hillocks brooding silently at the Caddesi’s consumerism, “medrassahs” housed in dilapidated stone mansions, some dating back 300 years, houses of pashas of the Ottoman aristocracy, their forecourts occupied by small gift shops, peddling soulful Turkish music and brassware that look suspiciously like those from Moradabad or Kashmir.

The peninsula ends in the original town built by the Romans, Byzantium, then Constantinople and then the Ottoman kings who renamed it Istanbul but remained within the old Roman walls, bounding it from water gateways on three sides.

Heterogenous cultures

Istanbul’s claim to a cosmopolitan heritage is evident here: in the Hagia Sophia, the church built in the fourth century AD that became a mosque in the 15th century, once the Byzantine Empire was defeated. Its interiors bear remarkable testimony to the care the Ottoman kings showed in not defacing early Christian and even pagan mosaic motifs. Turned into a mosque, its essential architecture was retained with the famed Ottoman planner, Sinan, fortifying the structure; so were its Byzantine tile mosaics depicting Mother Mary and the Infant Jesus even as they added four huge round plates close to the vaunted ceilings with exquisite calligraphy of Quran verses.

And they synthesised: Sixteenth century architects planning the nearby Sultan Ahmet mosque like so many other mosques elsewhere in Istanbul borrowed liberally from the Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine styles, adding Iranian and Mamluk traditions. In 1934, the new republic of Turkey turned the church-turned-mosque into a museum.

Modern Turkey

Istanbul is the microcosm of whatever Turkey aspires to be. After millennia of Christian and Muslim rule and a violent history of conquests, spoilage and sacking, the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1 heralded the new modern Republic of Turkey in which, among other things, all aspects of Ottoman life that were considered inimical to the westernisation project were abolished.

Ottoman rule, the harem, the nobility around the sultans and their properties, were rendered obsolete; the famed Dolmabahce Palace that served as Kemal Ataturk’s headquarters, was turned into a museum as were Topkapi and other palaces dotted all over the two sides of Istanbul.

But the westernisation project that gathered momentum with the ‘alphabet revolution’ that Romanised Turkish script, went hand in hand with a narrow nationalism or “Turkification” that over time ended Istanbul, and Turkey’s, claim to a cosmopolitanism it had enjoyed paradoxically for centuries under Ottoman rule.

In his vivid memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, Orhan Pamuk notes the steady growth of an insidious and violent nationalism reflected in anti-Greek riots in the 1950s and later; worse, Istanbul rapidly lost its multi-lingual status, and in turn, its cosmopolitanism.

Citing a French traveller of the mid-19th century, Pamuk tells us that Gautier noted that in this “tower of babel”, several European languages, Armenian and Greek, were spoken, including Ladino, the medieval Spanish of the Jews who’d come to Istanbul after the Inquisition. After the founding of the Republic, Pamuk laments, most of these languages disappeared as violent ‘Turkification’ abetted by state sanctions against minorities — he calls it ethnic cleansing — led to the virtual disappearance of Greek and Armenian from the language of the streets.

From memory to memento

The rise of modernism and its ugly face that Pamuk recalls has had unintended consequences. While Ottoman culture and its trappings specifically and, more diffusedly, the earlier Christian and Jewish traditions may have faded, for whatever reason from public memory with the relentless march of westernising modernity, they have acquired the status of mementoes.

Tourism and the need to showcase Istanbul and indeed Turkey as a model of cosmopolitanism — in part because the westernisation project demands it — have turned memory into memento. Culture sells and Istanbul had lots of it. In 2010, Istanbul after campaigning for it, was awarded that year’s European Cultural Capital status.

But the cosmopolitanism based on tolerance, nurtured by the Ottoman sultans that had made Istanbul a “salad bowl” of cultures seems to have died decades ago, as Pamuk attests.

So in Istanbul, multiculturalism, that was once its natural, organically-evolved privilege to which the Istanbullus, like Pamuk, could lay claim, has become artifice just as it has the world over for the westernised tourist keen to savour the ‘exotic’ with Subway takeaways and cheery waiters.

Istanbul’s geography

But if history has become a memento, not so Istanbul’s geography. No city in the world could possibly be blessed with its unique blend of land and water.

To stand at a southern tower in Topkapi Palace overlooking the union of the Marmara Sea and the Bosphorus, as Sultan Ahmet and his wives must have; to cross the bridge over the Bosphorus and wonder at the two great continental land masses of Asia and Europe some hundred metres below and the city spread over their edges; to sit and watch the ferries carry commuters between the two halves of the city on two continents within 20 minutes, is to understand what Istanbul can never lose.

Published on October 09, 2012

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