A bridge between two worlds Istanbul is a city where one keeps shuttling between continents. The Bosphorous strait, flowing between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, divides the city into European Istanbul, which comprises the bulk of the city to the west, while Asian Istanbul is to the east.
The Bosphorous Bridge is quite literally a bridge between two continents, with signboards proclaiming ‘Welcome to Europe’ and ‘Welcome to Asia’ at either end.
Most tourist attractions like the Topkapi, the Aya Sophiya, the Sultanahmet Mosque and the Hippodrome are in the Older part of the city on the European side, while the commercial areas are in the newer part of the city on the European side. The Asian part is mainly residential, and home to the majority of Istanbul’s 14 million population. Much like its geography, the city is caught between two worlds. While one part is going all out to make efforts to become a part of the European Union (notwithstanding their dislike for the Greeks) in letter, spirit and dispensation, there is a large part of the city, which still is very much oriental. The crowd on Taksim Square will contrast phenomenally with those in the Kapali Çarsi (Grand Bazaar).
The hippest and most fashionable of Turks would be seen strolling around on the walking street off Taksim square, just like in West Europe, while the traders and ware-sellers on the Kapali Çarsi would be trying every possibility in the book to sell their amazing collections; small blue coloured eyes to ward off evil, Turkish dolls (similar to the Russian ones, one inside the other), Turkish çay (tea) sets, Turkish carpets (some ‘Made in China’), Turkish delight sweets, coffee beans, spices and condiments, incense sticks are all up for sale. Bakhlawa is one of the most common sweets, and little carts selling sweets and snacks are all over the place.
No place in the city is far from a çay bahçe (tea garden). And neither from the ubiquitous McDonald’s A ‘Secular’ Muslim republic Turkey is a unique country in many ways: in addition to the two continents part, it is a secular country with a predominantly Muslim population, over 90%. A question most commonly asked in many parts of Turkey is, “Are you Muslim”. When I say No, the response is, “O, Christian”. When I try to explain Hindu, at many places it is not understood at all. Whatever be that, the Turkish hospitality takes over and I am offered çay and sweets. Many still harbor the impression that a person can either be a Muslim, and if not, s/he has to be a Christian.
Being a predominantly Muslim country does not deter the mushrooming of watering holes, pubs and nightclubs, especially in up-market Istanbul. Theatre and movies are aplenty, and the Turkish film industry churns out approximately 100 movies a year. We can use coins 2005 has seen the introduction of the Yeni Turk Lirasi (YTL) or the New Turkish Lira. This has made the currency much more respectable compared to the earlier Turkish Lira which converted to 1.25 million liras to a dollar. A taxi ride cost millions, Salaries ran into billions and lottery tickets promised trillions. The Turks smartly knocked off six zeroes and the currency now looks much more respectable. Visibly happy over the move, Cenk Bey (bey is used to signify respect, the equivalent of –ji in Hindi), my Turkish friend says, “We are blessed. We can now use coins”
The world’s greatest game The Turks love their football like they love little else. Everyone, just everyone, from little boys to old men all are equally fanatical about the game. Many reckon Turkey’s World cup semi final performance as the most significant thing to have happened to Turkey after Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). Nitty gritty details about the Turkish league and the other premier European leagues, the English, Spanish and Italian in particular are discussed, analysed, debated and dissected in detail like nobody’s business. So great is the passion for the game that recently, the Adiyaman’s gap association, set up a team consisting of all visually impaired players. It is their love for football that makes them blind. Big city, small roads Traffic moves really really slow in Istanbul, a situation not helped by narrow lanes and alleys in many parts of the city. Turks keep a good distance between vehicles and consider it extremely impolite to honk. Buses are aplently, and many of them have vestibuled which helps them to have two carriages, thereby doubling the number of passengers traveling. The metro is good, but coverage is poor. It helps commuters beat the road traffic in the commercial areas of Levent to Taksim. The fastest, and most popular mode of transport is the ferry, which also provides spectacular views of the Bosphorous. On board, çay and coffee are available in abundance, helping Turks stay close to their favourite drink. Bombay vs Delhi Istanbul is very much the cultural, historical and commercial hub of Turkey.
Ankara is the country capital, where the government sits. People from Istanbul don’t think too highly about those in Ankara, considering them to be bureaucratic, not enterprising and slow. Doesn’t it remind you of a couple of cities closer home. The cities are very well connected, though, and the eight-laned (at places, 12) modern highway helps people from Istanbul zip fast to Ankara, complete work and get back, all on the same day. Epilogue Istanbul has seen the mighty Byzantium, Constantinople and the Ottoman empires come and pass. While the mosque minarets dot is landscape, so do state of the art skyscrapers. The amazingly devout resonance of muezzins calling out from the mosques and the cacophony of DJs playing the latest dance numbers. Burqas and skirts.
Being ambidextrous comes naturally to Istanbul, a fact that adds to the romance of the place like nothing else does. Taking history in its stride, moving ahead at a racy pace, nonchalantly balancing contradictions between two worlds, Istanbul is a city I always love to come home to.