Thursday, July 25, 2013

Impressions of Istanbul

So, we've been in Istanbul for about a week. As with my post about Rome, I am always looking at the way cities embody their culture. What I found with Rome was frankly a little disappointing in the way that the city capitalized on its antiquity and, in doing so, distanced itself from its roots and isolated its rich history.
The Spice Bazaar
What I have found in Istanbul is quite the opposite. it is apparent that there are tourists in the city, and that certain minor modifications to say, the traffic system, have been made to accommodate these travelers. However, Istanbul is something very special in that its diverse, ancient history is embedded into the city. The culture is incredibly rich and there is a sense that people go about their business in a similar manner to how they did centuries ago. The Spice Bazaar, for instance, is hundreds of years old and still serves as a central marketplace for locals. Leaving the Spice Bazaar in the direction of the Grand Bazaar, one will encounter nothing but alleyways full of small family stores all specializing in one good. Continuing up the small streets, one will stumble into the back entrances to the Grand Bazaar, where the only significant difference is slightly more flashy and pricey goods. However, the big tourist destination simply blends into it surroundings and is a continuation of its environment. Had it been Rome, there might have been an entrance fee just to get in.
Perhaps what I enjoy most about the city is the sense of "authenticity" that you get. The Bazaars fulfill any stereotypes of an "eastern market" that one might expect to see but none of it seems catered to tourists. Shop keepers will invite you to sit down over a glass of tea while they tell you about the goods you are buying and negotiate prices.
I know it's not a good idea to compare one part of the trip to another, but I cannot think of two cities that more perfectly demonstrate the difference between a city that has isolated its history and a city that embraces its history and culture. I would not describe the condition of Rome as and "identity crisis", but more of a lack of solid identity. Istanbul is exactly the opposite in that it appears to be so deeply tied into its past that it is evident where there would be conflict in its attempts to integrate with Europe. Turkey is not an Arab country and any Turk will proudly/stubbornly confirm this. However, I get the sense that Turks do not necessarily feel European. Rather, Istanbul as a city that is modernizing but not "westernizing". Turkey has recently joined a customs union with the EU and there are skyscrapers being erected in corners of the city as evidence of an expanding and possibly "westernizing" economy.
At least from what I have observed and heard about the city, skyscrapers will not define the skyline of Istanbul, but mosques and palaces that have stood for centuries and will continue to be integral parts of the city for decades and centuries to come.

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