First-time visitors to Istanbul often leave home with foggy yet preconceived notions about this storied and mysterious destination. And while visitors will have their own opinions and ideas on what to look forward to, in Istanbul, they all have a ring of truth. Istanbul, like Turkey, is simultaneously many and often bewilderingly contradictory things: ancient and modern, Western and Oriental, religious and secular, conservative and progressive, wondrous and ordinary, familiar and exotic. But there is one undeniable common denominator among all of these disparate and contradictory traits: Istanbul is growing more and more interesting by the day. Juxtaposed against the unstoppable machine of progress are layers upon layers of ancient civilization, where housing renovations or urban renewal projects invariably uncover groundbreaking evidence of Istanbul's stature throughout the centuries. If you need proof that Istanbul is as momentous as Rome, as captivating as Paris, and -- if you know where to go -- as exotic as Bangkok, then you've picked up the right book.
A city that straddles Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a symbol of greatness, coveted historically by everyone from Xerxes all the way down the historical dateline through World War I, when Russia was green with envy over the possibilities of what free passage through the Bosphorus Straits could do for its economy.
The traditions inherited from the past 2,500 years of history (although recent discoveries backdate the city by thousands of years) are most evident in the Old City, known as Old Stamboul or the Historic Peninsula. A stroll through this open-air museum reveals an ancient Roman hippodrome, underground cisterns, and architectural icons, all representing the greatest excesses of the Byzantine Empire and the mystique and power of the Ottoman Empire. As a religious center (the heart of the Greek Orthodox Church as well as the Islamic faith for centuries), this old section of Istanbul is the custodian of two of the world's most important cultural heritages and home to some of the world's most opulent displays of art and wealth. Early Greek civilization left us the building blocks for Rome and Byzantium, which swathed these earlier foundations in rich mosaics and left their mark with monuments such as the Hippodrome and Ayasofya. Even Sultan Fatih Mehmet II was astounded at the beauty of the city he had finally conquered. The Ottoman dynasty redirected the city's fortunes into the imperial majesty of undulating domes and commanding minarets, and the sumptuousness of Topkapi Palace.
Across the Golden Horn is the modern heart of the city, custodian of the latter centuries of the Ottoman Empire and heir to the future of the country. This, the "modern" city, pulsates with all the electricity of a cutting-edge international metropolis. Although the political capital sits safely in the heartland, this part of Istanbul projects itself into the world as Turkey's ambassador of art, entertainment, music, and education. Meanwhile on the Asian side of the Bosphorus sprawl residential neighborhoods and commercial centers more reminiscent of Europe than the area's counterpart on the European side.
Together, these and Istanbul's other neighborhoods provide a home to 23 million-plus of the 74 million people living in Turkey, many of whom are modest village folk who've migrated to the big city out of economic need. Over pricey brunches, the residents of the more prosperous neighborhoods along the Bosphorus revile the poor wedged into the squalid back streets of Süleymaniye, Çarsamba, and Tarlabasi, while the religious fundamentalists of the Fatih and Üsküdar neighborhoods stare out through their veils in disapproval.
As a complex society in transition, and a microcosm of the tug of war between East and West, Istanbul is still a work in progress. It is a work of monumental proportions. Yet Istanbul is so exotic, wonderful, complex, and utterly captivating, that once experienced, it'll be impossible to break free from its spell.
The history of Istanbul reads like an encyclopedia of ancient and modern civilizations, as virtually every major player, from Greece's Alexander the Great, to Persia's Cyrus, to the long lineup of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman emperors and sultans, fought and won control of this city on the Straits. Notwithstanding the pillaging, each ruler left his (and sometimes her) mark on the city; and as recent excavations show, it's impossible to swing a trowel without hitting archaeological pay dirt.
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