Istanbul is a city with schizophrenia — a city where dichotomies coexist. It’s a city that’s grappling with its identity. Istanbul pays a price for being a European city, with an unmistakably Asian soul. It is chaotic, frustrating, exhilarating and calming all at the same time. Istanbul makes you angry, makes you confused; it even leaves you deeply disappointed. But before you leave, Istanbul opens its heart to you and shares its secret. And you are never the same again.
Our first few days in Istanbul were unfortunately memorable for all the wrong reasons — we struggled to figure out the public transport system because a lot of the instructions were in Turkish, we had to stand in serpentine queues in the piercing Istanbul sun at the attractions in Sultanhamet where the audio guides were so sub-standard that I felt the urge to strangle myself with the cord, we battled crowds to reach the ferry pier to find out we had missed the last ferry. Tired and frustrated, we downed our sorrows in raki and mezze at a lovely little watering hole at Istiklal Street. But our experience left me contemplative.
What is it about Istanbul that makes people across the world want to come back over and over again? Where was the charm, the enigma? Was I missing something? All I had seen so far was a few great examples of Ottoman architecture and an attempt at preserving a decaying culture. And I wasn’t impressed.
This is when I began looking for answers. Where was the soul of Istanbul? Was it in the cobblestone alleyways of Taksim or was it in the boutiques and rooftop bars of the trendy Istiklal Street? Did it lurk silently like a pale ghost in the dark roads of Sultanhamet or the harem of the Topkapi Palace? Did it rest in the complex and nuanced history of the Hagia Sofia or was it found in the daily prayer calls of the Blue Mosque? Had it drifted further away to the leafy neighbourhoods of the Asian side or was it hiding in the bustle of the Grand Bazaar? The truth is that it is everywhere and yet it’s not really in any of these places. The soul of Istanbul is the Bosphorus — the glistening, gleaming Bosphorus that neatly divides the city into its Asian and European side with the spectacular Bosphorus bridge connecting the two.
It is after all only the Bosphorus that has remained unchanged through all the historic and economic upheavals the country has seen. It has witnessed Istanbul’s struggle to shed its past and move towards being a “modern” city. It has also seen the people of Istanbul flail desperately to hold on to the Istanbul of the past. It carries in it the multiple identities of Istanbul and the memories of Istanbul.
Later, when I was reading Turkey’s most famous novelist Orhan Pamuk’s reflections on the city in his book Istanbul: Memories and the City, I realised I was not off the mark.
“But for me, one thing remains the same: the place the Bosphorus holds in our collective heart. As in my childhood, we still see it as the font of our good health, the cure of our ills, the infinite source of goodness and goodwill that sustains the city and all those who dwell in it.
‘Life cant be that bad,’ I’d always think from time to time. ‘Whatever happens, I can always take a walk along the Bosphorus.’”
Istanbul is the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus is Istanbul.
When we went back to Istanbul after spending some time in other parts of the country, we didn’t stay in Taksim or Sultanhamet. Instead, we stayed in the little European fishing village on the Bosphorus — Arnavutkoy. It was a lovely little neighbourhood with innumerable fish restaurants and loads of character. We explored the other European villages nearby – the beautiful Ortakoy with the best views of the river, the glitzy Bebek, the Armenian district of Samatya, the castle at Anadolukavagy. This was a different Istanbul. One that had found inner peace. One that didn’t suffer from identity crisis.
On our last day in the city, as we sat by the Bosphorus watching the sun go down, we could see the Hagia Sophia resplendent under the golden rays, the Dolmabahce Palace sitting sullenly in the shadows, the ferries on the Bosphorus exploding with light, the Asian side resting under the gloomy silhouette of trees, it dawned upon me that contradictions have always been essential to life on the Bosphorus. And in the city that stands on the Bosphorus, a life without duality would be like sunlight without the shadows....