is time and again described as ‘the crossroads of
Europe and Asia’ – a heaving bazaar-city of
camels, carpets and caravanserais with an imperial history stretching
back for more than 1500 years. This metropolis
of fifteen million dwells both sides of an east-west
land bridge divided by the 32km (20-mile) Bosphorus Strait, which
also connects the trade routes of the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara
and the Mediterranean. Thus, the city has been a jealously guarded
centre of world trade since the Byzantine era, and protected
by water on three sides, with the natural harbour
of the Golden Horn nestled inside the city.
Even after Constantinople (as it was previously
known) fell to the Ottoman Sultans in 1453, the
city remained (and it still is) the trading post for valuable
spices and textiles brought via the Silk Road from as far
away as China. Its prime position has meant that Istanbul has suffered
from recurrent sieges, changing from a Hellenic outpost to New Rome,
the world’s first Christian capital, and the seat of the world’s
biggest Muslim Empire. Its identity today combines that of both
eastern and European.
Fragments of this
varied architectural inheritance are noticeable,
with stunning Ottoman mosques, classical columns, Byzantine structures,
ancient city walls and fine churches. Added to this, rapid
industrialisation has drawn thousands of rural poor to
the metropolis, resulting in a vast social gap between ‘natives’
and migrants and a growth rate at treble the national average.
Its wealthy elite (about 25%) live in the newly built suburbs and
enjoy the sophistication of Istanbul’s café society,
designer shops, thriving nightlife (over 60% of Istanbullites are
under 25 years old) and vibrant contemporary cultural life.
Since early 2000, Turkey was caught
in the worst economic crisis since the republic
was formed in 1924. The August 1999 earthquake, corruption scandals,
global depression, the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, all
took their toll, with record high unemployment and inflation. Ironically,
increased competition and immense
devaluation of the Turkish Lira
against hard currency saw a huge upswing in tourism
over the last few years, as foreigners took advantage
of excellent prices. The 2002 elections resulted
in a new prime minister (Erdogan, leader of the
moderate Islamic AK party) and a more stable economy,
with inflation down to around 10% by early 2004.
suffered from Islamic terrorism in November
2003, with a number of simultaneous bomb attacks
in the heart of the city, targeting synagogues and western and financial
centres, and resulting in dozens of deaths. Turkey in recent times
made long overdue and internationally welcomed improvements to its
human rights, hoping for future entry into the EU. In 2004,
it signed a protocol banning the death penalty,
Turkish state television broadcast its first Kurdish language programme,
and four Kurdish activists were freed from jail.
the buzzing atmosphere of the pedestrian
Istiklal Caddesi and its hundreds of bars, cinemas, art
galleries, restaurants and bistros, the city seems
more funky and cosmopolitan than ever and young
people even more keen on cultural expression.
Istanbul’s climate is, in the main, a Mediterranean
one, although it is affected by climatic variations due to its location
on the Marmara Sea and Bosphorus. Summers are hot and winters are
mild, with no extreme temperature variations between seasons.