Istanbul Through My Eyes!
Med Nejad - April 2018
I've always loved Istanbul. I remember the first time I visited this great city was in the early 1990s. At the time, I was awestruck by the sheer size of this huge metropolis. Formerly known as Constantinople, the capitol city of the Christian Byzantine empire, Istanbul fell to Muslim Turks, led by Sultan Mehmed in the 15th century. Today the presence of both Islamic and Christian culture can be seen in the city's fabric, from its architecture to its people and their culture. Perhaps this is the reason why Istanbul is known as the city where east meets west and it is true, the city really does feel that way. A perfect symbol of this marriage is Hagia Sophia where Islamic and Christian religious symbols exist alongside each other in harmony in a building that is both a mosque and a church. Coexistence between religions, the old and new, the pious and secular is an enduring theme that can be seen and felt throughout this great city.
Present day Istanbul is busy, noisy, historic, modern, authentic, chaotic, rich and poor, all at the same time! it's a city of contrasts and contradictions in its appearance, people and architecture. My previous visits had always been during late springs and summers. But this year, I visited Istanbul at the height of winter in early February. I had some business to take care of and I left a couple of days at the end to explore the city. Although it felt cold and at times rainy and gloomy, Istanbul was still its usual charming, rustic and chaotic self.
This is the city where the pious and the secular mingle freely and live together harmoniously. A city where the loudspeakers on mosques chant the "Azan" (Islamic call to prayer) during the day and at sunset and loud, thumping western music plays in nightclubs and bars into the early hours of mornings.
One of the most famous avenues in Istanbul is Istiklal Caddesi (Istiklal street). Istiklal street is a pedestrian avenue that comes off the iconic Taksim Square. It's believed that over 3 million people visit Istiklal street every single day during weekends*. This commercial avenue is home to many western as well as Turkish fashion brands and food chains.
Unlike in western capitols, Istanbul's high streets don't close in the evenings. If anything, come 6pm, life gathers pace and shoppers feast on what high streets have to offer well into late evenings and right through to midnights.
Walking along Istiklal street, I did notice something that took me by surprise. I'm not quite sure why but during this visit, the contrast between the rich and poor was more visible than any of my past visits to the city. Poverty that came in different shapes and forms. Occasionally I would be approached by a homeless man or woman asking for money. Other times, I'd see beggars sitting passively in street corners with their hand stretched. I never felt threatened or even pressured but seeing this did cast a shadow over my visit. Of course poverty isn't unique to Istanbul. I had come across beggars in the streets of Paris and London many times before but what was new to me was the occasional presence of a child refugee. Some no more than 8 or 9 years old. Some of them played musical instruments and collected money and some sang in Arabic. Most of them looked well fed and in good health. But once in a while, I would see a child, sitting in a corner looking cold and desperate. This was a poignant reminder of the 3 million refugees that have made Turkey their home. I was told by a local man that despite generous contributions provided by the Turkish authorities in refugee camps near the Syrian border, some refugees choose to migrate to cites in the hope of better jobs and living conditions and unfortunately some end up in the streets.
Despite the refugee crisis and the ever-present threat of terrorism which has marred this city in the past, to me, Istanbul still felt safe and secure. Istiklal street came across as a hectic, energetic commercial hotspot where street vendors and shop keepers did brisk business with visitors and tourists.
Istanbul has a history of trade and commerce with the outside world that goes back centuries and by the look of things, not much has changed. Districts such as Lalali and Merter are known to be home to hundreds of wholesalers selling from carpets, clothing, and furniture to shoes, hand craft and fabrics. In Lalali I saw Nigerian traders preparing boxes full of trendy rucksacks and jeans, ready for freight and Iranian importers loading vans full of leather jackets and tracksuits ready to drive back home.
Apart from the endless energy and the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, I did notice that this time, security seemed a little tighter than in the past. Every now and then, the presence of armed police officers, at times with armoured vehicles in strategic locations and landmarks reminded me that the authorities are not taking any chances. The city appeared to be under the watchful eye of the security forces in case of any trouble and I must admit, as a visitor I found this reassuring.
My time in Istanbul was soon coming to an end and I had to fly back to London the next day. Walking through Taksim Square towards my hotel close to midnight, I remember wishing I had a couple of more days to explore and roam around. Seeing Istanbul in the often overcast and cloudy days of winter had given me a different flavour and feel to this magnificent city and I wanted to experience more, but as the saying goes, all good things come to end and so had my time in the city of Istanbul.