Istanbul, an Outstanding Example of a “Cultural Blend”
By Dr Amineh Hoti
The Centre for Dialogue and Action
For those who have never been to the romantic and historical city of Istanbul dating back over 2,600 years, you cannot imagine the true spirit and vastness of this cosmopolitan city. Istanbul will capture your imagination; amongst many reasons, one, because you may find out that Romeo and Juliet may be based on the love story penned by Urva bin Hizam in the 7 th century which was translated into Farsi in the 12 th century by Ayyuqi. It can be reasonably surmised that the literary masterpiece produced by William Shakespeare in the 16 th century was influenced by this very play.
Words are not enough to describe the pleasures of its sites and the array of buildings aligned alongside the glittering Bosphorus. It is the cultural, economic and historical center that harmoniously brings East and West, Europe and Asia together across a diverse topography of mountains, buildings and an abundance of flowing water. It is the largest city of Europe with a population of 14 million people and millions of visitors flow into the city as one of Europe’s most popular destinations. There is no alternative, you must visit!
For me, personally, I appreciated learning more about the history of co-existence between people of different communities and cultures. It was not as if one community came to replace the other, rather the present denizens characterize the layers of history that form the crux of this remarkable city. They were fully aware of their multi-layered history of co-existence and prided themselves on it. Turkish people kept telling me, “It’s a cultural blend of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman”. I saw Americans, the British, and an array of Muslims from the Arab world, Pakistanis, and many others who seemed to feel at ease here. No one was looking or picking at anyone else for over- or under-dressing. You could wear a hijab, don an abaya, put on trousers – whatever suited you. It was OK to be you. It felt like no one had to – or was expected to – conform in this city. Why and how was it possible to feel so comfortable with diversity?
Perhaps the answer lies in the city’s rich and diverse history. Once called “Lygos”, the city was founded as “Byzantium” by the Greeks in 657 BC. In 330 AD, Emperor Constantine made it the capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire and named it “Constantinople” after himself. It is said to play a significant role in the spread of Christianity. With the Ottoman Empire, it metamorphosed into Islambul and later “Istanbul”, meaning, “the city of Islam”. The first Muslim to come to this area was Eyup Sultan or Hazrat Abu Ayyub al-Ansari (Khalid ibn Zayd), named after the Biblical Prophet Job; he was a close companion of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). When we visited the mausoleum of Ayup Sultan, the locals told me that he was a man of great character and people were charmed by him but he failed to convert Constantinople. However, in the process he fell in love with the city and asked to be buried there. Today his grave and the adjoining mosque are both sites that cannot be missed. Visitors come to pray to God with bowed heads and hands raised in supplication, as they stand in the cool shadows of blue, green and red Turkish tiles that adorn the walls with their beauty, inscribed with praise of the Creator on all sides.
When the Muslim empire fell in Spain, Spanish Jews under Muslim rule sought refuge with Ottoman kings in Istanbul who seemed to appreciate diversity and encouraged people of other faiths to live amongst them – there are famous synagogues and Jewish quarters that still exist.
Sultan Mehmed II particularly seemed to be a man of vision who appreciated diversity. He called back all the people (who belonged to other faiths) who had left the city and invited people from Europe to settle in Istanbul; creating a cosmopolitan, tolerant and culturally vibrant and economically successful city. The infrastructure of the city was improved, new buildings built and mosques that were built as centers of knowledge served as schools, universities, hospitals and places of cleanliness – all in one. Suleyman, known as “the Magnificent” in the West (1494-1566) and as “the Law-giver” or “Kaanuni” in the East, had the longest reign among the Ottoman kings in four centuries. His chief architect Mimar Sinan, was a convert, or, as some Muslims would say, ‘revert’ to Islam. Originally known as Joseph, he built some of the most iconic buildings in Istanbul like the Suleymaniye Mosque – its red color symbolizing movement in life and the white calmness: calmness and movement are the rhythms of human life. His disciple would go on to design Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal in India.
For centuries, Christians, Muslims and Jews have generally lived side by side with the ebb and flow of different powers and kingdoms. Hagia Sophia, translated as “Holy Wisdom” is a symbol of this idea of coexistence. It was a grand church – the hallmark of the Byzantine Empire when the city was named after its king, in Constantinople. During the Ottoman period, it was turned into a mosque without enduring any physical damage. And later, in the time of Ataturk (Father of the Turks), it was converted into a museum so that the followers of all religions would feel comfortable in accessing it. Unlike the Blue Mosque, it has fixed visiting hours and you must pay an entrance fee – there are different prices for locals and foreigners of course.
Despite its cosmopolitan and non-orthodox look, there is a subtle play of spirituality in Istanbul. The tulip, with its delicate petals pointing upwards, is a symbol of Turkey. I was told by a local Turkish man that the petals of a tulip are shaped in the Arabesque of the name of the Creator. He was quick to add, to my fascination, that in the 16 th century Europeans from Holland were fascinated with the flower and took it back home to cultivate it there in all its array of colors. He added that though it is a symbol of Turkey, it is Holland, however, which is specifically recognized for tulips today. Moreover, just as the word “Ola” in Spanish is derived from “W’Allah” without many Spanish speakers recognizing this, similarly the tulip’s shape is a reminder of the Beloved. As a Turkish lady emphasized, the Arabic word “Allah” has no gender and no plural – it is a special name for the Creator and Cherisher of the universe: “To God belong the East and the West; whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God; God is All-embracing, All-knowing”. (Qur’an translated by Arberry 2:115)
When you visit, from the standpoint of Istanbul, you will be pleasantly surprised by how modern Turkey seems to a visitor from the East. Fascinated with Istanbul, one of us from Pakistan said to a Turkish man, “We love Turkey!” He warmly replied, “We are like brothers or like a mirror to each other: Pakistan-Turkey friendship zindabad!” It was heartening to receive such positive feedback towards Pakistan from the citizens of a country that is doing so well economically and has such a rich history, and a city which was so famous for its cultural diversity.
In contrast to the sad collapse of its neighbor Greece, Istanbul is one of the fastest growing metropolitan economies in the world. There is also the worrisome growth of anti-immigrant parties in Greece, such as the Golden Dawn, which is known for marginalizing and discriminating against immigrants. Istanbul, in contrast to Athens, seems to welcome foreigners and makes them feel at ease and at home. As one young male visitor to Istanbul told me, “This image of Turkey totally shatters all global stereotypes of people who perceive Islam as ‘backward, extremist, and non-progressive’, which are being circulated widely in the media. Nothing like this deeply problematic stereotype, Istanbul is unique with its own specific character – it is modern yet traditional; historical yet contemporary; it is religious in that it is Abrahamic while being focused on progress; it is forward-looking as well as aware of its multi-cultural, multi-faith and multi-ethnic background – it is constantly in motion, like the red and white colors of the tulip. It symbolizes the constant movement, yet calm, human life. (Dr Amineh Hoti is Executive Director of Markaz-e Ilm, The Center for Dialogue and Action, Pakistan)