Istanbul’s peerless history and beauty
MY visit to Turkey in the late eighties coincided with the country’s general elections to choose a new ruling party and prime minister. Turgot Ozal’s new Motherland Party surprised the country and Europe by winning the elections and receiving a mandate to form the government. I was staying at the Hilton facing the Bosphorus, the sea border between Turkey and Europe.
It was a magnificent setting that took my breath away. This was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire that ruled over a vast area of Europe, Asia and the Arab world as far as Baghdad, Oman and Yemen.
Turkey was for hundreds of years one of the greatest and most powerful European states. It had become a great empire on par with the British, French, German and Russian states, long before the emergence of the United States. It might have remained so had it not overstretched itself, and succeeded in controlling endemic corruption on its territory.
These were among the factors that led to its demise during the World War I when it sided with Germany and was defeated by the allies. Russia had been defeated at the same time and would go through a revolution heralding the rise of the communists in 1917.
While the country was ecstatically celebrating the victory of Ozal and the Motherland Party, I made a few phone calls to try to get an interview with the new leader. I was gratified when told that Ozal would be delighted to welcome me at his house. I was warned that he was very busy, but only realized by how much when he could hardly keep his eyes open while talking to me in his modest salon.
As I mentioned in my profile of Ozal in this newspaper a few months ago, when I was driven through IstanbuI, I was astonished by the city’s rich history and fabulous geography. I was determined to return the following day. The next morning I hired a car at the hotel so that I could imbibe more of its beauty. I could only imagine what it was like as the capital of a Muslim empire, which had great influence in the world at that time. I drove all around the city and as far as Bursa, which was many miles away.
The Ottoman Empire was contemporaneous with the Indian Moghul Empire, which had ruled supreme before the invasions of the European armies including the Portuguese. The British made a brutal attempt to control much of India culminating in the fall of the Moghuls in 1857 and the destruction of their empire. The last Moghul was banished to what is now Myanmar. The latest book about the last emperor appeared in India and elsewhere about five years ago.
Like both old and new Delhi, Istanbul was a fine city, densely populated, cosmopolitan, clean and well planned. It was a pleasure to drive through it day and night. It was well policed with great shopping areas and fine hotels. Facing the sea for miles, it had some of the best fish and meat restaurants I had seen in years.
Turkish cuisine is famous for its meat dishes and the country is arguably the origin of kebabs and various barbecue varieties, which I found especially attractive and delicious. The first class restaurants and nightclubs have all kinds of food and entertainment with no holds barred. Of course, visitors have to behave themselves or be disciplined by the tough Turkish police. The city is peaceful and has no reputation for violence and organized crime.
The city has become increasingly popular with Arabs and Europeans. Arabs have been drawn to it because of the strife in many of their countries. Europeans have been heading to their islands, beaches and resorts, which can perhaps only be matched by those in Greece.
With a population of about 14 million at present, Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and one of the largest in Europe. It is also one of the most developed in Europe, a remarkable change from the post-empire and post-war years, when it was woefully backward. Since it straddles the Bosphorus, it commands one of the finest positions on the continent and one of the most strategic waterways as it lies between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.
Its commercial and historical center lies in Europe, with a third of its population living in Asia. Its current development must be attributed to the present administration, although it is decidedly moderate unlike its counterpart in Egypt, which had been toppled by the army supported by a popular and peaceful revolution.
Turkey has a checkered history. It was founded in 660 B.C. as Byzantium and renamed Constantinople during the Christian Roman era, when it served for nearly 16 years as the capital of four empires. During this time, the city helped to advance Christianity. The Muslims conquered it in 1453 and transformed it into the strongest Islamic state in the world and the seat of the caliphate. Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president, abolished the caliphate after the country’s resounding defeat by the European powers in the World War I.
When I inquired about restaurants especially the famous meat kebabs and fresh fish outlets, the concierge at the Hilton merely pointed to the line of shops nearby and said I would find everything I desired there. This was true along the shores of the Bosphorus, while the Kumkapi neighborhood along the Sea of Marmara had a pedestrian zone with about 50 top fish restaurants. The Princess Islands not far from the city center are also famous for their fish cuisine.
The city has excellent traffic services and quiet streets, unlike some of our streets and a few in India and Asia. It is a truly marvelous city. At its antique shops, you are bound to find some of the best carpets, wooden chairs and carved desks. My best carpet at present is decidedly Turkish, but of course, Iranian carpets remain at the top worldwide.
• Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.
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