Istanbul: A Difficult Question


Photos courtesy of Önder Kaya.   

A perk of coming from Istanbul is that new acquaintances almost always assume you will make an interesting conversation partner. Of course, international students from fascinating places all over the world are accustomed to hearing exclamations when they answer the question “So…where are you from?” In the case of Istanbul, however, people often don’t quite know what to make of the answer. They start easy and polite with the questions: no, the country was not named after the English word for everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving dish. Yes, the language is called ‘Turkish.’ Yes, it is predominantly Muslim. No, it is a secular republic. Nope, no camels. Yes, Istanbul is indeed the only city in the world that lies on two continents—Europe and Asia.

After explaining the technicalities of the bi-continental nature of the city and perhaps talking a little bit about the culture of the city and the country, there comes the difficult question: “So…do you consider yourself European…or Middle Eastern?”

The easy answer, the one I almost always go with, is “Both.” My claim at two distinct cultures and heritages often begs an explanation, and that explanation lies in the fascinating history and soul of Istanbul itself.

Although the history of human activity in the region dates as far back as the seventh millennium BC, the first significant permanent settlement in present-day Istanbul was a city by the name of Byzantium. Established on the western side of the narrow Bosphorus straits that divide Europe from Asia, the city changed hands between Spartan and Athenian alliances during the Peleponnesian Wars. It remained independent from 355 BC to 73 AD, when it became a part of the Roman Empire.

The city’s true rise started when Emperor Constantine decided to divide the vast Roman Empire into two administrative halves and build a new eastern capital along the Bosphorus. Thus Byzantium was rebuilt into “Nea Roma” (New Rome) although the city would soon come to be called Constantinopolis—the City of Constantine. Constantinople, as it is known in the West, only gained in glory and fame in the coming centuries. Long after Rome’s sack and fall the city was a bustling center of commerce, culture, and political power. With ports that allowed for easy access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, countless churches and monuments celebrating Roman and Christian identity, massive protective walls and aqueducts that are largely still standing today and a sprawling imperial palace complex, Constantinople became a jewel of a city. For most of the Middle Ages, it was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe.

The Byzantine Empire, as the Eastern Roman Empire came to be called after the fall of the West, however, started to weaken after Constantinople was captured and sacked in 1204 by Europeans during the Fourth Crusade. After a prolonged struggle against Turks, the city —and the Empire— fell in 1453. Constantinople became Konstantiniyye, the capital city of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans had captured a city in disrepair, but under the wealth and authority of the sultans it regained its former glory. The population, size and wealth of the city boomed once more, mosque minarets rose beside (and sometimes in place of) church towers and the city became a melting pot of Roman culture and Eastern splendor. Under a policy of relative religious tolerance, sizable Greek, Jewish and Armenian minorities as well as migrants from the Balkans and the Arab world thrived. Merchants and travelers of all nations came to see this most curious —and often romanticized— of cities. Even after the heyday of the Ottoman Empire came to an end, Istanbul continued to be a melting pot of different civilizations: when progressive sultans started trying to Europeanize the failing state during the in the nineteenth century, neo-Baroque mosques, a French-style Art Nouveau avenue that is still considered the heart of the city and a graceful new ‘Ottoman Baroque’ imperial palace by the Bosphorus joined the mix. Western European thinking and culture rapidly spread amongst the city’s intellectuals and the elite.  After the Ottoman Empire was replaced by the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, Istanbul, like much of the country, underwent a rapid process of secularization and Westernization. High-rises and skyscrapers are an increasing presence in the city’s skyline, and two massive bridges now connect Istanbul’s two halves, and thus, the continents of Europe and Asia. Art museums and domed mosques, traditional coffee houses and Starbucks shops, kebab joints and McDonald’s restaurants, Nicki Minaj-imbued nightclubs and decade-old Ottoman Greek taverns can, and often are, found on the same streets.

This very brief look at Istanbul seems to support my usual answer to the question about my European and/or Middle Eastern identity: we are, after all, talking about a place that was first controlled by tribal groups, then by Ancient Greeks, followed by the Roman Empire, then the Byzantines, Ottomans and finally the modern Turkish democratic nation-state. What is more difficult to explain is that the history of Istanbul is not simply a sequence of Eastern and Western rule: Istanbul as it is now is a result of a centuries-long merging of different traditions. The East and the West do not stand apart as two categories of being but are harmonized into one indivisible culture—we see it in the Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s greatest monuments, which was built as a gigantic Orthodox basilica by the Byzantines, converted into a mosque by the Ottomans and made into a museum shortly after the Republic was founded. Outside, the minarets, added after the Ottoman capture of the city, fit in seamlessly with the original architectural plan. Inside, golden mosaics of Jesus, Mary and the Saints look down from the dome and the walls next to intricate panels of Muslim calligraphy. The building would not be its unique, precious self if you took either one away.

We also see this harmony of cultures, with even more permanence and surety, in the very name of the city. The word ‘Istanbul’ evolved not from Ottoman Turkish but from the Greek phrase ‘eis tin Polin’ (εἰς τὴν Πόλιν, meaning ‘to/at the City’) over centuries of Ottoman rule and was accepted as the city’s official name during the twentieth century. It is true that there are very few ethnic Greeks left amongst Istanbul’s population of fifteen million; but the name by which we call our city is a testament to the fact that the soul of ‘the City’ is an inseparable, continuing blend of Byzantium, Constantinople and Konstantiniyye. This soul transcends more limited notions of identity.

The modern-day Istanbullu goes back and forth between the continents of Europe and Asia for work or school on a daily basis. It is not a romantic adventure that takes one from the orient to the occident or vice versa. It is just a lovely fifteen minute ferry ride. But the terrace of a ferry humbly moving across the Bosphorus is also the most perfect vantage point from which one can watch the entire city with all of its natural beauty and man-made monuments. The city’s full glory unfolds between and betwixt the two continents. Istanbul is not just “European” or “Middle Eastern”, nor is it a plain summation of the two. Istanbul is Istanbul.

Kutay Onayli writes more about Istanbul, amongst other things, at

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