There are cities that engage the senses so deeply that the visitor doesn’t need to DO anything. You simply dance in your mind to their magic. Istanbul is one such city, though it faces some stern challenges.
If a visiting Martian said to me “Earthling, take me to your three finest cities”, I know where we would go.
To Venice, a sublime Old World city. To New York, with all the gutsy dynamism of the New. And to Istanbul, the supreme hybrid city, standing astride Europe and Asia like a Colossus. There is no other city on Earth that bridges two continents.
The great cities draw you back. In early May I make my fifth visit to Istanbul and since my last time here 40 years ago the place has grown immensely.
The experience of riding through the western suburbs on the night bus from Bucharest brings out the country boy in me. The vast urban landscape first dumbs my mind and then I want to scream “You’ve got too big!”
According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, the population of Istanbul at the end of 2013 was 14,160,467 and it is projected to reach 16.6 million by 2023. About a third of the population lives on the Asian side, but this is still Europe’s largest urban agglomeration.
Later, seeing that the historic core of the city still weaves its charm, I regain some sense of calm.
In all three of my chosen cities, there is the powerful presence of water as a defining element in the landscape. A city needs that to achieve true greatness. None of them today is a national capital and perhaps that too is part of their secret. They don’t have to bother with all that national government business and can evolve and pour their energies with more freedom.
All offer sensual experience in the fullest sense.
What visitors to Istanbul often remember years later is the mix of smells. The saffron in the spice market, the roast chestnuts or sweet corn on Istiklal Avenue, the city’s great pedestrian thoroughfare.
Some visitors, women as well as men, remember decades later watching the sinuous movements of an Istanbul belly dancer. At its best, and it is done well in Istanbul, this is classy entertainment.
The city is noisy, but its noises are varied and seldom grate, at least not on me. There is the mewing of the ubiquitous cats, the muezzin’s call to prayer, Turkish music on the radio, falling rain, hooting cars, chattering travellers. It can all be experienced as one mighty orchestra, with the different musicians playing their part.
This is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and even at midnight Istiklal Avenue can be bursting with humanity. As a money-making centre it is so important that it represents more than a quarter of Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product.
There is a dark side, of course, as you would expect in a big complex city.
On my first evening, out strolling not far from the Bosphorus shore, I suddenly become aware of the clump of heavy boots behind me. I turn and see about 15 to 20 policemen, some with riot shields and truncheons at the ready, just metres from me and running in my general direction.
Within seconds they have passed me and gone into a nearby park.
There are other people in the street and I pick up that they are attentive but not frightened. I take my cue from them. Earlier I had seen a small left-wing demonstration near the city’s Taksim Square where riot police are present in their dozens. It is a day in the life of Istanbul.
There have been moments in Istanbul’s recent past when riot police were truly out in force. In 2013, for example, there were clashes sparked by plans to turn Gezi Park next to Taksim, the central square, into a shopping mall. Disturbances spread to a number of Turkish towns and cities and at least six protesters and one policeman died. Thousands were injured.
The government scrapped plans for the shopping mall after the protests, but the Istanbul residents I talk to are not complacent about the future quality of life in their city. A third international airport is under construction, as is the Third Bosphorus Bridge, now at an advanced stage. This project, at the northern end of the Bosphorus Strait, has entailed the felling of many trees. Some fear that these developments will put more strain on a metropolis already groaning with traffic.
My guess is that a long struggle lies ahead for those who want Istanbul to avoid being sacrificed on the altar of “progress”. It is easy to be pessimistic and I prefer a cautious optimism about the future of this great city.