Istanbul: Where East Meets West

Jan 1, 2014

Split by one of the world’s great waterways, Istanbul has been shaped by forces from both Europe and Asia. There is no argument – it is the world’s ultimate cultural melting pot. BY MICHAEL SCOTT

A snapshot from the Galata Bridge: it’s late on a sunny winter’s evening and Turkish fishermen are lined up against the railings, angling for a lucky catch from the Bosphorus.

The call to prayer can be heard from the nearby Ottoman-era Yeni Cami mosque, as businessmen saunter by after work, chattering on their smartphones in English. Perhaps they are booking a table at the fashionable Japanese restaurant Zuma or at Antica Locanda run by Italian chef Gian Carlo Talerico.

As the golden light fades, female students in traditional headscarves trot across the bridge to catch the commuter ferry to Kadikoy, a prosperous seaside hub on the eastern flank of the city. Rumour has it that Jennifer Lopez has bought a penthouse apartment in the area.

Istanbul is East meets West, Asia greets Europe, kebab for lunch and a cheeseburger for dinner. No wonder the city is referred to as the world’s cultural melting pot.

Blame the geography or geopolitics for the contradictions. Split down the middle by the mighty Bosphorus strait, Istanbul has been shaped by its location at the confluence of the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea – and is the ultimate face-off between Europe and Asia. Thanks to its Armenian, Greek, Judeo-Hispanic, Roman and Anatolian roots – and plenty more – the city has absorbed both Eastern and Western influences, as well as those from Islam and Christianity.

It doesn’t take long to find yourself rapt in the temples built by the Ancient Greeks and Romans – especially the Hippodrome of Constantinople in Sultanahmet. Or awed by the imperial palaces and beautiful mosques, built when the Ottoman leaders were expanding their empire across greater Asia. Just step inside the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia or Hagia Irene, a church-turned-museum in the Topkapi Palace, to see what all the fuss is about. Author of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, was so won over by the Hagia Sophia’s invigorating charms that he sent his hero Robert Langdon – in his latest novel, Inferno – to Istanbul’s old city Sultanahmet.