A Bird’s-Eye View of Istanbul’s Chaotic Unity

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Minarets pierce the sky to form Istanbul’s prominent skyline. They stand watch high above the city, peering across the Bosphorus and beyond. Up here sights, sounds, and smells converge. From this vantage point, Istanbul spans continents, cultures, and time.

“In the well known cliché, Istanbul was said to be the bridge between two continents and two civilisations,” writes Çağlar Keyder, Professor at the Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History. Physically intercontinental, Istanbul has historically been the gateway between East and West by land, by sea, and, today, by air. Its strategic location as a crossroads has contributed to its vibrant, multicultural quality. At the heart of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, Istanbul has been gifted “an incredible cultural heritage,” says renowned local historian and travel writer Saffet Emre Tonguç. “All these great empires left their marks in different corners of the city.”

But Istanbul’s privileged position is often taken at face value. While there have been amazing moments of tolerance, cultural blending, and unity in Istanbul, these qualities were hard-won. A major reason why Istanbul embodies such a spirit of social progress is its turbulent history. According to the German sociologist Georg Simmel, conflict and exchange are paramount to the formation of society. Unity does not simply exist; it is forged through strife and moments of misunderstanding. Keyder reminds us that Istanbul’s “privileged location was experienced negatively, as a friction rather than an articulation.” He points out that ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine moved his capital Eastward to what was then Constantinople, political, religious, and cultural tensions were rife.

It is within these moments of tension that cultural mixing occurs. Take, for example, the Hagia Sophia. Its vertiginous domes and magnificent murals are proof that it was built as a Christian basilica. Meanwhile, the minarets are reminiscent of its reincarnation as a mosque. This transformation appears to be a usurpation on the surface, but beneath that story is another. Today it is a museum and a reminder of the compromises that are born from conflict.

Tension highlights differences, but it also reveals similarities. The hilly streets of Fener are tightly packed with colourful houses. The district was once the heart of Greek life, but in the early 20th century, the region lost its vibrant multicultural quality during the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Despite this historical conflict, Fener is still home to the Greek Patriarchate and some magnificent Orthodox churches, including the Chora, a Byzantine gem with spectacular frescoes. Though conflicts between the populations remain, the minority’s cultural artefacts are mutually respected and lovingly preserved.

From the ground, it can be easy to be drawn into the messiness of conflict. But sometimes, all it takes is a change of perspective. The top floors of the InterContinental Istanbul are reserved exclusively for bars and restaurants, where travellers from all over the world can converge and peer down at a zoomed out, unified view of the city. On the ground, conflicts divide families, neighbourhoods, an districts. From above, the city exists as one entity.

Inspired to reveal another, more elusive side of Istanbul, Tonguç leads private tours to the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar. Built by Sultan Mehmed II after the conquest of Constantinople, the Grand Bazaar was created as a symbol of Istanbul’s importance in world trade. In a polyethnic city like Istanbul, the central market becomes much more than a social hub. It becomes the facilitator of cultural exchange. The Grand Bazaar’s 4,000 shops, which date back to the fifteenth century, facilitated cultural and financial exchange between the East and West.

One of the more obvious byproducts of the cultural mixing is Turkish cuisine. It has borrowed elements from Circassian, Central Asian, Caucasian, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Greek cuisines, and, in return, influenced neighbouring cuisines as well. The manti, for example, is a direct cognate from Chinese mantou (dumplings). In many regards, food can serve as an innocuous entry point into a new culture, and it becomes a neutral touchpoint where people of different cultures can connect. Today, more than 91 million people visit the site every year and mingle through the stalls past pizzas and doner kebabs and Turkish coffee.With its maze of narrow walkways and crowded corners, the Grand Bazaar is Istanbul in microcosm: a hodgepodge of cultures that mix and collide simultaneously.

While there is much happening under the roof, the domes of the Grand Bazaar open up the city in a whole different way. “I consider it the roof of Istanbul,” Tonguç says. “We see the historic peninsula, newer parts like Pera, iconic buildings like Galata Tower, and the first Bosphorus Bridge. Then behind that you can see skyscrapers, the modern face of Istanbul.”

As travellers, it’s only when we challenge our preconceptions experience the unexpected, and in Istanbul, there are many more stories to be told. “People come to Istanbul with certain ideas about Turkey, and when they arrive, they are surprised,” Tonguç remarks. “They see a modern, cosmopolitan city that embraces both western and eastern ways of life. They leave changed, enriched, and with a smile on their faces.”

Enjoy private access to a bird’s eye view of Istanbul from the roof of the Grand Bazaar and discover the city’s best-kept cultural and culinary secrets with award-winning historian Saffet Emre Tonguç when you book the Insider Experience at InterContinental Istanbul.

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