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Volume 21, Number 1January/February 1970

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Queen of Cities

Spanning two continents, two religions, and three of the world's great empires...

Written by Anne Turner Bruno
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

The Persian name was Dersaadet—Door to the Ultimate Happiness. The Greeks called it Teofilaktos—City Guarded by God; the Romans, Nuova Roma—New Rome; the Arabs, Farrouk—City Separating Two Continents; and the Ottoman Turks, Ummti-diinya—Mother of the World. Now, and since 1923 when the Turkish Republic formally renamed it, it is called Istanbul, meaning just The City—as though there were none other to compare.

This may not be as presumptious as it sounds. As ancient Byzantium and resplendent Constantinople, Istanbul was for centuries the world's leading metropolis. In its leap across centuries and civilizations it was the center of three of the world's greatest empires—Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman—and two of man's most important religions: Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Islam. And in one way it is incomparable. It is the only city in the world to span two continents. Straddling across the narrow Bosporus Strait, Istanbul links the great land masses of Europe and Asia.

Knowledgeable travelers today acclaim Istanbul as one of the three most beautiful cities on earth, ranking it with Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro, whose hilly silhouettes are also reflected in surrounding waters. Neither, however, is as exotic or romantic as Istanbul with its singular skyline of almost 500 domed mosques flanked by tapering minarets, and its sun-drenched shores embanked with white marble palaces, medieval fortresses, fine mansions, weathered wooden houses, colorful cafes and tea gardens built among or on the old sea walls.

Istanbul is really three cities in terrain—as it has been in time—and each has its specific character. Most of its two-and-a-quarter million residents live on the European side of the Bosporus, where its waters join the Sea of Marmara. There the Bosporus' deep inlet—which forms the curved natural port known as the Golden Horn—divides the high promontory of the Old City of Stamboul on the south from the New City of Galata and Pera. The third section is a mile and a half across the Bosporus and is made up of the Uskudar and Kadikoy settlements of Turkey's Anatolian mainland, formerly Asia Minor.

Protruding into the water, the three sections form a common harbor where dozens of doughty ferryboats bustle back and forth from Europe to Asia, dodging passenger and merchant steamships of all flags, carefully skirting the bellowing oceangoing tankers and freighters. North from the harbor of Greater Istanbul, a ribbon of picturesque suburbs and fishing towns on the parallel shorelines, extends the city 17 miles up the Bosporus to the Black Sea.

This sparkling channel called the Bosporus is the city's lifeline: as a year-round highway carrying people and commerce on its surface and an amazing variety of fish—some 400 types—in its depths. It is also its May to November swimming pool by day, waterfront dining room and dance hall by moonlight.

Although born of the Bosporus, Istanbul is mothered by a total of four seas. The strong, cold currents of the stormy Black Sea flow down the Bosporus into the smoother Sea of Marmara. The Marmara leads directly into the twin strait of the Dardanelles (history's Hellespont) which empties right below Troy into the Aegean Sea and finally into the Mediterranean.

Because of this incomparable position—double-locked by the easily defensible gates of the Bosporus and Dardanelles—The City has always been coveted for its natural safety, as well as its wealth and beauty. Demosthenes, in the fourth century before Christ, correctly predicted that the point of the Old City would determine the destinies of the adjacent Thracian bread basket and the opposite fertile coastal plain of Anatolia—and history has borne him out. More than a dozen diverse peoples—Greeks and Goths, Romans and Crusaders from the West, Persians and Central Asian Turks from the East, Slavs from the North and Saracens from the South—have fought 1,000 wars over the vital landbridge and water lane. Turkey alone has had 40 major verbal and armed contests the last 200 years as her northern neighbor Russia reached for the straits, the only maritime outlet to the Mediterranean and other warm waters for her huge tankers and warships.

Like any city astride an international crossroads, Istanbul has become a city of the most striking contrasts. It is a melange of oriental mentality and gracious hospitality, occidental appetites and ambitions, northern pace and energy, southern lassitude and contentment. It is a veritable Tower of Babel where some 30 languages are spoken daily and in architecture, transport, dress and customs it shows its origins, its history and 'its brilliantly cosmopolitan character. Here, a Roman aqueduct loops across a boulevard in front of a modern city hall; there, a sagging house propped up on Greek columns leans into a stark, rectangular office building. Here, a towering new hotel overlooks the Bosporus; there a vacated villa, plastered with Nile mud to comfort a homesick Egyptian princess, shares the view. On the avenues, outsized Cadillac and Mercedes cars edge past peasants' horse carts. Before posh apartments on the steep cobbled "Street of the Chicken Which Cannot Fly" or "Come On In, Don't Wait Street," the dancing bears of the gypsies perform. In the bazaars women from country villages cocooned in black robes from hair to hemline pull aside their veils to eye their mini-skirted, mink-coated sisters from other climes and times. Turbaned watersellers offer su to ragged laborers at a penny a glass in front of chrome-plated snack bars aswarm with hairy young Edwardians and itchy hippies. Nightclub clients drink "coexistent" Votka and Coke as hostesses alternate the Jerk and the Shake with languid belly dances.

The range of the unexpected enchants the western mind with a "subconscious charm of strange remoteness," a feeling that perhaps springs from the city's ancient roots. The first city was founded in 657 B.C. by the Megarian Greek chief and trader Byzas who built his Byzantium on the harp-shaped peninsula and prospered from the traffic in, and tolls on, Black Sea gold- and grain, Mediterranean olive oil and fruits.

The City always attracted commerce. But its lasting fame was earned by the governments and religions which are epitomized in the trio of pinnacled buildings dominating the horizon of the Old City today: St. Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace.

Called the world's greatest religious temple, the massive basilica of St. Sophia, with its 150-foot high dome topped by four missile-shaped minarets, was the first Christian cathedral and then an imperial mosque, before it was made into the present museum in 1936. Constantine the Great built St. Sophia (meaning "Holy Wisdom," not a lady saint) after he chose the city to be capital of his Eastern Roman Empire in A.D. 330. It was a suitable adornment for a city that by A.D. 476, the time of the fall of Rome, was the unchallenged heart of the growing Greco-Roman-Slavic-Asiatic civilization that would be called the Byzantine Empire, and that would lead the world in wealth, learning, art, politics and power for the next thousand years.

Later, in the mid 500's, the Emperor Justinian rebuilt St. Sophia, looting the known world of gold, silver, marble, statuary and art works to do so, then exclaimed of the architectural wonder, "I have surpassed thee, Oh, Solomon!"—as indeed he had.

St. Sophia, with its main dome and four half domes and its exquisite mosaic murals, created the Christian art style called Byzantine and set the style for an admiring Europe. It also excited Europe's greed. When the Fourth Crusaders, en route to the Holy Land, restored the Roman Empire in 1204 for a brief 50 years, they not only took back to Europe many of the Byzantine scholars, manuscripts and ideas that eventually helped to inspire the Renaissance, but stripped the city of its fantastic treasures. A notable example is the statue of four golden horses and chariot now on top of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. The Crusaders tore it from the top of Constantinople's hippodrome, a Roman-built, oval, horse race and chariot course over 1,300 feet long, the largest in history.

The magnificence of St. Sophia, however, may also have been its salvation. When Constantinople fell, in 1453, the conqueror, 23-year old Sultan Mehmet, a brilliant linguist, poet, scholar and soldier, so marveled at it that he preserved it from destruction. Later, after converting it into a mosque (by covering the mosaics and adding a minaret) he even prayed in it. He and his men also marveled at the magnificence of marble halls and palaces, stately homes, spacious avenues and quays, and reputedly adopted for their Istanbul the crescent found atop the old buildings. It was the lasting tribute to the thin slice of moon that had saved the city almost 1,800 years earlier by revealing the assault preparations of Philip of Macedonia, Greek king and father of Alexander the Great.

St. Sophia was also the archetype for the second great structure of the Old City, the famous Blue Mosque. Soaking up Byzantine life like a sponge, the Ottomans, when they began to build their own houses of worship, began to copy the great Byzantine dome. Thus, in 1616, just a few hundred yards away, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque ballooned up majestically against the sky, a fitting companion—and rival—to St. Sophia. Known as the Blue Mosque, for the delicate blue and green faience of the interior walls, it is considered the most beautiful mosque in a city that claims the largest number of mosques anywhere in the world. Certainly, it is the only one in the world with six minarets.

The third structure is Topkapi, a sprawling labrythine palace once described as "more splendid than Versailles, more bloody than the Kremlin and more mysterious ... than the Imperial Palace of Peking."

Now a museum rich in collections of jewels, weapons, silken gowns and Ming porcelain, Topkapi was once the world's symbol of oriental power, extravagance, and decadence. Within its great complex of halls and courtyards the powerful sultans, who ruled one of history's greatest empires for nearly 400 years, not only adopted Byzantine architecture but also the Byzantine passion for intrigue and its taste for luxury. They also adopted such institutions as the harem in which at one time some 1,500 choice beauties of the empire lived and died at the whim of their imperial ruler and under the watchful eye of their eunuch guards.

Much has been written about the Ottoman sultans, most of it concentrated on their swift extension of power to Morocco and Vienna, their battles with the powerful Janissaries, their cruelty, their intrigues, their ruthless competition for power and their fantastic opulence. But the "Sublime Beings" and their bizarre entourages—numbering at times 10,000 individuals—had their better side too. Some tried to reform the empire. Others cultivated the arts. Of the 35 sultans, 32 were poets and five of them were outstanding poets. One, for inspiration, used to throw handfuls of rubies and emeralds into the palace wading pool so he could watch the flash of women's bodies as they dived into the water after them. Another used to hang mirrors between his famous tulips and set gilded turtles, each with a candle on its back, wandering through the garden at night while he tried to draw and paint the colorful images in the mirrors.

In the centuries when Topkapi was not only the focal point of the empire but the center of a burgeoning city, there grew up on the hills that sloped down to the Bosporus the neighborhoods and institutions which today retain so much of the special flavor of the past. One was the covered bazaar. Another was the university. In a later era there also grew up Istanbul's Fleet Street.

The bazaar, which lies inland behind the palace and was built by the sultans themselves, is thought to be the largest in the world. Every day some 10,000 shouting, cajoling merchants and salesmen in 4,000 shops offer a tantalizing variety of goods—from Greek coins, both genuine and false, and Crusader swords to the latest fashions in leather and suede—to an estimated 250,000 customers.

Just behind the bazaar is the monumental Arabesque doorway to the University of Istanbul where some 40,000 students attend the country's largest and oldest—it was established by Mehmet in 1453—educational institution and where the 350-year-old Tower of Beyazit winks its Cyclopian eye at Yesilkoy Airport 15 miles away and gives its weather forecast: blue for fair, green for rain, red for snow.

Between the university, and the railroad station (where the famous if now shabby Orient Express ends its run), is Bab-i Ali, the Fleet Street of Istanbul where 16 newspapers are printed daily in Turkish. Past the station, the "Street of Letter Writers" leads to Galata Bridge, the older and more important of the two crossings over the Golden Horn to the New City.

It has been said that 100,000 persons and 100 nationalities cross Galata Bridge each day, but not one idea in 10 years. By count, some 62,000 automobiles and trucks surge over it daily in a wild chaotic hubbub of vehicular and human traffic that seems to threaten violent death to all. The bridge was once called "the most wonderful pathway in Europe," but that was 100 years ago when the banks of the Golden Horn glittered with the merchants' shipping and manses. The five-mile-long estuary today is a gigantic sewer spilling out the refuse of shoreline factories and slums. Unhappily, only the sunset's glow enriches its crescent now.

On the southern bank of the estuary stands the Cathedral of St. George, where His Holiness Athenagoras I continues as Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch and spiritual leader of the world's 160 million Eastern Orthodox Christians—the same six-foot six-inch, dynamic, bearded octogenarian who gave Christian ecumenicism renewed impetus six years ago by offering a kiss of peace to Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem.

At the far end of the Golden Horn is the Grand Mosque and Tomb of Ayyub (meaning Job), scene of the sultans' coronations, and a sacred spot to Muslims. One of the Prophet Muhammad's companions, Ayyub died at Constantinople in A.D. 669 as a standard bearer of the Saracens' first attack on the Byzantine capital. Their annual attempts were always defeated by the miraculous Greek fire, which burned everything it touched in air and water, and they finally departed in 717.

The bridge—the bridge to the New City—is anchored in the coastal arc known for almost 1,000 years as Galata, possibly for early Gallic settlers. Galata and the "Infidel Hill of Pera" (Pera meaning "beyond" in Greek), as the devout Muslims called it, were the homes of the Frankish, Genoese, Venetian, Armenian, Jewish and Greek merchants and financiers whom the soldier-farmer Turks wooed to serve their imperial city.

When Ataturk, the founder of the Republic moved the capital to Ankara, Istanbul adjusted easily to its present role as Turkey's largest port, industrial and economic center. The New City—now expanded to include a score of communities and quartiers—became a booming commercial, entertainment and residential area offering profit and pleasure to its burgeoning masses. Twentieth-century trade and tourism gravitates to Taksim Square atop the New City's plateau for fine hotels, restaurants, modern kokteyl lounges and such quaint alleys as "Drunk Man's Passage."

Interestingly enough, the city, once known for the world's largest hippodrome offering public entertainment, boasts almost 30 legitimate theatres. About 23 of them are in the New City and offer, in Turkish, only weeks after world premieres, the works of such leading playwrights as Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. In addition, the stunning scenery, varied settings and the surprising Turkish flair for acting, make Istanbul a Hollywood on the Bosporus. About 200 feature-length films are made each year, primarily for domestic consumption.

One of the most dramatic and eyecatching buildings in Istanbul is the Dolmabahce Palace which fronts a half-mile of the Bosporus at the northern end of the New City. The white baroque wedding cake with its ornate grill fence and gateways was the last home of the sultans from 1853 to 1923 and of President Ataturk, who died there in 1938. Dolmabahce has been maintained as a museum in tribute to the man who rallied the Turkish people after the Ottoman Empire's defeat in World War I and led them in an unusual experiment in democracy which, in its struggle to develop the nation's natural resources and human talents, has shown exciting potential.

A mile south from Dolmabahce are the principal car ferries that bridge the Bosporus to Üsküdar, The City's largest Asiatic suburb. The once-busy Byzantine Scutari, which hosted silk and spice caravans from the Far East, is now a sleepy town featuring grand somnolent mosques, a few dope dens, the largest Muslim cemeteries in the East, and the towering Selimiye Barracks where Britisher Florence Nightingale began modern nursing in the 1854-56 Crimean War.

Just beyond the barracks is the town of Kadikoy, the main terminal for intercontinental commuters who pour off the express ferryboats every 20 minutes and then up the 15 miles of coastal suburbs lining the Sea of Marmara. A dozen miles offshore are the nine Princes' Islands, onetime playgrounds—and sometimes prisons—for Byzantine royalty. The isles' silken swimming waters, fine sandy beaches fringed by pines and palms, relaxing horse-drawn carriages serving villas and hotels make them a popular vacationland.

The Princes' Islands, along with the the other resorts on the Marmara and Bosporus, represent the city's waterfront boundaries. But as peasants forsake the mainland for The City's presumed opportunities in a tidal wave that has inundated all of The City's three sections and doubled the census in a little more than a decade, all boundaries are beginning to give. It is estimated that today's populations will double again to four and a half million persons by 1985.

In its concern, The City is drawing up a renewal plan that sees Greater Istanbul a 70-mile-long megalopolis stretching 40 miles westward on the European banks of the Marmara and 30 miles eastward on the Marmara's Asiatic shores.

As a part of the $150,000,000 renovation, a Bosporus bridge—the first permanent span in history to connect Europe and Asia—will be built about four miles north of the Old City promontory out of sight of the famous skyline, thanks to rare planning foresight. Scheduled to be finished in 1972, the bridge is expected to transport some 20,000 vehicles daily between the two continents, twice the number carried on the existing ferries.

A peripheral road leading to the bridge is designed to remove two-thirds of the overwhelming traffic jammed into the main arteries between Old and New cities. The vehicular flow should also be reduced by transplanting industry from the center city Golden Horn to the Asian section, where new communities are planned for at least a million persons.

No matter what positive changes are made in Istanbul's traffic and housing however, residents and visitors expect it to remain the queen of cities, the place where the sun bursts out of Asia to lighten Europe's morning windows and exits dramatically behind the haze of the Golden Horn; where great ships steam across the waters in between, writing their smoky calligraphy upon the skies; and where the heavens, punctuated by a parade of minarets, echo to the muezzins' five-times-a-day call to prayer in the poignant wail that captures the magic of the East.

Anne Turner Bruno is a free-lance writer who has lived in Istanbul for five years. She has written for McCall's, The Reader's Digest, Business Week and Sports Illustrated.

This article appeared on pages 6-16 of the January/February 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1970 images.