According to legend, when St Patrick was trying to explain the concept of the trinity in Christian faith to the (apparantly sterotypically daft) Irish, he used the shamrock as a metaphor for the three-in-one. From a certain perspective, Istanbul works the same way.

There really isn’t anwhere else in the world like Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, and I think that’s both a result of circumstance and the actions by the five different states who controlled the Bosphorus over the last two millennia. It’s clearly a Muslim country, but only in the same sort of sense that Australia (particularly if you started from Adelaide, god knows why you would) appears to clearly be a Christian country; there’s the cultural presence of Islam that, no matter how large a Muslim minority, you’ll never get in a ‘Western’ country, and yet it is also clearly European, or at least far closer to Europe than any other Muslim country, Middle Eastern or South-East Asian.

Of course this is no mere accident, because Istanbul is built on the very crossroads of both culture and history. Continental borders are always going to be arbitrary (the tiny Strait of Gibraltar counts as a continental barrier, but the Sahara Desert doesn’t?) but Istanbul proves that it’s more a mental barrier than anything else. On one side is Europe, the other Asia, and Istanbul is in and of both.

The area was first settled on any significant scale in the 7th century BCE by the Greeks, in the form of the fishing villiage of Byzantium and its lesser-known cousin across the straits, Chalcedon (later absorbed into the city-state of Byzantium). It’s a mystery as to why the town was good as forgotten for much of the glory years of the Greek, Macedonian and Roman Empires, given its strategically significant position (possibly due to the fact that the Black Sea was not at that point a particularly profitable area for either conquest or trade). In fact, there’s so little solid information on the original town of Byzantium compared to its prestige that the Wikipedia article on it is apparently forced to dedicate about two-thirds of its length to speculatory wank over whether the star-and-cresent was a significant Byzantine symbol (or, “whether those thieving ay-rabs could even come up with the symbol of their own religion or whether they had to steal that from the glorious white man as well” as it seems most of the motivation behind it is pointing to).

Nevertheless, Emperor Constantine certainly saw the value in it. The rest of the history – split in Roman empire, eastern “Byzantine” empire, Fourth Crusade, fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Empire in 1452 (a popular arbitrary end-point for the middle ages, along with the Battle of Bosworth Field, 1485, or Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and expulsion of Muslims from Iberia, 1492) – is interesting, certainly, but irrelevant here. It is the city’s rebirth under the Ottomans which provides by far the most interetsting story, as well as the most convincing reasons as to why the city, and Turkey as a whole, are how they are today. The Ottomans practiced no ethnic cleansing and enacted no settlement policies. In fact, Constantinople (the changing of the name was a gradual process as demographics changed and Ottoman nationalism grew, and was not official until 1921) was the world’s most multicultural city. Know that ‘multiculturalism’ here is not the multiculturalism we know, where a group of immigrants will bring their own (often far superior) foods to a new country and speak in a language other than English to each other – the same multiculturalism which has heads of government such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and the UK’s David Cameron running around like headless chooks either in fear or in an attempt to grab the racist vote (you decide). This was genuine multiculturalism, in which the various cultures – Greek, Turkish, Slavic, Armenian etc – were governed according to their own laws and traditions, with the state plaing an oversight role, usually only intervening in the case of cross-cultural dispute. The closest example we have in today’s world to this level of multiculturalism is in South-East Asia, notably Singapore and Malaysia, where due to the often radically different values and laws of the various cultures (the Malay Muslim/Chinese one being most prominent, but also further confused by the presence of Indians and a growing Thai refugee population), where governments have even gone so far as to introduce different sets of laws for citizens based on whether they are Malays or not. It certainly brings home the point that in modern Western society we have particularly low standards for what constitutes ‘multiculturalism’. And given how Germany’s last experiment with monoculturalismworked out, Merkel would do well not to give up on ‘multikulti’ so quickly.

The fact that the cultural groups enjoyed a high level of autonomy does not mean that they were isolated from each other, and the syncretic combination of the various cultures of Istanbul made it the vibrant and utterly unique city it is today (it was named the European Capital of Culture for 2010, a selection Turks take great pride in). Turkey will never have the percieved problems of Germany or the UK, due to a combination of geography, demographics and a solid base in the nation’s legislature – much of which (more than you’d think) – can be traced back to the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk.


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